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to scale 'em-stiddier at their work, I mean. Lord bless yer, I've scaled scores of 'em.”
"And how do you scale them?” I asked.
“Oh, there's different ways among the fancy,” replied the terrible old wretch; “my way is with the needles.”
“With needles ?”
“Ah; you ties five of 'em-fine cambric ones—to the end of a bit of stick, and you makes 'em werry hot, and you holds 'em close, so that the eyes may kitch the 'eat well, and that brings the scale on 'em. It don't spile their walue. The scale wears off in a few weeks; and if it don't,” continued the awful grey-haired villain carelessly ; “if it don't wear off, it tain't no odds—a pegging finch is as good without eyes as with 'em."
And, as though anxious to corroborate his master's assertion, the blind bird in the cage opened its blue beak, and made the hillside echo with a musical salvo.
It would be mere waste of space for me to attempt to describe how I felt towards the horrible man, whose own eyes were so weakened by age that he was fain to screen them with one of his shockingly dirty hands, as he gazed upwards to see if there were any birds about. One thing was quite evident; he was perfectly unaware of the enormity of the crime he had just confessed to; while as for Mr Carrots, taking no interest in talk so tame and common-place, he went on liming twigs ready for business, and sticking them convenient for handling behind his ear, as a clerk sometimes carries his pen.
“I suppose," said I, restraining my indignation, “that the bird's being unable to see accounts for its indifference as to how it is carried about.”
“That makes no difference,” replied the bird blinder; "he'd as lief be carried about purwided he could see; he's trained to it. It's all in the trainin' of 'em. I've had battlin'-finches—we calls 'em battlin'-finches when they're trained for match-singing or for peggin'—wot ’ud sing in my hat as I walked along, and without being in any cage at all.”
“But why do you call them battling-finches ?"
“'Cos they battle,” Mr Carrots struck in. “You'll see this 'ere one battle presently, I hope; he's only waitin' for a chance. Hark! Bust me if there ain't a chance !" There were some tall poplar-trees at a short distance from where we were sitting, and as he spoke, Mr Carrots nodded his head in their direction, and, catching up the store-cage, signed to the old man to follow with the blind battler, whose cage was once more tied up in the thick pocket-handkerchief.
At present, however, I could neither see nor hear anything of the “chance," the occurrence of which had roused Mr Carrots to such sudden activity. Birds were singing here and there; there was a lusty-lunged blackbird carolling in a neighbouring chestnut tree, and several skylarks warbling overhead; but what seemed to engross Mr Carrots' whole attention was a sharp, metallic sound of "pink-pink-pink-pink !” proceeding from the boughs of one of the tall poplars before mentioned.
“That's the mark,” hurriedly whispered the now thoroughly roused and excited Mr Carrots, “that there tree to the left; he'd open if our'n would give him a challenge. Why don't he give him a challenge, a lazy young swine?”
This last abusive epithet was directed by Mr Carrots against the blind Bethnal Green finch who wore the blue bird's-eye handkerchief; and as the young man with the limed twigs behind his ear spoke, he gave the muffled cage a shake to remind the occupant of his duty. He responded bravely, “ Toll-loll-loll-loll chuck
wee-ee-do!" Nor was the challenge for an instant disregarded. A finch of the true battling blood harbouring amongst the poplar boughs responded with a valiant burst, uttering precisely the same sounding notes as the Bethnal Green bird had used. “That's good enough,” said Mr Carrots; "you're booked my beauty.” And then he stepped away from us, and, armed with the tools of his craft, approached the poplar.
“Now you'll see a game,” grinned the abominable old manipulator of hot needles, as we sat down on the grass; "it's on the principles of jealousy that we peg ’em. It's like this, d'ye see? The chaffinch is such a pug-nashus young warmint, that when he takes a mate
-a hen, don't yer know—and they makes a nest, he won't have any other finch in his tree or near it. If any other finch comes nigh, he's game to fight him on the spot; just the same as you or any other fellow might who caught a strange cove a whistlin'round your lodgin's where you and your missus lived. It's his pluck that's the ruin of him. You'll see in a minnit.”
While we were talking Mr Carrots was not idle. His preparations were curious. First of all, quietly approaching the poplar tree, he stood the cage that was tied in the handkerchief, and which contained the blind "battler," at the foot of the tree, and, plucking a few handfuls of grass, strewed it over, so that the cage was scarcely visible. Then he took the spiked stick on which the stuffed bird was mounted, and stuck it firmly into the trunk of the tree about six feet from the ground. Next he took three of the thickly smeared limed whalebone twigs from behind his ear, and which, as before remarked, were furnished with a spike at one end, and stuck these also into the tree trunk at short distances from each other just above the stuffed bird. This completed the preliminaries, and Mr Carrots came back to where we were, and flung himself on his stomach, his red hair bristling through the holes in his ragged cap in the intensity of his excitement.
Then commenced the “ battle" so scandalously unfair towards the deluded free bird who was doomed to fall a miserable victim to love and chivalry. The Bethnal Green deluder (a great deal of my pity for his sightless condition subsided at that moment) opened fire and rang out a peal so impudently melodious, that it was no wonder if Mrs Finch in her nest started and opened her twinkling eyes wide in wonder and curiosity. No wonder also if her honest husband's crest bristled with indignation, and that he at once darted out to see who it was that dared behave so. He flew out from the boughs, and from a neighbouring tree took observation; but possibly excitement and jealousy clouded his vision, and he could not discover the aggressor. What he could do, however, was to reply with a note as loud as that which had disturbed his domestic peace, and which said as plainly as possible, “Don't sneak behind the leaves; don't be a coward as well as a finch of abandoned character; show yourself, and let us come to an understanding."
The impostor from Bethnal Green could not show himself; but he seemed to lose none of his malicious relish for the sport on that account. Once more he raised his libertine notes, and this time with a stress on the "wee-do!” the effect of which was to drive the free bird to the verge of insanity. The terms of his response were in the nature of shriek rather than song, and again he darted out and futtered hither and thither. “Tollloll-loll-chuck-wee-ee-do!” piped up the Bethnal Green
ruffian, apparently aware of the free bird's terrible condition of mind, and exulting in it. The free finch began again, but broke off as short as though his emotion had choked him. This, however, was not the case. It was gratified fury that had so suddenly checked his utterance. He had discovered the intruder, the impudent villain who had dared to come to the very threshhold of his abode—with the full knowledge that he was at home too—to serenade his lady love. Yes, there he was; there was that conscienceless finch, sitting on a twig below, as calm and unruffled as though he had not the least fear for results. Vengeance! Swift as a dropped stone, and with beak and wings extended, the outraged chaffinch dropped from a height of twenty feet at least.
But, alas! the treacherous limed whalebone receives his outspread pinions, and his scream of fury becomes a scream of fright, as he tumbles to the ground with wings as helpless as though they were skewered through. “Toll-loll-loll-chuck-wee-ee-do!” crowed the traitor in the handkerchief, while Mr Carrots, with his mouth open and his claws outspread expectantly, rushes up as fast as his slipshod boots will let him, to make good the cowardly capture.
Had I been as chivalrous in the cause of virtue and right as the chaffinch was, I should have immediately given battle both to Nosey Warren and Mr Carrots, and set the prisoner free; but, not being to that extent chivalrous, I made a compromise with my conscience, and ransomed the palpitating little victim at a cost of fifteenpence, and restored him, I trust a wiser and more discreet finch, to the bosom of his family; while the three conspirators, the bird-blinding scoundrel, Mr Carrots, and the finch in the bird's-eye handkerchief, went on their way.
It was months afterwards, when I happened to get