The Rabbit and the Gamekeeper
O UT in the garden a rabbit had for some time been enjoying himself nightly in the cabbage-patch, biting off the young sprouts which were just sticking their heads through the ground. When the rabbit heard Tam bark she dashed out of sight behind a burdock leaf and sat perfectly still. Now if Tam and Jock had come into the garden by the wicket gate, as they should have done, this story might never have been written at all, because in that case the rabbit would perhaps have got safely back to her burrow in the woods without being seen, and there wouldn't have been any story to tell.
But Tam and Jock didn't come in by the gate. They jumped the wall. Jock jumped first and landed almost on top of the rabbit, but when Tam, a second later, landed in the same place, she was running for dear life toward the hole in the stone wall where she had got in. Shouting and barking, Jock and Tam tore after her. Round and round the garden they flew, but just as they thought they had her cornered, the rabbit slipped through the hole in the wall and ran like the wind for the woods. Jock and Tam both cleared the wall at a bound and chased after her, making enough noise to be heard a mile away.
It happened that there was some one much less than a mile away to hear it. And it happened, too, that he was the one person in all the world that Jock would most wish not to hear it, for he was gamekeeper to the Laird of Glen Cairn, and the Laird of Glen Cairn owned all the land for miles and miles about in every direction. He owned the little gray house and the moor, the mountain, and the forest, and even the little brook that sang by the door. To be sure, the Laird seemed to care very little for his Highland home. He visited it but once in a great while, and then only for a few days' hunting. The rest of the year his great stone castle was occupied only by Eppie McLean, the housekeeper, and two or three other servants. The Laird did not know his tenants, and they did not know him. The rents were collected for him by Mr. Craigie, his factor, who lived in the village, and Angus Niel was appointed to see that no one hunted game on the estate.
Angus was a man of great zeal in the performance of his duty, to judge by his own account of it. He was always telling of heroic encounters with poachers in the forests, and though he never seemed to succeed in catching them and bringing them before the magistrate, his tales were a warning to evil-doers and few people dared venture into the region which he guarded. He was often seen creeping along the outskirts of the woods, his gun on his shoulder, his round eyes rolling suspiciously in every direction, or even loitering around the cow byres as if he thought game might be secreted there.
At the very moment when Jock and Tam came flying over the fence and down the hill like a cyclone after the rabbit, Angus was kneeling beside the brook to get a drink. His lips pursed up and he was bending over almost to the surface of the water, when something dashed past him, and an instant later something else struck him like a thunderbolt from behind, and drove him headforemost into the brook! It wasn't Tam that did it. It was Jock! Of course, it was an accident, but Angus thought he had done it on purpose, and he was probably the most surprised as well as the angriest man in Scotland at that moment. He lifted his head out of the brook and glared at Jock as fiercely as he could with little rills of water pouring from his hair and nose, and trickling in streams down his neck.
"I'll make you smart for this, you young blatherskite," he roared at Jock, who stood before him frozen with horror. "I'll teach you where you belong! You were running after that rabbit, and your dog is yelping down a hole after her this minute!" He was such a funny sight as he knelt there, dripping and scolding, that, scared as he was, Jock could not help laughing. More than ever enraged, Angus made a sudden lunge forward and seized Jock by the ear.
"You come along o' me," he said.
His invitation was so urgent that Jock felt obliged to accept it, and together the two started up the slope to the little gray house. Tam, meanwhile, had given up the chase and joined them, his tail at half-mast. When they reached the house Angus bumped the door open without knocking, and stamped into the kitchen. Jean was bending over the fire turning a scone on the girdle, when the noise at the door made her jump and look around. She was so amazed at the sight which met her eye that for an instant she stood stock-still, and Angus, seeing that he had only two children to deal with, gave Jock's ear a vicious tweak and began to bluster at Jean.
But, you see, he didn't know Jean. When she saw that great fat man abusing her brother and tracking mud all over her kitchen floor at the same time, instead of being frightened, as she should have been, Jean shook her cooking-fork at Angus Niel and stamped her foot smartly on the floor.
"You let go of my brother's ear this instant," she shouted, "and take your muddy boots out of my kitchen!"
Angus let go of Jock's ear for sheer surprise, and Jock at once sprang to his sister's side, while Tam, seeing that trouble was brewing, gave a low growl and bared his teeth. Angus gave a look at Tam and decided to explain.
"This young blatherskite here," he began, in a voice that caused the rafters to shake, "has been trespassing. He was after a rabbit. I caught him in the very act. I'll have the law on him! He rammed me into the burn!"
"I didn't mean to," shouted Jock, "I
thought you were a stone, and I just meant
to step on you and jump across the burn.
"You meant to step on me, did you?" roared Angus. "Me! Do you know who I am?" Jock knew very well, but he didn't have time to say so before Angus, choking with rage, made a furious lunge for his ear and left two more great spots of mud on the kitchen floor. It was not to be borne. Jean pointed to his feet.
"You're trespassing yourself," she screamed. "You've no right in this house, and you take yourself out of it this minute! Just look at the mud you've tracked on my floor!"
Angus did look. He looked not only at the floor but at Tam, for Tam was now slowly approaching him, growling as he came. Angus thought best to do exactly as Jean said and as quickly as possible. He reached the door in two jumps with Tam leaping after him and nipping his heels at each jump, and in another instant found himself on the doorstep with the door shut behind him.
Angus considered himself a very important man. He wasn't used to being treated in this way, and it's no wonder he was angry. He swelled up like a pouter pigeon, and shook his fist at the door.
"You just mind who I am," he shouted. "If ever I catch you poaching again, I'll have you up before the bailie as sure as eggs is eggs!"
But the door didn't say a word, and it seemed beneath his dignity to scold a door that wouldn't even answer back, so he stamped away growling. The children watched him until he disappeared in the woods, and when at last they turned from the window, the scone on the girdle was burned to a cinder and had to be given to the chickens!
You might have thought that by this time Jean had done enough work even for Saturday, but there was still the broth to make for supper and for the Sabbath, and the kitchen floor to be scrubbed, and, last of all, the family baths! When the little kitchen was as clean as clean could be, Jean got the wash-tub and set it on the hearth. Jock knew the signs and decided he'd go out behind the byre and look for eggs, but Jean had her eye on him.
"Jock Campbell," said she, "you go at once and get the water."
In vain Jock assured her he was cleaner than anything and didn't need a bath. Jean was firm. She made him fill the kettles, and when the water was hot, she shut him up in the kitchen with soap and a towel while she took all the shoes to the front steps to polish for Kirk on the morrow. When at last Jock appeared before her he was so shiny clean that Jean said it dazzled her eyes to look at him, so she sent him for the cow while she took her turn at the tub.
By four o'clock, Tam, who had spent an anxious afternoon by the hole in the garden wall watching for the rabbit, suddenly remembered his duties and started away over the moors to meet the Shepherd and round up any sheep that might have strayed from the flock, and at five Jock, returning from the byre, met his father coming home with Tam at his heels.
The regular evening tasks were finished just as the sun sank out of sight behind the western hills, and the birds were singing their evening songs, and when they went into the kitchen a bright fire was blazing on the hearth, the broth was simmering in the kettle, and Jean had three bowls of it ready for them on the table.
While they ate their supper Jock told their father all about the rabbit and Angus Niel and his ducking in the burn, and when Jock told about Jean's ordering him out of the kitchen, and of his jumping to the door with Tam nipping at his heels, the Shepherd slapped his knee and laughed till he cried. Tam, sitting on the hearth with his tongue lolling out, looked as if he were laughing, too.
"Havers!" cried the Shepherd, "I wish I'd been here to see that sight! Angus is that swollen up with pride of position, he's like to burst himself. He needed a bit of a fall to ease him of it, but I'd never have picked out Jean Campbell to trip him up! You're a spirited tid, my dawtie, and I'm proud of you."
"But, Father," said Jock, "whatever shall we do about the rabbits? The woods are full of them, and there'll not be a sprig of green left in the garden. They can hop right over the wall, even if we do stop up the hole."
"Aye," answered his father solemnly, "and that's a serious question, my lad. They get worse every year, and syne we'll have no cabbage for the winter, let alone other vegetables. A deer came into Andrew Crumpet's garden one night last week and left not a green sprout in it by the morning. The creatures must live that idle gentlemen may shoot them for pleasure, even though they eat our food and leave us to go hungry." His brow darkened and a long-smouldering wrath burst forth into words. "There's no justice in it," he declared, thumping the table with his fist till the spoons danced, "Lairds or no Lairds, Anguses or no Anguses."
The Twins had never before heard their father speak like that, and they were a little frightened. They were too young to know the long years of injustice in such matters that stretched far back into the history of Scotland.
For a few minutes after this outburst the Shepherd remained silent, gazing into the fire; then he roused himself from his brown study and said: "I've been keeping something from you, my bairns. Mr. Craigie told me last week that the Auld Laird has taken a whim to turn all this region into a game preserve, and that he will not renew our lease when the time is up. It has till autumn to run, and then, God help us, we'll have to be turned out of this house where I've lived all my life and my forebears before me, and seek some other place to live and some other work to do."
"But what can you do else?" gasped Jock. He felt that his world was tumbling about his ears.
"The Lord knows," answered the Shepherd. "Emigrate to America likely. I've always been with the sheep and nothing else. It may be I can hire out to some other body, but chances are few hereabouts, and if the Auld Laird carries out this notion, there'll be many another beside ourselves who'll need to be walking the world. It seems unlikely he would be for taking away the town too, even if it is but a wee bit of a village, and the law gives him the right, for times have changed since that lease was made, long years ago, and there are few in this day who would venture to enforce it. But the Auld Laird's a hard man, I'm told, and he chooses hard men to carry out his will. Mr. Craigie has little heart, and as for Angus Niel, he'd make things worse rather than better if he had his way." Then, seeing tears gathering in Jean's eyes, he said to comfort her, "There now, dinna greet, my lassie! There's no sense in crossing a bridge till you come to it, and this bridge is still four months and a bittock away. We've the summer before us, and the Lord's arm is not shortened that it cannot save. We'll make the best of it and have one more happy summer, let the worst come at the end of it."
"But, Father," urged Jock, "will he turn every one out, do you think?"
"Who can foretell the whimsies of a selfish man?" answered the Shepherd. "He has only his own will to consider, but my opinion is he'll turn out those whose holdings lie nearest the forests and would be best for game, whatever he may do with the rest."
This was overwhelming news, and the children sat silent beside their silent father, trying to think of something to comfort their sad hearts. At last Jean lifted her head with a spirited toss and said, "Gin we were to go to‑morrow, the dishes would still have to be washed," and she began to clear the table.
Her father laughed, and oh, how his laugh brightened the little kitchen and seemed to bid defiance to the fates!
"That's right, little woman," he said. "You've the true spirit of a Campbell in you. We must aye do the duty at hand and trust the Lord for the rest."
Jock was so impressed with the solemn talk of the evening that he wiped the dishes without being asked and went to bed of his own accord when the wag-at-the-wall clock struck eight. The Shepherd sat alone beside the fire until the children were in bed and asleep; then he sent Tam to the straw-stack, wound the clock, and took his own turn at the tub. Last of all he covered the coals with ashes for the night and crept into bed beside Jock.