Mid January. About 10 o’clock at night.
I went out to the stables just to check Dandy was comfortably settled. He had a habit of kicking his bucket of water over. As I closed the back door behind me, the coldness of the night hit me like a mailed fist. A savage frost had turned the field and the bushes in the garden a fairytale white, while above me, totally silent, totally distant, the black sky wheeled imperceptibly, pierced by a million sparkling stars.
Dandy gently whinnied and turned in his stall, nuzzled my hand for a tit-bit and, with all the deliberation of an act of calculated humour, booted his bucket of water half-way across the stable. And, because the outside tap was frozen solid, I had to go all the way back to the house to get him a refill. Then I got some dry straw and mopped up the mess. It was almost as though he sensed the morrow: he was excited like a child the night before a birthday party.
It was too cold to linger. I patted him, slammed the stable door shut and went back in again.
And the next day was just as cold. The frost lay across the land like snow. The temperature was set to stay well below freezing all day.
Sometimes they don’t hunt on days like that but telephone around and call it off. Or ride home disconsolately from the meet.
But this day they’d braved it, though some with classy horses had gone home showily for fear of damaging fine feet and legs.
Hounds moved off at 11.00 sharp. In this weather there wouldn’t be time to stand around. Briskly they swept in-country, away from the Moor, where the frost-carrying wind would clamp your fingers and cut your face like sandpaper and at about the time that the sun crept wanly out, peeping red from behind clouds too cold for snow, I and my patient Dandy had got ourselves thoroughly and comprehensively lost.
Not that we felt that we minded too much. There was too much that was beautiful around not to enjoy a short space of peace and quiet. We had, after all, galloped quite uselessly up and down the same path about six times trying vainly to find the way back to where we could hear the hounds trawling the wooded valley below us and each time the same path had been impassibly blocked by overgrown brambles and each time the path had led inexorably back up the same hill to the same clearing from which there was no obvious exit. Only the broken stile offered a way out but, beyond, it was the Moor Lane and that we knew led up through the old Moor Gate and on to the open Moor beyond. And there the savagery of the cold wind was not exactly what we were wanting to find. Anyway that was to go in quite the wrong direction.
In the total stillness of that crisp clear morning, we stood, the two of us, breathing heavily and sweating into the cold air around us. We stared and we listened. And soon the sound of the hounds died away until eventually silence, or at least nature’s version of it, seemed to settle upon the woods.
But here a robin rattled his startled authoritative warning and there, further down the path, a wren went tapping and totting from bush to bush and back into his secret hideaway. A blackbird, startled, clattered and subsided as another distantly echoed his warning. A twig seemed furtively to snap and leaves imperceptibly rustled. Then, with a clatter, the ice from a twig crashed into the undergrowth beneath. Did a buzzard mew? Was that the horn? Did a hound speak? The world backed away, leaving the silence gently muttering to itself. And still we stood, like statues, Dandy and I.
We scanned the view. In the clearest moment of that short winter’s day, hills and fields stood out crystal clear over the tops of the low trees of our little lost clearing. A full moon, white as a leper, eyed us from a backdrop of sky so faintly pastel blue that it seemed made of a lady’s dusting powder. Facing the moon, red-eyed, bleary, round and pompous, the sun stared at his whey faced upstart rival and these two, unaccustomed to such rare encounters, vied for ownership of the frost laden landscape. The moon lost and backed away, its Cheshire Cat smile merging with the blue backdrop. So the sun, having seen off the moon, blinked behind a wandering cloud and collapsed tiredly into a bank of grey weather coming up with tomorrow’s snow storm – which might never come, it being so cold.
Dandy stirred uneasily. The sweat rose from his gleaming flanks in dusty clouds. I felt some of his muscles tense, so I tensed too but for the wrong reason. I, being worried about him, wanted to be on the move again before the sweat froze on him. He knew better and, snorting gently – even fearfully – pointed like a gundog. His ears pricked and his head slightly lowered.
Dutifully I followed his gaze. Then I saw what he had seen but not so soon, being not quite in tune with his world. I saw the silent still fox long after he did. But I saw it. A breathtakingly lovely sleek vixen stood just 15 yards from us, right on the edge of the thicket. Her mask was turned towards us. One pad was delicately raised as if she was poised to step across our clearing. But now she was tense and rigid.
Each muscle of that vixen was tuned to each muscle of ours and thus we stared unblinkingly at each other for what seemed like an eternity.
Perhaps I should drop a cliché in here about not knowing which of us was more surprised about seeing the other. But as I have no real idea how a fox’s mind works, I cannot speculate on whether that vixen was surprised or indeed of what she felt. But I do give her the credit for having known I was there before I knew she was there. Dandy had known she was coming.
And so we stared, rigid like statues, hardly breathing, hunter and hunted, as if in a tranced truce with only the rising steam of Dandy’s sweat to give movement to our temporary tableau.
Then the silence snapped. Hounds spoke, not miles away but close, too close, in the woods below us. And in a blink she was gone. She just lowered that raised pad to the ground, turned her head and was gone in a flash of red light. She hurtled, her stomach almost touching the ground, across the clearing and into the brambles on the other side. A second later I saw her rufus form slithering up the bank beyond, pausing at the top for a split second before vanishing silently into the Moor Lane.
Then all hell let loose. Hounds came crashing through the undergrowth, yelling as if the end of the world was at hand, the rapid staccato note of the horn rode up the ride ahead of the huntsmen, who came galloping through the trees to join us, Dandy and me, as we stood breaking but slowly the spell from which we had just emerged.
No need to shout, “Tally Ho!” The hounds, even now, were streaming over the bank, where the vixen had paused. The Huntsman, uttering bloodcurdling yells, was urging them without any need at all. And Dandy, frantic in the frenzy of it all, was rearing under me and fighting for a loose bit, so he too could join the hounds. The place where we had been trapped was no trap for the Huntsman. His huge Hunt horse simply took the broken stile in a single leap and the next I saw of him was his pink coat flashing left through the trees and up the lane behind the hounds.
Dandy needed no urging. Seldom did he and I find ourselves this near to the front, so close to the hounds working. He took that jump as if it was hardly there, though in any other circumstances he would have refused and probably dumped me over his head on the ground. He swirled left, nearly wrenching me off, in a perfect imitation of the big horses at the Canal Turn. And then, we too, were hammering up the hard-baked, frost-capped ground in the lane. The Moor Gate, oaken, ancient, cracked and coated with green lichen, was swinging back towards the gate-post as we squeezed past it and suddenly the open Moor was in front of us. The Huntsman’s pink coat was even then vanishing over the first crest, nearly a quarter of a mile away, and all we could sense of the pack was their frantic speech as they poured into the valley beyond.
But Dandy wasn’t done yet and, in spite of the long grinding slope, which stretched away up from us almost to the horizon, he pushed his old legs as hard as his many years would allow and then, when almost but not quite beaten, he broke into a heavy trot, which itself slowed again to an agonizing walk as we finally made it to the crest over which the hounds had streamed some minutes earlier. And, in front of them, our fox.
The view from the top, had we had but time to take it in, would have seemed spectacular beyond belief. Beneath a mauve cloud-streaked sky, one painted in his madness by a Salvador Dali, stretched for mile upon mile the vast wastes of High Dartmoor with the curving lines of the hills only broken from time to time by distant outcrops of small and to us unknown Tors. And then, straight in front of us, the dramatically steep sides of one of the spectacular cleaves, which cut their way down out of the Moor, draining the top bogs and forcing their waters into little narrow streams, which seem almost to rage in their impatience to smash their way down to the sea. And, sometimes, to bubble over their stone sides and fill the narrow valleys with foaming water and, of course, little treacherous swamps and bogs on either side of the tumbling, furious streams.
As Dandy and I stood still on the crest, he, labouring to get air back into his lungs, me flushed and frantic with the excitement of the chase, we were just in time to see our poor little vixen struggling at the far side of the stream to pull her little wet brown body out of the water and up the steep bank on the far side. But the bank was too high for her and she fell back into the water. The stream caught her and, twisting in the current, her little body was dragged twenty or so yards further down the river. It was at about that moment, I have to tell you, that I suddenly and perhaps without even realising it changed sides and, even maybe, Dandy too, and now her struggle became our struggle as well. The river dumped her on some shingle and, as if to show she was still the most superb athlete in the field, her feet had hardly touched base before she was up and off. No longer red but waterlogged and brown, she streaked over the rich green grass of a treacherous little bog, into which later the clumsier hounds would plunge and flounder and over which horses would not go at all. Beyond the swamp there was a dry stone wall. Hundreds of years old, but still there. Turning left and right she sought a gap and found none and in that short space the first of the big hounds hit the little river below. Some, the older, wiser ones, flew the narrow parts, landing on all-fours on the far bank. Others, the younger ones perhaps, less streetwise you might say, missed their feet and fell like the vixen into the water and had to scramble, noses only showing, through the churning water to avoid drowning. On the far bank, some hounds mistook the bog and, even now, one or two lay on their sides, eyes rolling, sterns twitching, stomachs heaving, as they puzzled out this, their latest agony and her latest trick. But others still crashed on through the mud and so, in bits and pieces, the pack made its way to her ground, speaking its murderous tongue and baying and howling for a taste of her blood as they went. Then she turned back towards the hounds, twisting, ducking and weaving again through them and back to the wall, and in quick scramble she was over and vanished from our sight.
Dandy’s ears were pricked forward. I know I wanted the vixen to win. Maybe he did, who knows.
The hounds, barely five couples surviving by now, poured over the wall behind her just as she, abandoning the wall as cover, turned away from us and faced the huge valley side beyond. We knew she hadn’t made it then and cursed her for a bad gamble. Perhaps she’d lost her sight, perhaps she’d lost her mind; wouldn’t you? But at any rate she’d reckoned without the second wall running up the hill but sloping back towards her line. Faced with it all too suddenly, she could only scramble vainly to reach halfway up before falling head-over-heels backwards and almost into the very jaws of the hysterical hounds at her heels.
But even then, ‘mirabile dictu’, she wasn’t finished yet but got herself back on her feet and, in a made desperate insane gamble, plunged right into the very heart of the scrum that threatened her. And they, in their madness, overshot her, not expecting a kamikazi fox and for one aching, heart-stopping moment, it seemed she’d got away with it.
But life’s not like that and in a flash she was gone. One hound, a straggler, held her by an outstretched leg, the others, enraged at being made fools of, swivelled and hurled themselves at her. She fought back, her teeth furiously flashing, even as they pulled her little body in eight different directions at once, so maddened were they to have at the blood that boiled in her churning bowels. As she died, she spread out, her and her limbs, my vixen’s and Dandy’s, over that little green sward to become no more than a collection of inanimate rags and still her mask kept flashing those frantic brave teeth and the hounds left that part alone and untorn.
I still have her mask o this day. It bears no marks. No tears, no scars. But snarls still from a wooden shield at the back of the garage. Well peppered to keep the moths away. She snarls still, who mattered momentarily to me that day.
Dandy and I wended our slow way down the steep slope to where the kill had happened, while the Huntsman stood amongst his pack, whooping and yelling and holding her torso aloft for them to leap and jump at and get themselves a single taste of. As we scrambled down, we were in deep and shivering thought, which only for me, years later, crystallised into my present view that, in spite of all the excitement and the bravery and the thrills, hunting the fox is truly not a dignified thing for the Sons of Man to do.