In November, when tramping in the Midlands, I paid a visit to a friend who had previously informed me, in describing the attractions of the small, remote, rustic village he lived in, that it was haunted by owls.
The night-roving bird that inhabits the country village and its immediate neighbourhood is, in most cases, the white or barn owl, the owl that prefers a loft in a barn or a church tower for home and breeding-place to the hollow, ivied tree. The loft is dry and roomy, the best shelter from the storm and the tempest, although not always from the tempest of man's insensate animosity. The larger wood owl is supposed to have a different disposition, to be a dweller in deep woods, in love with "seclusion, gloom, and retirement,"—a thorough hermit. It is not so everywhere, certainly not in my friend's Gloucestershire village, where the white owl is unknown, while the brown or wood owl is quite common. But it is not a thickly wooded district; the woods there are small and widely separated. There is, however, a deal of old hedgerow timber and many large trees scattered about the fields. These the owl inhabits and is abundant simply because the gamekeeper is not there with his everlasting gun; while the farmers look on the bird rather as a friend than an enemy.
To go a little further into the matter, there are no gamekeepers because the landowners cannot afford the expensive luxury of hand-reared pheasants. The country is, or was, a rich one; but the soil is clay so extraordinarily stiff that four or five horses are needed to draw a plough. It is, indeed, strange to see five huge horses, all in line, dragging a plough, and moving so slowly that, when looked at from a distance, they appear not to move at all. If here and there a little wheat is still grown, it is only because, as the farmers say, "We mun have straw." The land has mostly gone out of cultivation, many vacant farms could be had at about five shillings an acre, and the landlords would in many cases, when pay day came round, be glad to take half a crown and forgive the rest.
The fields that were once ploughed are used for grazing, but the sheep and cattle on them are very few; one can only suppose that the land is not suitable for grazing purposes, or else that the farmers are too poor to buy sufficient stock.
Viewed from some eminence, the wide, green country appears a veritable waste; the idle hedges enclosing vacant fields, the ancient scattered trees, the absence of life, the noonday quiet, where the silence is only broken at intervals by some distant bird voice, strangely impress the mind as by a vision of a time to come and of an England dispeopled. It is restful; there is a melancholy charm in it similar to that of a nature untouched by man, although not so strong. Here, everywhere are visible the marks of human toil and ownership—the wave-like, parallel ridges in the fields, now mantled with grass, and the hedges that cut up the surface of the earth into innumerable segments of various shapes and sizes. It is not wild, but there is something in it of the desolaton that accompanies wildness—a promise soon to be fulfilled, now that grass and herbage will have freedom to grow, and the hedges that have been trimmed for a thousand years will no longer be restrained from spreading.
In this district the farmhouses and cottages are not scattered over the country. The farm-buildings, as a rule, form part of the village; the villages are small and mostly hidden from sight among embowering trees or in a coombe. From the high ground in some places it is possible to gaze over many miles of surrounding country and not see a human habitation; hours may sometimes be passed in such a spot without a human figure appearing in the landscape.
The village I was staying at is called Willersey; the nearest to it, a little over a mile away, is Saintbury. This last was just such a pretty peaceful spot as would tempt a world-weary man to exclaim on first catching sight of it, "Here I could wish to end my days." A little old-world village, set among trees in the sheltering hollow of a deep coombe, consisting of thatched stone cottages, grouped in a pretty disorder; a modest ale-house; a parsonage overgrown with ivy; and the old stone church, stained yellow and grey with lichen, its low square tower overtopped by the surrounding trees. It was a pleasure merely to sit idle, thinking of nothing, on the higher part of the green slope, with that small centre of rustic life at my feet. For many hours of each day it was strangely silent, the hours during which the men were away at a distance in the fields, the children shut up in school, and the women in their cottages. An occasional bird voice alone broke the silence—the distant harsh call of a crow, or the sudden startled note of a magpie close at hand, a sound that resembles the broken or tremulous bleat of a goat. If an apple dropped from a tree in the village, its thud would be audible from end to end of the little crooked street in every cottage it would be known that an apple had dropped. On some days the sound of the threshing-machine would be heard a mile or two away; in that still atmosphere it was like the prolonged hum of some large fly magnified a million times. A musical sound, buzzing or clear, at times tremulous, rising or falling at intervals, it would swell and fill the world, then grow faint and die away. This is one of the artificial sounds which, like distant chimes, harmonise with rural scenes.
Towards evening the children were all at play, their shrill cries and laughter sounding from all parts of the village. Then, when the sun had set and the landscape grew dim, they would begin to call to one another from all sides in imitation of the wood owl's hoot. During these autumn evenings the children at this spot appeared to drop naturally into the owl's note, just as in spring in all parts of England they take to mimicking the cuckoo's call. Children are like birds of a social and loquacious disposition in their fondness for a set call, a penetrative cry or note, by means of which they can converse at long distances. But they have no settled call of their own, no cry as distinctive as that of one of the lower animals. They mimic some natural sound. In the case of the children of these Midland villages it is the wood owl's clear prolonged note; and in every place where some animal with a striking and imitable voice is found its call is used by them. Where no such sound is heard, as in large towns, they invent a call; that is, one invents it and the others immediately take it up. It is curious that the human species, in spite of its long wild life in the past, should have no distinctive call, or calls, universally understood. Among savage tribes the men often mimic the cry of some wild animal as a call, just as our children do that of an owl by night, and of some diurnal species in the daytime. Other tribes have a call of their own, a shout or yell peculiar to the tribe; but it is not used instinctively—it is a mere symbol, and is artificial, like the long-drawn piercing coo-ee of the Australian colonists in the bush, and the abrupt Hi! with which we hail a cab, with other forms of halooing; or even the lupine gurgled yowl of the morning milkman.
After dark the silence at the village was very profound until about half-past nine to ten o'clock, when the real owls, so easily to be distinguished from their human mockers, would begin their hooting—a single, long, uninflected note, and after it a silent interval of eight or ten seconds; then the succeeding longer, much more beautiful note, quavering at first, but growing steady and clear, with some slight modulation in it. The symbols hoo-hoo and to-whit to-who, as Shakespeare wrote it, stand for the wood owl's note in books; but you cannot spell the sound of an oaten straw, nor of the owl's pipe. There is no w in it, and no h and no t. It suggests some wind instrument that resembles the human voice, but a very un-English one—perhaps the high-pitched somewhat nasal voice of an Arab intoning a prayer to Allah. One cannot hit on the precise instrument, there are so many; perhaps it is obsolete, and the owl was taught his song by lovers in the long ago, who wooed at twilight in a forgotten tongue,
And gave the soft winds a voice,
With instruments of unremembered forms.
No, that cannot be; for the wood owl's music is doubtless older than any instrument made by hands to be blown by human lips. Listening by night to their concert, the many notes that come from far and near, human-like, yet airy, delicate, mysterious, one could imagine that the sounds had a meaning and a message to us; that, like the fairy-folk in Mr Yeats's Celtic lyric, the singers were singing—
We who are old, old and gay,
O, so old;
Thousands of years, thousands of years,
If all were told!
The fairies certainly have a more understandable way of putting it than the geologists and the anthropologists when we ask them to tell us how long it is since PalŠolithic man listened to the hooting of the wood owl. Has this sound the same meaning for us that it had for him—the human being that did not walk erect, and smile, and look on heaven, but went with a stoop, looking on the earth? No, and Yes. Standing alone under the great trees in the dark still nights, the sound seems to increase the feeling of loneliness, to make the gloom deeper, the silence more profound. Turning our visions inward on such occasions, we are startled with a glimpse of the night-side of nature in the soul: we have with us strange unexpected guests, fantastic beings that are in no way related to our lives; dead and buried since childhood, they have miraculously been restored to life. When we are back in the candlelight and firelight, and when the morrow dawns, these children of night and the unsubstantial appearance of things
Into the light of common day.
The villagers of Saintbury are, however, still in a somewhat primitive mental condition; the light of common day does not deliver them from the presence of phantoms, as the following instance will show.
Near Willersey there is a group of very large old elm-trees which is a favourite meeting-place of the owls, and one very dark starless night, about ten o'clock, I had been listening to them, and after they ceased hooting I remained for half an hour standing motionless in the same place. At length, in the direction of Saintbury, I heard the dull sound of heavy stumbling footsteps coming towards me over the rough, ridgy field. Nearer and nearer the man came, until, arriving at the hedge close to which I stood, he scrambled through, muttering maledictions on the thorns that scratched and tore him; then, catching sight of me at a distance of two or three yards, he started back and stood still very much astonished at seeing a motionless human figure at that spot. I greeted him, and, to explain my presence, remarked that I had been listening to the owls.
"Owls!—listening to the owls!" he exclaimed, staring at me. After a while he added, "We have been having too much of the owls over at Saintbury." Had I heard, he asked, about the young woman who had dropped down dead a week or two ago, after hearing an owl hooting near her cottage in the daytime? Well, the owl had been hooting again in the same tree, and no one knew who it was for and what to expect next. The village was in an excited state about it, and all the children had gathered near the tree and thrown stones into it, but the owl had stubbornly refused to come out.
That about the young woman he had spoken of is a queer little story to read in this enlightened land. She was apparently in very good health, a wife, and the mother of a small child; but a few weeks before her sudden death a strange thing occurred to trouble her mind. One afternoon, when sitting alone in her cottage taking tea, she saw a cricket come in at the open door, and run straight into the middle of the room. There it remained motionless, and without stirring from her seat she took a few moist tea-leaves and threw them down near the welcome guest. The cricket moved up to the leaves, and when it touched them and appeared just about to begin sucking their moisture, to her dismay it turned aside, ran away out at the door, and disappeared. She informed all her neighbours of this startling occurrence, and sadly spoke of an aunt who was living at another village and was known to be in bad health. "It must be for her," she said; "we'll soon be hearing bad news of her, I'm thinking." But no bad news came, and when she was beginning to believe that the strange cricket that had refused to remain in the house had proved a false prophet, the warning of the owl came to startle her afresh. At noonday she heard it hooting in the great horse-chestnut overgrown with ivy that stands at the roadside, close to her cottage. The incident was discussed by the villagers with their usual solemnity and head-shakings, and now the young woman gave up all hopes of her sick aunt's recovery; for that one of her people was going to die was certain, and it could be no other than that ailing one. And, after all, the message and warning was for her and not the aunt. Not many days after the owl had hooted in broad daylight, she dropped down dead in her cottage while engaged in some domestic work.
On the following morning I went with the friend I was visiting at Willersey to Saintbury, and the story heard overnight was confirmed. The owl had been hooting in the daytime in the same old horse-chestnut tree from which it had a short time ago foretold the young woman's death. One of the villagers, who was engaged in repairing the thatch of a cottage close to the tree, informed us that the owl's hooting had not troubled him in the least. Owls, he truly said, often hoot in the daytime during the autumn months, and he did not believe that it meant death for some one.
This sceptical fellow, it is hardly necessary to say, was a young man who had spent a good deal of his time away from the village.
At Willersey, a Mr Andrews, a lover of birds who owns a large garden and orchard in the village, gave me an entertaining account of a pet wood owl he once had. He had it as a young bird and never confined it. As a rule it spent most of the daylight hours in an apple loft, coming forth when the sun was low to fly about the grounds until it found him, when it would perch on his shoulder and spend the evening in his company. In one thing this owl differed from most pet birds which are allowed to have their liberty: he made no difference between the people of the house and those who were not of it; he would fly on to anybody's shoulder, although he only addressed his hunger-cry to those who were accustomed to feed him. As he roamed at will all over the place he became well known to every one, and on account of his beauty and perfect confidence he grew to be something of a village pet. But short days with long, dark evenings—and how dark they can be in a small, tree-shaded, lampless village!—wrought a change in the public feeling about the owl. He was always abroad in the evening, gliding about unseen in the darkness on downy silent wings, and very suddenly dropping on to the shoulder of any person—man, woman, or child—who happened to be out of doors. Men would utter savage maledictions when they felt the demon claws suddenly clutch them; girls shrieked and fled to the nearest cottage, into which they would rush, palpitating with terror. Then there would be a laugh, for it was only the tame owl; but the same terror would be experienced on the next occasion, and young women and children were afraid to venture out after nightfall lest the ghostly creature with luminous eyes should pop down upon them.
At length, one morning the bird came not back from his night-wandering, and after two days and nights, during which he had not been seen, he was given up for lost. On the third day Mr Andrews was in his orchard, when, happening to pass near a clump of bushes, he heard the owl's note of recognition very faintly uttered. The poor bird had been in hiding at that spot the whole time, and when taken up was found to be in a very weak condition and to have one leg broken. No doubt one of the villagers on whose shoulders it had sought to alight, had struck it down with his stick and caused its injury. The bone was skilfully repaired and the bird tenderly cared for, and before long he was well again and strong as ever; but a change had come over his disposition. His confidence in his human fellow-creatures was gone; he now regarded them all—even those of the house—with suspicion, opening wide his eyes and drawing a little back when any person approached him. Never more did he alight on any person's shoulder, though his evenings were spent as before in flying about the village. Insensibly his range widened and he became wilder. Human companionship, no longer pleasant, ceased to be necessary; and at length he found a mate who was willing to overlook his pauper past, and with her he went away to live his wild life.
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