23 DECEMBER 1905, Page 11

W HEN the leaf has fallen, about the time that game-

pie and boar's-head first begin to loom upon a still distant Christmas horizon, the English truffle-hunter takes to the field. The locality in which the truffle may be found in this country, in a quantity sufficient to make it worth the hunting, is not extensive. Unsuspected, and therefore un- sought for, this remarkable fungus may no doubt exist else- where; but in parts of Dorset and of Wilts it is regularly gathered, and, although the market is chiefly supplied from the Continent, some few persons are able to earn a livelihood during the early winter months by the search for it. But the truffle-hunter is a man by himself. He knows no competition in his quaint and brief avocation. For the truffle grows most plentifully on a chalk soil and only under trees. The stately beech, with spreading, drooping branches—in early summer thickly clad in glossy leaves, and falling like a skirt lightly to touch the ground—is its favourite tree, although it is also to be found in less abundance under the oak and the chestnut. The finely timbered park, therefore, affords the happiest hunting-ground, and to enter this permission must be obtained. In the South of France, where truffles are very abundant, the pig is chiefly used to discover them ; and thus, instead of enjoying a life of ease and elegant gentility, as he does with us in England, the hog is made to work and earn his living like a man. Butt here, where the game is scarce, the pig could make no show at all at the business. Even the most exemplary sow, experienced,

poor, ranger. Thoughtful deliberation characterises all her movements, but there is a certain lack of dash. When there is ground to be covered she cannot be relied upon to rise to the occasion. With us it is necessary to use dogs, and there- fore a truffle-hunter must be of a transparent respectability that can win and retain the confidence even of a head-keeper.

The privilege to walk over the estato may very likely have descended to him from his father, and from childhood he has understood the value of it. His sons and daughters, undis- turbed by the prevailing desire to run away from the locality in which they were brought up, go into service at the great house. He belongs to the countryside, and is known to everybody around. His truffle-hunting holds him to the place of his birth. Scarcely anywhere else can it be carried on, and, like most men who follow an odd trade, he has more of the old-world spirit than many of his neighbours. So the squire stops to have a word with him whenever they meet, listening all the while with a smile to his quaint phrases. Well aware that be is in favour, the truffle-hunter is free of speech. He has nobody else to think of, no employer to please, and he freely enjoys a broad hunting-ground from which every intruder is severely excluded.

• It was a dull morning very early in winter, and our trysting-place was by the old disused chalk-pit, now over- shadowed and almost hidden under trees of half-a-century. Underfoot the turf was soft and springy and the grass wet, for it is no time to hunt for truffles when the ground is bound by frost. Upon every side the well-wooded landscape melted away into a grey mist. From every twig and bud hung a drop of shining moisture, imperceptibly increasing, to fall at last upon the sodden leaves, so bright in the early stages of their decay that they could give a gleam of ruddy warmth even to the bare cheerlessness of a winter day. Yet the air was soft and mild in its humidity. A squirrel ran out upon a branch, stopped, and stood at attention with his tail curled over his back. Suddenly be turned, leapt to another limb, and ran shyly back to hide himself behind the trunk, Yet presently he was on the ground, moving to and fro in graceful leaps in his search for some odd beech-nut, if by chance the birds might have left tine here and there so late in the year. The squirrel also is not above regaling himself with a truffle should he happen upon one during his excursion to the earth. But disturbed by the sound of a footstep again, he raised himself to watch and listen. Then, his tail undulating as he went, he was off and out of sight on the tree once more, as the truffle-hunter came in view with three white poodles close to his heel. A quaint group they were as they quickly advanced down the grove. The man, in a fustian coat and gaiters and with a stout ground-ash stick in his hand, looked like an under-keeper. And the coat had large game-pockets too, which were full and bulging upon each side. The little poodles—for they are much smaller than their carefully trimmed aristocratic cousins who move in the best circles—looked like a small troupe of performing dogs. They appeared to take a subdued and serious view of life. They looked more thoughtful even than comic artists waiting for their turns, "I don't hardly believe I be behine time," said he. " Oh no; I am early. Did you find many on the way here ? " "1 ha'n't a-hunted. I corned straight on." But in a moment, divining the meaning of the question, he drew from his pocket a handful of little blocks of dry bread. " 'Tes to hearten up the dogs," he explained.

We had a day's tramp before us, and we started at once. We were almost strangers; but his simplicity was so direct that he was quite ready to talk to me from the first, and his one subject was the mysterious behaviour of the truffle. "Now to my mind a truffle is a very funny thing," said he. " You mid find 'em in one place thick an' plenty; an' hard by, where in reason you would look to see just so many, there idden a single one to be had not for love nor money. I've a-tookt up little uns an' set 'em in a likely spot, but come next time there were no truffles there never the more. Yet for all that they do die out, an' start fresh o' theirselves like. My father found 'em where there's none now, an' yet they be where no dog of his ever stopped to scrape in his life. So I do allow there is somethen in the nature of a truffle more than the mind o' man have ever a-wormed out or ever will. An'

that's easy to think, when all their growth is out o' sight underground." All the while we were trudging to and fro across turf as fine as a lawn, now to a single tree and then to a group clustered together on the sward like a constellation in the heavens. Now and again a rabbit ran across in front of us. Once, in a little hollow where the grass was rough and long, a hare jumped up at our feet. But these wise poodles took no notice of the one or the other. Only under the trees, when they were told, did they show any excitement and gallop about with eager jealousy, each anxious to be the first to find. But nothing came of it. We went into the corner of a beech-wood, where there was no copse, and the ground, thickly covered with the brown waste from a wildly extravagant shower of mast, was bare of vegetation as a floor. Then down a narrow glade between two covers. The poodles ranged like spaniels upon each side of us as we walked on, and now and again we stopped to watch them. Presently one of them raised his nose and sniffed the wind, then cantered forward in doubt, then galloped some twenty yards and began to scrape a hole in the ground. The truffle-hunter ran as hard as he could ; for not only may a dog injure the precious fungus by in- ordinate scraping, but he is apt in time to acquire a taste for it, and will then swallow it himself. In this instance there was no lamentable waste of this sort ; and, to the envy of his companions, the fortunate poodle was rewarded with a cube of bread. It was a most interesting exhibition of keenness of nose, for the truffle was quite three inches under the ground, and this one, as it happened, was scarcely larger than a hazel-nut. There is nothing attractive in the personal appearance of a truffle, nothing impressive to support a title to the respect in which it has been held. A fine truffle closely resembles a moderate-sized potato with an infirm constitution and

a ruined complexion. It is like a walnut blackened by storage in a damp cellar and afflicted with warts. From its exterior the animating soul, that can impart a subtle spirituality even to brawn, could never be divined. But it is good fun searching for the truffle. The 'morning cleared, and by noon a gentle sunlight fell upon the glistening trees and dewy grass. We went into the valley by the bank of a broad clear river, and there we found them thick and fast. We ran for our lives, both of us ; or for the lives of the truffles. The bread was all distributed, but the fustian pockets bulged more than ever. And when the winter sun dropped like a red disc through the level cloud of grey mist that hung along the western sky, and passed quickly out of sight below the horizon, the truffle man, followed by his poodles, trudged home well laden from his bloodless hunt.