Norman Cross — Wide expanse — Vive l’Empereur — Unpruned woods — Man with the bag — Froth and conceit — I beg your pardon — Growing timid — About three o’clock — Taking one’s ease — Cheek on the ground — King of the vipers — French king — Frenchmen and water.
And a strange place it was, this Norman Cross, and, at the time of which I am speaking, a sad cross to many a Norman, being what was then styled a French prison, that is, a receptacle for captives made in the French war. It consisted, if I remember right, of some five or six casernes, very long, and immensely high; each standing isolated from the rest, upon a spot of ground which might average ten acres, and which was fenced round with lofty palisades, the whole being compassed about by a towering wall, beneath which, at intervals, on both sides, sentinels were stationed, whilst outside, upon the field, stood commodious wooden barracks, capable of containing two regiments of infantry, intended to serve as guards upon the captives. Such was the station or prison at Norman Cross, where some six thousand French and other foreigners, followers of the grand Corsican, were now immured.
What a strange appearance had those mighty casernes, with their blank blind walls, without windows or grating, and their slanting roofs, out of which, through orifices where the tiles had been removed, would be protruded dozens of grim heads, feasting their prison-sick eyes on the wide expanse of country unfolded from that airy height. Ah! there was much misery in those casernes; and from those roofs, doubtless, many a wistful look was turned in the direction of lovely France. Much had the poor inmates to endure, and much to complain of, to the disgrace of England be it said — of England, in general so kind and bountiful. Rations of carrion meat, and bread from which I have seen the very hounds occasionally turn away, were unworthy entertainment even for the most ruffian enemy, when helpless and a captive; and such, alas! was the fare in those casernes. And then, those visits, or rather ruthless inroads, called in the slang of the place ‘strawplait-hunts,’ when in pursuit of a contraband article, which the prisoners, in order to procure themselves a few of the necessaries and comforts of existence, were in the habit of making, red-coated battalions were marched into the prisons, who, with the bayonet’s point, carried havoc and ruin into every poor convenience which ingenious wretchedness had been endeavouring to raise around it; and then the triumphant exit with the miserable booty; and, worst of all, the accursed bonfire, on the barrack parade, of the plait contraband, beneath the view of the glaring eyeballs from those lofty roofs, amidst the hurrahs of the troops, frequently drowned in the curses poured down from above like a tempest-shower or in the terrific warw-hoop of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’
It was midsummer when we arrived at this place, and the weather, which had for a long time been wet and gloomy, now became bright and glorious; I was subjected to but little control, and passed my time pleasantly enough, principally in wandering about the neighbouring country. It was flat and somewhat fenny, a district more of pasture than agriculture, and not very thickly inhabited. I soon became well acquainted with it. At the distance of two miles from the station was a large lake, styled in the dialect of the country ‘a mere,’ about whose borders tall reeds were growing in abundance, this was a frequent haunt of mine; but my favourite place of resort was a wild sequestered spot at a somewhat greater distance. Here, surrounded with woods and thick groves, was the seat of some ancient family, deserted by the proprietor, and only inhabited by a rustic servant or two. A place more solitary and wild could scarcely be imagined; the garden and walks were overgrown with weeds and briers, and the unpruned woods were so tangled as to be almost impervious. About this domain I would wander till overtaken by fatigue, and then I would sit down with my back against some beech, elm, or stately alder tree, and, taking out my book, would pass hours in a state of unmixed enjoyment, my eyes now fixed on the wondrous pages, now glancing at the sylvan scene around; and sometimes I would drop the book and listen to the voice of the rooks and wild pigeons, and not unfrequently to the croaking of multitudes of frogs from the neighbouring swamps and fens.
In going to and from this place I frequently passed a tall elderly individual, dressed in rather a quaint fashion, with a skin cap on his head and stout gaiters on his legs; on his shoulders hung a moderate sized leathern sack; he seemed fond of loitering near sunny banks, and of groping amidst furze and low scrubby bramble bushes, of which there were plenty in the neighbourhood of Norman Cross. Once I saw him standing in the middle of a dusty road, looking intently at a large mark which seemed to have been drawn across it, as if by a walking stick. ‘He must have been a large one,’ the old man muttered half to himself, ‘or he would not have left such a trail, I wonder if he is near; he seems to have moved this way.’ He then went behind some bushes which grew on the right side of the road, and appeared to be in quest of something, moving behind the bushes with his head downwards, and occasionally striking their roots with his foot: at length he exclaimed, ‘Here he is!’ and forthwith I saw him dart amongst the bushes. There was a kind of scuffling noise, the rustling of branches, and the crackling of dry sticks. ‘I have him!’ said the man at last; ‘I have got him!’ and presently he made his appearance about twenty yards down the road, holding a large viper in his hand. ‘What do you think of that, my boy?’ said he, as I went up to him — ‘what do you think of catching such a thing as that with the naked hand?’ ‘What do I think?’ said I. ‘Why, that I could do as much myself.’ ‘You do,’ said the man, ‘do you? Lord! how the young people in these days are given to conceit; it did not use to be so in my time: when I was a child, childer knew how to behave themselves; but the childer of these days are full of conceit, full of froth, like the mouth of this viper’; and with his forefinger and thumb he squeezed a considerable quantity of foam from the jaws of the viper down upon the road. ‘The childer of these days are a generation of — God forgive me, what was I about to say?’ said the old man; and opening his bag he thrust the reptile into it, which appeared far from empty. I passed on. As I was returning, towards the evening, I overtook the old man, who was wending in the same direction. ‘Good evening to you, sir,’ said I, taking off a cap which I wore on my head. ‘Good evening,’ said the old man; and then, looking at me, ‘How’s this?’ said he, ‘you aren’t, sure, the child I met in the morning?’ ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘I am; what makes you doubt it?’ ‘Why, you were then all froth and conceit,’ said the old man, ‘and now you take off your cap to me.’ ‘I beg your pardon,’ said I, ‘if I was frothy and conceited; it ill becomes a child like me to be so.’ ‘That’s true, dear,’ said the old man; ‘well, as you have begged my pardon, I truly forgive you.’ ‘Thank you,’ said I; ‘have you caught any more of those things?’ ‘Only four or five,’ said the old man; ‘they are getting scarce, though this used to be a great neighbourhood for them.’ ‘And what do you do with them?’ said I; ‘do you carry them home and play with them?’ ‘I sometimes play with one or two that I tame,’ said the old man; ‘but I hunt them mostly for the fat which they contain, out of which I make unguents which are good for various sore troubles, especially for the rheumatism.’ ‘And do you get your living by hunting these creatures?’ I demanded. ‘Not altogether,’ said the old man; ‘besides being a viper-hunter, I am what they call a herbalist, one who knows the virtue of particular herbs; I gather them at the proper season, to make medicines with for the sick.’ ‘And do you live in the neighbourhood?’ I demanded. ‘You seem very fond of asking questions, child. No, I do not live in this neighbourhood in particular, I travel about; I have not been in this neighbourhood till lately for some years.’
From this time the old man and myself formed an acquaintance; I often accompanied him in his wanderings about the neighbourhood, and, on two or three occasions, assisted him in catching the reptiles which he hunted. He generally carried a viper with him which he had made quite tame, and from which he had extracted the poisonous fangs; it would dance and perform various kinds of tricks. He was fond of telling me anecdotes connected with his adventures with the reptile species. ‘But,’ said he one day, sighing, ‘I must shortly give up this business, I am no longer the man I was, I am become timid, and when a person is timid in viper-hunting, he had better leave off, as it is quite clear his virtue is leaving him. I got a fright some years ago, which I am quite sure I shall never get the better of; my hand has been shaky more or less ever since.’ ‘What frightened you?’ said I. ‘I had better not tell you,’ said the old man, ‘or you may be frightened too, lose your virtue, and be no longer good for the business.’ ‘I don’t care,’ said I; ‘I don’t intend to follow the business: I daresay I shall be an officer, like my father.’ ‘Well,’ said the old man, ‘I once saw the king of the vipers, and since then — ’ ‘The king of the vipers!’ said I, interrupting him; ‘have the vipers a king?’ ‘As sure as we have,’ said the old man — ‘as sure as we have King George to rule over us, have these reptiles a king to rule over them.’ ‘And where did you see him?’ said I. ‘I will tell you,’ said the old man, ‘though I don’t like talking about the matter. It may be about seven years ago that I happened to be far down yonder to the west, on the other side of England, nearly two hundred miles from here, following my business. It was a very sultry day, I remember, and I had been out several hours catching creatures. It might be about three o’clock in the afternoon, when I found myself on some heathy land near the sea, on the ridge of a hill, the side of which, nearly as far down as the sea, was heath; but on the top there was arable ground, which had been planted, and from which the harvest had been gathered — oats or barley, I know not which — but I remember that the ground was covered with stubble. Well, about three o’clock, as I told you before, what with the heat of the day and from having walked about for hours in a lazy way, I felt very tired; so I determined to have a sleep, and I laid myself down, my head just on the ridge of the hill, towards the field, and my body over the side down amongst the heath; my bag, which was nearly filled with creatures, lay at a little distance from my face; the creatures were struggling in it, I remember, and I thought to myself, how much more comfortably off I was than they; I was taking my ease on the nice open hill, cooled with the breezes, whilst they were in the nasty close bag, coiling about one another, and breaking their very hearts, all to no purpose: and I felt quite comfortable and happy in the thought, and little by little closed my eyes, and fell into the sweetest snooze that ever I was in in all my life; and there I lay over the hill’s side, with my head half in the field, I don’t know how long, all dead asleep. At last it seemed to me that I heard a noise in my sleep, something like a thing moving, very faint, however, far away; then it died, and then it came again upon my ear as I slept, and now it appeared almost as if I heard crackle, crackle; then it died again, or I became yet more dead asleep than before, I know not which, but I certainly lay some time without hearing it. All of a sudden I became awake, and there was I, on the ridge of the hill, with my cheek on the ground towards the stubble, with a noise in my ear like that of something moving towards me amongst the stubble of the field; well, I lay a moment or two listening to the noise, and then I became frightened, for I did not like the noise at all, it sounded so odd; so I rolled myself on my belly, and looked towards the stubble. Mercy upon us! there was a huge snake, or rather a dreadful viper, for it was all yellow and gold, moving towards me, bearing its head about a foot and a half above the ground, the dry stubble crackling beneath its outrageous belly. It might be about five yards off when I first saw it, making straight towards me, child, as if it would devour me. I lay quite still, for I was stupefied with horror, whilst the creature came still nearer; and now it was nearly upon me, when it suddenly drew back a little, and then — what do you think? — it lifted its head and chest high in the air, and high over my face as I looked up, flickering at me with its tongue as if it would fly at my face. Child, what I felt at that moment I can scarcely say, but it was a sufficient punishment for all the sins I ever committed; and there we two were, I looking up at the viper, and the viper looking down upon me, flickering at me with its tongue. It was only the kindness of God that saved me: all at once there was a loud noise, the report of a gun, for a fowler was shooting at a covey of birds, a little way off in the stubble. Whereupon the viper sunk its head, and immediately made off over the ridge of the hill, down in the direction of the sea. As it passed by me, however — and it passed close by me — it hesitated a moment, as if it was doubtful whether it should not seize me; it did not, however, but made off down the hill. It has often struck me that he was angry with me, and came upon me unawares for presuming to meddle with his people, as I have always been in the habit of doing.’
‘But,’ said I, ‘how do you know that it was the king of the vipers?’
‘How do I know!’ said the old man, ‘who else should it be? There was as much difference between it and other reptiles as between King George and other people.’
‘Is King George, then, different from other people?’ I demanded.
‘Of course,’ said the old man; ‘I have never seen him myself, but I have heard people say that he is a ten times greater man than other folks; indeed, it stands to reason that he must be different from the rest, else people would not be so eager to see him. Do you think, child, that people would be fools enough to run a matter of twenty or thirty miles to see the king, provided King George — ’
‘Haven’t the French a king?’ I demanded.
‘Yes,’ said the old man, ‘or something much the same, and a queer one he is; not quite so big as King George, they say, but quite as terrible a fellow. What of him?’
‘Suppose he should come to Norman Cross!’
‘What should he do at Norman Cross, child?’
‘Why, you were talking about the vipers in your bag breaking their hearts, and so on, and their king coming to help them. Now, suppose the French king should hear of his people being in trouble at Norman Cross, and — ’
‘He can’t come, child,’ said the old man, rubbing his hands, ‘the water lies between. The French don’t like the water; neither vipers nor Frenchmen take kindly to the water, child.’
When the old man left the country, which he did a few days after the conversation which I have just related, he left me the reptile which he had tamed and rendered quite harmless by removing the fangs. I was in the habit of feeding it with milk, and frequently carried it abroad with me in my walks.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06