Chapter 9: Villainy


James never told his father what had occurred back then. He rarely confided in his father, whom he found strict and often critical. In fact, he was too ashamed ever to tell anybody about it. Looking back on it, he knew that he should have felt pleased that the baron finally was paying him some attention when he took him deep into west Cornwall with him to inspect the family’s mining properties. But the old man went on and on about how cleverly the family acquired land through foreclosing on loans, how much of the land proved to be tin bearing, and endlessly explaining how the mines were worked.

James felt that baron showed no concern with his homesickness and misery at school, let alone his struggles with maturing; not that James would tell his father his innermost thoughts anyway. Nor would his father have cared. It seemed that all that mattered to the baron was getting his son to face up to his responsibilities to the family and his future role in the direction of its business interests. James was bored, bored.

One day when he was supposed to go to the great Poldice mine, James summoned up his courage to get permission from his father instead to take a few hours off on his own exploring in the nearby woods. He said he wanted to seek adventure. His by now exasperated father had allowed him to go provided he promised to be back before sunset.

Left to himself, as he walked along the leafy deer paths, James could not help dwelling on how unhappy he was at school. When he was younger he was not allowed to go to the school in Bodmin; that was just for the common children. He was kept at home and taught at first by a governess and later by a tutor. When they had tried to make him study, let alone discipline him, he went to his mother and whined, and she soon put them in their places. He knew he was a crybaby, but he found it worked well in getting his way except when his father, on the rare occasions he involved himself, insisted on his bracing up and acting like a man.

James had been poorly prepared for Eton and was overwhelmed by his studies. He had no friends from Cornwall when he first went and was lonely. He was put in the lowest form with the strictest masters who beat him to make him learn. The treatment by the masters was not as bad as that of the older boys. They delighted in bullying the “new bugs,” boys who failed to abide by the arcane customs and traditions on which the school prided itself. Once, he was held down and beaten for the unforgivable sartorial error of fastening the bottom button of his waistcoat.

Worse yet, a handsome youth with a sensitive mouth and long wavy hair kept touching him and trying to persuade him to do disgusting things with him in private in the woods beyond the playing fields, under the pretext of offering James sympathy and comfort. He tried to avoid the bigger boy’s persistence, and sometimes James’s curiosity almost overcame his fear. Anyway, he had no friends to turn to, so he was not sure what to do. He hated Eton; he did not look forward to going back. Now, as he tramped through the sun-flecked forest, he felt miserable; he could not stop the tears that trickled down his cheeks. He was glad his father couldn’t see him.

He took the left-hand fork on the path that led through a stand of beech and hazel to a thicker part of the woods. He hoped these woods did not have nasty big boys lurking. He kept a look out as he walked cautiously. The path broke into a sunny clearing and James found himself opposite a grassy bank filled with holes heaped with fresh earth at their entrances. He had stumbled across a rabbit warren. Before he could collect himself, he startled a boy of about his own age kneeling on the far edge of the bank, with a burlap sack on the ground beside him and another in his hand, its neck tied with twine. The boy was poorly dressed, ragged, his face muddy. He looked harmless enough. He started up at the sight of James.

“Wait, don’t run,” called James, “what are you doing? Who are you? Are you poaching?” He’d heard his father say that poachers were bad, a nuisance; they stole from the estate. They had to be severely punished or else there would be nothing stopping them from stealing all the rabbits and hares and pheasants that the gamekeepers had been protecting. If they killed deer they could be hanged. This boy, however, did not look dangerous, quite pleasant beneath the dirt on his face. James smiled at him.

“I don’ mean no ’arm, zir,” said the boy, touching his forelock. “Us was just seein’ ’ow them rabbits is doin’, ’ow they’m breedin’ like, ’ealthy an’ all. Didn’ mean no ’arm.”

“What’ve you got in those sacks then?”

The boy blushed, put the bulging one on the ground behind him, untied the twine around the neck of the other sack and showed it to James. “Look inside, but don’ ’ee put your ’ands inside mind you, teeth’re sharp as needles. Them’s my ferrets, what I be trained to chase rabbits out of ’oles, so us can catch ’em for breedin’ like.”

James peeked inside, then pulled backed as a ferret bared its teeth and squealed at him.

“What’s in the other sack?”

The boy stared back at James, looking puzzled, avoiding answering directly, then said, “Hold on, ye been cryin’? Somethin’ bad the matter? What’s yer name, then?”

James rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, embarrassed. “If you promise not to tell, I won’t tell you’ve been poaching. Breeding, hah; I bet I jolly well know what’s in that other sack. Dead rabbits! My father would have you punished. I’m James Trenance, the Honorable James Trenance. My father’s a baron, owns the mines around here. What’s your name?”

“I’m Addis. Me dad’s a tinner, works in the mines around ’ere. Better not let ’im catch you tryin’ to get me in no trouble. Them all look up to ’im; ’e’s a tributer with ’is own pare an’ ’is own setts; best around Poldice; Cap’n Williams says so an’ ’e knows. ’Ere, what you been cryin’ for? I promise not to tell.”

James stared at him for a moment. The boy seemed to care; no one else ever did. “I’ve got to go away from home again soon to school and I hate it. The masters are mean and beat me if I make mistakes, and the boys are bullies. I’d like to fight back but the beaks wouldn’t permit it, and the boys are too big and nasty. Anyway, I’m not much good at fighting.” He rubbed his eyes with his knuckles.

“Them masters be easy to deal with,” said Addis, “just be’ave, do what them say, lie low, an’ keep out of their way as much as ye can. That’s what I’d do. With boys ye got to fight back, got no choice. When you’m bigger ye can beat them. Fer now make sure to ’urt them, ’it ’em back whenever them come at you.”

James looked sceptical.

“Ever seen Cornish wrasslin’?” asked Addis. James shook his head. “When a big ’un goes for a good little ’un, the little ’un just gives way and throws the big ’un off balance; lets ’im use ’is own strength to throw ’imself.”

“Could you show me?” asked James.

Addis nodded. “Take yer coat off so it don’t get messed up; come over to this grassy bit. Don’ go ’ard at it loike, just practice.”

Addis demonstrated different holds, different throws, made James try again and again until he got it right. He showed him one trick where he stood by James’s side and put one forefinger at the back of his neck, pressed the other forefinger hard against his upper lip under the front of his nose, and threw him effortlessly to the ground.

Addis got James to try the same move on him and fell in turn. “You’m gettin’ the ’ang of it,” Addis said. “Them’ll think twice about goin’ after ye now.”

James was sweating, puffing, ready to take a break, but he was quite enjoying himself, feeling confidence grow. “That was fun!” he said. “Now, can you show me how to poach rabbits?” He grinned.

“Sure ye can keep a secret? Cross your ’eart and ’ope to die?” said Addis. James nodded. “Right then.” Addis reached into one of his sacks and pulled out several nets and some twigs about six or eight inches long, notched at one end and sharpened at the other. “First ye fasten them nets over all of the ’oles to them burrows ’cept one.” He took a net, stretched it across the entrance to a burrow and pressed twigs into the surrounding earth so that the notches held the net down.

“Can I help?” asked James.

Addis said, “Get a flat stone and ’ammer them pegs well in so rabbits can’t burst through.” James did as he was told, following Addis around the warren. “What next?” he asked.

Now I put the ferrets in the open ’ole,” said Addis.

James was enthusiastic. “Can I do that?”

“No,” said Addis, “I’m afraid them’ll bite. Them’re wild little critters but them’re used to me. Anyroad, first I’ve got to tie their muzzles with twine so’m can’t bite the rabbits. Them got to scare the rabbits out, not eat ’em. The eatin’s for me ’n’ my fambly, maybe sell a few to neighbors. Ready? Stand back.”

Addis muzzled two of the ferrets, picked them up and pushed them into the open hole. James watched expectantly.

There were sounds of scuffling and screaming and a rabbit appeared at the mouth of one of the other burrows, getting entangled in the net as it struggled to escape. Addis reached in under the edge of the net, grabbed the rabbit by the nape of its neck and pulled it out. With his other hand he picked up the flat rock and hit the rabbit hard at the base of its skull. It kicked once, twitched, its eyes glazed over and it lay still. Addis put it into his other sack and added to his booty of dead rabbits.

James’s eyes glistened. He picked up a flat rock and crouched by the entrance of another burrow further along the bank. He swiftly caught another netted rabbit, hit it hard on the back of its neck and gave a whoop of triumph as he killed it and put it into the sack. His eyes sparkled. Between them the boys killed eight rabbits. James was elated.

It was getting cool as the sun went lower. “I got to go,” said Addis, “me mum don’t let me stay in the woods late. Don’ say nothin’ to nobody mind.”

“Good-bye,” said James, “I won’t, I promise.” He thought of shaking Addis’s hand but it was not only muddy but covered with blood. Anyway, he would never see the boy again.

People like him could not play with tinners’ sons. He had a position to keep up. He would take what he learned and move on in his own life. He would never catch rabbits again but one thing he had learned for sure. When he grew up he would be the one hitting people smaller and weaker than he, not the other way around. Now he had to get back to where he and his father were staying. He hoped the old man would not see him and ask where he had been or what he had been doing.