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Ch. 7: The Deer Stealers

Deer-stealing on Salisbury Plain--The head-keeper Harbutt--Strange
story of a baby--Found as a surname--John Barter the village
carpenter--How the keeper was fooled--A poaching attack planned--The
fight--Head-keeper and carpenter--The carpenter hides his son--The
arrest--Barter's sons forsake the village


There were other memories of deer-taking handed down to Caleb by his
parents, and the one best worth preserving relates to the head-keeper of
the preserves, or chase, and to a great fight in which he was engaged
with two brothers of the girl who was afterwards to be Isaac's wife.

Here it may be necessary to explain that formerly the owner of
Cranbourne Chase, at that time Lord Rivers, claimed the deer and the
right to preserve and hunt deer over a considerable extent of country
outside of his own lands. On the Wiltshire side these rights extended
from Cranbourne Chase over the South Wiltshire Downs to Salisbury, and
the whole territory, about thirty miles broad, was divided into beats or
walks, six or eight in number, each beat provided with a keeper's lodge.
This state of things continued to the year 1834, when the chase was
"disfranchised" by Act of Parliament.

The incident I am going to relate occurred about 1815 or perhaps two or
three years later. The border of one of the deer walks was at a spot
known as Three Downs Place, two miles and a half from Winterbourne
Bishop. Here in a hollow of the downs there was an extensive wood, and
just within the wood a large stone house, said to be centuries old but
long pulled down, called Rollston House, in which the head-keeper lived
with two under-keepers. He had a wife but no children, and was a
middle-aged, thick-set, very dark man, powerful and vigilant, a
"tarrable" hater and persecutor of poachers, feared and hated by them in
turn, and his name was Harbutt.

It happened that one morning, when he had unbarred the front door to go
out, he found a great difficulty in opening it, caused by a heavy object
having been fastened to the door-handle. It proved to be a basket or
box, in which a well-nourished, nice-looking boy baby was sleeping, well
wrapped up and covered with a cloth. On the cloth a scrap of paper was
pinned with the following lines written on it:

Take me in and treat me well,
For in this house my father dwell.


Harbutt read the lines and didn't even smile at the grammar; on the
contrary, he appeared very much upset, and was still standing holding
the paper, staring stupidly at it, when his wife came on the scene.
"What be this?" she exclaimed, and looked first at the paper, then at
him, then at the rosy child fast asleep in its cradle; and instantly,
with a great cry, she fell on it and snatched it up in her arms, and
holding it clasped to her bosom, began lavishing caresses and endearing
expressions on it, tears of rapture in her eyes! Not one word of inquiry
or bitter, jealous reproach--all that part of her was swallowed up and
annihilated in the joy of a woman who had been denied a child of her own
to love and nourish and worship. And now one had come to her and it
mattered little how. Two or three days later the infant was baptized at
the village church with the quaint name of Moses Found.

Caleb was a little surprised at my thinking it a laughable name. It was
to his mind a singularly appropriate one; he assured me it was not the
only case he knew of in which the surname Found had been bestowed on a
child of unknown parentage, and he told me the story of one of the
Founds who had gone to Salisbury as a boy and worked and saved and
eventually become quite a prosperous and important person. There was
really nothing funny in it.

The story of Moses Found had been told him by his old mother; she, he
remarked significantly, had good cause to remember it. She was herself a
native of the village, born two or three years later than the mysterious
Moses; her father, John Barter by name was a carpenter and lived in an
old, thatched house which still exists and is very familiar to me. He
had five sons; then, after an interval of some years, a daughter was
born, who in due time was to be Isaac's wife. When she was a little girl
her brothers were all grown up or on the verge of manhood, and Moses,
too, was a young man--"the spit of his father" people said, meaning the
head-keeper--and he was now one of Harbutt's under-keepers.

About this time some of the more ardent spirits in the village, not
satisfied with an occasional hunt when a deer broke out and roamed over
the downs, took to poaching them in the woods. One night, a hunt having
been arranged, one of the most daring of the men secreted himself close
to the keeper's house, and having watched the keepers go in and the
lights put out, he actually succeeded in fastening up the doors from the
outside with screws and pieces of wood without creating an alarm. He
then met his confederates at an agreed spot and the hunting began,
during which one deer was chased to the house and actually pulled down
and killed on the lawn.

Meanwhile the inmates were in a state of great excitement; the
under-keepers feared that a force it would be dangerous to oppose had
taken possession of the woods, while Harbutt raved and roared like a
maddened wild beast in a cage, and put forth all his strength to pull
the doors open. Finally he smashed a window and leaped out, gun in hand,
and calling the others to follow rushed into the wood. But he was too
late; the hunt was over and the poachers had made good their escape,
taking the carcasses of two or three deer they had succeeded in killing.

The keeper was not to be fooled in the same way a second time, and
before very long he had his revenge. A fresh raid was planned, and on
this occasion two of the five brothers were in it, and there were four
more, the blacksmith of Winterbourne Bishop, their best man, two famous
shearers, father and son, from a neighbouring village, and a young farm
labourer.

They knew very well that with the head-keeper in his present frame of
mind it was a risky affair, and they made a solemn compact that if
caught they would stand by one another to the end. And caught they were,
and on this occasion the keepers were four.

At the very beginning the blacksmith, their ablest man and virtual
leader, was knocked down senseless with a blow on his head with the butt
end of a gun. Immediately on seeing this the two famous shearers took to
their heels and the young labourer followed their example. The brothers
were left but refused to be taken, although Harbutt roared at them in
his bull's voice that he would shoot them unless they surrendered. They
made light of his threats and fought against the four, and eventually
were separated. By and by the younger of the two was driven into a
brambly thicket where his opponents imagined that it would be impossible
for him to escape. But he was a youth of indomitable spirit, strong and
agile as a wild cat; and returning blow for blow he succeeded in tearing
himself from them, then after a running fight through the darkest part
of the wood for a distance of two or three hundred yards they at length
lost him or gave him up and went back to assist Harbutt and Moses
against the other man. Left to himself he got out of the wood and made
his way back to the village. It was long past midnight when he turned up
at his father's cottage, a pitiable object covered with mud and blood,
hatless, his clothes torn to shreds, his face and whole body covered
with bruises and bleeding wounds.

The old man was in a great state of distress about his other son, and
early in the morning went to examine the ground where the fight had
been. It was only too easily found; the sod was trampled down and
branches broken as though a score of men had been engaged. Then he found
his eldest son's cap, and a little farther away a sleeve of his coat;
shreds and rags were numerous on the bramble bushes, and by and by he
came on a pool of blood. "They've kill 'n!" he cried in despair,
"they've killed my poor boy!" and straight to Rollston House he went to
inquire, and was met by Harbutt himself, who came out limping, one boot
on, the other foot bound up with rags, one arm in a sling and a cloth
tied round his head. He was told that his son was alive and safe indoors
and that he would be taken to Salisbury later in the day. "His clothes
be all torn to pieces," added the keeper. "You can just go home at once
and git him others before the constable comes to take him."

"You've tored them to pieces yourself and you can git him others,"
retorted the old man in a rage.

"Very well," said the keeper. "But bide a moment--I've something more
to say to you. When your son comes out of jail in a year or so you tell
him from me that if he'll just step up this way I'll give him five
shillings and as much beer as he likes to drink. I never see'd a better
fighter!"

It was a great compliment to his son, but the old men was troubled in
his mind. "What dost mean, keeper, by a year or so?" he asked.

"When I said that," returned the other, with a grin, "I was just
thinking what 'twould be he deserves to git."

"And you'd agot your deserts, by God," cried the angry father, "if that
boy of mine hadn't a-been left alone to fight ye!"

Harbutt regarded him with a smile of gratified malice.

"You can go home now," he said. "If you'd see your son you'll find'n in
Salisbury jail. Maybe you'll be wanting new locks on your doors; you can
git they in Salisbury too--you've no blacksmith in your village now. No,
your boy weren't alone and you know that damned well."

"I know naught about that," he returned, and started to walk home with a
heavy heart. Until now he had been clinging to the hope that the other
son had not been identified in the dark wood. And now what could he do
to save one of the two from hateful imprisonment? The boy was not in a
fit condition to make his escape; he could hardly get across the room
and could not sit or lie down without groaning. He could only try to
hide him in the cottage and pray that they would not discover him. The
cottage was in the middle of the village and had but little ground to
it, but there was a small, boarded-up cavity or cell at one end of an
attic, and it might be possible to save him by putting him in there.
Here, then, in a bed placed for him on the floor, his bruised son was
obliged to lie, in the close, dark hole, for some days.

One day, about a week later, when he was recovering from his hurts, he
crawled out of his box and climbed down the narrow stairs to the ground
floor to see the light and breathe a better air for a short time, and
while down he was tempted to take a peep at the street through the
small, latticed window. But he quickly withdrew his head and by and by
said to his father, "I'm feared Moses has seen me. Just now when I was
at the window he came by and looked up and see'd me with my head all
tied up, and I'm feared he knew 'twas I."

After that they could only wait in fear and trembling, and on the next
day quite early there came a loud rap at the door, and on its being
opened by the old man the constable and two keepers appeared standing
before him.

"I've come to take your son," said the constable.

The old man stepped back without a word and took down his gun from its
place on the wall, then spoke: "It you've got a search-warrant you may
come in; if you haven't got 'n I'll blow the brains out of the first man
that puts a foot inside my door."

They hesitated a few moments then silently withdrew. After consulting
together the constable went off to the nearest magistrate, leaving the
two keepers to keep watch on the house: Moses Found was one of them.
Later in the day the constable returned armed with a warrant and was
thereupon admitted, with the result that the poor youth was soon
discovered in his hiding-place and carried off. And that was the last he
saw of his home, his young sister crying bitterly and his old father
white and trembling with grief and impotent rage.

A month or two later the two brothers were tried and sentenced each to
six months' imprisonment. They never came home. On their release they
went to Woolwich, where men were wanted and the pay was good. And by and
by the accounts they sent home induced first one then the other brother
to go and join them, and the poor old father, who had been very proud of
his five sons, was left alone with his young daughter--Isaac's destined
wife.

W. H. Hudson