Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains

An Autumn Stroll

(Reprinted from The Countryside.)

On a recent day in early autumn I stood leaning against a tall larch tree, on the edge of a broad plantation, in a woodland corner of the North of Devon. I had been an indoor prisoner for a long, long time, and this was a first country walk. What a blessing to breathe again the sweet, honey-scented air! How fresh-looking those meadows below, how green the trees! For, autumn notwithstanding, the herbage had just reached that stage when it crowds all its many-tinted greens and the whole of its remaining vitality into one last sunny day; then very quickly follow death and decay.

Even now, a few leaves on that sturdy oak, solitary in the field yonder, have turned to golden russet; the larches, too, overhead are growing ragged and thin, and as the leaves begin to fall a few hardy cones that have weathered one winter already peep from their summer bowers and prepare once more for the blasts. Just in front, over the hedge of thick blackthorn, a furze brake — or, as Devonshire folk would say, “vuzz” brake — spreads its tangled meshes, and I hear the rabbits rustling and scuttling among the bushes as though out for a general romp; up from the valley on the left comes the rushing sound of running water, and, far ahead, the plain is lest to view in a medley of converging hills. Plump on the horizon appear the heath-clad downs, their glowing purple clear and luscious as the bloom on a peach.

In the solemnity and silence of the fir-wood I find an analogy with the atmosphere of mysterious repose in some stately cathedral, in the midst of, yet apart from, the vortex of busy life without. Into the dim recesses of the fir-wood few sounds of natural life make their way — except, perhaps, the call of a crow passing over the treetops, or the scream of a startled jay; and these are but momentary. Presently I leave the still woods to pass through the gap in the hedge, and so enter the busy whirl of wild life in the fields. It is a long way down to the little ivy-covered bridge that spans the river, so I do not hurry.

Here the delicate eyebright grows so thickly that I cannot help but crush it as I walk. Clusters of red bartsia and musk mallows crowd out the green of a grassy bank. Near a tangle of bramble and sweet briar the knapweed rears its head of pink flowerets.

A few steps further on, with inquisitive intent, I overturn a large flat stone (flat stones always harbour something interesting). Under this one is a nest of black ants. Away they run, carrying their eggs into the heart of the nest; but — yes, I thought so, right in the centre of the principal doorway lolls the ugly, repulsive form of a devil’s coach-horse, or, as he is sometimes called, the Rove beetle. The busy ants find him distinctly in the way, and so they energetically set to work to shift the obstruction. Two climb on to his head and vigorously gnaw the bases of his stout antennæ, and two others attack the front pair of legs — a leg apiece! Another pinches the soft elongated abdomen. The effect on the beetle is ludicrous. He snaps his jaws like an angry terrier. Then he frantically waves his “yard-arms,” and eventually, being nipped in many additional places by a reinforcement, he cocks his tail over his back and very reluctantly (for he has been most comfortably ensconced) beats a hasty retreat. This is a great victory for the ants, as the devil’s coach-horse is a noted warrior in the insect world. With renewed energy the ants recommenced their labours, and when I re-pass the spot on my way home not an ant is to be seen, for the treasures have been successfully removed “downstairs.” I carefully put the stone back in its place.

Here is the little bridge at last. It is built for the cattle to cross upon from one meadow to the other when the stream is flooded with winter rains. During the summer they scorn the bridge and splash across the water. Always a beautiful spot, it is never more beautiful than in the early autumn; moreover, for me it has pleasant associations. Up beyond the bridge is a waterfall, over which the water gallops from the shimmering, silvery weir-pool above into the boulder-scattered shallows beneath. Solitude adds to the charm. Indeed, a companion’s voice could scarce be heard amidst the little thunder of these dancing “falls.”

That huge holt held an otter once, but whether he is there now is doubtful. Anyway, if I would see him, I must be up betimes in the morning; I shall not see him to-day. A green canopy of hazels and alders smiles over all, and through the interstices the sun shines, dappling the shady waters with light. It was in this very stream, I recall, that I first made acquaintance with the wild red deer. This is how it was. The staghounds had met in the morning up at the village, and, according to custom, tufters were taken to a large wood some miles distant, which, for some unexplained reason, is always a favourite one with the deer. I had never yet seen a wild red deer, so I was anxious to make the best of my opportunities. No other horse but “Shanks’ pony” was available, and those “in the know” told me that the best thing I could do, in the circumstances, was to walk to a certain bridge, as the deer, when roused, almost invariably came straight down the combe and entered an oak coppice, to the left of the high road and adjoining this very bridge. I took the advice, and saw something far prettier than the antlered stag, with the eager hounds in his wake. I had been waiting patiently for upwards of two hours on the bridge and was engrossed in watching a silent riverside tragedy — the capture of a water-vole by a greedy heron — when, treading softly round the bend of the stream, and advancing calmly and quietly and in the fearlessness of privacy and innocence, there swept across my vision the charmingest, dearest, prettiest little calf in creation. He was a tiny fellow with brown coat and shapely neck, slender legs, and hazel eyes. Upon his lordship’s arrival, the heron dropped the struggling vole, and he lumbered away and pitched on a tall elm; a startled trout swam headlong down-stream. The calf, small as he was, was making quite a commotion.

In the helter-skelter in the wood beyond, probably he and his mother had been separated, and for the first time in his life he had to think for himself, to act on his own initiative. The oft-repeated words of the hind his mother, that the water carries no scent, seemed now very valuable to him. He heard the waters calling —

“I carry no scent, come here, come here,
For I am the friend of the wild red deer.”

So down towards the bridge he came, where I saw him. But he did not catch sight of me for several minutes, although he seemed to scent me. He grew fussy and, half-playfully, half-nervously, browsed the leaves of a nut-tree. But he did not eat them — he disdainfully tossed them over his head, as an old stag would a turnip. In jerking his head aloft he suddenly saw me! For a moment he looked spellbound. He did not move, nor did I. We looked straight into each other’s eyes. Then he blinked twice or thrice, and slowly came nearer! Had he passed below the bridge I could have touched him with my hand. But I was disappointed, for on moving my hand the slightest bit downwards the little creature (now standing right below me), pricked his ears, jumped lightly on to the bank and then trotted across the meadow into a copse, where I earnestly hope he remained undisturbed.

1905. (Published 1906.)

HTML edition by Ray Davis, free for any use.