The old man sat on his accustomed bench outside the Cauliflower. A generous measure of beer stood in a blue and white jug by his elbow, and little wisps of smoke curled slowly upward from the bowl of his churchwarden pipe. The knapsacks of two young men lay where they were flung on the table, and the owners, taking a noon-tide rest, turned a polite, if bored, ear to the reminiscences of grateful old age.
Poaching, said the old man, who had tried topics ranging from early turnips to horseshoeing--poaching ain't wot it used to be in these 'ere parts. Nothing is like it used to be, poaching nor anything else; but that there man you might ha' noticed as went out about ten minutes ago and called me "Old Truthfulness" as 'e passed is the worst one I know. Bob Pretty 'is name is, and of all the sly, artful, deceiving men that ever lived in Claybury 'e is the worst--never did a honest day's work in 'is life and never wanted the price of a glass of ale.
Bob Pretty's worst time was just after old Squire Brown died. The old squire couldn't afford to preserve much, but by-and-by a gentleman with plenty o' money, from London, named Rockett, took 'is place and things began to look up. Pheasants was 'is favourites, and 'e spent no end o' money rearing of 'em, but anything that could be shot at suited 'im, too.
He started by sneering at the little game that Squire Brown 'ad left, but all 'e could do didn't seem to make much difference; things disappeared in a most eggstrordinary way, and the keepers went pretty near crazy, while the things the squire said about Claybury and Claybury men was disgraceful.
Everybody knew as it was Bob Pretty and one or two of 'is mates from other places, but they couldn't prove it. They couldn't catch 'im nohow, and at last the squire 'ad two keepers set off to watch 'im by night and by day.
Bob Pretty wouldn't believe it; he said 'e couldn't. And even when it was pointed out to 'im that Keeper Lewis was follering of 'im he said that it just 'appened he was going the same way, that was all. And sometimes 'e'd get up in the middle of the night and go for a fifteen- mile walk 'cos 'e'd got the toothache, and Mr. Lewis, who 'adn't got it, had to tag along arter 'im till he was fit to drop. O' course, it was one keeper the less to look arter the game, and by-and-by the squire see that and took 'im off.
All the same they kept a pretty close watch on Bob, and at last one arternoon they sprang out on 'im as he was walking past Gray's farm, and asked him wot it was he 'ad in his pockets.
"That's my bisness, Mr. Lewis," ses Bob Pretty.
Mr. Smith, the other keeper, passed 'is hands over Bob's coat and felt something soft and bulgy.
"You take your 'ands off of me," ses Bob; "you don't know 'ow partikler I am."
He jerked 'imself away, but they caught 'old of 'im agin, and Mr. Lewis put 'is hand in his inside pocket and pulled out two brace o' partridges.
"You'll come along of us," he ses, catching 'im by the arm.
"We've been looking for you a long time," ses Keeper Smith, "and it's a pleasure for us to 'ave your company."
Bob Pretty said 'e wouldn't go, but they forced 'im along and took 'im all the way to Cudford, four miles off, so that Policeman White could lock 'im up for the night. Mr. White was a'most as pleased as the keepers, and 'e warned Bob solemn not to speak becos all 'e said would be used agin 'im.
"Never mind about that," ses Bob Pretty. "I've got a clear conscience, and talking can't 'urt me. I'm very glad to see you, Mr. White; if these two clever, experienced keepers hadn't brought me I should 'ave looked you up myself. They've been and stole my partridges."
Them as was standing round laughed, and even Policeman White couldn't 'elp giving a little smile.
"There's nothing to laugh at," ses Bob, 'olding his 'ead up. "It's a fine thing when a working man--a 'ardworking man--can't take home a little game for 'is family without being stopped and robbed."
"I s'pose they flew into your pocket?" ses Police-man White.
"No, they didn't," ses Bob. "I'm not going to tell any lies about it; I put 'em there. The partridges in my inside coat-pocket and the bill in my waistcoat-pocket."
"The bill?" ses Keeper Lewis, staring at 'im.
"Yes, the bill," ses Bob Pretty, staring back at 'im; "the bill from Mr. Keen, the poulterer, at Wick-ham."
He fetched it out of 'is pocket and showed it to Mr. White, and the keepers was like madmen a'most 'cos it was plain to see that Bob Pretty 'ad been and bought them partridges just for to play a game on 'em.
"I was curious to know wot they tasted like," he ses to the policeman. "Worst of it is, I don't s'pose my pore wife'll know 'ow to cook 'em."
"You get off 'ome," ses Policeman White, staring at 'im.
"But ain't I goin' to be locked up?" ses Bob. "'Ave I been brought all this way just to 'ave a little chat with a policeman I don't like."
"You go 'ome," ses Policeman White, handing the partridges back to 'im.
"All right," ses Bob, "and I may 'ave to call you to witness that these 'ere two men laid hold o' me and tried to steal my partridges. I shall go up and see my loryer about it."
He walked off 'ome with his 'ead up as high as 'e could hold it, and the airs 'e used to give 'imself arter this was terrible for to behold. He got 'is eldest boy to write a long letter to the squire about it, saying that 'e'd overlook it this time, but 'e couldn't promise for the future. Wot with Bob Pretty on one side and Squire Rockett on the other, them two keepers' lives was 'ardly worth living.
Then the squire got a head-keeper named Cutts, a man as was said to know more about the ways of poachers than they did themselves. He was said to 'ave cleared out all the poachers for miles round the place 'e came from, and pheasants could walk into people's cottages and not be touched.
He was a sharp-looking man, tall and thin, with screwed-up eyes and a little red beard. The second day 'e came 'e was up here at this 'ere Cauliflower, having a pint o' beer and looking round at the chaps as he talked to the landlord. The odd thing was that men who'd never taken a hare or a pheasant in their lives could 'ardly meet 'is eye, while Bob Pretty stared at 'im as if 'e was a wax-works.
"I 'ear you 'ad a little poaching in these parts afore I came," ses Mr. Cutts to the landlord.
"I think I 'ave 'eard something o' the kind," ses the landlord, staring over his 'ead with a far-away look in 'is eyes.
"You won't hear of much more," ses the keeper. "I've invented a new way of catching the dirty rascals; afore I came 'ere I caught all the poachers on three estates. I clear 'em out just like a ferret clears out rats."
"Sort o' man-trap?" ses the landlord.
"Ah, that's tellings," ses Mr. Cutts.
"Well, I 'ope you'll catch 'em here," ses Bob Pretty; "there's far too many of 'em about for my liking. Far too many."
"I shall 'ave 'em afore long," ses Mr. Cutts, nodding his 'ead.
"Your good 'ealth," ses Bob Pretty, holding up 'is mug. "We've been wanting a man like you for a long time."
"I don't want any of your impidence, my man," ses the keeper. "I've 'eard about you, and nothing good either. You be careful."
"I am careful," ses Bob, winking at the others. "I 'ope you'll catch all them low poaching chaps; they give the place a bad name, and I'm a'most afraid to go out arter dark for fear of meeting 'em."
Peter Gubbins and Sam Jones began to laugh, but Bob Pretty got angry with 'em and said he didn't see there was anything to laugh at. He said that poaching was a disgrace to their native place, and instead o' laughing they ought to be thankful to Mr. Cutts for coming to do away with it all.
"Any help I can give you shall be given cheerful," he ses to the keeper.
"When I want your help I'll ask you for it," ses Mr. Cutts.
"Thankee," ses Bob Pretty. "I on'y 'ope I sha'n't get my face knocked about like yours 'as been, that's all; 'cos my wife's so partikler."
"Wot d'ye mean?" ses Mr. Cutts, turning on him. "My face ain't been knocked about."
"Oh, I beg your pardin," ses Bob; "I didn't know it was natural."
Mr. Cutts went black in the face a'most and stared at Bob Pretty as if 'e was going to eat 'im, and Bob stared back, looking fust at the keeper's nose and then at 'is eyes and mouth, and then at 'is nose agin.
"You'll know me agin, I s'pose?" ses Mr. Cutts, at last.
"Yes," ses Bob, smiling; "I should know you a mile off--on the darkest night."
"We shall see," ses Mr. Cutts, taking up 'is beer and turning 'is back on him. "Those of us as live the longest'll see the most."
"I'm glad I've lived long enough to see 'im," ses Bob to Bill Chambers. "I feel more satisfied with myself now."
Bill Chambers coughed, and Mr. Cutts, arter finishing 'is beer, took another look at Bob Pretty, and went off boiling a'most.
The trouble he took to catch Bob Pretty arter that you wouldn't believe, and all the time the game seemed to be simply melting away, and Squire Rockett was finding fault with 'im all day long. He was worn to a shadder a'most with watching, and Bob Pretty seemed to be more prosperous than ever.
Sometimes Mr. Cutts watched in the plantations, and sometimes 'e hid 'imself near Bob's house, and at last one night, when 'e was crouching behind the fence of Frederick Scott's front garden, 'e saw Bob Pretty come out of 'is house and, arter a careful look round, walk up the road. He held 'is breath as Bob passed 'im, and was just getting up to foller 'im when Bob stopped and walked slowly back agin, sniffing.
"Wot a delicious smell o' roses!" he ses, out loud.
He stood in the middle o' the road nearly opposite where the keeper was hiding, and sniffed so that you could ha' 'eard him the other end o' the village.
"It can't be roses," he ses, in a puzzled voice, "be-cos there ain't no roses hereabouts, and, besides, it's late for 'em. It must be Mr. Cutts, the clever new keeper."
He put his 'ead over the fence and bid 'im good evening, and said wot a fine night for a stroll it was, and asked 'im whether 'e was waiting for Frederick Scott's aunt. Mr. Cutts didn't answer 'im a word; 'e was pretty near bursting with passion. He got up and shook 'is fist in Bob Pretty's face, and then 'e went off stamping down the road as if 'e was going mad.
And for a time Bob Pretty seemed to 'ave all the luck on 'is side. Keeper Lewis got rheumatic fever, which 'e put down to sitting about night arter night in damp places watching for Bob, and, while 'e was in the thick of it, with the doctor going every day, Mr. Cutts fell in getting over a fence and broke 'is leg. Then all the work fell on Keeper Smith, and to 'ear 'im talk you'd think that rheumatic fever and broken legs was better than anything else in the world. He asked the squire for 'elp, but the squire wouldn't give it to 'im, and he kept telling 'im wot a feather in 'is cap it would be if 'e did wot the other two couldn't do, and caught Bob Pretty. It was all very well, but, as Smith said, wot 'e wanted was feathers in 'is piller, instead of 'aving to snatch a bit o' sleep in 'is chair or sitting down with his 'ead agin a tree. When I tell you that 'e fell asleep in this public-'ouse one night while the landlord was drawing a pint o' beer he 'ad ordered, you'll know wot 'e suffered.
O' course, all this suited Bob Pretty as well as could be, and 'e was that good-tempered 'e'd got a nice word for everybody, and when Bill Chambers told 'im 'e was foolhardy 'e only laughed and said 'e knew wot 'e was about.
But the very next night 'e had reason to remember Bill Chambers's words. He was walking along Farmer Hall's field--the one next to the squire's plantation--and, so far from being nervous, 'e was actually a-whistling. He'd got a sack over 'is shoulder, loaded as full as it could be, and 'e 'ad just stopped to light 'is pipe when three men burst out o' the plantation and ran toward 'im as 'ard as they could run.
Bob Pretty just gave one look and then 'e dropped 'is pipe and set off like a hare. It was no good dropping the sack, because Smith, the keeper, 'ad recognised 'im and called 'im by name, so 'e just put 'is teeth together and did the best he could, and there's no doubt that if it 'adn't ha' been for the sack 'e could 'ave got clear away.
As it was, 'e ran for pretty near a mile, and they could 'ear 'im breathing like a pair o' bellows; but at last 'e saw that the game was up. He just man-aged to struggle as far as Farmer Pinnock's pond, and then, waving the sack round his 'ead, 'e flung it into the middle of it, and fell down gasping for breath.
"Got--you--this time--Bob Pretty," ses one o' the men, as they came up.
"Wot--Mr. Cutts?" ses Bob, with a start. "That's me, my man," ses the keeper.
"Why--I thought--you was. Is that Mr. Lewis? It can't be."
"That's me," ses Keeper Lewis. "We both got well sudden-like, Bob Pretty, when we 'eard you was out. You ain't so sharp as you thought you was."
Bob Pretty sat still, getting 'is breath back and doing a bit o' thinking at the same time.
"You give me a start," he ses, at last. "I thought you was both in bed, and, knowing 'ow hard worked Mr. Smith 'as been, I just came round to 'elp 'im keep watch like. I promised to 'elp you, Mr. Cutts, if you remember."
"Wot was that you threw in the pond just now?" ses Mr. Cutts.
"A sack," ses Bob Pretty; "a sack I found in Farmer Hall's field. It felt to me as though it might 'ave birds in it, so I picked it up, and I was just on my way to your 'ouse with it, Mr. Cutts, when you started arter me."
"Ah!" ses the keeper, "and wot did you run for?"
Bob Pretty tried to laugh. "Becos I thought it was the poachers arter me," he ses. "It seems ridikilous, don't it?"
"Yes, it does," ses Lewis.
"I thought you'd know me a mile off," ses Mr. Cutts. "I should ha' thought the smell o' roses would ha' told you I was near."
Bob Pretty scratched 'is 'ead and looked at 'im out of the corner of 'is eye, but he 'adn't got any answer. Then 'e sat biting his finger-nails and thinking while the keepers stood argyfying as to who should take 'is clothes off and go into the pond arter the pheasants. It was a very cold night and the pond was pretty deep in places, and none of 'em seemed anxious.
"Make 'im go in for it," ses Lewis, looking at Bob; "'e chucked it in."
"On'y Becos I thought you was poachers," ses Bob. "I'm sorry to 'ave caused so much trouble."
"Well, you go in and get it out," ses Lewis, who pretty well guessed who'd 'ave to do it if Bob didn't. "It'll look better for you, too."
"I've got my defence all right," ses Bob Pretty. "I ain't set a foot on the squire's preserves, and I found this sack a 'undred yards away from it."
"Don't waste more time," ses Mr. Cutts to Lewis.
"Off with your clothes and in with you. Anybody'd think you was afraid of a little cold water."
"Whereabouts did 'e pitch it in?" ses Lewis.
Bob Pretty pointed with 'is finger exactly where 'e thought it was, but they wouldn't listen to 'im, and then Lewis, arter twice saying wot a bad cold he'd got, took 'is coat off very slow and careful.
"I wouldn't mind going in to oblige you," ses Bob Pretty, "but the pond is so full o' them cold, slimy efts; I don't fancy them crawling up agin me, and, besides that, there's such a lot o' deep holes in it. And wotever you do don't put your 'ead under; you know 'ow foul that water is."
Keeper Lewis pretended not to listen to 'im. He took off 'is clothes very slowly and then 'e put one foot in and stood shivering, although Smith, who felt the water with his 'and, said it was quite warm. Then Lewis put the other foot in and began to walk about careful, 'arf-way up to 'is knees.
"I can't find it," he ses, with 'is teeth chattering.
"You 'aven't looked," ses Mr. Cutts; "walk about more; you can't expect to find it all at once. Try the middle."
Lewis tried the middle, and 'e stood there up to 'is neck, feeling about with his foot and saying things out loud about Bob Pretty, and other things under 'is breath about Mr. Cutts.
"Well, I'm going off 'ome," ses Bob Pretty, getting up. "I'm too tender-'arted to stop and see a man drownded."
"You stay 'ere," ses Mr. Cutts, catching 'old of him.
"Wot for?" ses Bob; "you've got no right to keep me 'ere."
"Catch 'old of 'im, Joe," ses Mr. Cutts, quick-like.
Smith caught 'old of his other arm, and Lewis left off trying to find the sack to watch the struggle. Bob Pretty fought 'ard, and once or twice 'e nearly tumbled Mr. Cutts into the pond, but at last 'e gave in and lay down panting and talking about 'is loryer. Smith 'eld him down on the ground while Mr. Cutts kept pointing out places with 'is finger for Lewis to walk to. The last place 'e pointed to wanted a much taller man, but it wasn't found out till too late, and the fuss Keeper Lewis made when 'e could speak agin was terrible.
"You'd better come out," ses Mr. Cutts; "you ain't doing no good. We know where they are and we'll watch the pond till daylight--that is, unless Smith 'ud like to 'ave a try."
"It's pretty near daylight now, I think," ses Smith.
Lewis came out and ran up and down to dry 'imself, and finished off on 'is pocket-'andkerchief, and then with 'is teeth chattering 'e began to dress 'imself. He got 'is shirt on, and then 'e stood turning over 'is clothes as if 'e was looking for something.
"Never mind about your stud now," ses Mr. Cutts; "hurry up and dress."
"Stud?" ses Lewis, very snappish. "I'm looking for my trowsis."
"Your trowsis?" ses Smith, 'elping 'im look.
"I put all my clothes together," ses Lewis, a'most shouting. "Where are they? I'm 'arf perished with cold. Where are they?"
"He 'ad 'em on this evening," ses Bob Pretty, "'cos I remember noticing 'em."
"They must be somewhere about," ses Mr. Cutts; "why don't you use your eyes?"
He walked up and down, peering about, and as for Lewis he was 'opping round 'arf crazy.
"I wonder," ses Bob Pretty, in a thoughtful voice, to Smith--"I wonder whether you or Mr. Cutts kicked 'em in the pond while you was struggling with me. Come to think of it, I seem to remember 'earing a splash."
"He's done it, Mr. Cutts," ses Smith; "never mind, it'll go all the 'arder with 'im."
"But I do mind," ses Lewis, shouting. "I'll be even with you for this, Bob Pretty. I'll make you feel it. You wait till I've done with you. You'll get a month extra for this, you see if you don't."
"Don't you mind about me," ses Bob; "you run off 'ome and cover up them legs of yours. I found that sack, so my conscience is clear."
Lewis put on 'is coat and waistcoat and set off, and Mr. Cutts and Smith, arter feeling about for a dry place, set theirselves down and began to smoke.
"Look 'ere," ses Bob Pretty, "I'm not going to sit 'ere all night to please you; I'm going off 'ome. If you want me you'll know where to find me."
"You stay where you are," ses Mr. Cutts. "We ain't going to let you out of our sight."
"Very well, then, you take me 'ome," ses Bob. "I'm not going to catch my death o' cold sitting 'ere. I'm not used to being out of a night like you are. I was brought up respectable."
"I dare say," ses Mr. Cutts. "Take you 'ome, and then 'ave one o' your mates come and get the sack while we're away."
Then Bob Pretty lost 'is temper, and the things 'e said about Mr. Cutts wasn't fit for Smith to 'ear. He threw 'imself down at last full length on the ground and sulked till the day broke.
Keeper Lewis was there a'most as soon as it was light, with some long hay-rakes he'd borrowed, and I should think that pretty near 'arf the folks in Clay-bury 'ad turned up to see the fun. Mrs. Pretty was crying and wringing 'er 'ands; but most folks seemed to be rather pleased that Bob 'ad been caught at last.
In next to no time 'arf-a-dozen rakes was at work, and the things they brought out o' that pond you wouldn't believe. The edge of it was all littered with rusty tin pails and saucepans and such-like, and by-and-by Lewis found the things he'd 'ad to go 'ome without a few hours afore, but they didn't seem to find that sack, and Bob Pretty, wot was talking to 'is wife, began to look 'opeful.
But just then the squire came riding up with two friends as was staying with 'im, and he offered a reward of five shillings to the man wot found it. Three or four of 'em waded in up to their middle then and raked their 'ardest, and at last Henery Walker give a cheer and brought it to the side, all heavy with water.
"That's the sack I found, sir," ses Bob, starting up. "It wasn't on your land at all, but on the field next to it. I'm an honest, 'ardworking man, and I've never been in trouble afore. Ask anybody 'ere and they'll tell you the same."
Squire Rockett took no notice of 'im. "Is that the sack?" he asks, turning to Mr. Cutts.
"That's the one, sir," ses Mr. Cutts. "I'd swear to it anywhere."
"You'd swear a man's life away," ses Bob. "'Ow can you swear to it when it was dark?"
Mr. Cutts didn't answer 'im. He went down on 'is knees and cut the string that tied up the mouth o' the sack, and then 'e started back as if 'e'd been shot, and 'is eyes a'most started out of 'is 'ead.
"Wot's the matter?" ses the squire.
Mr. Cutts couldn't speak; he could only stutter and point at the sack with 'is finger, and Henery Walker, as was getting curious, lifted up the other end of it and out rolled a score of as fine cabbages as you could wish to see.
I never see people so astonished afore in all my born days, and as for Bob Pretty, 'e stood staring at them cabbages as if 'e couldn't believe 'is eyesight.
"And that's wot I've been kept 'ere all night for," he ses, at last, shaking his 'ead. "That's wot comes o' trying to do a kindness to keepers, and 'elping of 'em in their difficult work. P'r'aps that ain't the sack arter all, Mr. Cutts. I could ha' sworn they was pheasants in the one I found, but I may be mistook, never 'aving 'ad one in my 'ands afore. Or p'r'aps somebody was trying to 'ave a game with you, Mr. Cutts, and deceived me instead."
The keepers on'y stared at 'im.
"You ought to be more careful," ses Bob. "Very likely while you was taking all that trouble over me, and Keeper Lewis was catching 'is death o' cold, the poachers was up at the plantation taking all they wanted. And, besides, it ain't right for Squire Rockett to 'ave to pay Henery Walker five shillings for finding a lot of old cabbages. I shouldn't like it myself."
He looked out of the corner of 'is eye at the squire, as was pretending not to notice Henery Walker touching 'is cap to him, and then 'e turns to 'is wife and he ses:
"Come along, old gal," 'e ses. "I want my breakfast bad, and arter that I shall 'ave to lose a honest day's work in bed."