The Master of Hounds

He had been a feral child and still, to a large degree, remained one. Try as she might the doctor’s wife to whom he had been entrusted could never quite scrub away the taint of the woods where he had been found and by his tenth birthday had given up trying. Wilden, as he had been named when he was first found, did not seem to care that clothes were not meant to be bespattered with mud; or that shoes were not an optional extra for a young gentleman. Each day he would be taken, often forcibly, to the school and handed over to the headmaster, and every day he would be missing within the hour from his class. Where he went no one could guessing all attempts to follow him were futile by the time he climbed through the first hedge. Within a year it was decided that a trade, perhaps, would be more suitable.

Wilden had been found when he was roughly seven; though the ageing of children is somewhat difficult unless you were there at the birth. He had been seen walking, completely naked and totally unabashed, beside the river just outside the town of Abingdon. Before Old Cobham could call out to him the boy had disappeared into the rushes and seemed to vanish. The next day he was spotted once more. This time he was spotted with a dead swan, held by its neck and slung over a shoulder, heading back towards the woods on the far bank. On the Sunday the talk in the pub was who this little savage was and where he’d come from. There were more sightings over the coming days. Each time the boy would be seen having obviously been hunting. Sometimes it would be with a trout, sometimes a rabbit, sometimes a duck.  It was only when the feral child was spotted with a brace of pheasants that obviously belonged to Sir Reginald Fawkes that thoughts of capturing the boy were mooted.

To begin with it was impossible to catch Wilden. Every time chase was given he would disappear into the rushes along the river bank or run as swift as any hare into the woods where it was impossible to track him. Over the months the local wildlife seemed to dwindle and each day the boy would be seen removing still more to where ever it was he lived. It was the decline of the local pheasant population and the rise in Sir Reginald’s blood pressure that brought about any serious attempts to catch Wilden. Sir Reginald declared that the man who caught this savage would be rewarded with a month’s worth of beer in the pub and this caught everyone’s attention.

Within a week Wilden was captured and though it was a harsh affair involving nets and a degree of beating to stop the boy from escaping the matter in hand changed from missing pheasants to what should be done with him now. The gamekeeper who had caught him suggested that he be put to work on one of the farms and this was tried. What nobody foresaw, though perhaps they should have done, is that as soon as Wilden was given a spade and pointed towards a pile of steaming manure he simply hit the farmer with the first and then tore out of the yard and back to the safety of the trees.

It was another fortnight before they caught him again and this time the beating was even harder. With a bloody nose and bruises all over him Wilden was locked up inside the police station with nobody worrying about his treatment. Mrs Prentergast, the butcher’s wife, suggested that he be made a ward of the town council and that someone, though obviously she was unable able to, should be asked to take care of him. This suggestion was met with applause but no one seemed willing to take the child on.

Miss Severage , another member of that happy band of merchant wives, proclaimed that before anything else the boy should be baptised so as to protect his soul and ensure his place in heaven. By the end of the meeting, this, and only this, had been agreed upon.

The next morning Doctor Hammond visited to check the boy for lice and disease. Though he found neither but saw plenty of bruises nothing was said and the boy was marched into the yard at the back of the police station and held forcibly under the pump until he was clean. The first pair of trousers tore in two before they could be applied and a rough shirt almost went the same way. In the end it was considered a kindness to him that his hands were tied tightly behind as it would stop him from shaming himself as he tried to remove the civilising influence of clothing.

Once washed and dressed the boy was manhandled to the church and held over the font kicking and screaming by two of the parish’s strongest males. The vicar poured holy waters across his head and breathed prayers over him recommending him to the deity as “this Wilden so called because he is a savage and the shame of our community.” With his soul clean and freshly donated to God, Wilden was taken back to the police station and locked up once more for his own good. As the kicking, screaming no longer savage was manhandled out of the church the reverend Bailie stalked to his vestry to find bandages and brandy so he could wrap up his bitten hand. The brandy was to help him forget everything that had just transpired.

Once more talk turned to what was to be done with him and though the general consensus was that he should be sent to a reformatory school somewhere far away Dr Hammond protested. The doctor suggested instead that the newly named Wilden be placed in his charge and that he would oversee the taming of the boy using the very latest techniques. No one being keen to take on the task themselves, this was agreed, and the doctor brought home his new experiment that night.

The months that followed were not kind to Wilden. He was kept in a small bedroom that had bars on the window. When he was taken for exercise he was restrained by means of a thick leather leash attached to Doctor Hammond’s wrist and with sharp tugs would be brought to heel. If Wilden took off his clothes he was thrashed, if he tried to bolt on those rare occasions that his door was opened he was thrashed; he was thrashed for making guttural animal sounds and he was thrashed when he tore up the books that he was forced to learn to read from. In short Wilden never made it from dawn to midday without feeling the doctor’s riding crop at least five times.

By the end of the first year the fear of the crop was enough to keep Wilden in line for the most part. Clothes though hated remained on his body. Shoes were more difficult but in truth there were many poor families in the town who’s children went bare foot so this was allowed to slide in the house. Wilden learned to speak in a stilted fashion and to read too; but however hard the doctor or his wife beat Wilden, writing was simply beyond the boy.

Over time, and with the acquisition of more words, a little of Wilden’s history was winkled out of him. He spoke of a mother once the word was explained to him. He spoke of red hair, though his was black, and she lived somewhere in the woods though no cottage was known to be there. He had lived with his brothers and sisters, his mother and father. In the end it was assumed that whatever family Wilden had had were travellers and had moved on leaving the boy behind. Wilden became so distressed when he spoke of his family that the doctor was forced to change the subject. In time the boy became quiet, passive even, flinching when the doctor or the doctor’s wife entered the room and they began to notice other curious behaviours.

It was customary for the local hunt to meet on the church green which Doctor Hammond’s house faced. With hounds baying and sound of horns being blown brought out the best, though not necessarily brightest, of the county set and this included Doctor Hammond. Dressed in scarlet coat he would ride out from November to May leaving his wife to deal with Wilden who would be lying curled under the table. The boy would bite if anybody tried to pull him out. On the occasion that Doctor Hammond brought home the brush as a present for the boy, Wilden flew at the doctor and had to be beaten off with the riding crop. Grabbing the piece of fur he retreated up to his room and refused to come out for days.

On Wilden’s eleventh birthday it was decided that he was now civilised enough to pursue an education and though he couldn’t be trusted to walk to and from school he should begin to try humanity. As mentioned before this exercise was futile with Wilden escaping out to the countryside before morning break and only returning home to the doctor’s house at night. Once again something had to be done and so Doctor Hammond approached Sir Reginald to see if he had some basic employment for the wretched boy.

Put to work, under supervision, Wilden learned to groom the horses and to make their stables fragrant. He took to the work even though the horses were shy around him. Each morning he would approach and the horses’ nostrils would flare as if they smelled danger on the air; but the boy was kind and patient with them and did his work very well. In time the horses seemed to relax and with barely a click of his tongue would move where he needed them to go so he could do his work. The only place he would not go was the kennels where the hounds were kept. Try as they might, whether with words or beatings, none of Sir Reginald’s employees could get Wilden within one hundred paces of the place.

Towards the end of June Wilden was cleaning out the stable of Sir Reginald’s hunter when he overheard a conversation between his boss and the master of foxhounds. It involved the upcoming cub hunt and how the younger hounds might turn out. Not knowing what a cub was he asked politely in his stilted fashion and was horrified. It seemed that cubs were young foxes and that their destruction was a way to train the young members of the pack ready for the main season. Shock kept him quiet enough for the master and Sir Reginald to laugh at his ignorance and wander off but inside something broke for Wilden.

The following morning Wilden made his way to the Hall and began work before the dawn chorus had begun. With the stables spotless and the horses fed he asked politely if he might see the hounds and help with the young ones. At first he was verbally abused for his reluctance to date but with a little pleading and showing that his work was complete Wilden was taken to the kennels.

Though rigid with fear Wilden forced himself into the seething mass of hounds and gingerly reached out to pet one. It went immediately to bite him but Wilden was faster and had the hound caught in his own mouth by the scruff of it’s neck. Within seconds the dog hung limp and submissive with the other dogs backing away cautiously. The kennel master looked on shocked but was clearly impressed so after explaining Wilden’s duties went off to find a quiet pint in the pub.

By the time that he returned Wilden had every hound sitting quietly in one of the now clean corners while he finished cleaning the other. “Remarkable” thought the kennel master and asked whether Wilden could exercise the hounds. Smiling the boy growled a low growl and the hounds line up in two strings and trotted out after him. Each and every one of them return with their tongues lolling from the side of their mouth and obviously tired. The next morning Wilden was instructed to take care of the hounds and Sir Reginald’s hunter and to leave all his other tasks for the stable boys.

For the whole of July Wilden went about his work diligently and everyone remarked that the boy had found his milieu. Every morning Sir Reginald’s hunter “Rajah” would be taken out to the paddock while the stable was cleaned and then after half an hour of being talked to would follow the boy back again without the need for a bridle. Next he would treat the hounds like circus dogs barking at them and sending them into one area or another while he worked. Once cleaned out the hounds would fall into lines and trot out behind Wilden. Rather unkindly, Reverend Bailie who still born the scar of Wilden’s childish bite suggested that the boy was so close to  beast it was no wonder that they respected him. Nobody thought anything very much of this talent and in the Hall the word “feral” found its way once more to the front of Wilden.

Wilden did not merely exercise the hounds with walks but chose instead to take them out into the water meadow where he taught them new calls and instructions. Normally a mangled corpse would have been the result of a  rabbit poking its head up when the hounds were out. When they were with Wilden however things wherever different. Wilden would allow them to run and play but hunting was strictly forbidden. A growl or yelp from their trainer would have them all rushing back to sit in rows before him. Then one day he led them out to the very edge of the wood where he had them lie down facing him and Wilden let out a wild cry. He was going to introduce them to his family.

In the last week before cub hunting began Wilden took his charges out for longer and longer periods sometimes coming home well after dark. This caused grumbling from the kennel master but there was a logic to Wilden’s argument that the hounds needed strengthening to work at their very best. Indeed Wilden kept the pack out so late that the night before the hunt Sir Reginald was waiting for him when Wilden returned. On looking at how keen and sleek the hounds looked however anger became thanks. Wilden was offered the chance to run with the hounds the following day if he wanted; Wilden replied that he couldn’t think of anything else he would prefer to do.

At eight in the morning Wilden led out the hounds in a double string down to the green where Sir Reginald, Doctor Hammond, and the rest of the county’s bright young things waited. Unlike previous seasons the hounds didn’t mill around, wandering off and getting lost as is their want. Instead they sat quietly in a circle around Wilden making no noise and looking expectantly to him. Slightly perturbed by the quiet the Master of Foxhounds blew into his horn and off everyone trotted with Wilden running in the centre of the pack.

What happened during the long hours of that hunt has passed into legend for the folk back in the town. It is said that a fox was sighted with her cubs on the wood’s edge and that Wilden and the hounds gave chase. It is also said that the fox and cubs ran to, rather than away from, said hounds. When they met, ahead of the riders arrival, the vixen leapt into Wilden’s arms and her cubs began to play tag amongst the hounds. Sir Reginald and Doctor Hammond were positively apoplectic.

The whole motley crew of riders were shouting, demanding that Wilden put down the beast and that the dogs destroy their quarry. Twenty voices were raised at Wilden who looked gently up at them and continued to stroke the head of the fox. Another, much larger fox came barrelling out of the woods and sat down right in front of Wilden with no trace of fear in it’s face or stance.

What everyone agrees is that it was a whip that started the slaughter, but no one is too sure as to who’s whip it was. Whether the doctor’s or Sir Reginald’s no one can tell but what is known is that a whip found itself meeting Wilden’s face very hard. Immediately foxes and hounds exploded with fury and the fetlock of every horse present found itself gripped by sharp, powerful jaws. As the last rider fell into the mud all of the dogs retreated forming a protective ring around Wilden. Some of the riders fled on foot, others stood dripping with mud speechless over what had just happened. Doctor Hammond brought his whip down on the smiling face of Wilden only to find that his hand was being mauled by of the hounds. Wilden watched for a moment and then whistled to the hound to release the doctor. At this everyone but Sir Reginald fled and the boy observed the old man calmly and without fear.

“Sir Reginald” the boy said quietly and holding up the fox continued. “I should like you to meet my mother. Your hounds and my family have come to an agreement that we shall not steal pheasants if there is other food about and they will never chase or kill a fox. In fact half your pack want to come and live with us, so we must have some form of civilisation that they admire.”

For the first time in his life Sir Reginald felt true fear as more and more of his hounds began to bay at him. One came forward keeping low to the ground and bit hard on the horse’ fetlock. This in turn caused the horse to rear and run away, half dragging its owner behind.

Legends are never reliable, and should usually be taken with a pinch of salt. However, if you ask any Abingdonian why the town’s hunt stopped they will look towards the woods and tell you the same story. It’s because there is a naked man who stops anyone hunting along with his pack of foxes and dogs, and that he is the shame of the town.

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