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Mr. Allbones' Ferrets
May 1885 account, Riddiford Papers, New Zealand National Library
He stands in the dark, shoulders hunched, hands shoved deep in his pockets, the air poking chilly little fingers through rips and tears to bare skin. He wriggles his toes in thin boots, keeps a sharp ear cocked for the snuffling of a dog, the rustling of dead leaves that could mean detection: that he's been spotted and stands at that instant like some unwary beast, poised between the beads on the foretip of the keeper's gun. Beyond the crowd of trees just breaking into leaf a bird calls, over and over, a peculiar plaintive whoop whoop he does not recognise. The stars hang brilliant between the branches, a wide daisy-field of light. Bright enough to see by, though the moon has dwindled to a scraping. Bright enough to make out the belly hump of the warren among fronds of bracken and the pale web of his nets, knitted, he hopes, to cover every exit.
He stretches full length and, with his ear pressed against the swelling of the earth, he can hear the usual murmurings: things growing and things easing through narrow crevices, mingled with the rush of his own blood and the soft footfall of his own beating heart. And then, from somewhere yards below as he lies listening like a baby at the breast, there rise other sounds: the brush of something squeezing through a shaft, its fur burnishing clay, the sudden thump thump thump of the alarum, a rapid scrabbling, a muffled chorus of squeals, the drumming accelerating to a frantic tattoo.
Down there in the dark there's something approaching fast, red eyes glistening down the length of a tunnel, and there is no alternative but flight, abandoning offspring like a cluster of pink cherries in the nest, to bolt for the open or, if that is too distant, to scramble into the nearest stop, head wedged against a blind wall, haunches to the intruder. Safe, the rabbit hopes, from attack. Brain and eyes tucked securely beyond reach.
But in Pinky, the rabbit has met its match. Pinky, her tail brisk as a brush with the pure joy of killing. Pinky, bred small to squeeze through the merest gap. Pinky, who can reach the goal denied other more massively built members of her kind: the base of the skull or the glistening circle of the rabbit's eye, protuberant with terror, where she can wriggle close and deliver the death thrust, neat and sure. Where she can claim the delicacy prized above all others: the creature's brain, soft and fragrant as whipped cream, sucked from the cranial bowl. With the promise of such pleasure, Pinky will not be deterred should the rabbit be jammed tight. If there is indeed no gap, even for her slight frame, she'll simply scrape every vestige of fur from the creature's rear and make a start while it still lives, severing the tendons connecting the spine to the back legs. She'll nibble a little perhaps, just for the taste, then move on, leaving the rabbit paralysed, trapped and bloody while she attends to whatever else lives in the bury, bolting the lot for the freedom they assume lies only in the open air, at the surface.
Allbones can hear her at it, sleek and swift, twisting and turning in a tight tunnel as if her body were not composed of bone but were sinew alone and malleable cartilage. She moves with speed and daunting purpose through the vast network below ground, for the warren is ancient, a kingdom of dark tunnels stretching for who knows how many acres in the light, dry soils. Once it was tended, for the silvery rabbit skins earned a good price from hatters in London, but fashions change, and the rabbits have had it to themselves for years now, laying claim to a wide territory, their burrows stretching so far beneath furze and bracken that no one can quite say where they might end.
There's a frenzy of scratching, of scrabbling, of distant squealing, the high pitch of terror rising toward the surface. Allbones straightens quickly and leaps to his feet in a single bound as the first rabbit hurtles forth from the earth and tangles in the net. The pegs hold, driven in as hard as he could manage and booted home. And the drawstrings run true, pursing as they are intended to, around a big buck. Allbones makes a grab for him before he can tangle his net into a bramble thicket of muddied hemp it will take hours to sort. Stinking of fear, hind legs flailing for purchase, claws extended, the buck screams, his call curiously identical to the cry of a frantic child. Allbones takes swift hold of the legs and feels for the light bones of the neck. A stretch, a twist and it's done. The buck gives one final mighty kick, then flops into a twitchy death. But already there's another, bolting from a hole a couple of yards distant beneath the roots of an old oak, so Allbones lets the buck drop (a good weight, not too old, and the thin membrane of his ears has torn readily so his flesh will still be tender) and takes the second. A doe at the very point of kindle with a cargo of kits seething in her belly, and she is shrieking as if tonight were Armageddon, which in a way it is, from the rabbits' point of view.
The tug, the twist. A scrabbling at his feet and there's another. And another. They're running in all directions, dragging at his nets. It's a mayhem of thrashing bodies, all rabbits from the sound of it, no indigent rats driven from borrowed sanctuary and primed to bite, as only a doe rat can, at an unwary hand. No fox seeking sanctuary in the bury, no wild cat thinking herself safely curled away from marauding toms to give birth to her young. Tonight is all rabbits. Allbones runs from one to another, the sweat breaking out beneath his heavy coat, his breathing becoming laboured as he tries to muffle all their cries before the sound can carry to the groundsman's ears, for sounds carry far on such still nights in early spring when there is a lingering memory of frost in the air. He tugs and twists and, when he has time, disentangles each creature, then drops it into one of the pockets sewn into the lining of his coat, until the garment hangs warm and heavy from his narrow shoulders.
The flurry begins to ease.
One more rabbit, under the brambles.
Then silence. No more scrabbling, no budging at the net.
And where is Pinky?
It is time to move now, to furl the nets quickly into a figure of eight around finger and thumb, then a neat twist of the drawstring to tie them fast for another night. It's time to count them all off, to make sure none have been missed in the dark, before slipping them one by one into his pockets, along with the pegs and the graft he uses for digging. Everything stowed away safe from inspection beneath the bulky worsted of his old coat. The rabbits lie cradled between death and that lifetime of sweet nibbled grass on dewy mornings, play on a twilit hillside, the soft nest of milky kits. He smooths the earth where he has been at work this evening, carefully bending back the fonds of bracken to conceal his activities, and all the while he is keeping an eye out for Pinky.
Where is she?
It is time to be off, with full pockets, before it is too late and the luck of the evening runs dry. The big house beyond the trees stands empty — has been empty for over a year, according to Mother Mossop, fount of all gossip. Ever since old Mr Aubrey's demise. ‘And not before time,' she had said, squinting to fill a quart bottle with a thin trickle of her beet brandy. ‘He were that near, he'd not part wi' his own droppin's.'
The house may be unoccupied but some staff have stayed on, including the groundsman, a short-legged former infantryman with some Irish regiment who had learned out in India to shoot fast and accurately. Allbones has seen him once or twice about Ledney, keeping himself to himself and meeting nobody's eye, and he has no wish to make his closer acquaintance. Particularly not tonight. He kneels again and places his ear to the ground, but there is no sound.
Pinky is not normally given to lying up, casually devouring her kill below ground while he hops from foot to foot overhead in his thin and leaking boots. He has had her from birth and she has never let him down. He has taken pains with her, gentled her, fed her on dabs of his own spit which she lapped from the palm of his hand, and in return she has rewarded him with rabbit and rat and never once left him as she is leaving him tonight, target for the groundsman. He has been careful always, of course, and never entered her to the warren without taking the precaution of feeding her well first. Tonight she has had a plump rat, taken fresh from beneath Mother Mossop's pigpen. He nipped off the tail to preserve her from the mange then gave it to her and she sighed and squeaked with the pleasure of a warm cadaver all to herself. He gave her water, too, a full measure, as it is hot work below ground, killing. He has never subscribed to the theory that a ferret will work better on an empty belly, though there are plenty who do: Fowler Metcalfe, for example, who sends his ferrets in hungry with their lips sewn shut in a makeshift muzzling. Fowler boasts that his tallies speak for the efficacy of hunger. But Fowler has always been a fat boaster and a liar to boot. Allbones doubts his reports, his three hundred and eighty rabbits in one night from a single warren over Brinkton way, his one hundred and twenty rats in half an hour.
Allbones feeds his ferrets well and his ferrets bolt rabbits, rather than lying up to feed below ground, and he has never lost a single one.
Until, perhaps, tonight.
Pinky has had her rat and she has been watered well so it is unlikely she is down there feasting. Not that she would pass up the chance of a kit or two, naked and succulent and sweet as mother's milk. But they would not detain her long in the joy of the chase. A quick gulp in passing, as a man might snap a handful of plums from a wayside tree.
Allbones kneels in the starlight, his breath misting to a little cloud about his shoulders. The air about the warren stinks of blood, musk, fear, a smell so pungent that it could surely alert an attentive dog a quarter mile distant. It's a good half-hour since the last rabbit bolted into the web and his waiting hand. From beyond the woods he can hear the dull clang of the Ledney clock. He counts off the strokes. Eleven. Time to be gone. He presses his ear to the damp earth and hears nothing. Silence. The silence that falls when a crowded room has emptied suddenly. The silence that falls over a bloodied field after battle.
He wishes desperately for his white hob. Pompey was big and strong and trained to the line. With Pompey in his pocket he could have taken action now: he could have entered him into the warren to search, dragging the line between tree roots and broken rock through the network of tunnels below ground. Pompey would have sought out Pinky. He would find and stay and, after a few hours of desperate digging, Allbones could conceivably have traced them both, drawn them forth and brought them home again.
But Pompey has gone. Or, more correctly, he has been taken. The white polecat hob for whom Allbones traded half his stock one afternoon at the rat pit at the King's Arms. Pompey was admittedly no fighter. He proved himself timid in the pit up against a big buck rat that fought savagely and beat him off, along with two other hobs, before one of Fowler's sluts dealt death like a dancer. Allbones wanted the white hob nevertheless and afterwards, as the bets were being settled, he got him: a breeder, vigorous to mate, who had to be removed from the barrel when the sluts were in season or he would forget to eat and lose condition entirely. Who mounted them all, every slut in the barrel, not once but several times over, then took the young hobs too, and kits so young they still had their eyes closed so that they left the nest already impregnated with the seed which, when they were old enough and when the season was right, burst into young. Pompey mounted them all, chattering happily for an hour or more at a time while paws and teeth scratched bare patches in their fur, and anchored so firmly by his thrusting prick that the pair could be lifted clear from the floor yet remain coupled. Allbones held them in his hand and observed the hob at close quarters. Pompey's eyes glazed with lust and his body rippled in ecstatic spasm. Allbones observed his ardour with wonder mixed with not a little admiration.
The big white hob had repaid Allbones' investment by fathering a numerous brood of kits as lithe and strong as himself and, as often as not, pure white. A rich creamy white easy to spot out in the woods on a dark night, a white that made Allbones' kits the best of their kind for miles around. By ruthlessly culling any sandie or poley, Allbones had achieved perfection: a stock of pure whites, noted for their strength, agility and beauty, and the whitest of all, the most elegant, the most perfect, was Pinky. Sharp of muzzle, fearless, fierce and generally reliable.
But not tonight. Allbones stands abandoned in the dark, the trophies of the evening stiffening in his coat pockets, and curses. Curses the loss of his white hob, curses himself for drawing Pinky from the barrel tonight, rather than Flick or Fluff. He had been eager to make a start as night fell, to escape the cramped room where the littl'uns had squabbled and tumbled underfoot all day, no matter where he had tried to sit to mend his nets. The cramped cottage hummed with restlessness after days, weeks of rain: rain like the rain that had caused them to build the ark in the Bible. Forty days and forty nights of grey rain driving in from the east with the chill of the steppes still on its breath, rain that swelled every ditch to a stream, every stream to a mighty torrent, rain that melted lanes to knee-deep mud and flooded fields so that the cattle stood lowing piteously for rescue on diminishing islands as the water took back what it had surrendered only a few decades before to the inventive engineer.
Rain that made all outdoor employment impossible. Allbones, like all the other day labourers and bankin-men, sat idle, the banks and ditches where they earned their daily keep drowned and barely holding their own against the churning floods of muddy ochre. Rain gurgled in the gutters; no work, no pay. Rain drip drip dripped through every hole and cranny in wall or roof so that nothing could be kept dry. The flour would swell and rot, the walls would sprout a furry coat of mould, and soon the coughing would start, the Ledney Carol: a paroxysm of spit and suffocating phlegm followed as like as not by pallor, wasting, and the spatter of blood flowering like poppies on the pillow.
But today, a miracle! Mid-afternoon, the rain ceased. A pale shaft of sunlight fell in the door when it was opened to the yard and the littl'uns tumbled out to meet it, into a world new-washed, webbed with raindrops and gloriously muddy. Allbones, too, made ready, eager for the silence of the woods, for the night wind furtive among the branches, for the scratching of rabbits tangled in his nets. And eager, too, for meat. Meat boiled, meat fried. Liver and kidneys and brains and plump thighs and bones to suck bare after weeks of turnip filched from the barn behind the church, or potatoes lifted one at a time from Mother Mossop's jealously guarded store. And nothing to lend them savour except a few thrushes taken from their sodden nests in the hedgerow, their boney carcasses exuding the merest hint of sustenance. All afternoon Allbones' mouth had run wet at the thought of meat. His tongue had swollen thick at the thought of meat. And just as soon as the sun wavered down between racks of uncertain crimson, he was off, thrusting his hand into the barrel behind the door where he had moved his ferrets from the yard after Pompey's mysterious disappearance. And he had drawn forth Pinky.
She snapped at his hand as she usually did, not liking to be woken from her warm straw bed, but he placated her with the rat and tucked her into his coat pocket, the tiny slup slup slup of her teeth gnawing at a bone a happy accompaniment as he escaped the clamour of the cottage for the solitude of Ledney Wood.
Standing out here in the dark though, he wishes his hand had alighted on one of Pinky's siblings: Flick or Fluff were not as brave as she, being older and more cautious, but they were utterly reliable. They would never leave a fellow in the lurch, target for any shotgun that happened to be in the vicinity. He should have taken Flick.
He should have picked out Fluff.
For the third time, he counts his nets.
He stamps his frozen feet.
He bends down and drums his fingers at the burrow entrance, hoping that the sound might intrigue her, wherever she is, and that she might be drawn forth to investigate.
He takes his knife and quickly guts the smallest rabbit, tipping the tangled knot, steaming and pungent, at the burrow entrance, hoping the smell might draw her forth.
He tramps down the brambles, wondering if he has indeed covered all the exits. Perhaps there is one he has missed? Thorns tear at hands and face and catch in his clothing, ripping flesh and cloth. Perhaps the warren extends much further than he has reckoned? Perhaps she has emerged already from some concealed point? Perhaps she is at this very moment racing for some duckpond or some farmwife's treasured poultry pen to wreak havoc among the dozing denizens? The kind of havoc that will likely guarantee her own demise in a baited trap. Perhaps his bold white ferret is gone for good.
But suddenly she is there. She sits at the mouth of the main burrow, like milk spilt from the lip of a dark pitcher. She is calmly licking blood from her matted fur. Her bright little eyes look up as he approaches. ‘Didn't I do well?' she might be saying, as she takes her sweetmeat: a rabbit's eye popped from the socket, round and fresh and ever so slightly reproachful. She nips his hand once, hard, to make some point about due patience and due respect, then she curls in his pocket to sleep, nose tucked to belly, bloodied paws folded demurely, like a young girl at her first communion.
Allbones buttons his coat, tucking the rabbits in as if they were infants, against the cold. He takes a swig from the flask, a raw spirit Mother Mossop manufactures from the sugar beet and sells surreptitiously. It burns a fiery trail down the gullet. The scent of musk hangs about him, as telltale as if he had hung the rabbits from his belt as trophies, but now, should any late walker chance upon him on the path home, well, he's that layabout from down the Bottom End, drunk again, indulging in some public house while his brothers and sisters lie neglected in a ragged cottage, unfed, unkempt. Hapless orphans in his careless charge.
Let them suppose what they please, thinks Allbones as he beats his way through the bracken to the declivity that marks the route of the old road, overgrown since it was cut by the wall when the land was taken into the big house's holding back sometime. Let them judge and be damned. What others think means nothing to a man whose pockets are stuffed with good meat. Rabbit blood seeps through the lining. Their bodies knock heavily against his thighs.
He moves rapidly, knowing from memory every fallen log and every hollow. The woods smell fresh and green, of damp earth and last season's rotting leaf, and the smell mingles pungently with ferret musk and blood and raw spirit. All around him there is the rustling of other creatures intent upon their own peculiar nocturnal business: hedgehog and badger and mouse and nameless multitudes of insects, snuffling and scratching and coupling. This is the best time, the time when he feels completely at his ease. The woods are as fresh as that place he recalls from the time when he was a lad, and went to Ledney Church with his ma and listened to the man talk of Eden; of all the living things, new made, trying out their legs and wings and voices for the first time, all the flowers unfurling and the trees working out how the seasons should go — bud to blossom to fallen leaf and back again. He'd sat on the hard bench, pressed against his mother's side and sucking on the scrap of broken marmady she'd given to keep him still, imagining it: the birds tottering like bairns from their branches and discovering flight, the fish wriggling in the streams, the animals neighing and barking and mooing, all brand new. It was a childish fantasy, but now that he is grown it still pleases him: this is the Eden time, and he, walking here among the buds of hazel and the little Jack lilies lifting their modest heads from the earth for another season, he, Allbones, is the first man. His body is not bent as it bends to shovel mud or to hoe turnips for pay, but fine and free. He is the first man in the new world. He steps strong and independent along the secret paths he alone knows, emerging just by the gate in the wall, where an owl swoops out of nowhere and brushes his shoulder before disappearing soundlessly among the trees. It feels like a good omen.
The gate is padlocked, of course, and the wall sports an armoury of spikes and broken glass along its crest. At first glance the gate itself is a whimsical medley of cast-iron foliage and fleur de lis, but each little bud doubles as a dagger, each tendril is a prison bar. Allbones, however, knows his way about this cunning jungle. By the bottom left hinge there is one point where the ironwork thins, leaving a gap the maker no doubt believed too small to permit access. He had not reckoned on a lithe young man who, as his mother said, seems to lack a skeleton. A pliable youth, with sinew where others have bone.
He removes his coat and carefully threads it through the gap — rabbits, nets, ferret and all. Then he exhales until he is as small as he can be, bends and twists, arms first, and wriggles his way out, as earlier that evening he wriggled his way in.
‘Not Allbones,' his mother used to say, ruffling his hair as he emptied his pockets of some treasure — a cabbage from the walled vicarage garden, a little bag of coal lifted from the locked shed at Brinkton Station, a loaf of bread from a kitchen windowsill, ‘but No-bones!' He was her skinny lad, the runt of the litter who had grown quick and cunning and able to squeeze his way through any gap or cranny, scaling soffit and drainpipe, up trees, under hedges. It was his skill, a most particular and valuable talent. ‘My young Master No-bones,' she called him.
The knack lay in the breath: when to draw in, when to release, when to stiffen, when to flex. A quick twist past the murderous fleur de lis and he's falling like a newborn calf head-first into a pile of leaves. He lies still for a moment, sniffing the air for the scent of dog or oil on gunstock or the groundsman's peppermint. He listens, too, the tiny canals in his pink ears flaring.
No shocking cacophony of barking, no crack of gunshot, no ‘Got you, my lad!' He lets out his breath and re-buttons his coat, and its warmth settles about his shoulders like a defensive second skin.
Out here beyond the wall the woods continue, but here they are on common land, a shrunken remnant of the forest that once sustained a village, where anyone might gather acorns to fatten a pig, or collect wood for their fires. Allbones avoids the road, choosing the old shortcut through the woods. And here, too, he knows every dip and hollow, though beneath the ancient trees all light from the stars is lost. He finds his way by the sound of the path beneath his feet: the crunch of dry leaf on higher ground, the suck of mud where the path skirts the stream, the damp slip of bluebells in a clearing sighing their sweet scent. A hundred yards to go through the wood, then across Mossop's Field and onto the lane where he could be any drunkard, weaving his way from the Lion or the King's Arms, and then he's home.
He has begun to relax, to become careless, for he does not see them at all until he is almost on top of them. One second he is swinging along, the evening's takings cooling in his pockets and his thoughts racing ahead to his triumphant return, the next there's a sudden eruption from beneath his feet, an ‘I say! Careful!' He stops in mid-stride, reaching instinctively for the knife in his right pocket. ‘Watch where you're going!' says the voice. A man's voice. And though there's a nervous edge to it, for who might this be, stumbling out of the dark, it is nevertheless the kind of voice to be answered with ‘sir'.
Allbones regains his balance, thinking quickly as his hand takes firm hold of bone handle and a few inches of Sheffield steel. There is another sharp intake of breath and an ‘Oh my!' accompanied by the rustling of petticoats and the distinct whiff of violets. It is not a scent Allbones cares for particularly. Bodies left unburied too long in a warm season stink of violets. The scent rouses the fleeting vision: a dark burrow of a room, his mother laid in a narrow box on an unsteady table, his brothers and sisters standing around with their mouths gaping like so many baby birds, the tap tap tap of the nails as the lid is hammered shut, the thud as she is dropped into rough ground, not buried as is proper in the convivial crush about St Peter's Ledney, but abandoned, a white bulb among the weeds beyond the church wall. Wild garlic, cow parsley, and the pallid stink of violets.
No. It is not a scent he favours, and normally he would pick it easily from the bouquet of bluebells and mud and damp spring leaf. But tonight he has been careless and here it is rising to meet him: violets, soap, cigars and port and Macassar. A man and a woman. The man older, the woman — to judge from the girlish pitch to her voice — much younger.
‘Beg pardon, sir,' says Allbones.
Up to the usual, he supposes, though it is not normally the ones who smell of port and eau de violette who come here to the woods after dark, but the ones who smell of cramped cottages and boiled cabbage and the mutton reek of cheap tallow candles and clothes that see the inside of a washtub maybe once a year. It's not normal to come across the smell of clean linen in Ledney Wood on a starlit night.
‘Pardon, Miss,' he says.
And now the first voice has him: a village lad, Bottom End. It has also perhaps identified the whiff of Mother Mossop's grandly titled ‘brandy'. It knows where this interloper belongs in the great scheme of things, and with that knowledge it recovers confidence. It regains its dignity, rising to its full height.
‘You clumsy fool!' it says.
‘Sorry, sir,' says Walter Allbones with his pockets full of purloined rabbits, enough to take him down for months if not years, to force him from the burrow he shares with his brothers and sisters, to drive them all into further desperate improvisation. Port-and-cigars is standing his ground, now that he is confident it is his to stand on, as it has always been, as it always will be.
‘Why don't you look where you're going?'
And why, thinks Allbones, don't you choose somewhere other than what is practically a public highway for your dalliance? Why bring your dolly to what's left of Ledney Wood when you've got the whole of some fancy big house to play in? He can say nothing, of course, not with a couple of dozen rabbits to consider. Keep it mild, keep it calm, keep it, above all, short.
‘Didn't see you there, sir,' he says, ‘in the dark, like.'
Though it is not in fact quite dark. Now that he is fully alert, he can see there is a dim ruddy glow making strange shadows of tree trunk and fern. There's a lantern on the path at their feet, screened with red paper. How could he not have noticed before?
‘Oh!' sighs the girl. ‘They've gone! They've disappeared!' And Allbones can see the smudge of her face among the fern on the bank, pale as the petals on some night-blooming flower. ‘We were observing the badgers,' she says, as if this were some normal conversation in a well-lit drawing room, as if this stranger blundering out of the dark deserved some explanation. She scrambles to her feet. ‘We'd been waiting for ages,' she says, as if Allbones would care, as if it were any concern of his what a couple of strangers might be up to, out here in Ledney Wood. Kiss and couple and good luck to you both, he is thinking, wanting only to pass and move on, but the path is narrow and she blocks his way, her skirts brushing the undergrowth on either side. The smell of violets is overpowering.
How could he have missed it, and the port, the cigars, the oil of Macassar? The stink of wealth is as strong as the markings of fox or cat. As strong as the musky stink of the badger sett that has been here for as long as Allbones can remember, and a hundred years or more before him no doubt, dug into the bank beneath the remains of some crumbling masonry of unknown provenance. The spoilheap gleams in the dim light, piled several feet high. There's the cheesy reek of badger droppings deposited neatly, as is their wont, a few yards from their door, and the sharper scent of fresh piss on tree bole and stone announcing their territory. He has seen the badgers many times, met the old man boar and his sows snuffling down the path toward the rich worm pickings of Mossop's Field. He has observed them, too, from time to time, watching the old boar cuffing aside the cubs who would one day take his place. One day there would come a young boar strong enough to take him on. They'd circle, the old one stiffer now, less agile, the younger fine and fierce and above all eager to mate. He'd find the weak spot in the old boar, that tender place above the tail where he could get a grip, and then he'd try for the kill. And when the old one was down and bleeding, lying like something discarded, tossed aside like an old boot into the bracken, the young one would take his sows, claiming them one by one. That was the way of nature. Whenever Allbones came upon the boar with his legs wrapped about a sow's heaving sides, the two of them out in Mossop's Field or on the woodland path, chattering and purring with pleasure, ‘You take 'er,' he'd say. ‘You take 'er. You've won 'er, fair an' square!'
The girl dusts off her skirts. ‘We saw two,' she says. ‘But we were waiting for the cubs. My grandfather was certain there would be cubs.' She is very young, he can see that now. Not much more than a child. ‘We wished to observe their behaviour by the light of the dark lantern.' She holds it aloft and its glow floods her face, making caverns of her eyes where her pupils are distended by the dark. Arched eyebrows. A sweet bowed mouth. ‘But so far there has been no sign of them.' She turns toward the older man. ‘Perhaps our light disturbed them, Grandfather?'
He is a big man, wide-shouldered and lowering. The lantern makes a mask from thick whiskers framing heavy jowls, a solid brow, a pair of spectacles. He seems less eager to engage in conversation, not with some stinking lad on his way home from drinking, fornication, God alone knew what else. Allbones senses his hostility and decides to tease.
‘Your smell, more like,' he says.
‘My smell?' says the girl, her voice sharpening to a pinpoint of indignation.
‘No offence, Miss,' says Allbones, swaying a little in play, ‘but they can't see far, badgers can't. They's blind as bats.'
‘Thank you, young man,' says Grandfather Whiskers, putting his arm about the girl's shoulders. ‘That's quite enough. You'll be on your way now. Good evening.' And he stands aside, leaving the way clear. Allbones has been dismissed. Ahead lies Mossop's Field, the lane and home, but something — the lateness of the hour, the weight of rabbits in his pockets, the nearness of danger — has made him giddy. He feels reckless, a match for any man. He has youth on his side, and agility, and in his hand the open blade of a sharp bone-handled knife.
‘If it's cubs you're after,' he says, ‘smell or no smell, you'll not see them here. There's only a couple of young boars here. The ones the old fella couldn't get on with, like.'
The girl looks up at him, all offence forgotten.
‘Is that so?' she says. There's a slight lilt to her voice, along with the accents of privilege, a hint of up and down that suggests she might not be from these parts. Grandfather Whiskers is unremarkable, just one of the tribe of landowner, churchman, judge whose presence is as familiar as a tree or a wall, but whose customs are as foreign to Allbones and his kind as the customs of some South Sea Islander. They may share the same air, travel the same roads, inhabit the same landscape, but it is as though Allbones belongs to one species — a small species favouring the undergrowth, like moles or frogs or little disregarded birds — while Whiskers and his like belong to another: bigger animals whose scent is laid over wider territories. The girl is all attention now; she is looking up at Allbones and he is on home ground.
‘The cubs is over there,' he says, pointing toward the deeper, darker woods. ‘Under the pine where the bank's down and the ground's soft for diggin'. Boar and sows moved a month ‘n' more since, when the stream backed up and flooded. They can't stand it wet in the sett, not when they're kindlin'.'
‘So we've been waiting outside the wrong entrance!' The girl's disappointment is evident. ‘All this time stationed here, Grandfather, while the cubs have been elsewhere!'
‘There's four o' them,' Allbones adds helpfully. (He cannot resist it: a featherweight punch at the older man's pompous certainty.) ‘Leastways, there was four o' them last week.' But the blow lands wide, for Whiskers, it seems, has not been paying attention, not to the exact whereabouts of badger cubs at any rate.
‘So you make a habit of nightly excursions to these woods?' he says, and his voice is thoughtful and ever so slightly threatening.
Ah, thinks Allbones. Time to beat a retreat. He may have won the skirmish, but the battles always go to the men in the thick overcoats with the flourishing whiskers. All the guns are lined up on their side and while it may be amusing for a moment to prick them, they can strike back with the full force of the law and the rules they have written to suit themselves. One lazy cuff and this old man could finish Allbones for ever, consign him to four damp walls and a kind of creeping death, for Allbones knows he could not bear confinement, no matter how short the sentence. The very thought of prison brings him out in a sweat of sheer terror. No green leaf, no sky, no skitter of rabbits on a dark night. Just the slow tick of justice and the rattle of heavy keys.
He must be careful now. He answers lightly, though his hands are clammy. ‘I wouldn't say nightly, sir,' he says. ‘Not exactly. There's many use this path when walking from Ledney to the Bottom End. It's a deal shorter than the way by road.'
Whiskers is surveying him uncomfortably closely, from beneath the shadow cast by the peak of his Norfolk cap.
‘Is that so?' he says. ‘Shorter, eh?'
‘Yes, sir,' says Allbones, and he sways a little, hiccups discreetly for added effect. The King's Arms. Spirits on the breath. The stagger home of the habitual drunkard, the ne'erdo-well.
‘And what,' says Whiskers, his dignity fully recovered and all authority, ‘might be your name, young man?'
Allbones makes a rapid reckoning. What are the chances of detection, should he lie? He has never laid eyes on this man before. A stranger here, a visitor perhaps, up for a few weeks from Cambridge or London or some other unimaginably distant place. A man whose life is lived elsewhere, importantly, doing important things. While he, Allbones, is next to invisible. One of those figures passed on the road, pressed against the hedgerow as the carriage dashes by, the horses flinging up a fine shower of gravel. A non-entity, a person of no consequence. So, what are the chances of detection? None.
‘Metcalfe,' he says. ‘Fowler Metcalfe.'
There: that will fix the fat bastard for the theft of Pompey, for Allbones knows his white hob is among Fowler's mess, concealed somewhere in the rickety tenement of boxes and cages in the outhouse where Fowler keeps his stock. The white hob is caged and already breeding a whole generation of lean and precious albinos for Fowler Metcalfe. To use his name is a small act of vengeance. But whatever pleasure it gives, must be short. So far Pinky has lain quiet and the rabbits have oozed and stiffened in his coat pockets and their scent has been obscured by badger musk, but his luck could yet run out. The girl seems innocent enough, all eagerness to see her cubs, but he has irritated the older man and that is never wise. He nods in the direction of the pine.
‘You'll find 'em over there, Miss,' he says. ‘Mebbe ten yards off.' And he attempts to edge past. But the girl reaches out her gloved hand and stops him, touching his arm.
‘Thank you for your directions, Mr Metcalfe,' she says. ‘You've been most kind.'
The path lies ahead, winding between the trees, then emerging into starlight between borders of nettle and Queen Anne's lace, and beyond is the field, the muddy lane, home and safety. All that holds him back is this small hand.
‘Not at all, Miss,' he says. ‘I hope you sees 'em. They're comical when they're at their play.'
The girl is standing close. He can look down into her face, which is raised toward him, white as a daisy. Her eyes glisten, her mouth is a pink bow, the scent of violets is overpowering. She seems in no hurry to release him. She seems in fact to be examining him too, taking in the detail of this strange young man who has stumbled upon them in the dark wood.
‘We have been most fortunate to meet you this evening,' she says. ‘Have we not, Grandfather?' Her face is all sweet innocence, but there is something prickling beneath the skin of the words. She is teasing, kitten-claw words intended not to flatter Allbones but to irritate the heavy-set man who glowers at her shoulder. ‘We wanted so much to conduct a scientific observation, and I was quite desolate when all our efforts seemed to be for nothing. But now we have met you and received direction from a true expert.'
Allbones shuffles with discomfort. Her hand has him in a delicate vice. Now, young miss, he wants to say, don't prick your grandfather too close, or you'll have me in court.
‘I'm no expert,' he says abruptly, and moves aside. ‘Anyone from round here could have told you the same.' He takes a first determined step away down the star-dappled path. ‘Night, sir. Night, miss.'
He walks away quickly, her ‘Good night, Mr Metcalfe,' floating into the gap that opens at his back as he forces himself not to break into a run toward the field with its incurious cows, its sweet, uncritical grass, its comfortable path beating a diagonal toward the lane and freedom.
Mary Anne stirs as he opens the door, though he is careful with the latch. She slips from the palliasse she shares with the littl'uns, leaving them in their usual tangle of arms and legs, to come and sit on the narrow stairs, hair touselled and her arms clasped about her skinny body in its thin shift.
‘What did you get?' she asks.
For her benefit, Allbones puts on a play. First Pinky is drawn forth and dropped, still slumbering, back into the barrel among her siblings, where she wriggles once, twice and disappears from view into dry straw. He shakes his head sadly, draws down his mouth all the while.
‘Naught,' he says. ‘All laid up and no budgin' ‘em.'
Mary Anne's face sags with disappointment, but ‘Ah well, never mind,' she says. ‘There'll be other nights.' Her feet are stone-bruised and pitted with chilblains. ‘You'll be froze. I'll make you a cup of tea.' She finds the poker and stirs at the embers on the fire.
Allbones can tease no longer.
‘Naught but this,' he says. And he reaches deep into the inner pocket of his coat and draws forth the doe. He drops her on the table where she lies, forepaws clasped in frozen entreaty, belly swollen with its cargo of young all still and drowned now in the watery sac.
Mary Anne's feet begin to jig around the table. ‘You bawcock!' she says. ‘You bessy!'
‘And this,' says Allbones as the big buck joins the doe. Then half a dozen young does, plump and tender, and a couple of bucks, until the table is covered with matted fur and glazed eyes and dry blood and the smell of damp earth fills the little room.
Mary Anne strokes the doe's soft white belly fur. ‘Oh my … ' she says. A sigh of the deepest satisfaction. By now the littl'uns have woken too, their noses twitching as the new smells break into their dreams, and here they come to gather around the table as Allbones settles to skinning and gutting, squabbling over who should get the tails for toys and being hushed — shhh shhh — or Mother Mossop will hear and come poking her long nose into their business.
Mary Anne helps. She has always been a capable girl: left home at ten, like all the girls in Ledney. But when Mrs Allbones took up her appointed place beneath the wild garlic outside St Peter's wall, she came home. She gave up her good position with a baker's family in Brinkton to take care of her brothers and sisters. She fetches another knife and sets to work, cutting neatly around each rabbit's ears, then drawing off the pelt as if she were drawing the vest from a squally baby. They work fast, either side of the table, until the night's takings are all bare and pink and the guts have been tipped into the barrel for the ferrets to squeal over.
‘And here you are,' says Allbones to the littl'uns as he draws forth the doe's seething womb. He tips the kits onto the table: six of them, each the size of his thumb and on the verge of birth. ‘One each and no arguing.' Mary Anne sets the pan on the fire and fries them up and they sizzle and spit and the room becomes suffused with the delicious smell of cooked meat and when they're done they each take their morsel, crisp and hot, and ‘Ooh!' they say as their fingers are wonderfully, greasily burned, and ‘Aaah!' as they snap the tiny bones in their sharp teeth and gnaw off every scrap. Then Mary Anne adds the quartered doe to the hookpot that has known only a thin gruel of turnip and potato for weeks past, and the littl'uns go back to their bed, where they curl once more to sleep, clutching a rabbit's velvety ear or the fluffy ball of a rabbit's scut against their sticky cheeks. And in their sleep they make tiny sucking noises, dreaming of meat and the promise of more in the morning.
Allbones goes out into the yard when they have settled and he has cleaned knife and board and hung all his nets to dry, for the web rots quickly if left wet and tangled. The sky is growing pale in the east and the stars are cartwheeling off across the horizon. He stands by the wall and pisses long and luxuriously, his urine smelling already of meat among the dead-nettle. Somewhere out there, Whiskers and his charge will have finished their observations, whatever they might be, and trailed home to fine sheets and soft mattresses. Somewhere out there, the badgers are waddling home to sleep on the dry grass they have dragged into nests in the sett. Somewhere out there, beyond Ledney Wood, beyond both the Ledneys, Upper and Lower, beyond Brinkton and Tolby, there's a whole wide world. But right now, pissing on the wall with Mother Mossop's Tamworth snoring in its pen a few yards away and his own brothers and sisters snug beneath their single blanket, sticky and satisfied, Walter Allbones is certain that this small corner of the world contains happiness enough.
MR. ALLBONES' FERRETS. Copyright © 2007 by Fiona Farrell.