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Title: Creatures of the Night - A Book of Wild Life in Western Britain
Author: Rees, Alfred Wellesley, 1872-1917
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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CREATURES OF THE NIGHT


_By the same Author._

IANTO THE FISHERMAN

AND OTHER SKETCHES OF COUNTRY LIFE.

_Illustrated with Photogravures. Large Crown 8vo._

_The Times._--"The quality which perhaps most gives its individuality to
the book is distinctive of Celtic genius.... The characters ... are
touched with a reality that implies genuine literary skill."

_The Standard._--"Mr Rees has taken a place which is all his own in the
great succession of writers who have made Nature their theme."

_The Guardian._--"We can remember nothing in recent books on natural
history which can compare with the first part of this book ...
surprising insight into the life of field, and moor, and river."

_The Outlook._--"This book--we speak in deliberate superlative--is the
best essay in what may be called natural history biography that we have
ever read."

LONDON JOHN MURRAY, ALBEMARLE STREET

[Illustration: "THE BROAD RIVER, IN WHICH SHE HAD SPENT HER EARLY LIFE."
(_See_ p. 50.) _Frontispiece._]



[Illustration: Decoration]

    CREATURES OF THE NIGHT

    A BOOK OF WILD LIFE IN
       WESTERN BRITAIN

      BY ALFRED W. REES

          AUTHOR OF
    "IANTO THE FISHERMAN"

      WITH ILLUSTRATIONS

             LONDON
  JOHN MURRAY, ALBEMARLE STREET
              1905


         TO

  MYFANWY AND MORGAN


    "All life is seed, dropped in Time's yawning furrow,
      Which, with slow sprout and shoot,
    In the revolving world's unfathomed morrow,
      Will blossom and bear fruit."

                                        MATHILDE BLIND.



PREFACE.


The Editors of _The Standard_ have kindly permitted me to republish the
contents of this book, and I tender them my thanks.

The original form of these Studies of animal life has been extensively
altered, and, in some instances, the titles have been changed.

I am again greatly indebted to my brother, R. Wilkins Rees. His wide and
accurate knowledge has been constantly at my disposal, and in the
preparation of these Studies he has given me much indispensable advice
and assistance.

Similarity in the habits of some of the animals described has made a
slight similarity of treatment unavoidable in certain chapters.

I may also remark that, in unfrequented districts where beasts and birds
of prey are not destroyed by gamekeepers, the hare is as much a creature
of the night as is the badger or the fox.

                                                         ALFRED W. REES.


[Transcriber's Note: Obvious typographical errors have been corrected,
and standardized the hyphenations, otherwise the text has been left as
the original]



CONTENTS.


  THE OTTER.

  I.

  THE HOLT AMONG THE ALDERS.

                                                                       PAGE

  Late fishing--A summer night--River voices--A master-fisher--
  The old mansion--Lingering beauty--The otters' "oven"--Observant
  youngsters--Careful motherhood--The meadow playground--Falling
  leaves--A swollen river--Dabchick's oar-like wings--Mysterious
  proceedings--Migrating salmon--Hoar-fringed river-banks--An
  adventure with a sheep-dog--Slip-shod builders--Signs of
  spring--A change of diet--Fattening trout--The capture of a
  "kelt"--"The otter's bite"--Lone wanderings.                         1-23

  II.

  THE POOL BENEATH THE FARMSTEAD.

  A song of autumn--The salmon pool--Angling difficulties--Bullying
  a sportive fish--An absent-minded fisherman--At dawn and nightfall--A
  deserted home--Practical joking--A moorhen's fate--Playfulness
  of youth--The torrent below the fall--The garden ponds--Feasting
  on frogs--A watcher of the night--Hounds and hunters--Lutra's
  discretion--The spell of fear                                       24-40

  III.

  THE GORGE OF ALLTYCAFN.

  The Hunt again--Fury of despair--A "strong place"--The terrier's
  discomfiture--Lutra's widowhood--Summer drought--Life at the
  estuary--Returning to the river--Scarce provender--A rare and
  unexpected sight--The blacksmith's baited trap--The Rock of
  Gwion--Peace                                                        41-50


  THE WATER-VOLE.

  I.

  OUR VILLAGE HOUNDS.

  Quiet life--Leisure hours--A winter pastime--A miscellaneous
  pack--The bobtail, and his fight with an otter--The terrier,
  and his friendship with fishermen--A family party--Expert
  diving--Hunt membership, and the landlord as huntsman--Fast
  and furious fun--A rival Hunt--The bobtail's death--The terrier's
  eccentricities--A pleasant study begins--Brown rats--Yellow
  ants--Brighteye's peculiarities--Evening sport                      51-67

  II.

  THE BURROW IN THE RIVER BANK.

  At dusk--A picturesque home--Main roads and lanes of the riverside
  people--A heron's alertness--A rabbit's danger signal--The
  reed-bed--The vole in fear--The wildest of the wild--Tell-tale
  footprints--The significance of a blood-stain--A weasel's
  ferocity--Maternal warnings--A rat-hunting spaniel--An invaded
  sanctuary--The terrier's opportunity--The water-vole chatters
  and sings--A gladsome life--Dangers sharpen intellect               68-82

  III.

  WILD HUNTING.

  An otter-hunt--Fading afterglow--Spiritual influence of night--Lutra
  and Brighteye--Brighteye's song--Chill waters--A beacon in
  the gloom--A squirrel's derision--A silvery phantom--An old,
  lean trout--Restless salmon--Change of quarters--Brighteye's
  encounter with a "red" fish                                         83-98

  IV.

  SAVED BY AN ENEMY.

  The "redd" in the gravel--In company with a water-shrew--Ravenous
  trout--The salmon's attack--An otter appears--Brighteye's
  bewilderment--Increasing vigilance--Playful minnows--A new
  water-entrance--The winter granary--Careful harvesting--The
  dipper's winter carol--The robin and the wren at vespers--Unsafe
  quarters--Rats on the move--A sequestered pool--Icebound
  haunts                                                             99-115

  V.

  THE COURAGE OF FEAR.

  The dawn--Restlessness of spring--A bold adventurer--A sharp
  fight--Cleared pathways--Differences of opinion--A tight
  snuggery--In defence of home--A monster rat--Temporary refuge--The
  voles and the cannibal trout--Family troubles--A winter evening
  in the village                                                    116-129


  THE FIELD-VOLE.

  I.

  HIDDEN PATHWAYS IN THE GRASS.

  A pleasant wilderness--Pitying Nature--Hedgerow sentinels--The
  story of the day--Familiar signs--An unknown scent--The agony of
  fear--A change of mood--The weasel's raid--A place of slaughter--Autumn
  preparations--A general panic--Hibernation--Winter sunshine--The
  red bank-voles--Owls and hawks                                    131-150

  II.

  THE VALLEY OF OLWEN.

  The last of winter's stores--Renewed activity--The field-vole's
  food--A lively widow vole--An unequal encounter--First fond
  passion--Ominous sounds--A clumsy rabbit--An unimportant "affair"--An
  elopement--Nesting time--A fussy parent--A fox pays a visit--Also
  a carrion crow--Repairing damages                                 151-166

  III.

  A BARREN HILLSIDE.

  A secluded pasture--Poachers and owls--An astute magpie--The
  vole a sire of many families--Plague--Nature's caprice--Privation
  and disease--Unexpected destroyers--A living skeleton--Starvation
  and death--An owl once more                                       167-175


  THE FOX.

  I.

  THE LAST HUNT.

  A baffled marauder--The flesh of breeding creatures tough and
  tasteless--An unsavoury rat--The arrival of the Hunt--The fox sees
  his foes--The view-halloo--No respite, no mercy, no sanctuary--The
  last hope--A fearless vixen--Defiant to the end                   177-193

  II.

  A NEW HOME.

  Life in an artificial "earth"--Longing and despair--Contentment
  of maternity--Prisoners--A way of escape--Careless infancy--A
  precocious cub--First lessons--An obedient family--A fox's
  smile--Inborn passion for flesh--Favourite food of fox-cubs--The
  huntsman's desire                                                 194-209

  III.

  THE CUB AND THE POLECAT.

  Patience and watchfulness--How to capture field-voles--Winding
  trails--Ill-luck--A painful surprise--A fresh line of scent--Cost
  of a struggle--A luckless fortnight--The old hound and the "young
  entry"--A curiously shaped monster--Pursued by a lurcher--
  Desertion--A vagrant bachelor                                     210-223

  IV.

  A CRY OF THE NIGHT.

  The hunting call--A recollection--A joyous greeting--A woodland
  bride--The sting of a wasp--Preparation of a "breeding earth"--Meddlesome
  jays and magpies--A rocky fastness on the wild west coast--Vulp's
  retreat--The end of a long life--The fox's mask--Memories         224-240


  THE BROWN HARE.

  I.

  THE UPLAND CORNFIELD.

  Midsummer--The leveret's birth--First wanderings--Instinct and
  teaching--The "creeps"--In the stubble--Habits change with
  seasons--The "sweet joint" of the rye--Lessons from a net and a
  lurcher--Rough methods--The man-scent--On the hills above the
  river-mists                                                       241-260

  II.

  MARCH MADNESS.

  March winds--Reckless jack-hares--Courtship and rivalry--Motherhood--A
  harmless conflict--An intruding fox--The faithless lover--Maternal
  courage--The falcon's "stoop"--The "slit-eared" hare--Countryside
  superstitions--On the river island--Patience rewarded--The hare
  as a swimmer--Bloodless sport--Habits of the hare in wet weather--The
  "form" in the root-field--Bereavements--Increasing caution--
  Productiveness in relation to food--A poacher's ruse              261-277

  III.

  THE CHASE.

  The basset-hound--Mirthful and dignified--A method of protecting
  hares--A suggestion--Formidable foes--"Fouling" the scent--A
  cry of distress--The home in the snow-drift--The renegade cat--An
  inoffensive life--A devastating storm                             278-291


  THE BADGER.

  I.

  A WOODLAND SOLITUDE.

  Haunts of a naturalist--Why certain animals are unmolested--Means
  of security--Fear of dogs and men--A place of interest--The
  "nocturnal" instinct--Droll revelry--Serious pastimes--Teaching
  by reward and punishment--Animals study the disposition of
  their young--Voices of the wilderness                             293-309

  II.

  HOME DISCIPLINE.

  Unwelcome attentions--An old badger's watchfulness--A clever
  trick--A presumptuous youngster--Instructions in selfishness--Harsh
  measures--The badger and the stoat--A long ramble                 310-324

  III.

  FEAR OF THE TRAP.

  Wisdom in Nature's ways--The laggard of the family--A salutary
  lesson--Hand-scent and foot-scent--An old Welsh law--The lesson
  of a "double" scent--The sorrel as medicine--A wild bees'
  nest--"In grease"                                                325-339

  IV.

  THE WINTER "OVEN."

  The vixen and the hounds--The wounded rabbit--Old inhabitants
  of the wood--In touch with enemies--Twilight romps--Brock's
  quarrel with his sire--A bone of contention--Prompt chastisement--A
  mournful chorus--Wild fancies of a bachelor--A big battle--The
  terror of the flock--Unwarranted suspicion--Caught in the act     340-356

  V.

  HILLSIDE TRAILS.

  The backward "drag"--Loyalty tested--A spiteful spouse--Spring
  cleaning--Carrying litter to the "set"--A numerous family--An
  eviction--Vulpicide--Important news--Old traditions of sport
  revived--A long day's toil--The secret history of a "draw"--An
  old burrow                                                        357-373


  THE HEDGEHOG.

  I.

  A VAGABOND HUNTER.

  The nest in the "trash"--Quaint wildlings--Neighbours and
  enemies--A feast--Spines and talons--The gipsy boy--A vagabond's
  sport--The nest in the wild bees' ruined home--Insects killed
  by frost--Winter quarters of the lizard and the snail             377-391

  II.

  AN EXPERIENCE IN SNAKE-KILLING.

  An iron winter--March awakening--A coat of autumn leaves--The
  Rip Van Winkle of the woods--Sunshine and strength--Faulty
  eyesight--The hedgehog and the viper--Worsting an enemy--The
  moorhen's nest--Antics of weasels and snakes--The hedgehog's
  bleat--Odd and awkward courtship                                  392-406


  NIGHT IN THE WOODS.

  I.

  HAUNTS OF THE BADGER AND THE FOX.

  Wild life at night--Long watching--A "set" with numerous inhabitants--The
  vixen and her cubs--Tolerant badgers--Vigilance--A moorland
  episode--"Chalking the mark"--Fox-signs--A habit of voles and
  rabbits--Patience, in vain--Sulky badgers--The vixen's lair--Foxes
  at play                                                           407-426

  II.

  THE CRAG OF VORTIGERN.

  Difficulties of night watching--Powers of observation in wild
  creatures--Night wanderers dislike rain--Eager helpers--A tempting
  invitation--Cry of young owls--Philip, the silent watcher--The
  fern-owl's rattle--The leaping places of the hare--Night gossip--The
  meaning of the white and black markings on a badger's head--The
  secrets of the cave                                               427-443

  INDEX                                                             445-448



FULL-PAGE ILLUSTRATIONS

From Drawings by

Florence H. Laverock.


  "THE BROAD RIVER, IN WHICH SHE HAD SPENT HER
  EARLY LIFE." See p. 50                                  _Frontispiece._

  "AN OPPORTUNITY CAME, WHICH, HAD SHE BEEN POISED
  IN THE AIR, COULD SCARCELY HAVE BEEN MISSED."        _To face p._    88

  "THE BIG TROUT, IN HIS TORPEDO-LIKE RUSH TO CUT OFF
  BRIGHTEYE FROM SURE REFUGE." See p. 105                "     "      104

  "SHE WAS HOLDING ONE OF HER OFFSPRING BY THE NECK,
  IN PREPARATION FOR FLIGHT." See p. 139                 "     "      138

  "HE RETIRED TO A ROCKY FASTNESS ON THE WILD WEST
  COAST."                                                "     "      238

  "WHEN THE EARLY AUTUMN MOON ROSE OVER THE CORN."       "     "      290

  "HE CLIMBED FROM HIS DOORWAY, AND STOOD MOTIONLESS,
  WITH UPLIFTED NOSTRILS, INHALING EACH BREATH
  OF SCENT."                                             "     "      364

  "AS HE MEASURED HIS FULL LENGTH AGAINST THE TREE."
  See p. 419                                             "     "      418



THE OTTER.

I.

THE HOLT AMONG THE ALDERS.


I first saw Lutra, the otter-cub, while I was fishing late one summer
night. Slow-moving clouds, breaking into fantastic shapes and spreading
out great, threatening arms into the dark, ascended from the horizon and
sailed northward under the moon and stars. Ever and anon, low down in
the sky, Venus, like a clear-cut diamond suspended from one of its many
twinkling points, glittered between the fringes of the clouds, or the
white moon diffused soft light among the wreathing vapours that twisted
and rolled athwart the heavens. In the shelter of the pines on the
margin of the river, a ringdove, awakened by a bickering mate,
fluttered from bough to bough; and his angry, muffled coo of defiance
marred the stillness of the night. The gurgling call of a moorhen,
mingling with the ripple of the stream over the ford, came from the
reeds at a distant bend of the river. Nearer, the river, with varying
cadence, rose and fell in uneven current over a rocky shelf, and then
came on to murmur around me while I waded towards the edge of a deep,
forbidding pool. In the smooth back-wash beyond the black cup of the
pool a mass of gathered foam gleamed weirdly in the dark; and, further
away, broad tangles of river-weed, dotted with the pale petals of
countless flowers, floated on the shallow trout-reach extending from the
village gardens to the cornfields below the old, grey church.

In one of the terraced gardens behind me a cottager was burning garden
refuse; tongues of flame leaped up amid billows of smoke, and from the
crackling heap a myriad sparks shot out on every side. While the
cottager moved about by the fire, his shadow lengthened across the
river, which, reflecting the lurid glare, became strangely suggestive
of unfathomable depths. The moorhen called again from the reeds near the
ford, then flew away over the fire-flushed river and disappeared into
the gloom; and a water-vole dropped with a gentle plash into the pool.

Casting a white moth quietly over the stream, I noticed beyond the
shadows a round mass rising from the centre of the current, moving
against the flood, and sinking noiselessly out of sight. There could be
no doubt that the shape and motion were those of an otter. To continue
my sport would have been in vain with such a master-fisher in the pool,
so I reeled in my line, and stood still among the ripples as they
circled, muttering, around my knees. Presently the dim form of the otter
reappeared a little further up-stream, and I caught sight of a
glistening trout in the creature's mouth.

The otter swam, with head just above water, towards the alders skirting
the opposite bank, and then, turning sharply, was lost to sight near the
overhanging roots of a sycamore. Immediately afterwards, a strange,
flute-like whistle--as if some animal, having ascended from the depths
of the river, had blown water through its nostrils in a violent effort
to breathe--came from the whirlpool in the dense shadows of the pines:
the otter's mate was hunting in the quiet water beyond the shelf of
rock. Then a slight, rattling sound on the pebbly beach of a little bay
near the sycamore indicated that the animal had landed and was probably
devouring the captured fish. The leaping flames of the cottager's fire
had been succeeded by a fitful glow, but the moon glided from behind the
clouds and revealed a distinct picture of the parent otter standing on
the shingle, in company with Lutra, her little cub.

       *       *       *       *       *

A deserted mansion--to whose history, like the aged ivy to its crumbling
walls, clung many a fateful legend--nestled under the precipitous woods
in the valley. Time, taking advantage of neglect, had made a wilderness
of the gardens, the lawns, and the orchards, which, less than a century
ago, surrounded with quiet beauty this home of a typical old country
squire. A few garden flowers still lingered near the porch; but the once
well tended borders were overgrown with grass, or occupied with wild
blossoms brought from the fields by the hundred agents employed by
Nature to scatter seed. Owls inhabited the outhouses, and bats the
chinks beneath the eaves. A fox had his "earth" in the shrubbery beyond
the moss-grown pathway leading from the door to the gate at the end of
the drive. A timid wood-pigeon often flew across from the pines and
walked about the steps before the long-closed door. Near the warped
window of the dismantled gun-room the end of a large water-pipe formed a
convenient burrow for some of the rabbits that played at dusk near the
margin of the shrubbery. This water-pipe led to the river's brink; and
there, having been broken by landslips resulting from the ingress of the
stream during flood, one of the severed parts of the tube formed,
beneath the surface of the water, an outlet to a natural chamber high
and dry in the bank. The upper portion of the pipe was choked with
earth and leaves washed down from the fields by the winter rains.

In this hollow "oven," on a heap of hay, moss, and leaves, brought
hither by the parent otters through an opening they had tunnelled into
the meadow, Lutra was born. Her nursery was shared by two other cubs.
Blind, helpless, murmuring little balls of fur, they were tended
lovingly by the dam.

Soon the thin membrane between their eyelids dried and parted, and they
awoke to a keen interest in their surroundings. Their chamber was dimly
lit by the hole above; and the cubs, directly they were able to crawl,
feebly climbed to a recess behind the shaft, where they blinked at the
clouds that sailed beneath the dome of June, and at the stars that
peeped out when night drew on, or watched the limpid water as, flowing
past the end of the pipe below, it bore along a twirling leaf or rolled
a pebble down the river-bed. Occasionally a salmon-pink wandered across
from the shallows; for a moment or two the play of its tiny fins was
seen at the edge of the pipe; and the cubs, excited by a sight of their
future prey, stretched their necks and knowingly held their heads
askew, so that no movement of the fish might escape their observation.

Among flesh-eating mammals of many kinds, the females display signs of
intelligence earlier than the males. Lutra being the only female among
the cubs, she naturally grew to be the most keenly observant, and often
identified the finny visitor before her brothers ventured to decide that
it was not a moving twig.

The dam spent most of the day asleep in the "holt," and most of the
night fishing in the pools. Inheriting the disposition of their kind,
the cubs also were more particularly lively by night than by day.
Directly the cold dew-mist wreathed the grass at the entrance of the
burrow, they commenced to sport and play, tumbling over each other,
grunting and fighting in mimic anger, or pretending to startle their
mother directly she entered the pipe on returning at intervals from
fishing.

One night, while the cubs were rougher than ever in their fun, Lutra
slipped off the platform and fell headlong down the pipe into the
stream. But almost before she had time to be frightened she discovered
that to swim was as easy as to play; and she rose to the surface with a
faint, flute-like call. She splashed somewhat wildly, for her stroke was
not yet perfected by practice. Hearing the commotion and instantly
recognising its meaning, the dam dived quietly and swiftly right beneath
the cub, and bore her gently back to the platform, where the rest of the
family, having missed their companion, had for the moment ceased to romp
and fight.

A few nights after this incident, the mother commenced in earnest to
educate her young. Tenderly taking each in turn, she carried the
nurslings into the water, and taught them, by a method and in language
known only to themselves, how to dive and swim with the least possible
exertion and disturbance.

Henceforward, throughout the summer, and till the foliage on the trees
near the pool, chilled by the rapid fall of the temperature every
evening, became thinner in the breath of the early autumn wind, the
otter-cubs fished, and frolicked, and slept, or were suckled by their
dam. Sometimes the whole family, together with the old dog-otter,
adjourned to the middle of the meadow, and in the tall, dew-drenched
grass skipped like kittens, though with comical clumsiness rather than
with the agility they displayed in the water. Like kittens, too, the
cubs played with their mother, in spite of wholesome chastisement when
they nipped her muzzle rather more severely than even long-suffering
patience could allow. The dam was at all times loath to correct her
offspring, but the sire rarely endured the familiarity of the cubs for
long. Directly they became unduly presumptuous he lumbered off to the
river, as if he considered it much more becoming to fish than to join in
the sport of his progeny. Perhaps, indeed, he deemed a change of
surroundings essential that he might forget the liberties taken with him
by his disrespectful youngsters.

When about three months old, Lutra began to show promise of that grace
of form and motion which in later life was to be one of her chief
distinctions. Her body, tail, and head gradually lengthened; and, as her
movements in the water became more sinuous and easy, she tired less
rapidly when fishing.

Autumn passed on towards winter, the nights were long, the great harvest
of the leaves fell thickly on the meadow and the stream, the mountain
springs were loosed in muddy torrents, and the river roared, swollen and
turbid, past the "holt" under the trailing alder-twigs. The moorhens
came back from the ponds where they had nested in April and May; the
wild duck and the teal flew south from oversea, and in the night
descended circling to the pool; a dabchick from the wild gorge
down-river took up his abode in the sedges.

The quick jerk of the dabchick's oar-like wings caused much wonder to
Lutra, when, walking on the river-bed, she looked up towards the moonlit
sky, and saw the little grebe dive like a dark phantom into the deep
hole beneath the rocky ledges of Penpwll. Once the otter-cub, acting
under an irresistible impulse, swam towards the bird and tried to seize
him. She managed to grip one of his feet, as they trailed behind him
while he dived, but the grebe escaped, leaving in the assailant's mouth
only a morsel of flesh torn from a claw.

In the warm evenings of late summer and the first weeks of autumn, the
angler usually visited the shingle opposite the water-pipe, and waded
up-stream casting for trout. The otter-cubs, grown wiser than when the
angler saw them near the sycamore, discreetly stayed at home, for they
had been taught to regard this strange being, Man, known by his peculiar
footfall and upright walk, as a dreaded enemy scarcely less formidable
than the hounds and the terriers that at intervals accompanied him for
the express purpose of hunting such river-folk as otters and rats.

As yet Lutra had never seen the hounds, nor, till the following summer,
was she to know the import of her instinctive timidity. Roaming, hungry,
and venturesome, she had chanced at nightfall to catch a glimpse, during
an occasional gleam of moonlight, of a large trout struggling
frantically on the surface of the water not far from the angler, had
heard the click of the reel and the swish of the landing net, and had
concluded that these mysterious proceedings gave cause for fear.

The end of October drew nigh; and, when the last golden leaves began to
fall from the beeches, the angler ceased to frequent the riverside.
Henceforward, except when a sportsman passed with his gun, the otters'
haunt remained in peace.

Always at break of day, however, when the pigeons left their roosting
places in the pines, an old, decrepit woman tottered down the steps from
the cottage door to the rock at the brim of the pool, and filled her
pails with water. But the creatures felt little alarm: they had become
accustomed to her presence in the dawn. Lonely and childless and poor,
she knew more than any one else of the otters; but she kept their
whereabouts a secret, for the creatures lent an interest to her
cheerless, forsaken life, and recalled to her halting memory the long
past days when her husband told her tales of hunting and fishing as she
sat, a young and pretty girl, at her spinning wheel in the light of the
flickering "tallow-dip."

Warm, cloudy weather continued from the late autumn through the
winter--except for a few days of frost and snow in December--so that
food was never scarce, and Lutra thrived and grew. The great migration
of salmon took place, but she was not sufficiently big and strong to
grip and hold these monster fish. Her own weight hardly exceeded that of
the smallest of them, so she had to be content with a mixed diet of
salmon-fry and trout, varied with an occasional slug or snail that she
chanced to find in the meadow. For a brief period after the fall of snow
in December, the frost fettered the fields, and the moon shone nightly
on a white waste through which the river flowed, like a black, uneven
line, between its hoar-fringed banks. Then Lutra, bold in the unbroken
stillness of Nature's perfect sleep, climbed the steps leading to a
village garden, and searched the refuse heap for scraps discarded from
the cottager's meagre board. She even wandered further, crossed the
road, and passed under a gate into the fields near the outlying stables
of the inn. Here some birds had roosted in the hazels by the fence, and
the cub stood watching them, like the fox beneath the desired but
distant grapes.

A rough, mongrel sheep-dog, having missed his master, who had been
carousing in the inn that evening, chanced to be trotting homeward to
the farm on the hill, and, sniffing at the gate, discovered the cub in
the hedgerow. With a mad yell the dog tore through the briars at the
side of the gate-post; but Lutra was equally quick, and by the time her
enemy was in the field she had dodged under the bars and was shuffling
away, as quickly as her short legs permitted, down the garden to the
river. The dog turned, crashed back through the briars, and gained
rapidly on the otter. He reached her just as she gained the top of the
wall that, on a level with the garden, formed a barrier against the
river-floods. Lutra felt a sharp nip on her flank, and was bowled over
by the impetuous rush of her foe; but she regained her feet in an
instant, and jumped without hesitation into the water. The river was
shallow where she fell; the dog followed her; and for a moment she was
in deadly peril. But before the sheep-dog recovered from his sudden
plunge, Lutra swam into the deep water and dived straight for home,
leaving the plucky mongrel standing in the ripples, with a look of
almost human disgust and astonishment on his intelligent face. He may
have reasoned thus: "Surely I caught that otter. But stay, I must have
been dreaming. 'Tis queer, though: I'm in the river instead of on the
road to the farm." This, for Lutra, was perhaps the only noteworthy
episode of her early life.

The otter-cub was about nine months old when spring came to the valley.
The water-weed grew in long filaments from the gravelly shallows. The
angler, who had ceased to frequent the riverside at the approach of
winter, returned to the pool, but only by day, and then Lutra dozed in
her retreat. In the pines on the margin of the river the blue ringdoves
were busy constructing the rude makeshift that was to serve the purpose
of a nest. Instead of seeking how to construct a perfect dwelling place,
these slipshod builders spent most of their hours in courtship.
Sometimes, owing to the carelessness of the lackadaisical doves, a dry
stick released by bill or claw would fall pattering among the branches,
and drop, with a plash, into the river, where it would be borne by the
current past the otter's lair. From every bush and brake along the
sparkling stream the carols of joyous birds floated on the morning
mists. The first green leaves of the bean peeped in the gardens; the
first broods of the year's ducklings launched forth, like heartstrong
adventurers, into the shallows by the cottage walls. In the sunny glades
the big, fleshy buds of the chestnut and the light-green, tapering
sprouts of the sycamore expanded under the influence of increasing
warmth. Finches and sparrows, on the lookout for flies, hovered above
the ankle-deep drifts of leaf-mould in the lane below the trees, or
crossed and re-crossed between the budding boughs. Only a few of these
many signs were observed by Lutra, it is true, for she spent the day in
hiding. But at dusk she heard the bleating of the lambs, and the musical
note of a bell that had been slung round the neck of the patriarch of
the flock in order to deter foxes from meddling with the new-born
weaklings then under the big ram's care. She was made aware of the
presence of spring by the "scent in the shadow and sound in the light."
The hatching of countless flies in the leaf-mould was not watched by the
birds only: Lutra also knew that the swarms had arrived; and spring was
welcome if only for this.

For months she had fed on lean and tasteless trout exhausted by
spawning. Now, instead of lying under stones or haunting the deep basin
of the pool, the trout rose to the surface and wandered abroad into the
shallows. There the languid fish became fit for food again, and more
capable of eluding the occasional long, stern chases of the otter. But
Lutra was never disconcerted by the fact that the fish were strong and
active; as with all carnivorous creatures, her sporting instincts were
so highly developed that she revelled in overcoming difficulties,
especially because she felt her own strength growing from day to day.
During winter the trout had fed on worms and "sundries." Now, their best
and heartiest meals were of flies. Daily, at noon, swarms of ephemerals
played over the water, and the trout rose from the river-bed to feed. At
first they "sported" ravenously, rising quick and sure to any insect
their marvellous vision might discern. Afterwards they fed daintily,
disabling and drowning with a flip of the tail many an insect that
fluttered at the surface, and choosing from their various victims some
unusually tasty morsel, such as a female "February red" about to lay her
eggs. At this time, also, the plump, cream-coloured larvæ of the
stone-fly in the shallows were growing within their well cemented
caddis-cases and preparing for maturity. So the trout fattened on
caddis-grubs and flies, and the otter-cub, in corresponding measure,
became sleek, well-grown, and spirited.

In the winter Lutra had imperceptibly acquired the habit of swimming and
diving across-stream, just as an old fox, when hunting in the woods,
quarters his ground systematically across-wind, and so detects the
slightest scent that may be wafted on the breeze. Nature had been
specially kind to her; she was fashioned perfectly, and in the river
reigned supreme. Her body was long, supple, and tapering; her brown fur
was close and short, so that the water never penetrated to her skin and
her movements were not retarded as they would have been had she
possessed the loose, draggling coat of an otter-hound. She seemed to
glide with extraordinary facility even against a rapid current. Her skin
was so tough that on one occasion when, by accident, she was carried
down a raging rapid and thrown against a jagged rock, a slight bruise
was the only result. Her legs were short and powerful, her toes webbed,
and her tail served the purpose of a rudder. Nostrils, eyes, and
ears--all were small and water-tight, and set so high on the skull that,
when she rose to breathe, little more than a speck could be seen on the
surface, unless she felt it safe to raise her head and body further for
the sake of ease in plunging deep.

When Lutra was nine months old she caught her first salmon; and, though
the fish was only a small "kelt," returning, weak from spawning, to the
sea, the capture was a fair test of the cub's prowess and daring. It
happened thus. She was walking up the river-bed one boisterous night,
when she saw a dark form hovering close to the surface in the middle of
a deep pool. Her eyes, peculiarly fitted for watching objects
immediately above, quickly detected the almost motionless fish. The
eyes of the salmon were also formed for looking upwards, and so Lutra
remained unnoticed by her prey. She stole around the hovering fish, that
the bubbles caused by her breathing might make no noticeable disturbance
as they rose to the surface, and then, having judged to a nicety the
strength of the stream, paddled with almost imperceptible motion towards
the salmon. Before the fish had time to flee it was caught in Lutra's
vice-like jaws and borne, struggling desperately and threshing the water
into foam, to the bank. There the otter-cub killed her victim by
severing the vertebræ immediately behind its gills.

Otters well nigh invariably destroy large-sized fish by attacking them
in this particular part. And, according to a similar method, stoats and
polecats, whenever possible, seize their victims near the base of the
brain. In yet another way Lutra proved her relationship to the weasel
tribe: just as our miniature land-otters eat only small portions of the
rabbits they kill, so the cub was content with a juicy morsel behind the
salmon's head--a morsel known among sportsmen as "the otter's bite."

Soon after the cub had killed her first salmon she separated from her
parents and brothers, travelled far down-river, and wandered alone. In
the human character, development becomes especially marked directly
independence of action is assumed; henceforward parental guidance counts
for comparatively little. And so it was with Lutra.



II.

THE POOL BENEATH THE FARMSTEAD.


Last year, in autumn mornings, when the big round clouds sailing swiftly
overhead reminded me of springtide days and joyous skylarks in the
heavens, but when all parent birds were silent, knowing how dark winter
soon would chill the world, a thrush, that not long since had been a
fledgling in his nest amid a shrubbery of box, came to the fruit-tree
near my window, and, in such low tones that only I could hear them,
warbled that all in earth and sky was beautiful.

To Lutra, lonely like the thrush, and, like the thrush, not yet aware of
pain and hunger, the world seemed bright and filled with happiness. At
first, like a young fox that, till he learns the fear of dogs and men,
steals chickens from a coop near which an old, experienced fox would
never venture, she was, perhaps, a little too indifferent to danger. In
her perfect health and irresponsible freedom, she paid but slight
attention to the alarm signals of other creatures of the night.

Up-river, at a bend below a hillside farmstead some distance from our
village, is a broad, deep salmon-pool, fringed with alders and willows.
Right across the upper end of this pool stretches a broken ledge of
rock, over which, in flood, the waters boom and crash into a seething
basin whence thin lines of vapour--blue and grey when the day is dull,
or gleaming with the colours of the rainbow when the sun, unclouded,
shines aslant the fall--ceaselessly arise, and quiver on the waves of
air that catch their movement from the restless swirls beneath. But in
dry summer weather the ledge is covered with green, slippery weed, the
curving fall is smooth as glass, and the rapid loses half its flood-time
strength.

This pool, though containing some of the finest salmon "hovers" in the
river, is nowadays but seldom fished. Since the old generation of
village fishermen has passed away it seems to have gradually lost its
popularity. The right bank of the river above and below the pool is for
miles so thickly wooded that anglers prefer to pass up-country before
unpacking their rods. From the left bank it is useless for any angler
who has not made a study of the pool to attempt to reach the "hovers."
Under far more favourable conditions than these, the throw necessary to
place a fly on even the nearest of the "hovers" would be almost the
longest that could with accuracy be made. But the angler is baffled at
the outset by the presence of a steep slope behind him.

I well remember two instances when I was tricked by the self-conceit
which led me to suppose that my skill in casting was of no mean order.
Once, while the river was bank-high after flood, I happened to be
throwing an unusually long line, with careless ease, over the lower end
of a pool, where, before, I had never seen a fish. I was, no doubt,
thinking of something quite unconnected with fishing, otherwise I should
not have wandered thus far from the spot where I generally reeled in my
line. A salmon effectually aroused me by a terrific rush at my fly. I
"struck" hard, and the fly, after a momentary check, flew up into the
air. I am not one of those anglers who give rest to a salmon in the
belief that, after rising, he requires time to recover from his
disappointment at having failed to catch the lure. I believe in
"sticking to" a fish, perhaps because the first I ever hooked was one I
had bullied ceaselessly during the whole of a spring evening. And so I
tried hard and often to tempt that sportive fish again; but after the
careless, easy casting which resulted in the rise, I could not by any
means throw satisfactorily over the tail of the pool. However I tried to
do so, the line would double awkwardly as it reached the water, or would
curl back into the rapid on the near side of the "hover," or the fly
would splash in a most provoking manner as it alighted on the stream. So
at last I left the riverside.

Henceforth, I attempted the same long cast whenever I passed the pool. I
lost many flies, and never again rose a fish. But I was convinced that I
had discovered a "hover" new to the village fishermen, till my old
friend Ianto chaffed me into the belief that the salmon I had seen was a
"passenger," and, probably, a "spent kelt" in such a weak condition that
for it to stay in the rough water higher up the pool was impossible.

On another occasion, in early days when my ignorance of the river and of
fishing sorely troubled both Ianto and myself, as I was wading
down-stream along the edge of a pool a grilse rose, "head and tail,"
about twenty yards below my fly. Using my long gaff-handle as a staff, I
walked slowly towards the fish, casting carefully all the way. I was so
absorbed in my work that I did not know I was moving into deep water
till I found that my wading stockings had filled. I then stopped, and,
lengthening my line at each successive "throw," sent my fly nearer and
still nearer to the grilse.

How I managed the long, straight cast that presently resulted in my fly
passing down the "hover," I do not know. The grilse rose sharply at the
lure, but I "struck" too late. I reeled in my line, and after a few
minutes began once more to cast. Now, however, try as I might, I could
not get the line out to the distance required; it would not fall
straight and true. In desperation I endeavoured to overcome the
difficulty by sheer strength. I swung my arms aloft; my old hickory rod
creaked and groaned with the increasing strain, then snapped immediately
the tension was released with the return of the line; and, a second
afterwards, the grilse took my fly and bolted away down-stream.

All caution left me; I was "into a fish"--that was enough. In haste to
catch my rod-top as it slipped down the line from the butt, I made one
step forward, and fell over head and ears into a deep hole beneath the
shelf of rock on which I had been standing. When I recognised what had
happened I was clinging to an alder-root near the bank; thence,
breathless, I lifted myself till I was safe on a tree-trunk above the
pool. My rod and cap were drifting rapidly away; but, after divesting
myself of half my dripping garments, I recovered the rod in a backwater
below the neighbouring wood. All my line had been taken out, the gut
collar had been snapped, and the fly had undoubtedly been carried off
by the grilse.

In those old days of which I have elsewhere written,[1] Ianto and I
often resorted to the wide, deep pool under the farm. Sometimes, during
summer, we were there before daybreak, fishing for the salmon that only
then or in the dusk would deign to inspect our "Dandy" fly. And there,
in the summer nights, we frequently captured, with the natural minnow,
the big trout that wandered from the rapids to feed in the quiet waters
by the alders. Ianto knew the pool so well that even in the darkest
night he would wade along the slippery, weed-grown shelf near the raging
fall, to troll in the shadows above him. Had the old man taken one false
step he would have entered on a struggle for life compared with which my
own adventure after hooking the grilse would have been insignificant.

For several months free, happy Lutra made her daytime abode in a "holt"
among the alder-roots fringing this pool. She loved in the long winter
nights to hear the winnow-winnow of powerful wings as the wild ducks
circled down towards the pool, the whir of the grey lag-geese far in the
mysterious sky, and the whistle of the teal and the gurgle of the
moorhens among the weeds close by the river's brim.

Crouched on a grassy mound beside the rapids, she could see each
movement on the surface of the pool. The wild ducks splattered and
quacked as they paddled busily hither and thither, visiting each little
bay and reed-clump at the water's edge. Sometimes, surrendering
themselves wholly to sport and play, they formed little groups of two or
three; and now one group, and then another, would race, half-swimming,
half-flying, from bank to bank or from the rock to the salmon "hover" at
the lower end of the pool. The otter remembered her experience with the
dabchick, and believed that to capture a full-grown duck would tax her
utmost strength and cause a general alarm. Once, however, excited by the
wild ducks' sport, she slipped quietly from the mound, dived deep, and
from the river-bed shot up in the midst of the birds just as they had
congregated to settle a point of difference in a recent event, and to
discuss a second part of their sports' programme for the night.

As the birds, panic-stricken, scattered on every side, and, following
each other in two long lines that joined in the form of a wedge, flew up
into the starlit sky, Lutra watched them eagerly for a few moments;
then, without a ripple, she sank below the surface and returned to her
watch on the mound. For a while after the ducks had left the pool,
nothing could be heard but the ceaseless noise of falling water. But as
the night drew on, a moorhen ventured from the shelter of the alders,
and, like a tiny, buoyant boat, launched out into the pool. The otter,
with appetite whetted by recent sport among the ducks, again left her
hiding place and silently vanished into the stream. Borne by the
current, she reached, with scarcely an effort, a point in the swirling
depths from which she could catch a glimpse of the dim outline of the
floating bird. Then, rising swiftly, she gripped the moorhen from
beneath, dived across to the "hover," and, having killed and skinned her
prey, feasted at leisure.

There were times in the second summer of her existence when Lutra, like
the wild ducks, seemed to abandon every thought of the possibility of
danger. Simply for the love of exercise and in enjoyment of the tranquil
night, she played about the pool till the dawn peeped over the hills;
then, tired of her frolic, she sought her secret "holt," and, curling
her tail about her face and holding her hind-paws closely between her
fore-paws, fell asleep.

While she gambolled in the water, even her quickest movements were as
graceful as those of a salmon stemming the rapids and leaping into the
shallows above the rock. Diving into the depths, she avoided with
scarcely an effort the tangled roots and branches, that, washed thither
by the floods, had long been the dread of anglers when heavy fish were
hooked. Ceasing all exertion as she turned into the current, she floated
to the surface and was borne away down-stream. She swam at highest speed
from the tail to the throat of the pool, and drifted idly back to the
place from which she had started; then, changing her methods, she
skirted slowly the edge of the current, and with one long, straight
dive shot down from the head of the rapids to the still water near her
"holt."

From playing thus about the pool, the otter learned the power of the
current, and how it hastened or retarded her while she pursued her prey.
But most of all, during the hours of the placid night, she delighted to
frolic in the torrent immediately below the rock, where, matching her
strength against that of the river, she leaped and dived and tumbled
through the foam, or, lying on her back amid a shower of spray,
stretched wide her limbs and suffered the whirlpool to draw her,
unresisting, into its vortex deep beneath the fall.

Lutra sometimes noticed, while she drifted with the current, that the
scent of her kindred lay strong at the surface not far from her "holt."
One still, moonlit night the scent indicated that several full-grown
otters had at intervals come from the trout-reaches down-stream, and had
landed in a reed-bed at the lower end of the pool. It led away from the
river through the valley, along by a number of stagnant ponds in an old
garden near the farm, and thence to a point beyond a bend where the
river flowed almost parallel to its course at the pool. As the otter,
inquisitively following the line of the scent, came to the ponds, she
heard the croaking of countless frogs hidden in the duckweed that lay
over the entire surface of the water. Lutra made ample use of the
opportunity for a feast--frogs were the greatest delicacies known to
her, and she had never before found them to be so plentiful. Dawn was
breaking when, in her onward journey, she reached the river; so she
drifted around the bend, dived over the fall, and returned to her home
beneath the alder-roots.

It happened that the otters whose "spur" (footprints) Lutra had followed
to the frog-ponds retraced their steps towards the pool, and in doing so
suddenly discovered that the scent of a man lay strong on the trodden
grass. A villager, knowing the eagerness with which otters seek for
frogs, and that they often cross a narrow neck of land at the bend of a
stream, had for a time kept watch at the lower end of the old farm
garden. He was anxious that the hounds, which, on the previous day, had
arrived at the village, should enjoy good sport during their stay in the
neighbourhood. But he saw nothing of the animals he had come to watch;
as soon as they detected his whereabouts they retreated hastily to the
pond at the upper end of the garden, gained the river, and, like Lutra,
swam homewards around the bend. But, less familiar than Lutra with the
strength of the current, they left the water as they approached the
fall, and crept through the deep shadows of the alder-roots till they
reached a point at some distance beyond the pool.

These events of the night were of the utmost importance to the otters as
connected with the events of the morrow. During the early morning the
villager paid a second visit to the garden, and examined closely the
soft mud at the margin of the ponds. The remains of the otters'
feast--the skins and the eyes of frogs--lay in several places, and, near
the largest of the ponds, the otters' "spur" showed clearly that the
animals had for some time been busy there. Taking a straight course to
the river above the pools, the watcher again detected the marks of the
otters on the sloping bank. By the riverside below the garden, however,
he failed to observe any further sign, and so concluded that the animals
had probably left the water at the opposite bank.

When, later, the Hunt crossed the bridge on its way up-stream, the
villager told his story to the Master, who immediately led his hounds
over the hill-top in the direction of the ponds. This unexpected
movement drew the followers of the Hunt away from the river; they
imagined that the hounds were to be taken across country to a well known
gorge where, during a previous season, good sport had been obtained.

At the farm, the Master, leaving the hounds to the care of the
whippers-in, waited till the villagers and the farmers had congregated
in the yard. He then addressed the crowd, telling them that otters had
visited the garden during the night and probably were still in hiding
there, and that, if good sport were desired, it would be wise for his
followers to form two groups and watch the fords above and below the
river-bend, while he, alone, accompanied the hounds to the garden; his
chief reason, he said, for pointing out to them the advisability of
leaving him was that if an otter still remained near the pond it should
be given every chance of reaching the river without molestation. The
crowd, recognising the wisdom of the Master's remarks, moved off with
the whippers-in to the fords; and, when all was in readiness, the pack
was led into the garden. One, and another, and yet another of the "young
entry" soon gave tongue; then, after a minute's deliberation, an old,
experienced hound raised his head from the rushes, uttered a single
deep, clear note, climbed the garden hedge, and galloped across the
meadow towards the river.

The rest of the hounds speedily found the line of the "drag," but all
came to a check at the water's edge. They were taken back to the ponds,
and thence to the pool by the farm, but the scent was weak above the
waterfall. They again "cast" to the upper end of the garden, and onward
to the river. Carefully searching every hole and corner in the bank,
they drew down-stream around the bend, and at last struck the scent of
the otters among the reeds below the pool. Lutra heard them tearing
madly past, heard also the dull thud of human footsteps above her
"holt," but she discreetly remained close-hidden in her sleeping
chamber. For hours, in a pool beyond the trout-reach, her visitors of
the previous night were hustled to and fro, and frequent cries of "Gaze!
gaze!" and "Bubble avent!" mingled with the clamour of the hounds. Then
the commotion seemed suddenly to subside. After an interval the hounds
splashed by once more among the alder-roots, and the thud of human
footsteps resounded in the "holt." In the silence that followed, Lutra,
reassured, dived from her "holt," and, paddling gently to the surface,
saw the last stragglers of the Hunt climbing the slope towards the farm.

That night no otter from the down-stream trout-reach wandered to the
salmon-pool beneath the farm. The water-voles and the moorhens were
unusually alert as they swam hither and thither in the little bays along
the edge of the current. The fear of man and his loud-tongued hounds
rested, like a spell, on the creatures of the river. Even Lutra felt its
power; but when the scent of her foes became so faint as to be lost in
the fragrance of the meadow-sweet along the river-bank, she ventured
into the old garden, and, on returning to the pool, played again in the
raging water by the fall.



III.

THE GORGE OF ALLTYCAFN.


When Lutra had attained her full size and strength she was wooed and won
by a young dog-otter of her own age, and lived with him in a "holt"
among the great rocks of Alltycafn. Now, again, the Hunt arrived in the
neighbourhood. It was a lovely morning in May. The sun shone brightly;
the leaves were breaking from their sheaths; the birds sang blithely in
the trees. Suddenly the otters, resting in their "holt," were awakened
by a loud commotion--the sounds of hurrying feet, reverberating in the
chamber among the boulders, and then the music of the shaggy hounds,
varied occasionally by the yap-yap of the terriers. The noise drew
rapidly nearer. Presently a man, in red stockings and vest, blue
breeches and coat, and a blue hunting cap bearing an otter's "pad"
mounted in silver, poked among the boulders with a steelshod pole. The
dog-otter was now thoroughly alarmed. He rushed from his lair, dived
straight into the stream, headed through the seething current, and rose
in the adjoining pool. Threatened by a hound, he dived again, walked
over the gravel, and swam under the gnarled roots of an oak. The members
of the Hunt stood watching the bubbles, filled by his breath, as they
floated up and broke. The hounds swam pell-mell in hot pursuit, and the
otter was forced to turn up-stream. Moving cautiously under the rocky
ledges, he regained the "holt," where his terrified mate awaited his
return. Sorely pressed, the dog-otter hid close, hoping to baffle his
relentless pursuers. But a bristling, snarling terrier soon came down
the shaft from the bank. Maddened, and courageous with the fury of
despair, Lutra seized the intruder by the muzzle, and, in the combat
that ensued, sorely mangled her assailant's lips and nostrils. Then, as
her mate dived out once more and swam down-stream, she also left the
chamber. She rose immediately among the surrounding boulders, and hid in
the furthest recess. With nostrils, eyes, and ears raised slightly above
the surface of the water, she stayed there, unseen and hardly daring to
breathe, and, with strained senses watched closely every movement of
hounds and hunters.

Fortunately for Lutra, the arch of the boulders below was shaped so
peculiarly that the scent of her breath and body was sucked into a
cavity and carried down-stream, and, passing beneath the stone, mingled,
at the raging cataract near the rock, with air in the bubbles formed by
the tumult of the waters. These bubbles, instead of bursting, were drawn
into the vortex of a little whirlpool; and the keen-nosed hounds, though
suspicious, could form no definite opinion as to the presence of a
second otter among the rocks. The terrier knew the secret, but he had
been put out of action and sent off, post haste, to the nearest
veterinary surgeon. Lutra saw her tormentors--some of them of the pure
otter-hound breed, some half otter-hound, half fox-hound, and others,
again, fox-hounds trained for otter-hunting--rushing backwards and
forwards in the water and on the bank. Another terrier, led by a boy,
strained at his leash near the river's brink. Women, dressed, like the
men, in smart scarlet and blue, and as ready to wade into the stream as
the huntsman himself, stood leaning on their otter-poles not far away.
At the fords above and below the "pool," the dog-otter's egress was
barred by outposts of the enemy standing and splashing, in complete
lines, from bank to bank. Once, in despair, the otter actually tried to
break through the human chain; but a hunter "tailed" him for a moment,
and then dropped him into the deeper water beyond the ford.

The sound of horn, the shouts of men, the deep-toned notes of great
hounds, the shrill yapping of eager terriers, and the splashing and the
plunging on every side, almost bewildered Lutra. Fearing to move from
her shelter, she floated in the deep basin of the hidden pool beside the
cataract, till at last the commotion gradually subsided, and hounds and
hunters passed out of sight down-stream.

Lutra awaited her mate's return, but in vain. Not till night did she
venture from her hiding place. When, however, the stars appeared, she
swam wearily from pool to pool, calling, calling, calling. She explored
each little bay, each crevice in the rock. She walked up the dry bed of
a tributary brook, and searched among the gnarled roots and the dry,
brown grass fringing the gravelly watercourse. She skirted the meadows
and the rocks where the hunters had beaten down the gorse and the
brambles near her home; thence she returned to the pool. Hitherto she
had loved the placid night; to her the stillness was significant of
peace. But now that stillness was full of sadness, and weariness, and
monotony. The shadows were deep within the gorge; from the distant woods
the hoot of an owl mocked her loneliness. She heard no glad answering
cry. Still calling, calling, calling, she floated through the shadows,
and out into the moonlight shimmering on the placid water below the
gorge; but she sought and called in vain.

Lutra spent the rest of that year in widowhood. In consequence of her
fight with the terrier, and also because of her grief, her two little
cubs were still-born.

Midsummer came, and the shallows were almost choked with weeds. The
countryside experienced a phenomenal period of drought, and for weeks
the river seemed impure and almost fetid. Night after night, and
steadily travelling westward, Lutra took short cuts across country from
pool to pool. Late in July she reached the estuary of the river; and for
the remaining months of summer fished in the bay, finding there a
pleasant change in her surroundings. Once she was chased by some men in
a boat, who shot at her as she appeared for an instant to breathe. Quick
and watchful, she dived at the flash, and the pellets fell harmlessly
overhead. Again she rose, and again she dived just in time to avoid the
leaden hail. Then she doubled back towards the estuary, and the baffled
sportsmen sailed away across the bay. As autumn came once more she
returned to the river, and fed chiefly on the migrating eels that
swarmed in the hollows near the bank. Presently, by many a nightly
journey, she gained the upper reaches, where she lived, till the
following spring, close to her old home.

The winter was long and severe. In January, the fields were buried in
snow, the roads were as smooth and hard as glass, and the
well-remembered pool beneath the pines was almost covered with a great
sheet of ice. At this time another young dog-otter began to show Lutra
considerable attention. The village children often saw the pairing
otters, for the animals, hard pressed, had perforce to fish by day
instead of by night. All night the trout lay dormant under the stones in
the bed of the river, and only at noon did they rise to the surface on
the lookout for hardy ephemerals that, in a short half hour of warmth,
were hatched at the margin of the stream. Lutra and her companion
followed the fish, and afforded a rare, unexpected sight as, bold with
hunger, they ascended to breathe between the sheets of ice in the pool
by the village gardens. At night the otters wandered over the snow, and
sometimes visited the hillside farms. There, among rotting refuse-heaps,
they discovered worms and insects sheltering in genial warmth. When
exceptionally hungry, Lutra and her mate would dig into the chambers of
the mole and the field-vole in the meadows, and search ravenously for
the inmates. Among the roots of the spreading oaks, the otters found,
also, such tit-bits as the larvæ of moths and beetles. A starved pigeon
fallen from the pine-boughs; an occasional moorhen weak and almost
defenceless; a wild duck that Lutra had captured by darting from beneath
a root while the indiscreet bird was feeding, head downwards, at the
river's brink--these were among the varied items of the hungry otters'
food. Life was indeed hard to maintain. And, to crown the misfortunes of
the ice-bound winter, Lutra's matrimonial affairs were once more cruelly
disturbed: her mate was caught in a steel trap that Ned the blacksmith
had baited and laid in the meadows near the village bridge. He had
marked the otters' wanderings by their footprints in the snow, and had
then matured his plans.

The calamity occurred one morning, just before daybreak, as the otters
were returning to the river from a visit to a hen-coop, where they had
found an open door and a solitary chicken. The trap was placed on the
grass by the verge of the stream. A light fall of snow had covered it,
but had left exposed the entrails of a chicken which, by coincidence,
formed the tempting bait. Distressed and perplexed, Lutra stayed by the
dog-otter, trying in vain to release him from his sufferings. The
trapped creature, beside himself with rage and fear and pain, attempted
to gnaw through his crunched and almost severed foot; but as the dawn
lightened the east, and before the limb could be freed, Ned the
blacksmith was to be seen hurrying to the spot. Lutra dived out of
sight, and, unable to interpose, watched, for a second time, a riverside
tragedy. Her attachment, however, had not been of so ardent a nature
that bereavement left her disconsolate. Before April she forgot her
trapped friend, and was mated again.

Lutra's new spouse had his home in the tributary stream of a
neighbouring valley. So, when the snows had melted and the rime no
longer touched with fairy fingerprints the tracery of the leafless
boughs, and when Olwen the White-footed had come once more into the
valley called after her name, Lutra forsook the broad river in which she
had spent her early life, and, with her companion and a promising
family, lived contented under the frowning Rock of Gwion, secure in
peace and solitude, at least for a season, from the shaggy
otter-hounds.



THE WATER-VOLE.

I.

OUR VILLAGE HOUNDS.


Not many years ago the pleasures of life among my neighbours here in the
country were simpler and truer than they are to-day. Perhaps in that
bygone time money was more easily made, or daily need was met with
smaller expenditure. It may be, too, that family cares were then less
pressing, or that a prolonged period of general prosperity had been the
privilege of rich and poor alike in this green river-valley around my
home. In those days, to which I often look back with regretful yearning,
everybody seemed to have leisure; the ties of friendship were not
severed by malicious gossip; old and young seemed to realise how good it
was to have pleasant acquaintanceships and to be in the sunshine and the
open air. Fathers played with their children in the street: one winter
morning, when, after a heavy fall of snow and a subsequent frost, the
ground was as slippery as glass, I watched a white-haired shopkeeper,
lying prone on a home-made toboggan, with his feet sprawling behind for
rudder, steer a load of merry youngsters full tilt down a steep lane
behind his house. The sight was so exhilarating that I also forgot I was
not a child; and on the second journey I joined the sportive party, and
came to grief because the shopkeeper kicked too quickly at a turn in the
course and sent me with a double somersault into the ditch.

It happened in those days that in the miscellaneous pack of mongrels our
village sportsmen gathered together when they went rabbit-shooting among
the dense coverts of the hillsides were two exceptionally clever dogs--a
big, shaggy, bobtail kind of animal, and a little, smooth-coated beast
resembling a black-and-tan terrier.

The big dog, Joker, lived at a farm in the village, and, during the
leisure of summer, when rabbiting did not engage his attention, took to
wandering by the river, joining the bathers in their sport and poking
his nose inquisitively under the alder-roots along the bank. While, one
sultry noon, the fun in the bathing pool was at its height, Joker routed
an otter from a hiding place near which the bathers were swimming with
the current, and a terrific fight took place in the shallows before the
_dwrgu_ made good his escape. The dog was found to have been severely
worsted in the fray, and was taken home to be nursed till his wounds
were healed. Meanwhile, Joker's fame as an otter-hound was firmly
established in the village, and he was regarded as a hero.

The little dog, Bob, lived at the inn, and for years his droll ways
endeared him to every villager, as well as to every angler who came to
"the house" for salmon-fishing. He loved nothing better than a
friendship with some unsuspecting fisherman whom he might afterwards use
to further his own ends. The sight of a rod placed by the door in the
early morning was sufficient promise of a day's continuous enjoyment;
the terrier assumed possession of the rod at once, and kept all other
curs at a distance. On the appearance of the sportsman, he manifested
such unmistakable delight, and pleaded so hard for permission to
follow, that, unless the sportsman happened to be one whose experiences
led him to dislike the presence of a fussy dog by the riverside, the
flattery rarely failed of its object. Once past the rustic swing-bridge
at the lower boundary of the waters belonging to the inn, Bob left the
sportsman to his own devices, and stole off into the woods to hunt
rabbits. Unfailingly, however, he rejoined his friend at lunch.

On Sundays, knowing that the report of a gun was not likely then to
resound among the woods, and depressed by the quietness and disappointed
by the nervous manner with which everybody well dressed for church
resented his familiarities, he lingered about the street corners--as the
unemployed usually do, even in our village--till the delicious smells of
Sunday dinners pervaded the street. The savoury odours in no way
sharpened his appetite, for at the inn his fare was always of the best;
but they indicated that the time was approaching when the watchmaker and
the lawyer set out together for their long weekly ramble through the
woods. Bob knew what such a ramble meant for him. The watchmaker's dog,
Tip, was Bob's respected sire, and Tip's brother, Charlie, dwelt at a
house in "The Square." Bob, scenting the Sunday dinners, went at once to
call for Charlie, and in his company adjourned to the lane behind the
village gardens, till the watchmaker and the lawyer, with Tip, were
ready for their customary walk.

When the water was low and anglers seldom visited the inn, Bob, during
the summer week-days, followed Joker's course of action, and attached
himself to a bathing party frequenting a pool below the ruined garden on
the outskirts of the village. There, like Joker, he searched beneath the
alder-roots, but without success as far as an otter was concerned.
However, he vastly enjoyed himself digging out the brown rats from their
holes along the bank not far from a rick-yard belonging to the inn, and
then hunting them about the pool with as much noise and bustle as if he
were close at the tail of a rabbit in the furze. He was so fond of the
water that he became a rapid, untiring swimmer; and the boys trained
him, in intervals of rat-hunting, to dive to the bottom of the river
and pick up a white pebble thrown from the bank. Like Joker, also, he
gained a name for pluck and ability; and one night the village
sportsmen, at an informal meeting in the "private room" of the inn,
decided to hunt in the river on Wednesday evenings, with Bob and Joker
at the head of a pack including nearly every game-dog in the near
neighbourhood, except certain aristocratic pointers and setters likely
to be spoiled by companionship with yelping and excited curs.

A merrier hunting party was never in the world. They would foregather in
the meadow below the ruined garden: the landlord, whose home-brewed ale
was the best and strongest on the countryside; the curate, whose stern
admonitions were the terror of evil-doers; the farmer, whose skill in
ferreting was greater than in ploughing; the watchmaker, whose clocks
filled the village street with music when, simultaneously, they struck
the hour; the draper, whose white pigeons cooed and fluttered on the
bridge near his shop; the solicitor, whose law was for a time thrown to
the winds; and a small crowd of boys ready to assist, if required, in
"chaining" the fords. There they would "cry" the dogs across the stream
till the valley echoed and re-echoed with shouts and laughter.

The first hunt was started in spirited fashion; the men walked along the
bank thrusting their sticks into crevices and holes; but only Joker and
Bob entered the water, and rats and otters for a while remained
discreetly out of view. Near a bend of the stream, however, Bob
surprised a rat secreted by a stone, and, forcing it to rush to the
river, followed with frantic speed. Here, at last, was a chase; the
other dogs all hurried to the spot, and the landlord, swinging his
otter-pole, waded out to perform the duties of huntsman with the now
uproarious pack. His action proved infectious--watchmaker, draper,
lawyer, and curate splashed into the shallows to help in keeping the rat
on the move; and fun was fast and furious till the prey, fleeing from a
smart attack by Bob, was captured by a spaniel swimming under a big
oak-root between the curate and the bank.

I hardly think I have enjoyed any sport so well as those Wednesday
evening hunts in the bygone years, when life was unshadowed and each
sportsman of us felt within him the heart of a child. So great was our
amusement that the village urchins instituted a rival Hunt in the brooks
on Saturdays; they notched their sticks for every "kill," and boasted
that they beat us hollow with the number of their trophies.

We had several adventures with otters, but the creatures always, in the
end, eluded us, and we soon were of opinion that smaller fry were
capable of affording better fun. Some seasons afterwards, when our Hunt
was disbanded, the shopkeepers' apprentices continued, with the
youngsters, to work our mongrel hounds; but eventually Joker's death
from the bite of an adder put an end to their pastime, for the bobtail
and the terrier were the only possible leaders of the nondescript pack.

Bob, the terrier, was always the most interesting of our hounds. He
manifested a disposition to use the other dogs to serve his purposes,
just as he used the unsuspecting fishermen if he wished to go hunting in
the woods. When with me after game on the upland farms, he often seemed
to forget entirely that I had taken him to hunt, not for his own
amusement only, but also for mine. Directly he discovered a rabbit
squatting in a clump of grass or brambles, perhaps ten or a dozen yards
from a hedge, he signalled his find by barking so incessantly that my
spaniels hastened pell-mell to the spot. This was just as it should
be--for Bob. Dancing with excitement, he waited between the clump and
the hedge till the spaniels entered and bolted the rabbit; then he tore
madly in close pursuit of the fleeing creature, and my chance of a shot
was spoiled through the possibility of my hitting him instead of his
quarry.

By the riverside, his tricks were precisely similar. Seeing a moorhen
dive, he would call the dogs around him, so that they might bring the
bird again to the surface and thus afford him sport. The moorhen,
meanwhile, invariably escaped; yet Bob failed to understand that he was
the only diver in the pack.

His antics were comical in the extreme if a vole eluded him by diving to
the lower entrance of its burrow beneath the surface of a backwater.
Having missed his opportunity, but unable to comprehend how he had
missed it, the terrier left the water, stood on the roots of a tree over
the entrance to the vole's burrow, and furiously barked instructions to
his companions swimming in the pool. Disgusted at last by their
inattention to his orders, he plunged headlong into the stream and
vanished for a few moments; then he reappeared, proud of his superior
bravery, sneezing and coughing, and with a mouthful of stones and soil
torn from the bank in his desperate efforts to force his way to the spot
whither the object of the chase had gone from view.

Bob long survived the big dog Joker, and in his old days loved as well
as ever the excitement of a hunt. His originality was preserved to the
end; stiffened by rheumatism and almost choked by asthma, he always,
when in search of rabbits, ran up-hill and walked down-hill, thus losing
both energy and breath that might with advantage have been kept in
reserve.

With the passing of the years, many changes have occurred to sunder the
friendships formed during those boylike expeditions. I smile when I
think how impossible it would be, now that the veneer of town life has
been thinly spread over the life of our village, for the man of law to
go wading, with tucked-up trousers, after rats; how impossible, also,
for him to frequent with me the bathing pool, as was sometimes his wont,
and swim idly hither and thither, while the moon peered between the
trees and the vague witchery of the summer night filled his spirit and
my own. My youthful feelings, long preserved, have been irrevocably
lost; and yet, if only for memory's sake, I would willingly hunt with
him again, and, when night had fallen, swim with him once more in the
dim, mysterious pool below the garden. But the old hunting party could
never be complete. Death makes gaps that Time fails to fill.

Those evenings were delightful, not only because of unrestrained mirth
and innocent sport, but also because we took a keen interest in our
surroundings, seeing the world of small things by the river-bank with
eyes such as belonged to anglers and hunters of the old-fashioned,
leisurely school. They marked for me the beginning of a pleasant study
of the water-voles that lived in their burrows on the brink of the
river, and were sometimes hunted as persistently as were the brown rats,
but far more frequently eluded our hounds than did the noxious little
brutes we particularly desired to destroy.

Wherever they take up their quarters, about the farmstead during winter
or in the open fields during summer, brown rats are an insufferable
nuisance. There is no courtesy or kindness in the nature of the rat; no
nesting bird is safe from his attacks, unless her home is beyond his
reach in some cleft of a rock that he cannot scale or in some fork of a
tree that he cannot climb. He is a cannibal--even the young and the sick
of his own kind become the victims of his rapacious hunger--and he will
eat almost anything, living or dead, from the refuse in a garbage heap
to the dainty egg of a willow-wren in the tiny, domed nest amid the
briars at the margin of the river.

The water-vole is often called, wrongly, the water-rat, but it is of
very different habits, and is well nigh entirely a vegetable feeder, and
one of the most charming and most inoffensive creatures in Britain. To
the close observer of Nature, differences in the character of
animals--even among the members of one species--soon become apparent. I
was struck with manifestations of such unlikeness when I kept small
communities of ants in artificial nests between slips of glass, so as
to watch their doings in my hours of leisure. One nest of yellow ants
contained at first a dozen workers and a queen; and when I began to
study them I used to mark with minute spots of white the bodies of the
particular ants under observation. These spots would remain till the
ants had time for their toilet and either licked themselves clean or
were licked clean by sympathetic companions. At the outset I found that
under a magnifying glass two of the dozen workers were readily
distinguishable from the others because of their size and shape.
Gradually, by detecting little peculiarities, I could single out the
ants, and so had no need to mark my tiny pets in order to follow their
movements, except on occasions when they clustered round the queen, or
rested, gossiping in little groups, here and there in the rooms and
passages of their dwelling. One ant was greedy, and, if she was the
first to find a fresh drop of honey I had placed outside the nest, would
feed to repletion without ever thinking of informing her friends of her
discovery. At such times she even became intoxicated, and I fancied
that, when she did at last get home, eager enquiries made as to the
whereabouts of the nectar met with incoherent replies, since the seekers
for information generally failed to profit by what they were told, and
had to cast about aimlessly for some time before finding the food. I
also observed that another ant was perfectly unselfish, and not only
would inform her companions directly she discovered honey, but would
assiduously feed the queen before attending to her own requirements. And
so my pets were separately known because of faults and failings or good
qualities that often seemed quite human.

A certain vole, living in the river-bank near the place where the
villagers met to hunt, was not easily mistaken for one of his fellows.
Whereas the general colour of a water-vole's coat--except in the variety
known as the black vole--is greyish brown, which takes a reddish tinge
when the light glances on it between the leaves, his was uniformly of a
dark russet. In keeping with this shiny russet coat, his beady black
eyes seemed to glisten with unusual lustre; and so it happened that the
question, "I wonder if Brighteye is from home?" was often asked as we
sent our hounds to search among the willows on the further bank; and
later it became a custom for the Hunt, before the sport of the evening
was begun, to pass up-stream for a hundred yards or so in order that he
might be left in peace.

He was quite a baby water-vole when first I made his acquaintance, but
the colour of his coat did not change with the succeeding months, and,
evening after evening, when the noisy hounds were safe at home or
strolling about the village street, I would quietly make my way back to
his haunt, and, hidden behind a convenient tree, carefully watch him. In
this way I learned many secrets of his life, noticed many traits in
which he differed from his companions, and could form a fairly accurate
idea of the dangers that beset him, and of the joys and the sorrows that
fell to his lot during the three years when his presence was familiar as
I fished in the calm summer twilight, or lay motionless in the long
grass near the place where he was wont to sit, silent and alert, before
dropping into the backwater and beginning the work and the play of the
night.



II.

THE BURROW IN THE RIVER-BANK.


The first faint shadows of dusk were creeping over the river when
Brighteye, awakened by a movement on the part of his mother, stole from
his burrow into the tall grass at the edge of the gravel-bank by the
pool. His home was situated in a picturesque spot between the river and
a woodland path skirting the base of a cliff-like ascent clothed with
giant beeches and an under-garment of ferns and whinberry bushes. Alders
and willows grew along the gravel-bank, and through the moss-tangles
among the roots many a twisting, close-hidden run-way led upwards to
what might be called a main thoroughfare, in and out of the
grass-fringes and the ivy, above high-water mark. This road, extending
from the far-off tidal estuary to the river's source in the wild
mountains to the north, communicated with all the dwellings of the
riverside people, and had been kept clear for hundreds of years by
wandering voles and water-shrews, moorhens, water-rails, and coots, and,
in recent days, by those unwelcome invaders, the brown rats. Here and
there it merged into the wider trail of the otter. Sometimes, near a
hedge, it was joined by the track of rabbits, bank-voles, field-voles,
weasels, and stoats, and sometimes, where brooks and rills trickled over
the stones on their way to the river, by other main roads that had
followed the smaller water-courses from the crests of the hills.

Brighteye's home might be likened to a cottage nestling among trees at
the end of an embowered lane well removed from busy traffic; it
contained four or five chambers wherein the members of his family dwelt;
and to Brighteye the tall reeds and the bramble thickets were as large
as shrubs and trees are to human beings. And, like a sequestered
cottager, he knew but little about the great road stretching, up-stream
and down-stream, away from his haunts; he was content with his
particular domain--the pool, the shallows beyond, a hundred yards of
intersected lanes, and the wide main road above the pool and the
shallows.

For a time Brighteye sat at the edge of the stream, alert for any sign
of danger that might threaten his harmless existence. Then playfully he
dropped into the pool, dived, sought the water-entrance to his house,
climbed inside his sleeping chamber, and thence to the bank, where again
he sat intently listening as he sniffed the cool evening air. A
quick-eyed heron was standing motionless in a tranquil backwater thirty
yards up-stream; the scent of the bird was borne down by the water, and
the vole caught it as it passed beneath the bank. But he showed no trace
of terror; the heron was not near enough to give him any real cause for
alarm. The rabbits stole down through the woods, the undergrowth
crackled slightly as they passed, and one old buck "drummed" a danger
signal. Instantly the vole dived again, for he interpreted the sound to
mean that a weasel was on the prowl; and, as he vanished, the first
notes of a blackbird's rattling cry came to his ears.

Brighteye stayed awhile in his burrow before climbing once more to the
upper entrance. Then cautiously he advanced through the passage, and
gained his lookout station. Not the slightest taint of a weasel was
noticeable on the bank; so, regaining confidence, he sat on his
haunches, brushed his long, bristly whiskers with his fore-feet, and
licked his russet body clean with his warm, red tongue. Then he dropped
once more into the pool, and swam across to a reed-bed on the further
margin. There he found several of his neighbours feeding on roots of
riverside plants. He, too, was hungry, so he bit off a juicy flag at the
spot marking the junction of the tender stalk with the tough, fibrous
stem; then, sitting upright, he took it in his fore-paws, and with his
incisor teeth--shaped perfectly like an adze for such a
purpose--stripped it of its outer covering, beginning at the severed
edge, and laying bare the white pith, on which he greedily fed.

While thus engaged, he, as usual, watched and listened. The spot was
dangerous for him because of its distance from the stream, and because
the water immediately beyond was so shallow that he could not, by
diving, readily escape from determined pursuit.

His meal was often interrupted for a few moments by some trifling
incident that caused alarm. A moorhen splattered out from the
willow-roots, and Brighteye crouched motionless, till he recognised that
the noise made by the clumsy bird was almost as familiar to him as the
rustle of the reeds in a breeze. The blue heron rose heavily from the
backwater, and winged his slow flight high above the trees. Here,
indeed, seemed reason for fear; but the great bird was not in the humour
for killing voles, and soon passed out of view. Now a kingfisher, then a
dipper, sped like an arrow past the near corner of the pool; and the
whiz of swift wings--unheard by all except little creatures living in
frequent danger, and listening with beating hearts to sounds unperceived
by our drowsy senses dulled by long immunity from fear--caused momentary
terror to the water-vole. Each trifling sight and sound contributed to
that invaluable stock of experience from which he would gradually learn
to distinguish without hesitation between friends and foes, and be freed
from the pain of needless anxiety which, to Nature's weaklings, is at
times almost as bitter as death.

Brighteye was fated to meet with an unusual number of adventures, and
consequently to know much of the agony of fear. His russet coat was more
conspicuous than that of his soberly gowned companions, and he was on
several occasions marked for attack when they escaped detection. But he
became the wisest, shyest, most watchful vole along the wooded
river-reach, and in time his neighbours and offspring were so influenced
by his example and training that a strangely furtive kindred, the
wildest of the wild, living in secrecy--their presence revealed to
loitering anglers only by tell-tale footprints on the wet sand when the
torrent dwindled after a flood--seemed to have come to haunt the river
bank between the cottage gardens and the swinging bridge above the pool
where Brighteye dwelt.

Though Brighteye's distinctive appearance attracted the notice of
numerous enemies, his marked individuality was not wholly a misfortune,
since it aroused my kindly interest, and thus caused him to be spared by
the village hunting party.

As he sat in the first shadows of evening among the reeds and the
rushes, the kingfisher and the dipper, by which a few minutes before he
had been startled, flew back from the direction of the village gardens;
and he quickly decided, while watching their flight, that somehow it
must be connected with the dull, but now plainly audible, thud of
approaching footsteps on the meadow-path. The buck "drummed" again, then
the rustling "pat, pat" of the rabbits ceased in the wood, and one by
one the adult voles feeding in the reed-bed slipped silently into the
shallows and disappeared.

Brighteye was loath to relinquish the juicy rush that he held in his
fore-paws, but the signs of danger were insistent. After creeping
through the reeds to the water's edge, he proceeded a little way down
the bank till he came to a spot where the view of the meadow-path was
uninterrupted. His sight was not nearly so keen as his scent and hearing
were, but he discerned, in a blur of dim fields, and rippling water, and
evening light peering through the willow-stoles, a number of unfamiliar
moving objects. He heard quick, uneven footsteps, and, now and then, a
voice; and was aware of an unmistakable scent, such as he had already
often noticed in the shallows and amid the grass.

On several occasions, at dusk, Brighteye, like Lutra the otter, had seen
a trout splashing and twisting convulsively in terror and pain. Each
time the trout had been irresistibly drawn through the shallows towards
a peculiar, upright object on the opposite bank, and after this object
had passed into the distance the vole had found that the familiar scent
of which he was now conscious was mingled, at the edge of the
river-bank, with fresh blood-stains and with the strong smell of fish.

To all animals, whether wild or domesticated, fresh-spilt blood has a
significance that can never be disregarded. It indicates suffering and
death. Ever since, in far distant years, blood first welled from a
stricken creature's wounds, Nature has been haunted by the grim presence
of Fear. The hunting weasel, coming unexpectedly to a pool of blood,
whence a wounded rabbit has crawled away to die in the nearest burrow,
opens mouth and nostrils wide to inhale with fierce delight the pungent
odour. Once I caught sight of a weasel under such circumstances, and was
startled by the almost demon-like look of ferocity on the creature's
face.

But the hunted weaklings of the fields and woods read the signs of death
with consternation. When the scent of the slayer is mingled with that of
the victim it is noted with care, and, if often detected in similar
conditions, is committed to memory as inseparable from danger.

Brighteye had been repeatedly warned by his mother to avoid the presence
of man, and had also learned to fear it because of his experiences with
the angler and the trout. Alarmed at the approach of men and hounds, he
waded out, swam straight up-stream to a tiny bay, and hid beneath a
willow-root to wait till the danger had passed. He strained his ears to
catch each different sound as the "thud, thud" and the patter of feet
came nearer. Then the gravel rattled, a stone fell into the stream, and
a shaggy spaniel poked his nose into a hole between the willow-roots.
The dog drew a long, noisy breath, and barked so suddenly and loudly,
and so close to Brighteye's ear, that the vole involuntarily leaped
from his resting place.

In full view of the spaniel, Brighteye passed deep down into the clear,
unruffled pool, hurriedly using every limb, instead of only his
hind-legs, and with quick strokes gained the edge of the current, where
for an instant he rose to breathe before plunging deep once more and
continuing his journey towards the willows on the opposite bank. As he
dived for the second time, Bob saw him among the ripples, and with
shrill voice headed the clamouring hounds, that, "harking forward" to
his cry, rushed headlong in pursuit through shallow and pool. A stout,
lichen-covered branch, weighed down at the river's edge by a mass of
herbage borne thither by a recent heavy flood, occupied a corner in the
dense shadow of an alder; and the vole, climbing out of the water, sat
on it, and was hidden completely by the darkness from the eager hounds.
But his sanctuary was soon invaded; the indefatigable terrier, guided by
the tiny bubbles of scent borne down by the stream, left the river, and
ran, whimpering with excitement, straight to the alder. Brighteye saw
him approach, dived silently, and, with a wisdom he had never gained
from experience, turned in a direction quite contrary to that in which
the terrier expected him to flee. The vole moved slowly, right beneath
the dark form of the terrier now swimming in the backwater. On, on, he
went, past the stakes at the outlet of the pool into the trout-reach,
and still on, by a series of dives, each following a brief interval for
breath and observation among the sheltering weeds, till he arrived at
the pool above the cottage gardens, where a wide fringe of brushwood
formed an impenetrable thicket and he was safe from his pursuers.

Hardly, however, was this long journey needed. The dog was baffled at
the outset; and, casting about for the lost scent, he discovered, on the
pebbles, the strong smell of the weasel that had wandered thither to
quench his thirst while Brighteye was feeding in the reed-bed opposite.
Bob never by any chance neglected the opportunity of killing a stoat or
a weasel; so, abandoning all thoughts of rats and voles, he dashed
upward through the wood, and, almost immediately closing on his prey,
destroyed a bloodthirsty little tyrant that, unknown to Brighteye, had
just been planning a raid on the burrow by the willow-stoles.

Water-voles, as a rule, are silent little creatures; unless attacked or
frightened they seldom squeak as they move in and out of the lush
herbage by the riverside. But Brighteye was undoubtedly different from
his fellows: he was almost as noisy as a shrew in the dead leaves of a
tangled hedgerow, and his voice was like a shrew's, high-pitched and
continuous, but louder, so that I could hear him at some distance from
his favourite resort in the reeds and the rushes by the willows. He
seemed to be always talking to himself or to the flowers and the river
as he wandered to and fro in search of tit-bits; always debating with
himself as to the chances of finding a tempting delicacy; always
querulous of danger from some ravenous tyrant that might surprise him in
his burrow, or pounce on him unawares from the evening sky, or rise,
swift, relentless, eager, from the depths beneath him as he swam across
the pool.

When I got to know him well, my favourite method, in learning of his
ways, was to lie in wait at a spot commanding a view of one or other of
the narrow lanes joining the main road of the riverside folk, and there,
my face hidden by a convenient screen of interlacing grass-stems, to
listen intently for his approach. Generally, for five minutes or so
before he chose to reach my hiding place, I could hear his shrill
piping, now faint and intercepted by a mound, or indistinct and mingled
with the swirl of the water around the stakes, then full and clear as he
gained the summit of a stone or ridge and came down the winding path
towards me. Though in his talkative moments Brighteye usually reminded
me of the tiny shrew, there were times when he reminded me more forcibly
of an eccentric mouse that, a few years before, had taken up her
quarters in the wall of my study, and each night, for more than a week,
when the children's hour was over and I sat in silence by my shaded
lamp, had made her presence known by a bird-like solo interrupted only
when the singer stayed to pick up a crumb on her way across the room.

The times when Brighteye wandered, singing, singing, down the lanes and
main road of the river-bank, were, however, infrequent; and the surest
sign of his approach, before he came in sight, was the continuous,
gossiping twitter I have already described. This habit of singing and
twittering was not connected with amorous sentiments towards any sleek
young female; Brighteye adopted it long before he was of an age to seek
a mate, and he ceased practising his solos before the first winter set
in and the morning sun glanced between leafless trees on a dark flood
swirling over the reed-bed where in summer was his favourite feeding
place.

Whether or not the other voles frequenting the burrow by the willows had
shown their disapproval of such a habit I was never able to discover.
One fact, however, seemed significant: Brighteye parted from his parents
as soon as he was sufficiently alert and industrious to manage his own
affairs, and, having hollowed out a plain, one-roomed dwelling, with an
exit under the surface of the water and another near some primrose-roots
above the level of flood, lived there for months, timid and lonely, yet
withal, if his singing might be regarded as the sign of a gladsome life,
the happiest vole in the shadowed pool above the village gardens.

It has been supposed by certain naturalists that the song of the
house-mouse is the result of a disease in its throat, and is therefore a
precursor of death. The mouse that came to my study ceased her visits
soon after the week had passed and was never seen again; and I was
unable to determine how her end was hastened. Brighteye could not, at
any rate, have suffered seriously, else he would have succumbed, either
to some enemy ever ready to prey on the young, the aged, the sick, and
the wounded of his tribe, or to starvation, the well-nigh inevitable
follower of disease in animals. He always seemed to me to be full of
vitality and happiness, as if the dangers besetting his life only
provided him with wholesome excitement, and sharpened his intellect far
more finely than that of the rest of his tribe.



III.

WILD HUNTING.


Once, during the first summer of the water-vole's life, I saw as pretty
a bit of wild hunting as I have ever witnessed, and my pleasure was
enhanced by the fact that the quarry escaped unharmed. Early in the
afternoon, instead of during twilight, I, in company with the members of
the village Hunt and their mongrel pack, had searched the stream and its
banks for rats, and had enjoyed good sport. Suddenly, however, our
ragamuffin hounds struck the line of nobler game: Lutra, the otter, was
astir in the pool.

I was not surprised, for on the previous night, long after the moon had
risen and sleep had descended on the village, I, with Ianto the
fisherman, had passed the spot on returning from an angling expedition
eight or ten miles up-stream, and had stayed awhile to watch the most
expert of all river-fishers, as she dived and swam from bank to bank,
and sometimes, turning swiftly into the backwater, landed on the shingle
close by Brighteye's reed-bed, to devour at leisure a captured trout.

Lutra soon baffled our inexpert hounds, and gained refuge in a "strong
place" well behind a fringe of alder-roots, whence Bob, notwithstanding
his most strenuous efforts, failed to "bolt" her. I then drew off the
hounds, led them towards the throat of the pool, and for a half hour
assisted them to work the "stale drag," till I reached a bend of the
river where Lutra's footprints were still visible on the fine, wet sand
at the brink of a rapid.

Later, when the dogs were quietly resting at their homes, I returned,
alone, to my hiding place not far from Lutra's "holt." As long as
daylight lasted I saw nothing of vole or otter, though several brown
rats, undeterred by the disturbance of the early afternoon, came from
their burrows and ran boldly hither and thither through the arched
pathways of the rank grass by the edge of the bank. The afterglow faded
in the western sky around the old church beyond the village gardens; and
the night, though one by one the stars were lighted overhead, became so
dark that I could see nothing plainly except the white froth, in large
round masses, floating idly down the pool. I waited impatiently for the
moon to rise, for I feared lest the faint, occasional plashes in the
pool indicated that the otter had left her "holt," and would probably be
fishing in a distant pool when an opportunity for observation arrived.

The night was strangely impressive, as it always is to me while I roam
through the woodlands or lie in hiding to watch the creatures that haunt
the gloom-wrapt clearings among the oaks and the beeches. In the
darkness, long intervals, during which nothing will be seen or heard,
must of necessity be spent by the naturalist; and in such intervals the
mind is often filled with what may, perhaps, be best described as the
spiritual influence of night, when the eyes turn upward to the stars or
to the lights of a lone farmstead twinkling through the trees, and
imagination, wondering greatly at its own daring, links time with
eternity, and the destinies of this little world with the affairs of a
limitless universe.

At length the rim of the full moon appeared above the crest of the hill
behind the village, and gradually, as the orb ascended, the night became
brighter, till the whole surface of the pool, except for a fleeting
shadow, was clear and white, and a broad silver bar lay across the
ripples between me and the reed-bed on the further side. For a time no
sign of a living creature was visible; then a brown rat crept along the
bank beneath my hiding place; a dim form, which from its size I
concluded was that of Lutra, the otter, crossed a spit of sand about a
dozen yards above the reed-bed, where a moonbeam glanced through the
alders; and a big brown owl, silhouetted against the sky, flew silently
up-stream, and perched on a low, bare branch of a Scotch fir beside the
grass-grown path.

After another uneventful interval a slight movement was observable in
the reeds directly opposite. Straight in the line of the silver bar a
water-vole came towards me, only the head of the little swimmer being
visible at the apex of a V-shaped wake lengthening rapidly behind him.
More than half-way across the pool a large boulder stood out of the
water, but the vole was heading towards the bank above. Then, apparently
without cause, he turned quickly and made straight for the stone. He had
barely landed and run round to hide in a shallow depression of the stone
when the water seemed to swell and heave immediately beside the boulder,
and Lutra's head, with wide-open jaws, shot above the current.
Disappointed, the otter vanished under the shining surface of the
stream, came to sight once more in an eddy between the boulder and the
bank, and once more disappeared. I was keenly interested, for every
movement of the vole and the otter had been plainly discernible, so
bright was the night, and so close were the creatures to my hiding
place; and, raising myself slightly, I crawled a few inches nearer the
edge of the overhanging bank.

[Illustration: "AN OPPORTUNITY CAME, WHICH, HAD SHE BEEN POISED IN THE
AIR, COULD SCARCELY HAVE BEEN MISSED."]

For a long time the vole, not daring to move, remained in the shadow. I
had almost concluded that he had dived through some crevice into the
dark water on the other side of the boulder, when he cautiously lifted
his head to the light, and crept into a grass-clump on the top of the
stone. Thence, after a little hesitation, he moved to the edge, as if
contemplating a second swim. Fastidious as to his toilet, even in the
presence of danger, he rose on his haunches and washed his round, furry
face. The action was almost fatal. The brown owl, that had doubtless
seen him by the grass-clump and had therefore left her perch in the
fir-tree, dropped like a bolt and hovered, with wings nearly touching
the silver stream, above the spot where she had marked her prey. But she
was too late--the vole had dived. Yet, even while, having alighted on
the boulder, the owl stood baffled by the disappearance of the vole, an
opportunity came, which, had she been poised in the air, could scarcely
have been missed. Close to the near bank a wave rose above the surface
of the eddy as Lutra, having seen the vole dive from the stone, again
hurried in pursuit. So fast was the otter that the momentum carried her
well into the shallows. But for the third time the vole escaped. I
indistinctly saw him scramble out, and run, with a shrill squeak, across
a ridge of sand, offering a second chance to the listening owl; and,
from his flight in the direction of the well known burrow, I concluded
that the hunted creature was russet-coated little Brighteye. But the
bird knew that she could not rise and swoop in time; so, probably
disturbed by the presence of the otter, she flew away down-stream just
as Lutra, since the vole was out of reach, glided from the sand and
philosophically turned her attention to less evasive trout and eels.

Then all was motionless and silent, but for an occasional faint whistle
as Lutra fished in the backwater at the throat of the pool, the wailing
cry of the owl from the garden on the crest of the slope behind me, and
the ceaseless, gentle ripple of the river. At last, when the voices of
the otter and the owl were still, and when the shadows were
foreshortened as the moon gazed coldly down between the branches of the
fir, Brighteye, having recovered from his recent fright, left his
sanctuary by the roots of the willow, and wandered, singing, singing,
down the white, winding run-way and out into the main road of the
riverside people, till he came to a jutting branch above the river's
brim, whence he dived into the placid pool, and swam away towards the
reed-bed. Then the crossed shadows of the flags and hemlocks screened
him from my sight.

The first autumn in the water-vole's life was a season of wonderful
beauty. A few successive frosts chilled the sap in the trees and the
bushes near the river, but were succeeded by a long period when the air
was crisp yet balmy, and not a breath of wind was noticeable except by
the birds and the squirrels high among the giant beeches around the old
garden, and when the murmur of summer insects was never heard by night,
and only by day if a chance drone-fly or humble-bee visited a surviving
clump of yellow ragweed by the run-way close to Brighteye's burrow. The
elms and the sycamores glowed with purple and bronze, the ash-trees and
the willows paled to lemon yellow, the oaks arrayed themselves in rich
and glossy olive green; while the beeches in the glade, and the brambles
along the outskirts of the thickets, ruddy and golden and glittering in
the brief, delicious autumn days, seemed to filter and yet stain the
mellow sunshine, and to fill each nook with liquid shadow as pure and
glorious as the blue and amber lights on the undulating hills. Spread on
the bosom of the brimming river, and broken, here and there, by creamy
lines of passing foam, the reflections of this beauty seemed to well and
bubble, from unfathomable deeps, around the "sly, fat fishes sailing,
watching all."

The water became much colder than in summer; but Brighteye, protected by
a warm covering of thick, soft fur through which the moisture could not
penetrate, as well as by an over-garment of longer, coarser hair from
which the drops were easily shaken when he left the stream, hardly
noticed the change of temperature. But he well knew there were changes
in the surroundings of his home. The flags in the reed-bed were not so
succulent as they had been in early summer; the branches that sometimes
guided him as he swam from place to place seemed strangely bare and
grey; the clump of may-weed that, growing near his burrow, had served as
a beacon in the gloom, was faded to a few short brown tufts; and
nightly in his wanderings he was startled by the withered leaves that,
like fluttering birds, descended near him on the littered run-ways or on
the glassy surface of the river-reach. It was long before he became
accustomed to the falling of the leaves, and up to the time when every
bough was bare the rustling flight of a great chestnut plume towards him
never failed to rouse the fear first wakened by the owl, and to send him
on a long, breathless dive to the bottom of the pool.

Brighteye was a familiar figure to all the river-folk, while he, in
turn, knew most of them, and had learned to distinguish between friends
and foes. But occasionally he made a slight mistake. Though shy, he was
as curious as the squirrel that, one afternoon when Brighteye was early
abroad, hopped down the run-way to make his acquaintance, and frightened
him into a precipitate retreat, then ran out to a branch above the
stream and loudly derided the creature apparently drowning in the
stream.

An object of ceaseless curiosity to Brighteye was a water-shrew, not
more than half the size of the vole, that had come to dwell in the
pool, and had tunnelled out a burrow in the bank above the reed-bed.
Nightly, after supper, Brighteye made a circuit of the pool to find the
shrew, and with his companion swam hither and thither, till, startled by
some real or imagined danger, each of the playmates hurried to refuge,
and was lost awhile to the other amid the darkness and the solitude of
the silent hours.

Brighteye soon became aware of the fact that some of the habits of the
shrew were entirely different from his own. While the vole was almost
entirely a vegetable feeder, the shrew, diving to the bed of the river,
would thrust his long snout between the stones, and pick up grubs and
worms and leeches sheltering there. With Brighteye's curiosity was
mingled not a little wonderment, for the shrew's furry coat presented a
strange contrast of black above and white beneath, and, immediately
after the shrew had dived, a hundred little bubbles, adhering to the
ends of his hair, caused him to appear like a silvery grey phantom,
gliding gracefully, though erratically, from stone to stone, from patch
to patch of water-weed, from ripple to ripple near the surface of the
stream. The young brown trout, hovering harmlessly above the rocky
shelves and in the sandy shallows, far from being a source of terror to
Brighteye, fled at his approach, and seldom returned to their haunts
till he had reached the far side of the current. Emboldened by the
example of the shrew, that sometimes made a raid among the minnows, and
desirous of keeping all intruders away from the lower entrance to his
burrow, Brighteye habitually chased the trout if they ventured within
the little bay before his home. But there was one trout, old and lean,
whose haunt was behind a weed-covered stone at the throat of the pool,
and of this hook-beaked, carnivorous creature, by which he had once been
chased and bitten, Brighteye went in such constant fear that he avoided
the rapid, and, directly he caught a glimpse of the long, dark form
roving through the gloomy depths, paddled with utmost haste to his
nearest landing place.

Since, under the care of his mother, he made his earliest visit to the
reed-bed, Brighteye had seen hundreds of giant salmon; the restless
fish, however, did not stay long in the pool, but after a brief sojourn
passed upward. Often at dusk the salmon would leap clear into the air
just as Brighteye came to the surface after his first dive, and once so
near was a sportive fish that the vole became confused for the moment by
the sudden turmoil of the "rise," and rocked on the swell of the
back-wash like a boat on the waves of a tossing sea. During the summer
Brighteye had suffered nothing, beyond this one sudden fright, from the
visits of the great silvery fish to the neighbourhood of his home; and,
notwithstanding his experience, he was accustomed to dive boldly into
the depths of the "hovers," and even to regard without fear the approach
of an unusually inquisitive salmon. Late in the autumn, however,
Brighteye noticed, with unaccountable misgiving, a distinct change in
the appearance of these passing visitors. The silvery sheen had died
away from their scales, and had been succeeded by a dark, dull red; and
the fish were sluggish and ill-tempered. Besides, they were so numerous,
especially after a heavy rainfall, that the stream seemed barely able
to afford them room in their favourite "hovers," and the old trout,
previously an easy master of the situation, found it almost beyond his
powers to keep trespassers from his particular haunt in mid-current at
the throat of the pool. So occupied was he with this duty that he seldom
roamed into the little bays beneath the alder-fringes; and Brighteye, so
long as he avoided the rapid, was fairly safe from his attack. The
reed-bed, though partly submerged, still yielded the vole sufficient
food; and to reach it straight from his home he had to pass through the
shallows, which extended for a considerable distance up-stream and
down-stream from the gravelly stretch immediately outside the reeds.

About the beginning of winter, when the migration of the salmon had
become intermittent, and the sea-trout had all passed upward beyond the
pool, two of the big, ugly "red fish," late arrivals at the "hover"
nearest the burrow, made a close inspection of the pool; then, instead
of following their kindred to the further reaches, they fell back toward
the tail of the stream and there remained. After the first week of
their stay, Brighteye found them so ill-tempered that he dared not
venture anywhere near the tail of the stream; and, as the big trout at
the top of the pool showed irritation at the least disturbance, the vole
was forced to wander down the bank, to a spot below the salmon, before
crossing the river on his periodical journeys to the reed-bed. His
kindred, still living in the burrow where he had been born, were
similarly daunted; while the shrew became the object of such frequent
attack--especially from the bigger of the two salmon, an old male with a
sinister, pig-like countenance and a formidable array of teeth--that
escape from disaster was little short of miraculous.

Having calculated to a nicety his chances of escape, and having decided
to avoid at all times the haunts of the pugnacious fish, Brighteye was
seldom inconvenienced, except that he had to pass further than hitherto
along the bank before taking to the water, and thus had to risk attack
from weasels and owls. But soon, to his dismay, he discovered that the
salmon had shifted their quarters to the shallow close by the reeds. He
was swimming one night as usual into the quiet water by the reed-bed,
and, indeed, had entered a narrow, lane-like opening among the stems,
when he felt a quick, powerful movement in the water, and saw a
mysterious form turn in pursuit of him, and glide swiftly away with a
mighty effort that caused a wave to ripple through the reeds, while the
outer stalks bent and recoiled as if from the force of a powerful blow.
On the following night he was chased almost to the end of the opening
among the reeds, and barely escaped; but this time he recognised his
pursuer. Afterwards, having unexpectedly met the shrew, he crept with
his companion along by the water's edge as far as the ford, and spent
the dark hours in a strange place, till at dawn he crossed the rough
water, and sought his home by a path the further part of which he had
not previously explored.



IV.

SAVED BY AN ENEMY.


The days were dim and the nights long, and thick, drenching mists hung
over the gloomy river. The salmon's family affairs had reached an
important stage; and the "redd," furrowed in the gravel by the mated
fish, contained thousands of newly deposited eggs. And, as many of the
river-folk, from the big trout to the little water-shrew, continually
threatened a raid on the spawn, the salmon guarded each approach to the
shallows with unremitting vigilance.

It happened, unfortunately for Brighteye, that, while the construction
of the "redd" was in progress, some of the eggs--unfertilised and
therefore not heavy enough to sink to the bottom of the water--were
borne slowly by the current to the ford below the pool, just as the
shrew was occupied there in vain attempts to teach the vole how to hunt
for insects among the pebbles.

If Brighteye had been at all inclined to vary his diet, he would at that
moment have yielded to temptation. Everywhere around him the trout were
exhibiting great eagerness, snapping up the delicacies as they drew
near, and then moving forward on the scent in the direction of the
"redd." The shrew joined in the quest; and Brighteye, full of curiosity,
swam beside his playmate in the wake of the hungry trout. The vole found
quite a shoal of fish collected near the reeds; and for a few moments he
frolicked about the edge of the shallow. He could see nothing of the old
male salmon, though he caught a glimpse of the female busy with her
maternal duties at the top of the "redd."

After diving up-stream and along by the line of the eager trout, he rose
to breathe at the surface, when, suddenly, the river seemed alive with
trout scattering in every direction, a great upheaval seemed to part the
water, and he himself was gripped by one of his hind-feet and dragged
violently down and across to the deep "hover" near his home. The salmon
had at last outwitted the vole. The current was strong, and beneath its
weight Brighteye's body was bent backwards till his fore-paws rested on
the salmon's head. Mad with rage and fright, he clawed and bit at the
neck of his captor. Gradually his strength was giving way, and for want
of air he was losing consciousness, when, like a living bolt, Lutra, the
otter, to save unwittingly a life that she had erstwhile threatened,
shot from the darkness of the river-bed, and fixed her teeth in the neck
of the salmon scarcely more than an inch from the spot to which the vole
held fast in desperation. In the struggle that ensued, and ended only
when Lutra had carried her prey to shore, Brighteye, half suffocated and
but faintly apprehending what had taken place, was released. Like a cork
he rose to the surface, where he lay outstretched and gasping, while the
current carried him swiftly to the ford, and thence to the pool beneath
the village gardens. Having recovered sufficiently to paddle feebly
ashore, he sat for a time in the safe shelter of a rocky ledge,
unnoticed by the brown rats as they wandered through the tall, withered
grass-clumps high above his hiding place. At last he got the better of
his sickness and fright; and, notwithstanding the continued pain of his
scarred limbs, he brushed his furry coat and limped homeward just as the
dawn was silvering the grey, silent pool where the lonely salmon guarded
the "redd" and waited in vain for the return of her absent mate.

Brighteye took to heart his own escape from death, and for several
nights moped and pined, ate little, and frequented only a part of the
river-bank in proximity to his burrow. As soon, however, as the tiny
scars on his leg were healed, he ventured again to the river; and for a
period danger seldom threatened him. While he was unceasingly vigilant,
and always ready to seek with utmost haste the safety of his home, a new
desire to take precautions against the probability of attack possessed
him. When, at dusk, he stole out from the upper entrance of his
dwelling, he crouched on the grassy ledge at the river's brim and peered
into the little bay below. If nothing stirred between the salmon "hover"
and the bank, he dropped quietly into the pool, inhaled a long, deep
breath, dived beneath the willow-roots, and watched, through the clear
depths, each moving fish or swaying stem of river-weed within the range
of his vision. But not till, after several visits to his water-entrance,
he was perfectly convinced of the absence of danger, did he dare to
brave the passage of the pool.

The water-entrance to the vole's burrow was situated about a foot below
the summer level of the river, and in a kind of buttress of gravel and
soil, which, at its base, sloped abruptly inwards like an arch. This
buttress jutted out at the lower corner of a little horse-shoe bay; and
hereabouts, during summer, a shoal of minnows had often played,
following each other in and out of every nook and cranny beneath the
bank, or floating up and flashing in sun-flecked ripples faintly stirred
by a breeze that wandered lightly from across the stream.

Ordinarily, Brighteye found that the hole in the perpendicular bank
served its purpose well; at the slightest disturbance he could escape
thither, and, safe from pursuit, climb the irregular stairway to the
hollow chamber above high-water mark. But it was different in times of
flood. If he had to flee from the big trout, or from the otter, when the
stream rushed madly past his open doorway, he found that an interval,
which, however brief, was sufficient to imperil his life, must
necessarily elapse before he could secure a foothold in his doorway and
lift himself into the dark recess beyond.

[Illustration: "THE BIG TROUT, IN HIS TORPEDO-LIKE RUSH TO CUT OFF
BRIGHTEYE FROM SURE REFUGE." (_See_ p. 105).]

Lutra had almost caught him after his adventure with the owl. He had,
however, eluded the otter by diving, in the nick of time, from the stone
to which he clung before the entrance, and then seeking the land. If he
had been an instant later, she would have picked him off, as a bat picks
a moth from a lighted window-pane, and he would never have reached the
down-stream shallow. At that time the water, clearing after a summer
freshet, was fairly low. Brighteye's danger in some wild winter flood
would, therefore, be far greater; so, timorous from his recent
experiences, and sufficiently intelligent to devise and carry out plans
by which he would secure greater safety, he occupied his spare time in
the lengthening nights with driving a second shaft straight inward
from the chamber to a roomy natural hollow among the willow-roots, and
thence in devious course, to avoid embedded stones, downward to a tiny
haven in the angle of the buttress far inside the archway of the bank,
where the space was so confined that the otter could not possibly follow
him. Even the big trout, in his torpedo-like rush to cut off Brighteye
from sure refuge, utterly failed to turn, and then enter the narrow
archway, in time to catch the artful vole.

The task of digging out the second tunnel was exceedingly arduous; yet,
on its completion, Brighteye, taught by the changes going on around him
that months of scarcity were impending, set to work again about half-way
between his sleeping chamber and the upper entrance of the burrow. Here
he scratched out a small, semicircular "pocket," which he filled with
miscellaneous supplies--seeds of many kinds, a few beech-nuts,
hazel-nuts, and acorns, as well as roots of horse-tail grass and fibrous
river-weed.

He was careful, like his small relative the field-vole, and like the
squirrel in the woods above the river-bank, to harvest only ripe,
undamaged seeds and nuts; and in making his choice he was helped by his
exquisite sense of smell. He found some potatoes and carrots--so small
that they had been dropped as worthless by a passing labourer on the
river-path--and selected the best, leaving the others to rot among the
autumn leaves. As the "pocket" was inadequate to contain his various
stores, the vole used the chamber also as a granary, and slept in the
warm, dry hollow by the willow-roots.

In the depth of winter, when the mist-wreaths on the stream were icy
cold and brought death to the sleeping birds among the branches of the
leafless alders, and when Lutra, ravenous with hunger, chased the great
grey trout from his "hover," but lost him in a crevice near the stakes,
Brighteye, saved from privation by his hoarded provender, seldom
ventured from his home. But if the night was mild and the stars were not
hidden by a cloud of mist, he would steal along his run-way to the main
road of the riverside people, strip the bark from the willow-stoles, and
feed contentedly on the juicy pith; while his friend, the shrew, busy in
the shallows near the reed-bed, searched for salmon-spawn washed from
the "redd" by the turbulent flood, or for newly hatched fry no longer
guarded by the lonely parent fish long since departed on her way to the
distant sea.

The spirit of winter brooded over the river valley. The faint summer
music of the gold-crest in the fir-tops, the sweet, flute-like solo of
the meditative thrush in the darkness of the hawthorn, and the weird,
continuous rattle of the goatsucker perched moveless on an oak-bough
near the river-bend, were no longer heard when at dusk Brighteye left
his burrow and sat, watching and listening, on the little eminence above
the river's brink. Even the drone of the drowsy beetle, swinging over
the ripples of the shadowed stream or from tuft to tuft of grass beside
the woodland path, had ceased. But at times the cheery dipper still sang
from the boulder whence the vole had dived to escape the big brown owl;
and, when other birds had gone to sleep, the robin on the alder-spray
and the wren among the willow-stoles piped their glad vespers to assure
a saddened world that presently the winter's gloom would vanish before
the coming of another spring.

Like a vision of glory, which, in the first hour of some poor wanderer's
sleep, serves but to mock awhile his awakened mind with recollections of
a happy past, so had the Indian summer shone on Nature's tired heart,
and mocked, and passed away. The last red roseleaf had fluttered
silently down; the last purple sloe had fallen from its sapless stem.

A sharp November frost was succeeded by a depressing month of mist and
drizzling rain. Then the heavens opened, and for day after day, and
night after night, their torrents poured down the stony water-courses of
the hills. The river rose beyond the highest mark of summer freshets,
till the low-lying meadow above the village was converted into a lake,
and Brighteye's burrow disappeared beneath the surface of a raging
flood.

Gifted with a mysterious knowledge of Nature's moods--which all wild
animals in some degree possess--the vole had made ready for the sudden
change. On the night preceding the storm, when in the mist even the
faintest sounds seemed to gain in clearness and intensity, he had
hollowed out for himself a temporary dwelling among the roots of a
moss-grown tree on the steep slope of the wood behind the river-path,
and had carried thither all his winter supplies from the granary where
first they had been stored.

Brighteye was exposed to exceptional danger by his compulsory retirement
from the old burrow in the river-bank. Stoats and weasels were ever on
the prowl; no water-entrance afforded him immediate escape from their
relentless hostilities, and he was almost as liable to panic, if pursued
for any considerable distance on land, as were the rabbits living on the
fringe of the gravel-pit within the heart of the silent wood. If a
weasel or a stoat had entered the vole's new burrow during the period
when the flood was at its highest, only the most fortunate circumstances
could have saved its occupant. Even had he managed to flee to the river,
his plight would still have been pitiful. Unable to find security in his
former retreat, and effectually deterred by the lingering scent of his
pursuers from returning to his woodland haunts, Brighteye, a homeless,
hungry little vagabond, at first perplexed, then risking all in search
of food and rest, would inevitably have met his fate.

But neither stoat nor weasel learned of his new abode. His burrow was
high and dry in the gravelly soil under the tree-trunk; and before his
doorway, as far as a hollow at the river's verge, stretched a natural
path of rain-washed stones on which the line of his scent could never
with certainty be followed. While many of his kindred perished,
Brighteye survived this period of flood; and when the waters, having
cleansed each riverside dwelling, abated to their ordinary winter level,
he returned to his burrow in the buttress by the stakes, and once more
felt the joy of living in safety among familiar scenes.

Since the leaves had fallen, the brown rats had become fewer and still
fewer along the river, and, when the flood subsided, it might have been
found that none of these creatures remained in their summer haunts. They
had emigrated to the rick-yard near the village inn; many of the stoats
and weasels, finding provender scarce, had followed in their footsteps;
and Brighteye and his kindred, with the water-shrews, the moorhens, and
the coots, were unmolested in their wanderings both by night and day.

The vole's favourite reed-bed was now seldom visited. Besides being
inundated, it was silted so completely with gravel that to cut through
the submerged stems would have been an arduous and almost impossible
task. Luckily, in his journeys along the edge of the shallows during the
flood, Brighteye had found a sequestered pond, near an old hedgerow
dividing the wood, where tender duckweed was plentiful, and, with
delicious roots of watercress, promised him abundant food. Every evening
he stole through the shadows, climbed the leaf-strewn rabbit-track by
the hedge, and swam across the pond from a dark spot beneath some
brambles to the shelter of a gorse-bush overhanging the weeds. There he
was well protected from the owl by an impenetrable prickly roof, while
he could readily elude, by diving, any stray creature attacking him from
land.

Winter dragged slowly on its course, and, just as the first prophecy of
spring was breathed by the awakening woodlands, the warm west breezes
ceased to blow, and the bleak north wind moaned drearily among the
trees. Night after night a sheet of ice spread and thickened from the
shallows to the edge of the current, the wild ducks came down to the
river from the frost-bound moors, and great flocks of geese, whistling
loudly in the starlit sky, passed on their southward journey to the
coast.

For the first few nights Brighteye left his chamber only when acute
hunger drove him to his storehouse in the wood. Directly he had fed, he
returned home, and settled once more to sleep. At last his supplies were
exhausted, and he was forced to subsist almost entirely on the pith
beneath the bark of the willows. The pond by the hedgerow was sealed
with ice, and he suffered much from the lack of his customary food.
Half-way between his sleeping chamber and its water-entrance, a floor of
ice prevented ready access to the river; and, under this floor, a
hollow, filled with air, was gradually formed as the river receded from
the level it had reached on the first night of frost. Brighteye's only
approach to the outer world was, therefore, through the upper doorway.
All along the margin of the pool, as far as the swift water beyond the
stakes, the ice-shelf was now so high above the river that even to a
large animal like the otter it offered no landing place. Only at the
stakes, where the dark, cold stream flowed rapidly between two blocks of
ice, could Brighteye enter or leave the river. Partly because, if he
should be pursued, the swiftness of the stream was likely to lessen his
chances of escape, and partly because of a vague but ever-present
apprehension of danger, he avoided this spot. It was fortunate that he
did so; Lutra, knowing well the ways of the riverside people, often
lurked in hiding under the shelf of ice beyond the stakes, and, when she
had gone from sight, the big, gaunt trout came slyly from his refuge by
the boulder and resumed his tireless scrutiny of everything that passed
his "hover." At last a thaw set in, and Brighteye, awakening on the
second day from his noontide sleep, heard the great ice-sheet crack, and
groan, and fall into the river.

When darkness came he hurried to the water's brink, and, almost reckless
with delight, plunged headlong into the pool. He tucked his fore-paws
beneath his chin, and, with quick, free strokes of his hind-legs, dived
deep to the very bottom of the backwater. Thence he made a circle of the
little bay, and, floating up to the arch before his dwelling, sought the
inner entrance, where, however, the ice had not yet melted. He dived
once more, and gained the outer entrance in the front of the buttress,
but there, also, the ice was thick and firm. He breathed the cold, damp
air in the hollow beneath the ice, then glided out and swam to land. The
tiny specks of dirt, which, since the frost kept him from the river, had
matted his glossy fur, seemed now completely washed away, and he felt
delightfully fresh and vigorous as he sat on the grass, and licked and
brushed each hair into place. His toilet completed, he ran gaily up the
bank to his storehouse under the tree, but only to find it empty. Not in
the least disheartened, he climbed the rabbit-track, rustled over the
hedge-bank to the margin of the pond, and there, as in the nights before
the frost, feasted eagerly on duckweed and watercress. On the following
day the ice melted in the shaft below his chamber, and he was thus saved
the trouble of tunnelling a third water-passage--as a ready means of
escape from the otter and the big trout, as well as from a chance weasel
or stoat--which, if the ice had not disappeared, he surely would have
made as soon as his vigour was fully restored.



V.

THE COURAGE OF FEAR.


The dawn, with easy movement, comes across the eastern hills; the mists
roll up from steaming hollows to a cloudless sky; the windows of a
farm-house in the dingle gleam and sparkle with the light. So came the
fair, unhesitating spring; so rolled the veil of winter's gloom away; so
gleamed and sparkled with responsive greeting every tree and bush and
flower in the awakened river valley. The springs and summers of our life
are few, yet in each radiant dawn and sunrise they may, in brief, be
found.

Filled with the restlessness of springtide life--a restlessness felt by
all wild creatures, and inherited by man from far distant ages when,
depending on the hunt for his sustenance, he followed the migrations of
the beasts--Brighteye often left his retreat much earlier in the
afternoon than had been his wont, and stole along the river-paths even
while the sunshine lingered on the crest of the hill and on the ripples
by the stakes below the pool.

Prompted by an increasing feeling of loneliness and a strong desire that
one of his kindred should share with him his comfortable home, he
occupied much of his time in enlarging the upper chamber of the burrow
till it formed a snug, commodious sleeping place ceiled by the twisted
willow-roots; and, throwing the soil behind him down the shaft, he
cleared the floor till it was smooth and level. Then he boldly sallied
forth, determined to wander far in search of a mate rather than remain a
bachelor. He proceeded down-stream beside the trout-reach, and for a
long time his journey was in vain. He heard a faint plash on the surface
of the water, and at once his little heart beat fast with mingled hope
and fear; but the sound merely indicated that the last of winter's
withered oak-leaves, pushed gently aside by a swelling bud, had fallen
from the bough. Suddenly, from the ruined garden above him on the brow
of the slope, came the dread hunting cry of his old enemy, the tawny
owl. Even as the first weird note struck with far-spreading resonance on
the silence of the night, all longing and hope forsook the vole.
Realising only that he was in a strange place far from home, and exposed
to many unknown dangers, he sat as moveless as the pebbles around him,
till, from a repetition of the cry, he learned that the owl was
departing into the heart of the wood. Then, silently, he journeyed
onward. Further and still further--past the rocky shelf where he had
landed after his escape from the salmon, and into a region honeycombed
with old, deserted rat-burrows, and arched with prostrate trees and
refuse borne by flood--he ventured, his fear forgotten in the strength
of his desire.

Close beside the river's brink, as the shadows darkened, he found the
fresh scent of a female vole. He followed it eagerly, through shallow
and whirlpool and stream, to a spit of sand among some boulders, where
he met, not the reward of his labour and longing, but a jealous admirer
of the dainty lady he had sought to woo. After the manner of their kind
in such affairs, the rivals ruffled with rage, kicked and squealed as
if to declare their reckless bravery, and closed in desperate battle.
Their polished teeth cut deeply, and the sand was furrowed and pitted by
their straining feet. Several times they paused for breath, but only to
resume the fight with renewed energy. The issue was, however, at last
decided. Brighteye, lying on his back, used his powerful hind-claws with
such effect that, when he regained his footing, he was able, almost
unresisted, to get firm hold of his tired opponent, and to thrust him,
screaming with pain and baffled rage, into the pool.

The female vole had watched the combat from a recess in the bank; and,
when the victor returned from the river, she crept out trustfully to
meet him, and licked his soiled and ruffled fur. But for the moment
Brighteye was not in a responsive mood. Though his body thrilled at the
touch of her warm, soft tongue, he recognised that his first duty was to
make his conquest sure. His strength had been taxed to the utmost, and,
since his rage was expended and his tiny wounds were beginning to smart,
he feared a second encounter and the possible loss of his lady-love.
So, with simulated anger, he drove her before him along the up-stream
path and into the network of deserted run-ways by the trout-reach. There
his mood entirely changed; and soon, in simple, happy comradeship, he
led her to his home.

Brighteye was a handsome little fellow. At all times he had been careful
in his toilet, but now, pardonably vain, he fastidiously occupied every
moment of leisure in brushing and combing his long, fine, soft fur. Both
in appearance and habits he was altogether different from the
garbage-loving rat. His head was rounder and blunter than the rat's, his
feet were larger and softer, and his limbs and his tail were shorter. On
the under side his feet were of a pale pink colour, but on the upper
side they were covered, like the field-vole's, with close, stiff hair
set in regular lines from the toes to the elbows of the front limbs and
to the ankles of the hind-legs, where the long, fine fur of the body
took its place. A slight webbing crossed the toes of his hind-feet--so
slight, indeed, that it assisted him but little in swimming--and his
tiny, polished claws were plum-coloured. Except when he was listening
intently for some sign of danger, his small, round ears were almost
concealed in his thick fur. His mate was of smaller and more delicate
build--this was especially noticeable when once I saw her swim with
Brighteye through the clear water beneath the bank--and she was clad in
sombre brown and grey.

Household and similar duties soon began to claim attention in and around
the riverside dwelling. The green grass was growing rapidly under the
withered blades that arched the run-ways between the river's brink and
the woodland path; and, as the voles desired to keep these run-ways
clear, they assiduously cut off all encroaching stems and brushed them
aside. The stems dried, and in several places formed a screen beneath
which the movements of the voles were not easily discernible. Selecting
the best of the dry grass-stalks, the voles carried them home, and,
after much labour, varied with much consultation in which small
differences of opinion evidently occurred, completed, in the sleeping
chamber beneath the willow-roots, a large, round nest. The magnitude of
their labour could be easily inferred from the appearance of the nest:
each grass-blade carried thither had been bitten into dozens of
fragments, and the structure filled the entire space beyond the first of
the exposed roots, though its interior, till from frequent use it
changed its form, seemed hardly able to accommodate the female vole.

In this tight snuggery, at a time when the corncrake's nocturnal music
was first heard in the meadow by the pool, five midget water-voles,
naked and blind, were born. Brighteye listened intently to the faint,
unmistakable family noises issuing therefrom, and then, like a
thoughtful dry-nurse, went off to find for his mate a tender white root
of horse-tail grass. For several nights he was assiduous in his
attentions to the mother vole; and afterwards, his house-keeping duties
being suspended, he became a vigilant sentinel, maintaining constant
watch over the precious family within his home.

When the baby voles were about a week old, a large brown rat, that on
several occasions in the previous year had annoyed the youthful
Brighteye, returned to the pool. Wandering through the run-ways, the
monster chanced to discover the opening from the bank to Brighteye's
chamber, and, thinking that here was a place admirably suited for a
summer resort, proceeded to investigate. The vole scented him
immediately, and, though the weaker animal, climbed quickly out and with
tooth and nail fell upon the intruder. An instant later, the mother vole
appeared, and with even greater ferocity than that of her mate joined in
the keen affray in order to defend her home and family to the utmost of
her powers. But the rat possessed great strength and cruel teeth, and
his size and weight were such that for several minutes he successfully
maintained his position. With desperate efforts, the voles endeavoured
to pull the rat into the water, where, as they knew, their advantage
would be greater than on land. They succeeded at last in forcing him
over the bank, and in the pool proceeded to punish him to such an
extent--clinging to his neck by their teeth and fore-feet, while they
used their hind-claws with painful effect on his body--that, dazed by
their drastic methods and almost suffocated, he reluctantly gave up the
struggle, and floated, gasping, down the stream.

The mother vole, though she and her spouse had proved victorious, was so
unsettled by the rat's incursion, that, as a cat carries her kittens,
she carried each of her young in turn from their nest to a temporary
refuge in a clump of brambles. Still dissatisfied, she removed them
thence to a shallow depression beside one of the run-ways, where,
throughout the night, she nursed them tenderly. At daybreak she took
them back to the warmth and the comfort of the nest. Shortly afterwards,
when their eyes were opened and they were following the parent voles on
one of their customary night excursions, the mother found herself face
to face with a far more formidable antagonist than the rat.

The baby voles, like the offspring of nearly all land animals that have
gradually become aquatic in their habits, were at first strangely averse
from entering the water, and had to be taken by their parents into the
pool. There the anxious mother, firm yet gentle in her system of
education, watched their every movement, and encouraged them to follow
her about the backwaters and shallows near their home. But if either of
them showed the faintest sign of fatigue, the mother dived quietly and
lifted the tired nursling to the surface.

Late one evening, while the parent voles were busy with their work of
family training, the old cannibal trout suddenly appeared, rose quickly
at one of the youngsters swimming near the edge of the current, but,
through a slight miscalculation, failed to clutch his prize. The mother
vole, ever on the alert, plunged down, and, heedless of danger, darted
towards her enemy. For a second or two she manoeuvred to obtain a grip,
then, as she turned to avoid attack, the jaws of the trout opened wide,
and, like a steel trap, closed firmly on her tail. Maddened with rage
and pain, she raised herself quickly, clutched at the back of her
assailant, and buried her sharp, adze-shaped teeth--that could strip a
piece of willow-bark as neatly as could a highly tempered tool of
steel--in the flesh behind his gills. So sure and speedy was her action,
that she showed no sign of fatigue when she reached the surface of the
water, and the trout, his spinal column severed just behind his gills,
drifted lifelessly away.

Though the young voles, in the tunnelled buttress of the river-bank,
lived under the care of experienced parents ever ready and resolute in
their defence, and became as shy and furtive as the wood-mice dwelling
in the hollows of the hedge beside the pond, they were not always
favoured by fortune. The weakling of the family died of disease; another
of the youngsters, foraging alone in the wood, was killed by a
bloodthirsty weasel; while a third, diving to pick up a root of
water-weed, was caught by the neck in the fork of a submerged branch,
and drowned.

During the autumn and the winter the survivors remained with their
parents; the burrow was enlarged and improved by the addition of new
granaries for winter supplies, new water-entrances to facilitate escape
in times of panic, and a new, commodious sleeping chamber, strewn with
hay and withered reeds, at the end of a long tunnel extending almost
directly beneath the river-path. The supplies in the granaries were,
however, hardly needed: the winter was exceptionally mild, and the voles
were generally able to obtain duckweed and watercress for food. Often,
on my way to the ruined garden, I noticed their footprints--indistinctly
outlined on the gravel, but deep and triangular where the creatures
climbed through soft and yielding soil--along the path leading to the
pond in the pasture near the wood.

When spring came once more, and the scented primroses gleamed faintly in
the gloom beside the upper entrance to the burrow, and the corncrake,
babbling loudly, wandered through the growing grass at the foot of the
meadow-hedge, the household of the voles was broken up. The young ones
found partners, and, in homes not far from the burrow by the
willow-stoles, settled down to the usual life of the vole, a life of
happiness and yet of peril.

For still another year Brighteye's presence was familiar to me. I often
watched him as he sat at the water's edge above the buttress, or on the
stone in mid-stream, or on the half-submerged root of a tree washed into
an angle of the pool above the stakes, and as, after his usual toilet
observances, he swam thence across the reed-bed opposite the "hover"
where, in autumn, the breeding salmon lurked.

Then, for many months, I lived far from the well loved village. But one
winter evening, after a long journey, I returned. The snow, falling
rapidly, blotted out the prospect of the silent hills. The village
seemed asleep; the shops were closed for the weekly holiday; not a
footfall could be heard, not even a dog could be seen, down the long
vista of the straggling street. The white walls of the cottages, and the
white snow-drifts banked beside the irregular pavements, were in
complete contrast to the radiant summer scene on which my eyes had
lingered when I left the village. My feeling of cheerlessness was not
dispelled even by the warmth and comfort of the little inn. Oppressed by
the evidences of change, which in my disappointment were, no doubt, much
exaggerated, I left the inn, and, heedless of the piercing cold and the
driving snow, made my way towards the river. As I approached the stakes
below the pool, a golden-eye duck rose from beside the bank, and on
whistling wings flew swiftly into the gloom. I crouched in the shelter
of a holly tree, and waited and watched till the cold became
unendurable; but no other sign of life was visible; the pool was
deserted.

In summer I returned home to stay, and then, as of old, I often wandered
by the river. Evening after evening, till long after the last red glow
had faded from the western hill-tops, I lingered by the pool. The owl
sailed slowly past; the goatsucker hawked for moths about the oaks; the
trout rose to the incautious flies; the corncrake babbled loudly in the
long, lush meadow grass. A family of voles swam in and out of the
shallows opposite my hiding place; but none of the little animals
approached the buttress near the stakes. Frequently I saw their
footprints on the sandy margin, but never the footprints of Brighteye.
Somehow, somewhere, he had met relentless fate.



THE FIELD-VOLE.

I.

HIDDEN PATHWAYS IN THE GRASS.


The sun had set, the evening was calm, and a mist hung over the
countryside when a field-vole appeared at the mouth of his burrow in a
mossy pasture. The little grey creature was one of the most timorous of
the feeble folk dwelling in the pleasant wilderness of the Valley of
Olwen. His life, like that of Brighteye, the water-vole, was beset with
enemies; but Nature had given to him, as to the water-vole, acute senses
of sight, and smell, and hearing, and a great power of quick and
intelligent action. He had lived four years, survived a hundred dangers,
and reared twenty healthy families; and his wits were so finely
sharpened that he was recognised by a flourishing colony, which had
gradually increased around his moss-roofed home, as the wisest and most
wide-awake field-vole that ever nibbled a turnip or harvested a seed.

For a moment the vole sat in the mouth of the burrow, with nothing of
himself visible but a blunt little snout twitching as he sniffed the
air, and two beady eyes moving restlessly as he peered into the sky.
Suddenly he leaped out and squatted beside the nearest stone. A robin,
disturbed in his roosting place by another of his kind, flew from the
hedge in furious pursuit of the intruder, and passed within a few inches
of the burrow. The vole, alarmed by the rush of wings, instantly
vanished; but soon, convinced that no cause for fear existed, he again
left his burrow and for several minutes sat motionless by the stone.

He was not, however, idle--a field-vole is never idle save when he
sleeps--but he was puzzled by the different sounds and scents and sights
around him; they had become entangled, and while he watched and listened
his mind was trying to pick out a thread of meaning here and there. What
was the cause of that angry chatter, loud, prolonged, insistent, in the
fir plantation at the bottom of the field? Some unwelcome creature, bent
on mischief--perhaps a weasel or a cat--was wandering through the
undergrowth, and the blackbirds, joined by the finches, the wrens, and
the tits, were endeavouring to drive it from the neighbourhood.
Gradually the noisy birds followed the intruder to the far end of the
slope; then, returning to their roosting places, they squabbled for the
choice of sheltered perches among the ivied boughs. Silence fell on
upland and valley; and the creatures of the night crept forth from bank
and hedgerow, and the thickets of the wood, to play and feed under the
friendly protection of the fast-gathering gloom. But the field-vole
would not venture from his lair beside the stone.

A convenient tunnel, arched with grass-bents, led thither from the
burrow, the post of observation being shaped through frequent use into
an oval "form." The vole, though anxious to begin his search for food,
was not satisfied that the way was clear to the margin of the fir
plantation, for the air was infused with many odours, some so strong and
new that he could easily have followed their lines, but others so faint
and old that their direction and identity were alike uncertain. From the
signs that were fresh the vole learned the story of field-life for the
day. Horses, men, and hounds had hurried by in the early morning, and
with their scent was mingled that of a fleeing fox. Later, the farmer
and his dog had passed along the hedge, a carrion crow had fed on a
scrap of refuse not a yard from the stone, and a covey of partridges had
"dusted" in the soft soil before leaving the pasture by a gap beside a
clump of furze. Blackbirds, thrushes, yellow-hammers, and larks had
wandered by in the grass, a wood-pigeon and a squirrel had loitered
among the acorns under the oak, and a hedgehog had led her young through
the briars. Rabbits, too, had left their trails in the clover, and a red
bank-vole had strayed near the boundaries of the field-vole's colony.
Their signs were familiar to the vole from experience; he detected them
and singled them out from the old trails with a sense even truer than
that of the hounds as they galloped past in the morning's chase.

There was one distinct scent, however, that baffled him. At first he
believed it to be that of a weasel, but it lacked the pungent strength
inseparable from the scent of a full-grown "vear."

Gathering courage as the darkness deepened, the field-vole rustled from
his lair, ran quickly down the slope, and crept through a wattled
opening into the wood. He found some fallen hawthorn berries among the
hyacinth leaves that carpeted the ground, and of these he made a hasty
meal, sitting on his haunches, and holding his food in his fore-paws as
he gnawed the firm, succulent flesh about the kernel of the seed. Then,
with a swift patter of tiny feet on the leaf-mould, he ran down to a
rill trickling over a gravelly bed towards the brook, stooped at the
edge of a dark pool in the shadow of a stone, and lapped the cool, clear
water. Thence he made for the edge of the wood, to visit a colony of his
tribe which in spring had migrated from the burrows in the uplands.
Half-way on his journey, he again suddenly crossed the line of the
unknown scent, now mingled with the almost overpowering smell of a
full-grown weasel. The mystery was explained: the strange trail in the
upland meadow had evidently been that of a young "vear" passing by the
hedge to join its parent in the wood.

For a moment the vole stood petrified with terror; then he sank to the
earth, and lay as still as the dead leaves beneath him. But there was no
time to be lost; the "vears" were returning on their trail. In an agony
of fear the mouse turned back towards his home. He ran slowly, for his
limbs almost refused their office of bearing him from danger. Reaching
the mouth of his burrow with great difficulty, he dropped headlong down
a shallow shaft leading to one of the numerous galleries. Then, lo! his
mood immediately changed; his reasoning powers became strong and clear;
his parental instincts whispered that his family, like himself, was in
peril. Squeaking all the while, he raced down one tunnel, then down
another, turned a sharp corner beneath an archway formed by the roots of
a tree that had long ago been felled; and there, in a dry nest of hay
and straw, he found his mate with her helpless little family of six
blind, semi-transparent sucklings only three days old. He heard on every
side the quick scamper of feet as, alarmed by his cries, the voles
inhabiting the side passages of the burrow scurried hither and thither
in wild efforts to remove their young to some imagined place of safety.

[Illustration: "SHE WAS HOLDING ONE OF HER OFFSPRING BY THE NECK, IN
PREPARATION FOR FLIGHT." (_See_ p. 139).]

His mate, like her neighbours, had already taken alarm. At the moment of
his arrival she was holding one of her offspring by the neck, in
preparation for flight. The next instant an ominous hiss reverberated
along the hollow passages; the mother vole, with her suckling, vanished
in the darkness of the winding gallery; and the weasels descended into
the labyrinth of tunnels hollowed out beneath the moss.

Again an almost overwhelming fear possessed the hunted vole, his limbs
stiffened, his condition seemed helpless. He crawled slowly hither and
thither, now passing some fellow-creature huddled in the corner of a
blind alley; now lifting himself above ground to seek refuge in another
part of the burrow; now pausing to listen to cries of pain which
indicated how thoroughly the "vears" were fulfilling their gruesome
work. It seemed that the whole colony of voles was being exterminated.

Bewildered, after an hour of unmitigated dread, he quitted the place of
slaughter, where every nook and corner reeked of blood or of the
weasels' scent, and limped through the grass towards the hedge. In a
hollow among the scattered stones he stayed till terror no longer
benumbed him, and he could summon courage to seek an early meal in the
root-field beyond the pasture. Directly the day began to dawn, he
cautiously returned to his burrow. Though numerous traces of the havoc
of the night remained, he knew, from the staleness of the weasels'
scent, that his foes had departed.

At noon his mate came again to her nest, and searched for her missing
offspring. But the taint of blood on the floor of the chamber told her
only too well that henceforth her mothering care would be needed solely
by the young mouse that she had rescued in her flight. The day passed
uneventfully; the weasels did not repeat their visit. At nightfall the
mother mouse, stealing into the wood, found both her enemies caught in
rabbit-traps set beside the "runs" among the hawthorns.

For a while peace reigned in the underground dwellings of the mossy
pasture, and the young field-vole thrived amazingly; from the very
outset fortune favoured him above the rest of his species. After the
wholesale destruction that had taken place, little risk of overcrowding
and its attendant evils remained, and, for the lucky mice surviving the
raid, food was plentiful, even when later, in winter, they were awakened
by some warm, bright day, and hunger, long sustained, had made them
ravenous. Kweek, having no brother or sister to share his birthright,
was fed and trained in a manner that otherwise would have been
impossible, while his parents were particularly strong and healthy.
These circumstances undoubtedly combined to make him what he eventually
became--quick to form an opinion and to act, and able, once he was fully
grown, to meet in fight all rivals for the possession of any sleek young
she-vole he happened to have chosen for his mate.

Soon after his eyes were open, the adult voles of the colony began to
harvest their winter supplies. Seeds of all kinds were stored in
shallow hiding places--under stones, or under fallen branches--or in
certain chambers of the burrow set apart for that especial purpose; and
as each granary was filled its entrance was securely stopped by a mound
of earth thrown up by the busy harvesters.

The first solid food Kweek tasted was the black, glossy seed of a
columbine, which his mother, busily collecting provender, chanced to
drop near him as she hurried to her storehouse. Earlier in the night,
just outside the burrow, he had watched her with great curiosity as she
daintily nibbled a grain of wheat brought from a gateway where the laden
waggons had passed. He had loitered near, searching among the
grass-roots for some fragment he supposed his mother to have left
behind, but he found only a rough, prickly husk, that stuck beneath his
tongue, nearly choked him, and drove him frantic with irritation, till,
after much violent shaking and twitching, and rubbing his throat and
muzzle with his fore-paws, he managed to get rid of the objectionable
morsel. Something, however, in the taste of the husk so aroused his
appetite for solid food, that when his mother dropped the columbine seed
he at once picked it up in his fore-paws, and, stripping off the hard,
glossy covering, devoured it with the keen relish of a new hunger that
as yet he could not entirely understand. His growth, directly he learned
to feed on the seeds his mother showed him, and to forage a little for
himself, was more rapid than before. Nature seemed in a hurry to make
him strong and fat, that he might be able to endure the cold and
privation of winter.

By the end of November, when at night the first rime-frosts lay on the
fallow, and the voles, disliking the chill mists, seldom left their
burrow, Kweek was already bigger than his dam. He was, in fact, the
equal of his sire in bone and length, but he was loose-limbed and had
not filled out to those exact proportions which, among voles as among
all other wildlings of the field, make for perfect symmetry, grace, and
stamina, and come only with maturity and the first love season.

When about two months old, Kweek, for the first time since the weasels
had visited the burrow, experienced a narrow escape from death. The
night was mild and bright, and the vole was busy in the littered loam of
the hedgerow, where, during the afternoon, a blackbird had scratched the
leaves away and left some ripe haws exposed to view. Suddenly he heard a
loud, mocking call, apparently coming from the direction of the moon:
"Whoo-hoo! Whoo-hoo-o-o-o!" It was a strangely bewildering sound; so the
vole squatted among the leaves and listened anxiously, every sense alert
to catch the meaning of the weird, foreboding voice. "Whoo-hoo!
Whoo-hoo-o-o-o!"--again, from directly overhead, the cry rang out into
the night. A low squeak of warning, uttered by the father vole as he
dived into his burrow, caused the young mice foraging in the undergrowth
to bolt helter-skelter towards home. Kweek, joining in the general
panic, rushed across the field, and had almost disappeared underground
when he felt the earth and the loose pebbles falling over him, and at
the same time experienced a sharp thrill of pain. Fortunately, his speed
saved him--but only by an inch. The claws of the great brown owl,
shutting like a vice as the bird "stooped" on her prey, laid hold of
nothing but earth and grass, though one keen talon cut the vole's tail
as with a knife, so that the little creature squealed lustily as he ran
along the gallery to seek solace from his mother's companionship in the
central chamber beyond. Yet even there he was not allowed to remain in
peace. Maddened by the scent of a few drops of blood coming from his
wound, the adult voles chased him from the burrow, and drove him out
into the field. Luckily for him the brown owl had meanwhile flown away
with another young vole in her claws. Kweek remained in safety under the
hawthorns till the grey dawn flushed the south-east sky; then, his
injured tail having ceased to bleed, he ventured without fear among his
kindred as they lay huddled asleep in the recesses of their underground
abode.

The year drew to its close, the weather became colder, and an
irresistible desire for long-continued rest took possession of Kweek.
His appetite was more easily satisfied than hitherto; hour after hour,
by night as well as by day, he drowsed in the snug corner where lay the
remains of the nest in which he had been born. Winter, weary and
monotonous to most of the wildlings of the field, passed quickly over
his head. Scarce-broken sleep and forgetfulness, when skies are grey and
tempests rage--such are Nature's gifts to the snake, the bee, and the
flower, as well as to the squirrel in the wood and the vole in the
burrow beneath the moss. Occasionally, it is true, when at noon the sun
was bright and spring seemed to have come to the Valley of Olwen, the
snake would stir in his retreat beneath the leaves, the bee would crawl
to and fro in her hidden nest, the flower would feel the stir of rising
sap, the squirrel would venture forth to stretch cramped limbs by a
visit to some particular storehouse--the existence of which, as one
among many filled with nuts and acorns, he happened to remember--and the
vole would creep to the entrance of his burrow, and sit in the welcome
warmth till the sun declined and hunger sent him to his granary for a
hearty meal. These brief, spring-like hours, when the golden furze
blossomed in the hedge-bank near the field-vole's home, and the lark,
exultant, rose from the barren stubble, were, however, full of danger to
Kweek if he but dared to lift his head above the opening of his burrow.

On the outskirts of the wood, in a rough, ivy-grown ridge where, years
ago, some trees had been felled, a flourishing colony of
bank-voles--little creatures nearly akin, and almost similar in shape
and size, to the field-voles--dwelt among the roots and the undergrowth.
These bank-voles, probably because they lived in a sheltered place
screened from the bitter wind by a wall of gorse and pines, moved abroad
in the winter days far more frequently than did the field-voles. For
several years a pair of kestrels had lived in the valley, and had reared
their young in a nest built on a ledge of rock above the Cerdyn brook
and safe beyond the reach of marauding schoolboys. The hen-kestrel, when
provender became scarce, would regularly at noon beat her way across the
hill-top to the ridge where the red voles lived, and, watching and
waiting, with keen eyes and ready talons, would remain in the air above
the burrow as if poised at the end of an invisible thread. Chiefly she
was the terror of the bank-voles; but often, impatient of failure, she
would slant her fans and drift towards the burrows in the mossy pasture,
hoping to find that the grey voles had awakened for an hour from their
winter sleep.

Once, when the breeze blew gently from the south and the sun was bright,
Kweek, sitting on a grassy mound, saw a shadow rapidly approaching, and
heard a sharp swish of powerful wings. Though drowsy and stiff from his
winter sleep, he was roused for the moment by the imminence of danger,
and, barely in time, scurried to his hole. A fortnight afterwards, when,
again tempted out of doors by the mildness of the weather, the vole was
peeping through an archway of matted grass, the hawk, with even greater
rapidity than before, shot down from the sky. Had it not been that the
long grass screened an entrance on the outskirts of the burrow, Kweek
would then have met his fate. He fell, almost without knowing what was
happening, straight down the shaft; and the sharp talons of the hawk
touched nothing but grass and earth, and the end of a tail already
scarred by the claws of the owl. Next day, as, moving along the
galleries to his favourite exit, the vole passed beneath the shaft, he
saw, straight overhead, the shadowy wings outstretched, quivering,
lifting, gliding, pausing, while beneath those spreading fans the
baleful eyes gleamed yellow in the slant of the south-west sun, and the
cruel claws, indrawn against the keel-shaped breast, were clenched in
readiness for the deadly "stoop." Fascinated, the vole stayed awhile to
look at the hovering hawk. Then, as the bird passed from the line of
sight, he continued his way along the underground passage to the spot
where he usually left his home by one of the narrow, clean-cut holes
which, in a field-vole's burrow, seem to serve a somewhat similar
purpose to that of the "bolts" in a rabbit's warren; and there he again
looked out. The hawk still hovered in the calm winter air, so Kweek did
not venture that day to bask in the sun outside his door. As soon as he
had fed, and shaken every speck of loose loam from his fur, and washed
himself clean with his tiny red tongue, he once more sought his cosy
corner and fell asleep.

Presently a pink and purple sunset faded in the gloom of night, and a
heavy frost, beginning a month of bitter cold, lay over the fields. In
continuous slumber Kweek passed that dreary month, till the daisies
peeped in the grass, the snowdrops and the daffodils thrust forth their
sword-shaped leaves above the water-meadows, and the earliest violet
unfolded its petals by the pathway in the woods.



II.

THE VALLEY OF OLWEN.


Eastward, the sky was covered with pale cobalt; and in the midst of the
far-spreading blue hung a white and crimson cloud, like a puff of
bright-stained vapour blown up above the rim of the world. Westward, the
sky was coloured with brilliant primrose; and on the edge of the distant
moorlands lay a great bank of mist, rainbow-tinted with deep violet, and
rose, and orange. For a space immediately on each side of the mist the
primrose deepened into daffodil--a chaste yet intense splendour that
seemed to stretch into infinite distances and overlap the sharply
defined ridges of the dark horizon. The green of the upland pasture and
the brown of the ploughland beyond were veiled by a shimmering twilight
haze, in which the varied tints of the sky harmoniously blended, till
the umber and indigo shadows of night loomed over the hills, and the
daffodil flame flickered and vanished over the last red ember of the
afterglow. Thus the first calm day of early spring drew to its close.

Kweek, the little field-vole, asleep in his hidden nest beneath the
moss, was roused by the promise that Olwen, the White-footed, who had
come to her own beautiful valley among our western hills, whispered as
she passed along the slope above the mill-dam in the glen. He uncurled
himself on the litter of withered grass-bents that formed his winter
couch, crept towards the nearest bolt-hole of his burrow, and peeped at
the fleecy clouds as they wandered idly overhead. He inhaled long, deep
breaths of the fresh, warm air; then, conscious of new, increasing
strength, he continued his way underground to the granary in which, some
months ago, his mother had stored the columbine seeds. But the earth had
been scratched away from the storehouse door, and nothing remained of
the winter supplies. Hungry and thirsty, yet not daring to roam abroad
while the sun was high, the vole moved from chamber to chamber of his
burrow, washed himself thoroughly from the tip of his nose to the tip of
his tail, then, feeling lonely, awakened his parents from their heavy
sleep, and spent the afternoon thinking and dreaming, till the sun sank
low in the glory of the aureolin sky, and the robin's vesper trilled
wistfully from the hawthorns on the fringe of the shadowed wood.
Becoming venturesome with the near approach of night, but still
remembering the danger that had threatened him before the last period of
his winter sleep, he lifted himself warily above the ground, and for a
little while stayed near the mound of earth beside the door of his
burrow. Cramped from long disuse, every muscle in his body seemed in
need of vigorous exertion, while with each succeeding breath of the cool
twilight air his hunger and thirst increased.

Determined to find food and water, Kweek started towards the copse. No
beaten pathway guided his footsteps; wind and rain, frost and thaw, and
the new, slow growth of the grass, had obliterated every trail. But by
following the scent of the parent voles that had already stolen into
the wood, he reached in safety the banks of the rill. Having quenched
his thirst, he scratched the soft soil from beneath a stone and
satisfied his hunger with some succulent sprouts of herbage there
exposed to sight. Soon, tired from his unwonted exertion, and feeling
great pain through having torn the pads of his feet--which, like those
of all hibernating animals, had become extremely tender from want of
exercise--he crept home to his burrow, and rested till the soreness had
gone from his limbs, and he felt active and hungry again.

For the vole, guided as he was by his appetite, the most wholesome
vegetable food was a ripe, well-flavoured seed. It contained all that
the plant could give; leaf and stalk were tasteless compared with it,
and were accepted only as a change of diet, or as a medicine, or as a
last resource. Next to a seed, he loved a tender root, or a stem that
had not yet thrust itself through the soil, and was therefore crisp and
dainty to the taste. But the vole did not subsist entirely on vegetable
food. Occasionally, when the nights were warm, he surprised some little
insect hiding in the moss, and pounced on his prey almost as greedily
as the trout in the stream below the hill rose to a passing fly. And
just as the cattle in the distant farm throve on grain and oil-cake, and
the pheasant in the copse near by on wood-ants' "eggs," and the trout in
the Cerdyn brook on ephemerals hatched at the margin of the pool, so
Kweek, the field-vole, abroad in the nights of summer, grew sleek and
well conditioned on good supplies of seeds and grubs. But now, worn out
by long privation, he was tired and weak.

Gradually, from the bed of winter death, from the rotting leaf-mould and
the cold, damp earth, the fresh, bright forms of spring arose. The
purple and crimson trails of the periwinkle lengthened over the stones;
then the spear-shaped buds, prompted by the flow of pulsing sap, lifted
themselves above the glossy leaves and burst into flowers. The dandelion
and the celandine peeped from the grass; the primrose garlanded each
sunny mound on the margin of the wood; and the willow catkins, clothed
with silver and pearly grey, waved in the moist, warm breeze as it
wandered by the brook. The queen-ant, aroused by the increasing warmth,
carried her offspring from the deep recess where, in her tunnelled nest,
she had brooded over them while the north-east wind blew through the
leafless boughs, and laid them side by side in a roomy chamber
immediately beneath the stone that screened the spot to which, in the
autumn dusk, the father vole resorted that he might watch and wait
before the darkness deepened on the fields and woods. The bees from the
hives in the farm garden, and innumerable flies from their winter
retreats in the hedgerows, came eagerly to the golden blossoms of the
furze near the bank-voles' colony. The bees alighted with care on the
lower petals of the flowers, and thence climbed quickly to the hidden
sweets; but the flies, heedless adventurers, dropped haphazard among the
sprays, and were content to filch the specks of pollen dust and the tiny
drops of nectar scattered by the honey-bees. A spirit of restlessness,
of strife, of strange, unsatisfied desire, possessed all Nature's
children; it raised the primrose from amid the deep-veined leaves
close-pressed on the carpet of the grass, it tuned the carols of the
robin and the thrush, it caused the wild jack-hare to roam by daylight
along paths which hitherto he had not followed save by night. Kweek felt
the subtle influence; long before dark he would venture from his home,
steal through the "creeps," which had now become evident because of
frequent "traffic," and visit the distant colonies of his kindred beyond
the wood.

Of the flourishing community living in the burrow before the weasels'
raid none survived but Kweek and his parents. One night, however, the
father vole, while foraging near the hedgerow, was snapped up and eaten
by the big brown owl from the beech-wood across the valley. In the
woodlands the greatest expert on the ways of voles was the brown owl.
His noiseless wings never gave the slightest alarm, and never interfered
with his sense of hearing--so acute that the faint rustle of a leaf or a
grass-blade brought him, like a bolt, from the sky, to hover close to
the earth, eager, inquisitive, merciless, till a movement on the part
of his quarry sealed its doom.

The mother vole, feeling lonely and more than ever afraid, wandered far
away, and found another mate in a sleek, bright-eyed little creature
inhabiting a roomy chamber excavated in the loose soil around a heap of
stones on the crest of the hill. Kweek, nevertheless, remained faithful
to the place of his birth. Though most of his time was spent near the
colony beyond the wood, he invariably returned to sleep on the shapeless
litter which was all that now remained of the neat, round nest in which
he had been nursed.

Kweek's frequent visits to his kindred beyond the wood led to numerous
adventures. Every member of the colony seemed suddenly to have turned to
the consideration of household affairs, and a lively widow-vole flirted
so outrageously with bachelor Kweek that, having at last fallen a victim
to her persistent attentions, he was never happy save in her company.
Unfortunately a big ruffian mouse also succumbed to the widow's wiles,
and Kweek found himself awkwardly placed. He fought long and stubbornly
against his rival, but, unequally matched and sorely scratched and
bitten, was at last forced to rustle away in the direction of his burrow
as quickly as his little feet could carry him. He slept off the effects
of his exhaustion and the loss of a little blood and fur, then returned,
stealthily, to his well-known trysting place, but found, alas! that his
fickle lady-love had already regarded with favour the charms of the
enemy. Kweek caught a glimpse of her as she carried wisps of withered
grass to a hole in the middle of the burrow, and at once recognised that
his first fond passion had hopelessly ended.

Fortune continued to treat him unkindly: that night, while returning
homewards, he was almost frightened out of his wits by the shrieks of
some little creature captured by the cruel owl, and, immediately
afterwards, a rabbit, alarmed by the same ominous sounds and bolting to
her warren in the wood, knocked him topsy-turvy as he crouched in hiding
among the leaves. These adventures taught him salutary lessons, and
henceforth the confidence of youth gave place to extreme caution; he
avoided the risk of lying near a rabbit's "creep," and was quick to
discern the slightest sign, such as a shadowy form above the moonlit
field, which might indicate the approach of the slow-winged tyrant of
the night.

Among animals living in communities it is a frequent custom for a young
male, if badly beaten in his first love episode by a rival, to elope
with a new spouse, and seek a home at some distance from the scene of
his defeat. Kweek suffered exceedingly from his disappointment; it was a
shock to him that he should be bullied and hustled at the very time when
his passion was strongest and every prospect in his little life seemed
fair and bright.

For a time he dared not match himself against another of the older
voles. But in an unimportant squabble with a mouse of his own age, he
soon proved the victor, and, finding his reward in the favour of a young
she-vole that had watched the quarrel from behind a grass-tuft, ran off
with her at midnight to his old, deserted burrow in the pasture. After
thoroughly examining the various galleries in the underground
labyrinth, the fastidious little pair dug out a clean, fresh chamber at
right angles to the main tunnel, and, contented, began in earnest the
duties of the year.

April came; and often, as he sat by his door, Kweek watched the gentle
showers sweep by in tall pillars of vapour through the moonbeams falling
aslant from the illumined edges of an overhanging cloud, and through the
shadows stretching in long, irregular lines between the fallow and the
copse; and night after night the shadows near the copse grew deeper, and
still deeper, as the hawthorn leaf-buds opened to the warmth of spring.

The grass-spears lengthened; the moss spread in new, rain-jewelled
velvet-pile over the pasture floor; the woodbine and the bramble trailed
their tender shoots above the hedge; a leafy screen sheltered each
woodland home; and even the narrow path from the field-voles' burrow to
the corner of the copse led through a perfect bower of half-transparent
greenery. The birds were everywhere busy with their nests in the
thickets; sometimes, in the quiet evening, long after the moon had
risen and Kweek had ventured forth to feed, the robin and the thrush,
perched on a bare ash-tree, sang their sweet solos to the sleepy fields;
and, with the earliest peep of dawn, the clear, wild notes of the
missel-thrush rang out over the valley from the beech-tree near the
river. The rabbits extended their galleries and dug new "breeding
earths" in their warren by the wood; and often, in the deep stillness of
the night, the call-note of an awakened bird echoed, murmuring, among
the rocks opposite the pines far down the slope.

During the past few weeks great events had happened in the new-made
chamber of the field-voles' burrow. Hundreds of dry grass-bents,
bleached and seasoned by the winter frosts and rains, had been collected
there, with tufts of withered moss, a stray feather or two dropped from
the ruined nest of a long-tailed titmouse in the furze, and a few fine,
hair-like roots of polypody fern from the neighbouring thicket. And now,
their nursery complete, four tiny, hairless voles, with disproportionate
heads, round black eyes beneath unopened lids, wrinkled muzzles, and
abbreviated tails--helpless midgets in form suggestive of diminutive
bull-dog puppies--lay huddled in their tight, warm bed. It was a time of
great anxiety for Kweek. While his mate with maternal pride went
leisurely about her duties, doing all things in order, as if she had
nursed much larger families and foes were never known, he moved fussily
hither and thither, visiting his offspring at frequent intervals during
the night, creeping into the wood and back along his bowered path,
scampering noisily down the shaft if the brown owl but happened to hoot
far up in the glen, and doing a hundred things for which there was not
the slightest need, and which only served to irritate and alarm the
careful mother-vole.

Kweek inherited his timorous disposition from countless generations of
voles that by their ceaseless watchfulness, had survived when others had
been killed by birds and beasts of prey; and though, in his zeal for the
welfare of his family, he often gave a false alarm, it was far better
that he should be at all times prepared for the worst than that, in some
unguarded instant, death should drop swiftly from the sky or crawl
stealthily into his hidden home.

During spring, more frequently than at any other season, death waited
for him and his kindred--in the grass, in the air, in the trees along
the hedge-banks, and on the summit of the rock that towered above the
glen. Vermin had become unusually numerous in the valley, partly because
in the mild winter their food had been sufficient, and partly because
the keeper, feeble with old age, could no longer shoot and trap them
with the deadly certainty that had made him famous in his younger days.
Bold in the care of their young, the vermin ravaged the countryside,
preying everywhere on the weak and ailing little children of Nature. But
fate was indulgent to Kweek; though his kindred in the colony beyond the
wood, and the bank-voles in the sheltered hollow near the pines,
suffered greatly from all kinds of enemies, he and his mate still
managed to escape unhurt.

One night a fox, prowling across the pasture, caught sight of Kweek as
he hurried to his lair. Suspicious and crafty, Reynard paused at one of
the entrances to the burrow, thrust his sharp nose as far as possible
down the shaft, drew a long, deep breath, and commenced to dig away the
soil from the mouth of the hole. Suddenly changing his mind--perhaps
because the scent was faint and he concluded that his labour would not
be sufficiently repaid--he ceased his exertions and wandered off towards
the hedge. Next day a carrion crow, seeing the heap of earth that lay
around the hole, and shrewdly guessing it to mean a treat in store, flew
down from an oak-tree, and hopped sideways towards the spot. He peered
inquisitively at the opening, waddled over to another entrance,
returned, and listened eagerly. Convinced that a sound of breathing came
from midway between the two holes he had examined, he moved towards the
spot directly above the nest, tapped it sharply with his beak, and again
returned to listen near the entrance. But all his artifice was quite in
vain; the voles would not bolt; they were not even inquisitive; so
presently, baffled in his hopes of plunder, he moved clumsily away,
stooped for an instant, and lifted himself on slow, sable pinions into
the air.

The mother vole, assisted in questionable fashion by meddlesome Kweek,
spent several hours of the following night in repairing the damage done
by the fox. She drew most of the soil back into the shaft, and then,
where it accumulated in the passage beneath, made the opening towards
the inner chamber slightly narrower than before. Soon, moistened and
hardened by the constant "traffic" of tiny feet nearly always damp with
dew, the mound of earth formed a barrier so artfully contrived that even
a weasel might find it difficult to enter the gallery from the bottom of
the shaft.



III.

A BARREN HILLSIDE.


Living a secluded life in the pasture with his little mate, Kweek
escaped the close attention paid by the "vermin" to his kindred in the
colony beyond the wood. The brown owl still remembered where he dwelt,
but, loath to make a special nightly journey to the spot, seldom caused
him the least anxiety. She seemed to content herself with a strict watch
over the bank inhabited by the red voles, and over the fields on the far
side of the copse, where the grey voles, notwithstanding that they
supplied her with many a delicious supper, were becoming numerous. She
awaited an almost certain increase among the "small deer" of the
pasture, before commencing her raids on the grey voles there. As events
proved, however, her patience was unrewarded.

Kweek's first experience in rearing a family ended disastrously. Two of
the nurslings died a few hours after birth; one, venturing from the nest
too soon in the evening, was killed by a magpie; and two, while sitting
out near the hedge, were trampled to death by a flock of sheep rushing,
panic-stricken, at the sight of a wandering fox. By the middle of May,
when another vole family of six had arrived, the number of vermin in the
valley had perceptibly diminished. The old, asthmatic keeper in charge
of the Cerdyn valley died, and a younger and more energetic man from a
neighbouring estate came to take his place. Eager to gain the favour of
his master by providing him good sport in the coming autumn, the new
keeper ranged the woods from dawn till dusk, setting pole-traps in the
trees, or baiting rabbit-traps in the "creeps" of stoat or weasel, and
destroying nests, as well as shooting any furred or feathered creature
of questionable character. The big brown owl from the beech-grove, the
kestrel from the rock on the far side of the brook, the sparrow-hawk
from the spinney up-stream, together with the weasels, the stoats, the
cats, the jays, and the magpies--all in turn met their doom.

A pair of barn-owls from the loft in the farm suffered next. These owls
were great pets at the old homestead. For many years they had lived
unmolested in their gloomy retreat under the tiles, and regularly at
nightfall had flown fearlessly to and fro among the outbuildings, or
perched on the ruined pigeon-cote watching for the rats to leave their
holes.

The farmer, less ignorant than the keeper, recognised the owls as
friends, and treated them accordingly. They were his winged cats, and
assisted to check the increase of a plague. Like the brown owl, they
knew well the habits of the voles; but their attention was diverted by
the rats and the mice at the farm, and they seldom wandered far afield
except for a change of diet or to stretch wings cramped by a long summer
day's seclusion. The rats, however, were far from being exterminated;
and so, when a little child who was all sunshine to his parents in the
lonely homestead died from typhoid fever, the village doctor, fearing an
epidemic, advised that the pests should be utterly destroyed. Loath to
use strychnine, since he knew that in a neighbouring valley some owls
had died from eating poisoned rats, the farmer sought the aid of the
village poachers, who, with their terriers and ferrets, thoroughly
searched the stacks and the buildings. During the hunt it was noticed
that about a score of rats took refuge in a narrow chamber under the
eaves. The farmer, directing operations in another part of the yard, was
unaware of what had occurred. The poachers, knowing nothing of the
presence of the owls, pushed a terrier through the opening beneath the
rafters of the loft, and blocked the hole with the rusty blade of a
disused shovel. For a few moments the quick patter of tiny feet
indicated that the terrier was busily engaged with his task; then cries
of rage and terror came from the imprisoned dog, while with these cries
were mingled the sounds of flapping wings. When at last the poachers
unstopped the hole and dragged the terrier out, they found that every
rat had been killed, and that the place was thickly strewn with the
feathers of two dying owls.

During the rest of the summer, Kweek led a strangely peaceful life,
having little to fear beyond an occasional visit from Reynard, or from
an astute old magpie that, evading with apparent ease the keeper's gun
and pole-traps, lived on till the late autumn, when, before a line of
beaters, he broke cover over some sportsmen waiting for their driven
game. As soon as the leaves began to fall and exhausted Nature longed
for winter's rest, the burrow in the pasture became the scene of
feverish activity. Kweek was now the proud sire of five or six healthy
families, and the grand-sire of many more. Even the youngest voles were
growing fat and strong; and, when the numerous members of the colony set
about harvesting their winter stores, ripe, delicious seeds were
plentiful everywhere along the margin of the wood.

The winter was uniformly mild, with exception of one short period of
great cold which brought a thorough, healthful sleep to the voles; and
in the earliest days of spring, when the love-calls of chaffinches and
tits were heard from almost every tree, Kweek and his tribe resumed
their work and throve amazingly. Every circumstance appeared to favour
their well-being. But for the fox, that sometimes crouched beside an
opening to the burrow and snapped up an incautious venturer peeping
above ground, a young sheep-dog, whose greatest pleasure in life seemed
to be found in digging a large round hole in the centre of the burrow,
and an adder, that stung a few of the weaklings to death, but found them
inconveniently big for swallowing, the voles were seldom troubled. Their
numbers, and those of every similar colony in the neighbourhood,
increased in such a fashion that, before the following autumn, both the
pasture and the near ploughland were barren wastes completely
honeycombed with their dwellings. Every grass-root in the pasture was
eaten up; every stalk in the cornfield was nibbled through so
that the grain might be easily reached and devoured; and the
root-crops--potatoes, turnips, and mangolds--on the far side of the
cornfield were utterly spoiled; and in the hedgerows and the copse the
leaves dropped from the lifeless trees, each of which was marked by a
complete ring where the bark was gnawed away close to the ground.

But capricious Nature, as if regretting the haste with which she had
brought into the world her destructive little children, and desiring,
even at the cost of untold suffering and the loss of countless lives, to
restore the pleasant Cerdyn valley to its beauty of green fields and
leafy woods, sent her twin plagues of disease and starvation among the
voles, till, like the sapless leaves, they withered and died. And from
far and near the hawks and the owls, the weasels, the stoats, and the
foxes hastened to the scene. The keeper, at a loss to know whence they
came, and not understanding the lesson he was being taught, bewailed his
misfortune, but dared not stay their advent. At almost any hour of the
day, five or six kestrels might be seen quartering the fields or
hovering here and there among the burrows. And, long before dark, the
stoats and the weasels, as if knowing that, fulfilling a special
mission, they were now safe from their arch-enemy, the keeper, hunted
their prey through the "trash" of the hedge-banks, or in and out of the
passages underground.

The farm labourers, in desperate haste, dug numerous pitfalls, wide at
the bottom but narrow at the mouth, and trapped hundreds of the voles,
which, maddened by hunger but unable to climb the sloping sides,
attacked one another--all at last dying a miserable death. Not only did
the customary enemies of the voles arrive on the scene: Nature called to
her great task a number of unexpected destroyers--sea-gulls from the
distant coast, a kite from a wooded island on a desolate, far-off mere,
and a buzzard from a rocky fastness, rarely visited save by keepers and
shepherds, near the up-country lakes. Food had gradually become scarce
even for the few hundred voles that yet remained. No longer were they to
be seen at play together, in little groups, during the cool, hazy
twilight, that, earlier in the year, shimmered like a wonderful
afterglow on the mossy pasture-floor. Now their only desire was for
food and sleep.

Unnoticed by a passing owl, Kweek, worn to a skeleton by sickness and
privation, crawled from his burrow into the moonlight of a calm, clear
autumn night, and lay in the shadow of the stone where the old male vole
had watched and listened for the cruel "vear." A big blow-fly,
attracted, with countless thousands of his kind, to the place of
slaughter and decay, had gone to sleep on the side of the stone, and
Kweek, in a last desperate effort to obtain a little food, moved forward
to secure his prize; but at that moment his strength failed him, his
weary limbs relaxed, and the dull, grey film of death overspread his
half-closed eyes.

The owl, hearing a faint sound like the rustle of a dry grass-bent,
quickly turned in her flight; then, slanting her wings, dropped to the
ground, and presently, with her defenceless quarry in her talons, flew
away towards the woods.



THE FOX.

I.

THE LAST HUNT.


A dark and wind-swept night had fallen over the countryside when Reynard
left the steep slope above the keeper's cottage, and stole through gorse
and brambles towards the outskirts of the covert, where a narrow dingle,
intersected by a noisy rill and thickly matted with brown bracken,
divided the furze from some neighbouring pine-woods.

For months nothing had occurred to disturb the peace of his woodland
home. Once, about a year ago, he had fled for his life before the
hounds; and again, during the last autumn, while lying hidden in the
ditch of the root-crop field above the pines, he had been surprised by
two sheep-dogs that nipped him sorely before he could make good his
escape. But at no other time had he been in evident peril, and so,
though naturally cunning and suspicious, he had grown bolder, and better
acquainted with the neighbourhood of cottage and farmstead than were
certain members of his family living on the opposite side of the valley,
among thickets hunted regularly, where guns and spaniels might be heard
from early morning till close of day.

Here and there, as the fox crept stealthily among the blackthorns and
the gorse-bushes, he stopped for a moment on the scent of a rabbit; but
the night was not such as to induce Bunny to remain outside her cosy
burrow in the bank. He examined each "creep" in the tangled clumps along
his way, and sometimes, resting on his haunches, sniffed the air and
listened intently for any sign to indicate the presence of a feeding
coney; but even the strongest taint was "stale," and no sound could be
detected that might betray the whereabouts of any creature feeding in
the grass. Disappointed, the fox turned towards the uplands and crossed
the hedgerow into the nearest stubble. Louping leisurely along, he
surprised and killed a sleeping lark. Further on he crossed the scent
of a hare, but Puss was doubtless some distance away, feeding in a quiet
corner of the root-crop field. Reynard now instinctively made for the
farmyard among the pines, trusting meanwhile that luck would befriend
him. Across the gap, by the side of the hedgerow, and through an open
gateway, he went, seeking spoil everywhere, but finding none. With all
his senses alert, he climbed the low wall around the yard, peeped into
the empty cart-house, and stealthily approached an open shed. There,
unluckily, the dogs were sleeping on a load of hay in the furthest
corner. Careful not to arouse his foes, the fox retreated, and, passing
the pond at the bottom of the yard, moved silently towards another shed,
in which, as he knew from a former visit, the poultry roosted. Though
the door was shut, an opening for the use of the fowls seemed to afford
the possibility of success. With difficulty Reynard managed to squeeze
himself in, only, however, to no purpose. Just beyond the door lay a
loose coil of wire, brought home by the labourers after fencing and
thrown here out of the way. The fox, fearing a trap, reluctantly
abandoned his project, returned to the bank by the pond, and crept down
the lane to a spot where the ducks were housed in a neat shelter built
in the wall. But here he found everything securely fastened. At this
moment a door of the farmstead creaked loudly, the light of a lantern
flooded the yard, and the baffled marauder sprang over the wall and
trotted across the field towards the wood.

His pace soon slackened when he found himself free from pursuit; and
before he reached the end of the meadow he had regained all his cool
audacity and was busily planning a visit to the cottage at the foot of
the dingle. Hardly had his thoughts turned once more to hunting when
fortune favoured him. A hen from the farmyard had laid her eggs in the
hedgerow bordering the wood, and was brooding over them in proud
anticipation of one day leading home a healthy family, thus causing an
agreeable surprise to the farmer's wife. The fox almost brushed against
her as he sprang over the hedge, and she paid to the utmost the penalty
of indiscretion.

After feasting royally on the eggs, the fox took up the dead bird, and
moved slowly away through the trees towards his home. Re-entering the
covert, he was met by a prowling vixen that, in company with her four
young cubs, inhabited an "earth" not many yards away. Reckless through
hunger and maddened by the scent of blood, she attacked him savagely,
bullied him out of the possession of the dead fowl, and bore her prize
away in triumph to her den. The fox endured his ill-treatment with the
submission of a Stoic--he happened to be the pugnacious vixen's mate,
and the sire of her family. Soon recovering from the chastisement, he
set off, and skirted the covert as far as the cottage garden. Finding
the gate of the hen-coop closed, he sprang on the water-butt, climbed to
the roof of the shed, and tried to enter the coop from above; but there,
as at the farm, he feared a trap, and dared not creep beneath the loose
wire netting overhanging the shed. As he jumped from the coop to the
wall of the stye, he caught sight of several rats scampering to their
holes. Lying flat on the wall, he awaited patiently their re-appearance.
At last one of them ventured out beneath the door of the cot, and was
instantly killed. But, much to his chagrin, Reynard found the carcass a
decidedly doubtful tit-bit, and so, having conveyed it gingerly to the
margin of the covert, he scratched a shallow hole among the rotting
leaves, and buried his prey, that, perhaps, its flavour might improve
with keeping. Afterwards, till the sky lightened almost imperceptibly,
and a steel-blue bar, low down beneath the clouds, first signalled the
coming of day, he lay motionless among the undergrowth near a warren in
the dingle. Then an unsuspecting rabbit hopped out into the grass, and
Reynard, his watch rewarded, disappeared with his spoil into the
wilderness of the gorse.

Dawn was breaking over the hills. Blue smoke curled up into the sky from
the lodge cottage at the foot of the tree-clad slope. The door of the
cottage stood wide open, and the scent of the wood-fire hung on the
chill, damp air filling the narrow lane. A blackbird flew into the
apple-tree overlooking the thatch, shook the moisture from his wings,
and cleaned his bright orange bill on a bough. Then his full, reed-like
music floated over the fields. The skylarks soared above the upland
pastures, and a shower of song descended to the valley out of the
pearl-blue haze just lifting in a cloud from the hill-top. Presently the
blackbird flew from the apple-tree to feed beside the hedge, and the
larks dropped from the mist into the grass. But for the crackle of the
cottage fire as the keeper busied himself with the preparation of his
morning meal, and the rustle of a withered leaf as the blackbird moved
to and fro in the ditch, not a sound disturbed the silence of the dawn.
Soon the haze lifted, leaving the dew thick on the grass by the ditch,
and on the moss and the ivy in the hedgerow bank. The larks soared once
more into the sky; a robin sang wistfully in the ash; a brown wren, with
many a flick of her tiny wings and many a merry curtsy, hopped in and
out among the trees, trilling loudly a gleeful carol. The tits flew
hither and thither, twittering to each other as they flew. The
hedge-sparrows' metallic notes sounded clear amid all the varied music,
as the birds, moving among the hazels and gently flirting their wings,
pursued their coy mates from bough to bough. Through the raised curtain
of the mist the sun--a white globe hardly too brilliant to be boldly
looked at--illumined the dewy fields with its faint beams, till the
cloud-streaked sky became a clear expanse, and the blue and brown
countryside glowed with the splendour of a perfect morning. The wind
changed and freshened, so that the call of a farm labourer to his team
and the constant voice of the river were distinctly heard in the level
valley below the wood.

As the morning advanced, signs of unusual stir and bustle were apparent
in the neighbourhood of the lodge. Messengers came and went between the
cottage and the mansion at the bend of the river, or between the mansion
and the distant village. The keeper appeared at his door, and, after
satisfying himself that the lane seemed clean and well-kept, walked off
briskly in the direction of the "big house." Scarlet-coated horsemen,
and high-born maids and matrons, with all the medley of the Hunt in
their train, cantered along the winding road--a mirthful,
laughter-loving company. There were the General, stout and inelegant,
wont to take his fences carefully, who changed his weight-carrying
mount thrice during the day, and liked a gateway better than a thorny
hedge, and for the last fifteen years had never been in at the death;
and his wife, the leader of fashion, but not yet the leader of the Hunt;
the Major, an old shekarry from India, who still could ride as straight
and fast as any man in the west; and his niece, the belle of the
countryside, whose mettlesome hunter occasionally showed a sudden
fondness for taking the bit between his teeth, and carrying his
mistress, with reckless abandon, over furrow and five-barred gate and
through the thickest hedgerow--anywhere, so long as he had breath and
the music of the hounds allured him onward in his impetuous career. The
sun glanced between the trees as they passed the cottage door. Then came
the Magistrate's Clerk, faultlessly attired, with florid face and
glittering eyeglass, who, in an ambitious youth, finding his name too
suggestive of plebeian blood, changed a vowel in it, and thereby gave an
aristocratic flavour to the title of his partnership, and who acquired,
with this new dignity, the taste for a monocle, a horse, and a good
cigar. Following were the members of the medley--the big butcher on his
sturdy pony, the "dealer" on his black, raw-boned half-bred, the
publican on his stolid old mare, farmers, drovers, after-riders, on
cropped and uncropped mounts more accustomed to the slow drudgery of
labour than to the rollicking, hard-going hunt; and after them the crowd
on foot--village children, farm labourers, and apprentices from forge
and counter. Riding side by side, and earnestly conversing, were the
"vet," whose horse at the last hunt bolted and left him clinging to a
bough, and the shopkeeper, whose grave attire and sober mien seemed
strangely out of keeping with the bright, hilarious throng. These were
soon met by the main party from the meet, and hounds and hunters sped
away in the direction of the hillside covert, while the onlookers
adjourned to the uplands, whence an almost uninterrupted view of the
valleys for miles around might be enjoyed, and the movements of the fox
and his enemies followed more closely than from the hollows beneath the
woods.

Reynard, abundantly satisfied with his supper of eggs and early
breakfast of rabbit, was lying asleep in a tuft of grass at the top of
the thicket when the huntsman passed down the dingle after the meet.
Awakened by the noise that reached him from below, he arose, stretched
his limbs, and listened anxiously--the clatter of hoofs seemed to fill
the valley. Suddenly, from the outskirts of the wood, came the deep,
sonorous note of a hound, followed by the sharp rebuke of the
whipper-in; Jollity, the keen-nosed puppy, was "rioting" on the cold
scent near the stream. Peering between the bushes, the fox could as yet
see nothing moving in the covert, but a few minutes afterwards his sharp
eye caught a glimpse of a hound leaping over the bank above the gorse,
followed by another, and another, and yet another, till the place seemed
alive with his foes.

Whither should he flee? The dingle was occupied; men and horses were
everywhere in the lane; and the hounds were closing in above the gorse.
The far side of the covert offered the only chance of escape, and
thither he must hie, else the hounds, now pouring down the slope, would
cut off his retreat. Quickly he threaded his way through the gorse, by
paths familiar only to himself and the rabbits, till he reached the
bank by the willows; but, even while he ran, the full chorus of the
hounds echoed from hillside to hillside, as, having "struck the line,"
they tore madly in pursuit. He reached the edge of the covert at a point
furthest from his foes--then, as he crossed the meadow, a single
red-coated horseman, standing sentinel far up the hillside, gave the
"view-halloo," and over the brow of the slope streamed the main body of
the Hunt.

It was at once evident to Reynard that by skirting the margin of the
covert he could not for the present escape, so he headed down-wind
towards the opposite hill, hoping to find refuge in a well-known "earth"
amid the thickets. To his surprise he found the entrance "stopped" with
clods and prickly branches of gorse, and had perforce to continue his
flight. Having well out-distanced his pursuers, he stayed to rest for a
while near the stream that trickled by the hedgerow; then, with the
horrid music of the hounds again in his ears, he turned, by a long
backward cast, in the direction of his home.

But he was wholly unable to shake off his pursuers. For four long hours
he was hustled from covert to covert, and hillside to hillside, finding
no respite, no mercy, no sanctuary. Breathless, mud-stained, footsore,
and sick with fright, his draggling "brush" and lolling tongue betraying
his distress, he sought at last the place he had long avoided, and,
entering the mouth of the den where the vixen and her cubs were hiding,
lay there, almost utterly exhausted. Some minutes elapsed, during which
no sound but that of his laboured breathing, and of the tiny sucklings
busy by the side of the dam, disturbed the stillness.

Suddenly, a deep-voiced hound broke through the bushes and bayed loudly
before the entrance. His fellow joined him, and their foreboding clamour
reverberated in the chamber. Terrified, the fox crawled slowly into the
recess of the den. Presently a shaggy terrier came down the tunnel, and
bit him sorely on the flank. He scarcely had the courage to turn on the
aggressor; but the enraged vixen, thrusting her mate aside, quickly
routed the daring intruder, and followed his retreat to the very mouth
of the "earth," where she turned back, threatened by the great hounds
that stood without. But even the reckless courage of maternity was
unavailing. Soon the noise of blows and of falling earth was heard, as
the passage was gradually opened by brawny farm labourers, working with
spade and pick, and assisted in their task by the eager huntsman, who
ever and anon thrust a long bramble-spray into the tunnel and thus
ascertained the direction of its devious course.

At last the tip of the fox's "brush" was seen amid the soil and pebbles
that had fallen into the chamber. The huntsman had cut two stout hazel
rods; these he now thrust into the hollow, one along either flank of the
fox; then, grasping their ends firmly about the exposed tail, he drew
poor Reynard from his hiding place, and thrust him, defiant to the last,
and with his teeth close-locked on one of the hazel rods, into an old
sack requisitioned at the nearest farm. The vixen met a similar fate,
while the sleek, furry little cubs, treated with the utmost gentleness,
were wrapped together in the Master's handkerchief and given to the care
of an attendant.

Reynard's life was nearing its close. In the meadow behind the keeper's
cottage the hounds were summoned by the huntsman's horn, and the bag was
opened. The scene that followed marred, for some of us at least, the
beauty of the bright March morning. The vixen and her cubs were carried
away, and found a new home in an artificial "earth" prepared for their
reception near a distant mansion.



II.

A NEW HOME.


When the vixen recovered from the excitement and distress consequent on
her capture, she found herself in a commodious, well ventilated chamber,
circular in shape and slightly above the level of two low and narrow
passages leading into the covert. The sack had been opened at the
entrance of one of these passages, and the vixen had crawled through the
darkness till, finding further retreat impossible, she had lain down,
with wildly beating heart, on the floor of her hiding place.

Her senses seemed to have forsaken her. Had she dreamed? Often, during
the warm, quiet days of a bygone summer, while lying curled in a cosy
litter of dry grass-bents--which she had neatly arranged by turning
round and round, and with her sensitive black muzzle pressing or lifting
into shape each refractory twig--she had dreamed of mouse-hunting and
rabbit-catching; her body had moved, her limbs twitched, her ears
pricked forward, and her nostrils quivered as the delightful incidents
of past expeditions were recalled. And when, with a start, she had
awakened, as some venturesome rabbit frisked by her lair, or a nervous
blackbird, startled by her movements, made the woodlands ring with news
of his discovery, she had retained for a moment the impressions of her
vivid dreams. But never in her sleep had she been haunted by such a
bewildering sense of mingled dread and anger, such an awful apprehension
of the presence of men and hounds, as that which had recently possessed
her. Now, however, all was mysteriously tranquil; the full-toned clamour
of the hounds and the sharp, snarling bark of the terriers had ceased;
no longer was she confined and jostled in the stuffy, evil-smelling sack
that yielded to, and yet restrained, her every frantic effort to regain
liberty. Her heart still beat violently, as though at any moment it
might break; and she crept back towards the entrance, where she might
breathe the free, fresh air.

Suddenly she realised, to the full, that the day's bitter experiences
were not a dream--the scent of the human hand remained on her brush, her
fur was damp and matted with meal-dust, and, alas! her little ones were
missing from her side. She was furious now; at all risks she would
venture forth on the long, straight journey back towards home; her
helpless cubs might still be somewhere under the bushes--perchance in
sore need of warmth and food, and whining for their dam.

With every mothering instinct quickened, the vixen crept down the
slanting passages in the direction of a faint moonlight glimmer beyond.
Reaching the end of the tunnel, she, in her impetuosity, thrust her
muzzle into a mass of prickles--the "earth" had been stopped with a
branch of gorse. Baffled for the time, she returned to the central
chamber; then cautiously, for her eyes and nostrils were smarting with
pain, she tried the other outlet, but here, too, a gorse-bush baulked
her exit. Now, however, a faint, familiar scent seemed to fill the
passage, some tiny creatures moved and whimpered, and, with almost
savage joy, the vixen discovered her cubs, alive and unharmed, huddled
together near the furze. Quickly she carried them, one by one, into the
chamber; then, lying beside the little creatures, which, though blind
and helpless, eagerly recognised the presence of their mother, she
gathered them between her limbs, covered them with her soft, warm brush,
and, in a language used only amid the woodlands, soothed and comforted
them, while they nestled once more beneath her sheltering care. When she
had fed them and licked them clean from every taint of human touch, and
when she had shaken herself free from dust and removed from her brush
the man-scent left by the huntsman's right hand while "drawing" her, she
became more collected in her mind and more contented with her strange,
new situation.

Leaving her cubs asleep, she moved along the passage, determined, if
possible, to explore the thickets in hope of finding a young rabbit or a
few field-voles wherewith to satisfy her increasing hunger. The
entrance was still blocked with furze, but just in the spot where she
had found her cubs a couple of dead rabbits lay, and from one of these,
though after much misgiving, she made a hearty meal. She endeavoured,
but vainly, to dig a shallow trench in which to hide the rest of her
provisions; the floor of the artificial "earth" was tiled, and only
lightly covered with soil. Her efforts to scratch out a tunnel around
the furze-bush proved alike unavailing, so she returned to her cubs, lay
down between them and the narrow opening from the chamber, and slept.

That night and the following day were spent in drowsy imprisonment,
till, towards the afternoon, the vixen began to feel the pangs of thirst
and made fresh efforts to escape. As she was endeavouring to dislodge
the tile nearest the furze, she heard the tramp of heavy feet and the
sound of human voices.

"They be nice cubs," said the "whip" to the huntsman; "as nice a little
lot as ever I clapped eyes on. If only they can give us such a doing as
the old vixen gave us twice last December, they'll pass muster. Them
Gwyddyl Valley foxes be always reg'lar fliers. Their meat ain't got too
easy-like; that's why, maybe, they're always in working order. Any road,
their flags o' distress (tongues) don't flop over their grinders without
the hounds trim 'em hard on a straight, burning scent." "Well, we'll
give 'em a good start, whatever happens," replied the huntsman; "here's
two more bunnies for the larder. If the old girl shifts her quarters,
find out her new "earth," and feed her well. I shouldn't like to be near
the guv'nor if the young uns turn out mangy when we hustle 'em about a
bit in the autumn."

The voices ceased, the furze-bushes were removed from the tunnel
entrances, a cold, steady current of air filled the chamber and the
passages, and the vixen knew that a way had been made for her escape.
She was not, however, so foolhardy as to venture forth while the scent
of her foes remained strong in the thicket; she lingered, in spite of
extreme thirst, till the shadows of evening deepened perceptibly in her
underground abode.

When the vixen stole out into the grass, the pale moon was brightening
in the southern sky, and a solitary star glimmered faintly above the
tree-tops. A thrush sang his vesper from the bare branch of an oak near
by, and a blackbird, startled by the sight of a strange form squatting
beside the brambles, sounded his shrill alarm and dipped across the
clearing towards a clump of blackthorn bushes. As soon as she heard the
blackbird's warning, the vixen vanished; but, presently reappearing, she
trotted across the open space and sat beneath the thorns. For some
minutes she remained motionless in the dark patch of shadow, listening
intently; then, passing slowly down a narrow path, she reached a
trickling streamlet that fell with constant music from stone to stone
between luxuriant masses of moss and lichen; and there, at a gravelly
pool among the boulders, she cautiously stooped to drink. With exceeding
care, she now proceeded to make a thorough inspection of the covert. The
night was so calm and bright that the rabbits were feeding everywhere on
the margin of the thickets, but the vixen passed them by with nothing
but a casual glance; her mind, for the present, was not concerned with
hunting. After skirting the covert, she turned homewards by a pathway
through the trees.

At the end of the path she paused, with head bent low and hackles
ruffled along the spine--the scent of another vixen lay fresh on the
ground. The peculiar taint told her a complete story. The strange vixen
was soon to become a mother, and probably, in anticipation of the event,
inhabited an "earth" close by. Casting about like an experienced hound,
she picked up the trail, and followed it into a great tangle of heather,
brambles, and fern, where the scent led, by many a devious turn, to the
spreading roots of a beech, beneath which a disused rabbit warren had
been prepared for the little strangers presently to be brought into the
world. The dwelling place was empty.

Retracing her steps as far as the spot where first she had struck the
trail, then turning sharply towards the clearing, the crafty creature
hastened back to the "earth," determined to remove her cubs without
delay to the newly discovered abode. One by one she bore her offspring
thither, holding them gently by the loose skin about their necks, and
housed them all before the dispossessed tenant returned from a slow and
wearisome night's hunting. The evicted vixen, seeking to enter her home,
speedily recognised that in her distressed condition she was no match
for her savage, active enemy, and so, reluctantly retiring, took up her
quarters in the artificial "earth."

Henceforth, through all the careless hours of infancy, till summer ended
and the nights gradually lengthened towards the time of the Hunter's
Moon, the stillness of the woodlands was never broken by the ominous
note of the horn, or by the dread, fascinating music of the hounds in
full cry. Three of the cubs grew stout and strong, but the fourth was a
weakling--whether from injury at the hands of the huntsman or from some
natural ailment was not to be determined. He died, and mysteriously
disappeared, on the very day when the rest of the cubs first opened
their eyes in the dim chamber among the roots of the beech.

Vulp was the only male member of the happy woodland family. His
indulgent sisters tolerated his bouncing, familiar manners as if they
were born to be his playthings--he was so serious and yet so droll, so
stupidly self-assertive and yet so irresistibly affectionate! He seemed
to take his pleasures sadly, wearing, if such be possible to a fox, an
air of melancholy disdain; and yet his beady eyes were ever on the
lookout for mischief, and for the chance of a helter-skelter romp with
his sisters round and round the chamber, or to the entrance of the
"earth," where the sprouts of the green grass and the flowers of the
golden celandine sparkled as the sunlight of the fresh spring morning
flickered between the trees.

As yet, Vulp was unacquainted with the wide, free world. It seemed very
wonderful and awe-inspiring, as he sat by the mouth of the tunnel in the
shadow of an arching spray of polypody and, for sheer lack of something
better to do, half lifted himself on his hind-legs to rub his lips
against the edge of a fern, or to peep, with a feeling that his
whereabouts were a secret, between the drooping fronds. His mother
restrained his rashness; once, when he actually thrust his head beyond
the ferns, she with a stern admonition warned him of his mistake; and
he promptly withdrew to her side, frightened at his own boldness, but
grunting in well assumed defiance of the imagined danger from which he
had fled.

This, in fact, was the first lesson learned--that a certain sign from
the vixen meant "No," and that disobedience was afterwards punishable
according to the unwritten laws of woodland life. Another sign that he
learned to obey meant "Come." It was a low, deep note, gentle and
persuasive; and directly Vulp heard it he would hasten to his mother to
be not only fed but also cleansed from every particle of dirt. Such
toilet operations were not always welcome to the youngsters, and were
sometimes vigorously resented. But the vixen had a convincing method of
dealing with any refractory member of her family; she would hold the cub
firmly between her fore-feet while she continued her treatment, or
administered slight, well-judged chastisement by nipping her wayward
offspring in some tender spot, where, however, little harm could be the
result.

The cubs were ten days old when they opened their eyes, but more than
three weeks passed before they were allowed beyond the threshold of
their home. Then, one starlight night, their mother, having returned
from hunting, awoke them, and, withholding their usual nourishment, gave
the signal "Come." The obedient little family followed her along the
dark passage, and ventured, close at her heels, into the grass-patch in
the middle of the briar-brake. Vulp was slightly more timid than his
sisters were; even at that early age he showed signs of independence and
distrust. While the other cubs played "follow-my-leader" with the dam,
he hung back, hesitating and afraid. Even an unusual show of affection
by his mother failed to reassure him. A rabbit dodged quickly across a
path, and immediately he stood rigid with fright. Hardly had he
recovered before an owl flew slowly overhead. Enough! He paused,
motionless, till the awful presence had disappeared; then darted, with
astonishing speed, straight towards the "earth," and vanished, with a
ridiculously feeble "yap" of make-believe bravado, into the darkness of
the den. Confidence, however, came and increased as the days and the
nights went by, till, at the close of a week's experiences, Vulp was as
bold in danger as either of his playmates. He learned to trust his
mother implicitly, and, in her absence, became the guardian of the
family when some fancied alarm brought fear. He was always last in
learning his lessons; but, as if to make amends, he always profited most
by the teaching.

Happy, indeed, were those hours of innocence--filled with sleep, and
love, and play. Till Vulp was six weeks old, he was wholly unconscious
of that ravenous hunger for flesh which was fated to make him the
scourge of the woodlands. Nevertheless, his instincts were slowly
developing, and so, when on a second occasion the old buck rabbit that
had frightened him in the thicket bolted before his eyes across the
path, the little fox bristled with rage and, but for his mother's
presence, would doubtless have tried to pursue the exasperating coney.
Invariably, when the night was fine, the cubs gambolled about the vixen
on the close-cropped sward beyond the den, climbing over her body,
pinching her ears, growling and grunting, tugging at each other's
brushes, and in general behaving just as healthy, happy fox-cubs might
be expected to behave; while the patient, careful mother looked on
approvingly--save when, uniting in one strong effort, they endeavoured
to disjoint her tail by pulling it over her back--and smiled, as only a
fox can smile, with eyes asquint and a single out-turned fang showing
white beside the half-closed lip.

A great event occurred when the mother first brought home her prey that
she might educate her youngsters in the matter of appetite and prepare
them for an independent existence. The victim was an almost full-grown
rabbit. Laying it down close to the entrance of the "earth," the vixen
called her cubs, and instantly they rushed from the den, tumbling over
each other in their haste, till they gained the spot where she was
waiting. At that moment, however, they caught sight of the strange grey
object in the grass, and, leaping back, bolted round to their mother's
side. Then, feeling safe under her care, they cautiously advanced in a
row to sniff the rabbit, and wondered, yet instinctively guessed, at the
meaning of the situation. The vixen growled, and, picking up her prey,
carried it to the bramble-clump. The cubs followed, making all sorts of
curious noises in mimicking their dam, and evincing the utmost
inquisitiveness as to the reason of her unexpected conduct. Presently,
having succeeded in arousing their inborn passion for flesh, the vixen
resorted to a neighbouring mound, and left her offspring in possession
of the dead animal, on which they immediately pounced, tooth and nail.
How terribly in earnest they became, how bold and reckless in their vain
attempt to demolish the subject of their wrath! Vulp fastened his
needle-like teeth in the throat, and each of his sisters gripped a leg,
while together they jerked, strained, scolded, and threatened, till the
mother, fearing lest the commotion would betray their whereabouts to
some lurking foe, rated her noisy progeny and in anger drove them away.
But as soon as she had gone back to her seat among the grass-bents, the
youngsters returned to their work. Anyhow, anywhere, they hurled
themselves on the dead creature, sometimes biting each other for sheer
lack of knowing exactly what else they should bite, and sometimes simply
for the excitement of a family squabble.

At last, their unwonted exertions began to tire them; then the careful
vixen, desirous of bringing the lesson to its close, "broke up" her
prey and divided it among her hungry children. They fed daintily,
choosing from each portion no more than a morsel, and soon afterwards,
exhausted by excitement and fatigue, and forgetful of their differences,
were fast asleep, huddled together as usual in the roomy recess of the
den. For a while the vixen remained to satisfy her hunger; then, having
buried a few tit-bits of her provender, she also retired to rest; and
silence brooded over the woodlands till the break of day set every
nesting bird atune.

The vixen proved to be an untiring teacher, and the education of the
cubs occupied a part, at least, of every night. The young foxes were
growing rapidly, and accompanied their dam in her wanderings about the
thickets. She never went far afield, food being easily procured at that
time of year, particularly as in a certain spot additional supplies for
the larder were frequently forthcoming because of the vigilance of the
huntsman, whose one desire was to fit the cubs to match his hounds in
the first "runs" of the coming season.



III.

THE CUB AND THE POLECAT.


The young fox's education, varied and thorough, steadily proceeded.
Though the vixen-cubs were slightly quicker to learn, they were more
excitable, and consequently did not benefit fully by each lesson. Vulp
soon began to hunt for his own sport and profit. In the meadow above the
wood he would sit motionless, his eyes fixed on the ground, till the
voles came from their burrows to play beneath the grass-bents; then,
with a quick rush, he would secure a victim directly its presence was
betrayed by a waving stalk. With the same patience he would watch near a
rabbit warren, till one of the inhabitants, hopping out to the mound
before her door, gave him the sure chance of a kill. But in the
wheat-fields on the slope his methods were altogether different. To
capture partridges required unusual cunning and skill, and such
importance did the vixen attach to this branch of her field-craft, that,
before initiating her youngsters into the sport of hunting these birds
at night, she instructed them diligently in the methods of following by
scent, training them how to pursue the winding trail left by the larks
that fed at evening near their sleeping places, or by the corncrakes
that wandered babbling through the green wheat. Vulp's first attempt to
capture a partridge chick resulted in failure. The vixen-cubs "fouled"
the line he had patiently picked out in the ditch around the cornfield,
and, "casting" haphazard through the herbage, alarmed the sleeping
birds, and sent them away to a secure hiding place in the clover. But
his second attempt was crowned with success, and he proudly carried his
prey into a sequestered nook amid the gorse, where he enjoyed a quiet
meal.

The cub was fully six months old before he knew the precise difference
between stale and fresh scent, or between the scent of one creature and
that of another, and how to hunt accordingly; and several years, with
many dangers and hair-breadth escapes, were destined to pass before he
became expert in avoiding or baffling the numerous enemies--chiefly
dogs, and men, and traps--that threatened his life. And yet, during the
first few months of his existence, he gained sufficient knowledge for
the needs of the moment; and when August drew on towards the close of
the summer, and he was three parts grown, he had so extended his nightly
rambles that the "lay of the land" was familiar for miles around the
covert. His outdoor existence--for now he was wont to sleep in a lair
among the gorse and the bracken, instead of in the stuffy "earth"--gave
him strength in abundant measure, while his scrupulously clean habits,
the care with which he removed even the slightest trace of a burr from
his sleek, brown coat, and the plentiful supplies of fresh food which he
was able to obtain, naturally preserved him from mange and similar
ailments to which carnivorous animals are always prone. For the present,
indeed, life meant nothing more to him than the sheer enjoyment of
vigorous health, at home by day amid the grateful shadows of the bushes
and the trees, or basking in the sun, and abroad at night in the cold,
clear air of the dewy uplands.

Just as sportsmen occasionally meet with a run of ill-luck, when for
some apparently unaccountable reason they either fail to find game, or
fail to kill it, and, to intensify the annoyance, an accident occurs
that leaves a bitter memory, so Vulp, during one of his long rambles
over the countryside, failed entirely to find sport, and gained a
decidedly unpleasant experience. If only his mother had not taught him
that in a season of scarcity a weasel might reasonably be considered an
article of food! One summer night, as he started on his usual prowl, the
covert seemed strangely silent. With the exception of a solitary rabbit
that bolted to its burrow when the young fox crossed the clearing, and
another that disappeared in similar fashion when nothing more than a
slight crackle of a leaf betrayed Vulp's whereabouts near a
bramble-clump, every animal had apparently deserted the thickets. So,
leaving his accustomed haunts, he crossed the furze-clad dingle, and
watched near a large warren in the open. But there, again, not a rabbit
could be seen. A field-vole rustled by over the leaves; the cub made a
futile effort to capture it, stood for an instant listening to its
movements, then thrust his nose into the herbage in another vigorous but
vain attempt; the vole, like the rabbits, had sought refuge underground.
An owl, that had frightened the cub about five months before when first
he ventured outside his home, rose from the hedge, and flew slowly down
the valley with a little squealing creature in her talons; she, at any
rate, had not hunted in vain.

At last Vulp struck a fresh line of scent which, though particularly
strong and uninviting, he took to be that of a weasel. It was mingled
with the faint odour of a field-vole that, doubtless, had been pursued
and carried away by its persistent enemy. The cub followed the trail,
hoping to secure both hunter and victim, but it soon led him to a hole
in the hedgerow, and there abruptly ceased. He was about to turn from
the spot, when the eyes of the supposed weasel suddenly gleamed at the
mouth of the hole, but disappeared when the presence of the cub was
recognised. The fox, retreating to a convenient post of observation
behind a tuft of grass, settled down to await his opportunity. A few
minutes elapsed, and the pursued creature came once more in sight. It
appeared like a shadow against the sky, lifted its nose inquiringly,
quitted the burrow, sat bolt upright for a moment, then, reassured,
proceeded towards the covert on the opposite side of the path. With a
single bound, the cub cleared the grass-tuft, reached out at his prey,
missed his grip, bowled the animal over, and, turning rapidly, caught it
across the loins instead of by the throat. Unfortunately for himself,
the fox had made a slight miscalculation. With a scream of rage and
pain, the polecat--for such the creature proved to be--turned on the
aggressor, and instantly fastened its formidable teeth, like a steel
trap, on his muzzle. Vulp had been taught that his fangs, also, were a
trap from which there should be no escape, and so he held on firmly,
trying meanwhile to shake the life from his victim. He pressed the
polecat to the ground, and frantically endeavoured to disengage its hold
by thrusting his fore-paws beneath its muzzle; but every effort alike
was useless. A scalding, acrid fluid emitted by the polecat caused the
lips and one of the eyes of the cub to smart unbearably, and the
offensive odour of the fluid grew stronger and stronger, till it became
almost suffocating. At last the polecat convulsively trembled as its
ribs and spine were crushed in the fox's tightening jaws, its teeth
relaxed their hold, and the fight was over.

Sickened by the pungent smell, and with muzzle, lips, and right eye
burning horribly from his wounds and the irritant poison, Vulp hastily
dropped his prey, and ignominiously bolted from the scene of the
encounter. Soon, however, he stopped; the pain in his eye seemed beyond
endurance. He tried to rub away the noxious fluid with his paws, but his
frantic efforts only increased the irritation by conveying the poison to
his other eye and to his wounds. He rolled and sneezed and grunted in
torment; he drew his muzzle and cheeks to and fro on the ground,
wrestling with the great Earth-Mother for help in direst agony. He could
not open his eyes; he stumbled blindly against a tree-trunk, and at last
became entangled in the prickly undergrowth. This was Nature's method
of succour--she forced her wildling to remain quiet, in helpless
exhaustion, till the pain subsided and life could once again be endured.
Panting and sick, the cub lay outstretched among the thorns, while the
tears flowed from his eyes and the froth hung on his lips. Presently,
however, relieved by the copious discharge, he recovered his senses,
and, miserably cowed, with head and brush hanging low, returned before
dawn to the covert. But the vixen in fury drove the cub away; the scent
still clung to him, and rendered him obnoxious even to his mother. In
shame he retired to a dense "double" hedge of hawthorn, where he hid
throughout the day, till he could summon sufficient courage at dusk to
hunt for some dainty morsel wherewith to tempt his sickened appetite.
But before taking up his position above the entrance to a rabbit warren,
he drank at the brook, dipped his tainted fore-paws in the running
water, and, sitting by the margin, removed from his face, as far as
possible, the traces left by the previous night's conflict. Repeatedly,
at all hours of the day and the night, he licked his paws and with them
washed his wounded muzzle and inflamed eyes; but so obstinately did the
offensive odour cling to him that a fortnight elapsed before the last
vestige of the nuisance disappeared. Meanwhile, he narrowly escaped the
mange; and, to add to the discomfort of his wounds, he experienced, now
that his mother's aid was lacking, some difficulty in obtaining
sufficient fresh food.

At length he recovered, and new, downy hair clothed the wounds and the
scratches on his muzzle and throat. Sleek and strong once more, he was
welcomed as a penitent prodigal by the relenting vixen, and, having in
the period of his solitary wanderings learned much about the habits of
the woodland folk, was doubtless able to assist his mother in the future
training of the vixen-cubs.

In that luckless fortnight he had acquired a taste for young pheasants,
had picked up a few fat pigeon-squabs belonging to the last broods of
the year, and had sampled sundry articles of diet--frogs, slugs, snails,
a young hedgehog or two, and a squirrel that, overcome with
inquisitiveness, descended from the tree-tops to inspect the young fox
as he dozed among the bilberries carpeting the forest floor.

Another incident occurred, to which, at the time, the cub attached
considerable importance. He had killed what seemed to be a large, heavy
rabbit, which, though evidently possessed of a healthy appetite, was
almost scentless, and differed in taste from any he had hitherto
captured. He was not particularly hungry, so he buried the insipid
flesh, and resolved never to destroy another rabbit that did not yield a
full, strong scent. Shortly afterwards, when, under the eye of the
bright August moon, Vulp and the vixen were hunting in the wheat-fields,
he detected a similarly weak scent along the hedgerow, and learned from
his wise mother it was that of a doe-hare about to give birth to her
young, and therefore hardly worth the trouble of following. The vixen
further explained that, except when other food was scarce, creatures
occupied, or about to be occupied, with maternal cares--even the lark in
the furrow and the willow-warbler in the hole by the brook--were far
less palatable than at other times. The cub was also told how, just
before he came into the world, the hounds had chased his mother from the
thicket, and how old Reveller, the leader of the pack, had headed the
reckless puppies, and, rating them for their discourtesy, had led them
away to scour another part of the covert.

With the advance of autumn, a great change passed over the countryside.
The young fox now found it necessary to choose his paths with care as he
wandered through the darkness, lest the rabbits should be warned of his
approach by the crisp rustle of his "pads" on the leaves that had fallen
in showers on the grass. Hitherto he had associated the presence of man
with that of something good for food. An occasional dead rabbit was
still to be found near the old "earth," and, strange to relate, the
man-scent leading to the place was never fresher or staler than that of
the rabbit. In another spot--a wood-clearing not far from the keeper's
lodge--the strong scent of pheasants always seemed to indicate that the
birds had ventured thither in numbers to feed, and there, too, the
man-scent was strong on the grass. The tracks of innumerable little
creatures intersected the clearing in all directions, and, if but for
the sport of watching the pheasants, the pigeons, the sparrows, and the
voles playing and quarrelling in the undergrowth or partaking of the
food provided by the keeper, the fox loved to lurk in the gorse near by.
He evinced little real alarm even at the sight of man, though he felt a
misgiving and instinctively knew that he must hide or keep at a distance
till the curiously shaped monster had gone. The vixen warned him
repeatedly; and she herself, after giving the signal "Hide!" would slink
away, and wander for miles before returning to her family, if only the
measured footfall of a poacher or a farm labourer sounded faintly
through the covert.

But soon the young fox learned, in a way not to be misunderstood, that
the presence of man meant undoubted danger. One day in October, as he
was intently watching the movements of a sportsman in the copse, a big
cock pheasant rose with a great clatter from the brambles, a loud report
rang through the covert, and a shaggy brown and white spaniel dashed
yelping into the bushes. Darting impetuously from his lair, the cub
easily out-distanced the dog, and quickly found refuge in an adjoining
thicket, where he remained in safety during the rest of the day. Night
brought him another adventure. While crossing a pasture towards a wooded
belt on the hillside, he discovered, to his surprise, that a man was
creeping stealthily towards him through the shadows. A moment later, a
great lurcher came bounding over the field. The fox turned, made for the
hedgerow, and gained the friendly shelter of the hawthorns just as the
dog crashed into the ditch. The frightened creature now ran along the
opposite side of the hedge in a straight line towards the wood, and for
a second time narrowly escaped the lurcher's teeth; but, by keeping
close to the ditch and among the prickly bushes on the top of the
hedge-bank, he at last succeeded in baffling his long-legged foe and
reached the wood unharmed.

Vulp had thus awakened to the dangers which, during winter and the
earliest days of spring, were always to beset him. But the apprehensions
caused by his little affair with the spaniel, and even by his narrow
escape from the lurcher, were trifling compared with the dread and
distress of being driven for hours before the hounds. And so full of
perils was the first winter of his life that nothing but a combination
of sheer luck with great endurance could then have sufficed to save him
from destruction. Quickly, one after the other, the young vixens were
missing from the thickets; soon afterwards, three of the cubs belonging
to the litter that had been reared in the artificial "earth"
disappeared; and an old fox, the sire of that litter, was killed after a
long, wearisome chase almost to the cliffs on the distant coast.

One dark and dismal night in December, Vulp, on returning to the home
thickets, failed to find his dam. Her trail was fresh; she had evidently
escaped the day's hunt; but all his efforts to follow her met with no
sort of success. Nature had brought about a separation; in the company
of an adult fox, whose scent lay also on the woodland path, the vixen
had departed from her haunts. The fox-cub remained, however, among the
woodlands where he had learned his earliest lessons, and, for another
year, hunted and was hunted--a vagrant bachelor.



IV.

A CRY OF THE NIGHT.


One starlit night, when in early winter the snow lay thick on the
ground, Vulp heard the hunting call of a vixen prowling through the
pines. A similar call had often reached his ears. Not long after his dam
deserted him, the cry had come from a furze-brake on a neighbouring
hill-top, and, hastening thither, he had wandered long and wearily,
recognising, though with misgiving, his mother's voice. But the exact
meaning of the call, not being a matter for his mother's teaching, was
unknown to him at the time. Now, however, he was a strong, well fed,
fully developed fox, able to hold his own against all rivals, and the
cry possessed for him a strange, new significance: "The night is white;
man is asleep; I hunt alone!" Almost like a big brown leaf he seemed to
drift across the moonlit snow, nearer and nearer to the pines. He paused
for a moment to sniff the trail; then, with a joyous "yap" of greeting,
he bounded over the hedge, reached the aisles of the wood, and
gambolled--again like a big, wind-blown leaf--about the sleek, handsome
creature whose call he had heard. The happy pair trotted off to hunt the
thickets, till, just before dawn, Vulp, eager to show his skill and
training, surprised two young rabbits sitting beneath a snow-laden
tangle of briar and gorse, and gallantly shared the spoil with his
woodland bride. They feasted long and heartily, afterwards journeying to
the banks of a rill, that, like a black ribbon, flowed through the glen;
and there, crouching together at the margin, they lapped the water with
eager, thirsty tongues.

Presently, happening to glance behind along the line of the trail, Vulp
caught sight of another fox, a rival for the vixen's affections,
crouching in some bracken scarcely a dozen yards away. With a low grunt
of rage, he dashed into the fern, but the watchful stranger simply
moved aside, and frisked towards the vixen as she still crouched at the
edge of the stream. In response to this insulting defiance, Vulp hurled
himself on the intruder, and bowled him over into the snow. The fight
was fast and furious; now one gained the advantage, then the other. The
grass beneath them became gradually bared of snow by their frantic
struggles, and marked here and there by a bunch of fur or a spot of
blood. At last the rival fox, his cheek torn badly beneath the eye,
showed signs of exhaustion; his breath came in quick, loud gasps; and
Vulp, pressing the attack, forced him to flee for life to a thicket on
the brow of the slope. There he dwelt and nursed his wounds, till, when
the snow melted, the huntsman's "In-hoick, in-hoick, loo-loo-in-hoick!"
resounded in the coverts, and he was routed from his lair for a last,
half-hearted chase, that ended as Melody pulled him down at a ford of
the river below the woods.

During the period of their comradeship--a period of privation for most
of Nature's wildlings--Vulp taught the vixen much of the lore he had
learned from his mother, while the vixen imparted to him the knowledge
she herself had gained when a cub. He taught her how to steal away from
the covert along the rough, rarely trodden paths between the
farm-labourers' cottages--where the scent lay so badly that the hounds
were unable to follow--directly the first faint notes of a horn, or the
dull thud of galloping hoofs, or the excited whimper of a "rioting"
puppy, indicated the approach of enemies. She taught him to baffle his
foes by chasing sheep across the stubbles, and then passing through a
line of strong scent where his own trail could not readily be
distinguished; also that to cross the river by leaping from stone to
stone in the ford was as sure a means of eluding pursuit as to swim the
pools and the shallows. He taught her, when hard pressed, to leap
suddenly aside from her path, run along the top rail of a fence, return
sharply on her line of scent, and follow, with a wide cast, a
loop-shaped trail, which, with a tangent through a ploughed field or dry
fallow, was usually sufficient to check pursuit till the scent became
faint and cold. And gradually each of these woodland rovers grew
acquainted with the peculiar whims and habits of the other. Vulp loved
to follow stealthily the trail of the rabbit, and then to lie in wait
till some imagined cause of alarm sent Bunny back through the "creep"
and almost straight into her enemy's open jaws. The vixen preferred to
hide in the brambles to leeward of a burrow till an unsuspecting rabbit
crept out into the open. Vulp, since his adventure with the polecat,
bristled with rage whenever he crossed the track of a weasel, but never
dreamed of following; polecat and weasel were the same animal for aught
he knew to the contrary. The vixen, however, was not daunted by the
unpleasant memory of any such adventure; having chanced to see a weasel
in the act of killing a vole, she had recognised a rival and acted
accordingly. And so Vulp's repeated warnings to his mate on this matter
produced no effect beyond making her slightly more careful than she had
hitherto been to obtain a proper grip when she pounced on her savage
little quarry. The vixen was exceedingly fond of snails, and would
eagerly thrust a fore-paw into the crannies of any old wall or bank
where they hibernated; but Vulp much preferred to scratch up the moss
in a deserted gravel-pit, and grub in the loosened soil for the drowsy
blow-flies and beetles that had chosen the spot for their winter abode.
This was the reason for such different tastes: the vixen, when a cub,
had often basked in the sun near a snails' favourite resort, and had
there acquired a liking for the snails; while the fox, on the other
hand, had times out of number amused himself, in the first summer of his
life, by leaping and snapping at the flies as they buzzed among the
leaves when the mid-day sun was hot, and at the beetles as they boomed
along the narrow paths in the thicket near the "earth" when the moon
rolled up above the hedge, and the dark, mysterious shadows of
intersecting boughs foreshortened on the grass. But Vulp knew well, from
an unpleasant experience, the difference between a fly and a wasp.

One day in August, as he lay in his outdoor lair, the brightness and
heat of the sunshine were such that his eyes, blinking in the drowsiness
of half-awakened slumber, appeared like mere slits of black across
streaked orbs of yellow, and gave no indication of the fiery glow that
lit the round, distended pupils when he peered at nightfall through the
tangled undergrowth. His tongue lolled out, and he panted like a tired
hound, but from thirst rather than weariness. The flies annoyed him
greatly, now settling on his brush, till with a flick of his paw he
drove them away, then, nothing daunted, alighting on his back, his ears,
his haunches, till his fur wrinkled and straightened in numberless
uneasy movements from the tormenting tickling of the little pests.
Presently, with a shrill bizz of rapid wings, a large, yellow-striped
fly passed close to his ears. He struck down the tormenting insect with
a random flip of his paws, snapped at it to complete the work of
destruction, and proceeded leisurely to eat his victim. To his utter
surprise, he seemed to have captured a living, angry thorn, which,
despite his most violent efforts to tear it away with his paws, stuck in
his lip, and produced a smarting, burning sensation that was
intolerable. He rolled on the ground and rubbed his muzzle in the grass,
but to no purpose. No wonder, then, that subsequently his manner
towards an occasional hibernating wasp among the moss-roots in the
gravel-pit was deferential in the extreme!

Vulp and his mate soon learned that in rabbit-hunting it was exceedingly
profitable to co-operate. Thus, while the vixen "lay up" near a warren,
Vulp skirted the copse and chased the conies home towards his waiting
spouse. After considerable practice, the trick paid handsomely, and food
was seldom lacking. The vixen possessed, perhaps, a slightly more
delicate sense of smell than the fox. Frequently she scented a rabbit in
a clump of fern or gorse after Vulp had passed it by; suddenly stopping,
she would tell her lord of her discovery by signs he readily understood,
and then, while he kept outside the tangle, would pounce on the coney in
its retreat, or start it helter-skelter into his very jaws. But of all
the tricks and the devices she taught him, the chief, undoubtedly, were
those concerned with the capture of hens and ducks from a neighbouring
farmstead. An adult fox, as a rule, does not pay frequent visits to a
farmstead; but Vulp, like his sire, was passionately fond of poultry,
and so, in after years, the vixen's instructions caused him to become
the dread of every henwife in the district. Undoubtedly he would have
been shot had he not been the prize most sought for by the Master of the
Hounds, who cared little for the frequent demands made on his purse by
the cottagers, so long as the fox that slaughtered the poultry gave
abundant sport when running fast and straight before the pack.

The months drifted by, and signs of spring became more and more abundant
in the valley. About the beginning of March, Vulp deserted the "earth"
prepared by himself and the vixen for their prospective family, and took
up his abode among the hazels and the hawthorns in a thick-set hedge
bounding the woods.

In preparing the "breeding earth," Vulp and the vixen observed the
utmost care in order that its whereabouts should not be discovered. The
chosen site was a shallow depression, scratched in the soil by a
fickle-minded rabbit that had ultimately fixed on another spot for her
abiding place. This depression was enlarged; a long tunnel was
excavated as far as the roots of an oak, and there broadened. Then
another long tunnel was hollowed out towards the surface, where it
opened in the middle of a briar-brake. The foxes worked systematically,
digging away the soil with their fore-paws, loosening an occasional
stubborn stone or root with their teeth, and thrusting the rubbish
behind them with their powerful hind-legs. As it accumulated, they
turned and pushed it towards the mouth of the den, where at last a
fair-sized mound was formed. When the burrow had been opened into the
thicket, the crafty creatures securely "stopped" the original entrance,
so that, when the grass sprouted and the briar sprays lengthened in the
woodlands, the "earth" would escape all notice, unless a prying visitor
penetrated the thicket and discovered the second opening--then, of
course, the only one--leading to the den.

When summer came, and the undergrowth renewed its foliage, and the grass
and the corn grew so tall and thick that Vulp could roam unseen through
the fields, he left his haunts amid the woodlands at the first peep of
dawn, and as long as daylight lasted lay quiet in a snug retreat amid
the gorse. There all was silent; no patter of summer rain from leaves
far overhead, no rustle of summer wind through laden boughs, prevented
him hearing the approach of a soft-footed enemy; no harsh, mocking cry
of jay or magpie, bent on betraying his whereabouts, gave him cause for
uneasiness and fear. Of all wild creatures in the fields and woods, he
detested most the meddlesome jay and magpie. If he but ventured by day
to cross an open spot, one of these birds would surely detect and follow
him, hopping from branch to branch, or swooping with ungainly flight
almost on his head, meanwhile hurling at him a thousand abuses. Unless
he quickly regained his refuge in the gorse, the blackbirds and the
thrushes would join in the tantalising mockery, till it seemed that the
whole countryside was aroused by the cry of "Fox! fox!" After such an
adventure, it needed the quiet and solitude of night to restore his
peace of mind; and even when he had escaped the din, and lay in his
couch among the bleached grass and withered leaves, his ears were
continually strained in every direction to catch the least sound of dog
or man. When in the winter he ran for life before the hounds, and tried
by every artifice to baffle his pursuers, these "clap-cats" of the woods
would jeer him on his way. Once, when he ventured into the river, and
headed down-stream, thinking that the current would bear his scent below
the point where he would land on the opposite bank, the magpie's clatter
caused him the utmost fear that his ruse might not succeed. But luckily
the hounds and the huntsman were far away. The birds, however, were not
the only advertisers of his presence; the squirrel, directly she caught
sight of him, would hurry from her seat aloft in fir or beach, to the
lowest bough, and thence--though more wary of Vulp than of Brighteye,
the water-vole--fling at him the choicest assortment of names her varied
vocabulary could supply. Still, for all this irritating abuse Vulp had
only himself and his ancestry to blame. The fox loved--as an article of
diet--a plump young fledgling that had fallen from its nest, or a tasty
squirrel, with flesh daintily flavoured by many a feast of nuts, or
beech-mast, or eggs. It was but natural that his sins, and those of his
forefathers, should be accounted to him for punishment, and that it
should become the custom, in season and out of season, when he was known
to be about, for all the woodland folk to hiss and scream, and
expostulate and threaten, and to compel his return to hiding with the
least possible delay. Thus it happened that he scarcely ventured, during
the day, to attack even a young rabbit that frisked near his lair, lest,
screaming to its dam for help, it should bring a very bedlam about his
ears.

While roaming abroad in the summer night, Vulp gradually became
acquainted with all sorts of vermin-traps used by the keepers. Once,
treading on a soft spot near a rabbit "creep," he suddenly felt a slight
movement beneath his feet. Springing back, he almost managed to clear
the trap; but the sharp steel teeth caught him by a single claw and for
a moment held him fast. He wrenched himself loose, and retired for a
while to examine his damaged toe-nail. Then, reassured, he again
approached the trap, so that he might store up in memory the
circumstances of his near escape. He learned his lesson thoroughly, and
never afterwards did the smell of iron, or the slightest taint of the
trapper's hand, escape him. He even walked around molehills; they
reminded him too much of the soft soil about the trap. And, for the same
reason, he avoided treading on freshly excavated earth before the holes
of a rabbit warren.

The succeeding years of Vulp's eventful life were in many respects
similar to the year that began with his courtship of the sleek young
vixen in the white wilderness of the winter fields. His fear of men and
hounds increased, while his cunning became greater with every passing
day. He never slept on a straight trail, but cast about, returned on the
line of his scent, and leaped aside, before retiring to sleep in his
retreat amid the bracken. Often he heard the wild, ominous cry of the
huntsman, "Eloa-in-hoick, hoick--hoick, cover--hoick!" as the hounds
dashed into the furze; and the loud "Tally-ho!" as he himself, or,
perchance, a less fortunate neighbour, broke into sight before the
loud-tongued pack. And more than once, from a safe distance, he heard
the awful "Whoop!" that proclaimed the death of one of his kindred.

As the years wore on, Vulp gradually wandered far from his old home. The
countryside, for twenty or thirty miles around, was known as intimately
to him as a little garden, nestling between sunny fruit-tree walls, is
known to the cottager who makes it the object of his daily care. His
ears were torn by thorns and fighting; his russet coat was streaked with
grey along the spine. At last, when age demanded ease and comparative
safety from the long, hard chase over hill and dale, he retired to a
rocky fastness on the wild west coast, and there, far above the leaping
waves and dashing spray, lived his free, lonely life. And there he died.

[Illustration: "HE RETIRED TO A ROCKY FASTNESS ON THE WILD WEST COAST."]

It was a bright, hot day in July. Lying among the boulders on the shore,
I watched through a field-glass the antics of some birds that wheeled
and soared above the cliffs, when, to my surprise, I saw Vulp crawl
slowly along a shelf of rock above a deep, dark cavern. His movements,
somehow, appeared unnatural. Instead of crouching, with legs bent under
him and brush curled gracefully about his "pads," to bask, his eyelids
half-closed, in the sun, he lay on his side. Guided by a companion, who,
with waving hand, directed my course as I climbed, I gradually mounted
the steep ascent, and peeped over the edge of the rock on which the fox
lay. Despite my excessive caution, he was aware of my presence. Slowly
and drowsily he lifted his head, uttered a feeble half-grunt, half-whine
of alarm, and for a moment bared his teeth defiantly. I remained
absolutely still. Then his head fell back, and with a tremor of pain he
stretched a stiffened limb. I crawled across the ledge to a rugged path
among the cliffs, and descended to the shore. Next day I found him on
the rock again, lying in the same position, but dead, while far up in
the blue the sea-birds circled and called, and far below, at the edge of
the flowing tide, the crested billows leaped and sang.

His "mask" hangs above my study door. It has been placed there--not as
a thing of beauty. The hard, set pose devoid of grace, the bent, dried
ears once ever on the alert, the glassy, artificial eyes in sockets once
tenanted by living balls of fire that glowed in the darkness of the
night--all are unreal and expressionless. Yet the "mask" suggests a
hundred pictures, and when I turn aside and forget for a moment the
unreality of this poor image of death, I wander, led by fancy, among the
moonlit woods, where the red mouse rustles past, and the mournful cry of
the brown owl floats through the beeches' shadowed aisles. Then I hear a
sudden wail, that echoes from hillside to hillside, as the vixen calls
to Vulp: "The night is white; man is asleep; I hunt alone!" And the fox,
standing at the edge of the clearing, sends back his sharp, glad answer,
"I come!"



THE BROWN HARE.

I.

THE UPLAND CORNFIELD.


In midsummer, when the sun rises over the hillside opposite my home its
first bright beams glance between the branches of a giant oak in the
hedgerow of a cornfield above the wooded slope, and sparkle on my study
window. And when at evening the valley is deeply shadowed, the light
seems to linger in benediction on the same cornfield, where the great
oak-tree, no longer silhouetted darkly against a golden dawn, shines
faintly, with a radiance borrowed from the west, against the pearl-blue
curtain of the waning day. Except during the early morning or at dusk,
the cornfield does not stand out conspicuously in the landscape. The eye
is attracted by the striking picture of the woodland wall stretching
across the slope from the brink of the river, or by the lower prospect
of peaceful meadows and orchards through which the murmuring stream
wanders towards the village bridge; but the peaceful uplands beyond
rarely greet the vision. For many years I was wont to look from my
window only at the woods and the meadows, and somehow I was accustomed
to imagine that the line of my vision was bounded by the top of the
wood. It was not till more than usual interest had been awakened in me
concerning the wild life inhabiting the cornfield, that my eyes were
daily turned in the direction of the uplands, where, every evening, the
rooks disappear from sight on their way to the tall elms in a
neighbouring valley.

Except during harvest, the cornfield is seldom visited by the country
folk. It lies away from the main road, and the nearest approach to it is
by a grass-grown lane leading from some ruined cottages to a farmstead
in the middle of the estate. Many years ago, it was a wilderness of
furze and briar, one of the thickest coverts on the countryside,
affording safe sanctuary for fox and badger. But gradually it has been
reclaimed, till now only a belt of undergrowth, scarcely twenty yards
wide, stretches along the horizon between the upper hedgerow and the
wheat.

Here, one starry April night, in a snug "form" prepared by the mother
hare, a leveret was born. The "form" was hardly more than a depression
in the rank grass, to which, for some time past, the doe had been in the
habit of resorting at dawn, that she might hide secure through the day,
till the dusk brought with it renewed confidence, and tempted her away
into the open meadows beyond the cornfield, where the young clover grew
green and succulent. A thick gorse-bush, decked with a wealth of yellow
bloom, grew by the side of the "form," and, all around, the matted grass
and brambles made a labyrinth, pathless, save for the winding "run" by
which the hare approached or left her home.

Unlike the offspring of the rabbit--born blind and naked in an
underground nest lined with its parent's fur--the leveret was covered
with down, and her eyes were open, from the hour of birth. Nature had
fitted her for an existence in the open air. At first she was suckled by
day as well as by night, but as she grew older she seldom felt the want
of food till dark. While light remained, she squatted motionless by her
mother's side in the "form," protected by the resemblance in colour
between her coat and the surrounding herbage, where the browns and greys
of last autumn might still be seen among the brambles, with here and
there a weather-worn stone or the fresh castings from a field-vole's
burrow. In the gloaming, she followed her mother through the "creeps"
amid the furze-brake, and sometimes to the edge of the thicket as far as
the gap, where she learned to nibble the tastiest leaves in the grass.
But soon after nightfall, she was generally alone for some hours while
the doe wandered in search of food.

Before daybreak, the doe always returned to suckle her little one. Often
in the quiet night, the leveret, feeling lonely or afraid, would call in
a low, tremulous voice for help. If the doe was within hearing she
immediately responded; but frequently the cry, "leek, leek," did not
reach the roaming hare, and the leveret, crouching in the undergrowth,
had to wait till she heard her mother's welcome call. Soon the little
home in the thicket was deserted, and the leveret accompanied her
mother on her nightly journeys till the fields and the woods for miles
around became familiar.

About a month after her birth, the leveret, having grown so rapidly that
she was able to take care of herself, parted from her mother, and,
crossing the boundary hedge of the estate, took up her quarters on the
opposite side of the valley. The doe and her leveret had lived happily
in the cornfield and the meadows above the wood. The mother had attended
with utmost solicitude to the wants of her offspring, allowing no
intruder among her kindred to trespass on her own particular haunts, and
careful to select for each day's hiding place some sequestered spot
where a human footstep was seldom heard, and the noise of the farmyard
sounded faint and remote.

The leveret had learned, partly through a wonderful instinct and partly
through her mother's teaching, how to act when there was cause for
alarm. Immediately on detecting the presence of an intruder, she lay as
still as the stone beside the ant-heap near, trusting that she would not
be distinguished from her surroundings. But if flight was absolutely
necessary, she sped away towards the nearest gap, and thence over
pasture and cornfield, always up-hill if possible, out-distancing any
probable pursuer by the marvellous power of her long hind-limbs.

During the late summer and the early autumn, nothing occurred to
endanger the leveret's life. The corn grew tall and slowly ripened. Amid
its cool shadows the leveret dwelt in solitude. Her "creeps" were out of
sight beneath the arching stalks. A gutter for winter drainage, dry and
overgrown with grass, formed a tunnel in the hedge-bank between the corn
and the root-crop field beyond; and through this gutter the leveret,
when at night she grew hungry, could steal into the dense tangle of
thistles and nettles fringing the turnips, thence, between the ridges
under the wide-spreading leaves, to the narrow pathway dividing the rape
from the root-crop, and across the field to a furrow where sweet red
carrots, topped with dew-sprinkled plumes, tempted her dainty appetite.

When the calm night was illumined, but not too brightly, by the moon and
stars, the leveret would venture far away from her retreat to visit a
cottage garden where the young lettuces were crisp and tender. Her
depredations among the carrots and lettuces were scarcely such as to
deserve punishment. She ate only enough of the lettuces to make a slight
difference in the number of seeding plants ultimately devoured by the
cottager's pig, or thrown to the refuse-heap; and from the great pile of
carrots, to be gathered and stored in the peat-mound by the farmstead,
the few she destroyed could never by any chance be missed. On all the
countryside she was the most inoffensive creature--the harmless gipsy of
the animal world, having no fixed abode, her tent-roof being the dome of
the sky.

As autumn advanced, the reapers came to the corn. She heard them enter
by the gate; and presently, along the broad path cut by the scythe
around the field, the great machine clanked and whirred. All day the
strange, disturbing noise continued, drawing gradually nearer the spot
where the leveret lay. Through the spaces between the stalks she watched
the whirling arms swinging over, and the horses plodding leisurely by
the edge of the standing wheat. At last, but almost too late, she
leaped from her "form" as the cruel teeth cut through the stalks at her
side; and, taking the direction of her "creep," rushed off towards the
nearest gap and disappeared over the brow of the hill.

In the middle of the night she wandered back to the wheat-field. The
scene before her eyes revealed a startling change. The corn stood in
"stooks" on the stubble; no winding paths led here and there through a
silent sanctuary, where countless waving, nodding plumes, bent and
released by a gentle-flowing wind, had shimmered in the bright radiance
of the harvest moon, when, coming home late at night from the marsh
across the hill, she had stayed for a while on the mound by the gate,
and tiptoe, with black-fringed ears moving restlessly, had listened to
some ominous sound in the farmyard. The prickly stubble felt strange to
her feet, so, carefully picking her way by the ditch, she crossed to the
nearest gate and ambled down the lane. But the change noticed in the
wheat-field seemed to have passed over the whole countryside. It was
more and more pronounced during the following week, till, in October,
the late harvest had all been cleared. The habits of the hare altered
with the season. Having at last grown accustomed to the varied
conditions of her life, she sometimes frequented the old tracks over the
upland, but rarely resorted to the "forms" in which she had lain amid
the summer wheat.

October brought her an experience which might have proved disastrous,
but which, fortunately, resulted in nothing more than a passing fright.
In the stalk of the rye occurs a knot, forming a slight bulge known to
the peasantry as the "sweet joint." Rabbits and hares are extremely fond
of this succulent morsel, and, in consequence, the rye-crop, if near a
large warren, is in danger of being totally destroyed. Puss one night
had wandered far to a field, where, some time before, she had discovered
a patch of standing rye. The few remaining stalks were hard and
uninviting, but there were some delicious parsnips among the root-crops.
At dawn she settled down to hide between the rows of swedes close by,
and remained secreted for the day; but towards evening a sportsman came
in at the gate, and, with a low word of command and a wave of the arm,
"threw off" his brace of red setters to range the field. Working
systematically to right and left, the dogs sought eagerly for game. Soon
the hare was scented, and while Juno, with stiffened "stern" and
uplifted paw, stood almost over her, Random, "backing" his companion,
set towards the furrow where Puss, perfectly rigid, and with ears well
over her shoulders, crouched low, prepared for instant flight. Step by
step the sportsman, with gun in readiness, moved towards Juno,
cautioning her against excitement; while Random, sinking on his
haunches, awaited patiently the issue of events. Suddenly, convinced
that in flight lay her surest chance of escape, the hare leaped from her
"seat," and with the utmost speed, though from the ease of her motions
appearing to run slowly, made her way towards the hedgerow. There was a
quick rush behind her as she started from the furrow, and then a loud,
rasping exclamation from the sportsman, but nothing more; no shot was
fired. She owed her life to several circumstances. The dogs were young,
and in strict training; their master, knowing the natural fondness of
"first season" setters for "chasing fur," had purposely refrained from
killing the hare, and had turned his attention to the behaviour of his
dogs. Then, again, he cherished a certain fondness for Puss, believing
her to be the most persecuted, as well as the most innocent and
interesting, of Nature's wildlings in the wind-swept upland fields.

Henceforward, but for one other incident, the life of the hare was
singularly uneventful till the early spring. That incident occurred
within a week of her escape from the setters, and once more her luck was
due to the humanity of him who had found her among the turnips. The
farm-lands frequented by the leveret were a favourite resort of many of
her kind, and when moving about in the darkness of the night she often
found signs of their presence near the gaps and gateways. The sportsman,
knowing well that after harvest the poaching instincts of the peasantry
and of the professional village "mouchers" would receive fresh stimulus,
determined to forestall his enemies, and render futile some, at least,
of their endeavours. So it came about that one night a keeper, assisted
by several of the guests at the "big house" in the valley, and having
previously made every preparation for the event, placed a net near each
gate and before each likely gap within a radius of half a mile from the
heart of the estate.

Unless hard pressed, a hare seldom leaves a field except by certain
well-known openings in the hedgerow. Unlike the rabbit, she will not
readily leap over any obstacle beneath which she can crawl; and whereas
the "creep" of a rabbit through a gateway or a hedgerow is well-nigh
invariably at right angles to the line of that gateway or hedgerow, the
"creep" of a hare tends sideways and is sometimes slightly curved. To
net hares successfully it is necessary to know their habits; and the
keeper, having served a lifelong apprenticeship in field-craft, was
prepared for every emergency. His object at this time was not to kill
the hares, but simply to educate them, to warn them thoroughly once for
all against the wiles of their worst enemy, the poacher.

As Puss was busily feeding in the dewy clover, she heard the quick,
continuous gallop of a dog. This time, however, she had not to deal with
Juno, the setter, but with a trained lurcher, borrowed for the occasion
from a keeper who had captured the animal during a poaching affray. The
leveret, peeping over the grass-tops, saw the dog coming rapidly on. He
was over and past her in an instant. As he turned, she started off
straight towards an opening where some sheep had partly broken down the
hedge. The lurcher closed in, and drove her thither at tremendous speed.
She strained every nerve, and, gaining the ditch, blundered blindly
through the gap, and fell, helpless and inert, entangled completely
within the treacherous folds of the unseen net. Her piteous cries,
tremulous, wailing, heart-rending--similar to the cries of a suffering
infant--were borne far and wide on the wind. The keeper soon reached the
spot, and, placing his hand over her mouth to stop the cries, tenderly
extricated the frightened creature from the treacherous meshes and
allowed her to go free. For a few seconds, she lay in abject fright,
panting and unable to move. Then, hearing the cries of another hare
entangled in a bag-net some distance away, she bounded to her feet, and
darted off--somewhere, anywhere, so long as she might leave the awful
peril behind. Bewildered, but with every instinct assisting her in the
desire for life, she ran along by the hedgerow, and, unexpectedly
catching sight of a familiar gate, crouched and passed quickly through
the "creep" beneath the lowest bar. But here, again, a net was spread;
again the hare fell screaming and struggling into the meshes; and again
the keeper released her. Exhausted by intense excitement and fear, she
crawled into the "trash" in the ditch, and kept in hiding, not daring
the risk of another capture. Luckily for Puss, the lurcher had already
hunted the field in which she was now secreted, and so the timid
creature remained undisturbed beneath the fern. When her wildly
throbbing heart had been quieted by rest and solitude, she stole from
her hiding place to nibble the clover at the side of the path. Towards
dawn, she journeyed to a wide stretch of moorland on the opposite hills,
and there made a new "form" on a rough bank that separated a reedy
hollow from the undulating wilderness of heather and fern.

The leveret's adventures were destined to effect a considerable change
in her habits. She was being roughly taught that to preserve her life
she must be ever cautious and vigilant. Though danger threatened her by
day and by night, she lived beyond the usual period of a hare's
existence, partly because her early education was thorough and severe.
Thus taught, she would pause for an instant at every gap and gateway
before she passed through, and, if she found a net in her path, would
turn aside, creep along by the hedge, and seek an exit at another place.

The perils to which she had been exposed created a feeling of intense
restlessness, which harassed her throughout the winter months, and
caused her to travel long distances, by the loneliest lanes and fields,
to and from the moorland where now she had made her home. She remembered
the scent of a human being since her experiences with the keeper, and,
her powers of smell being wonderfully acute, was able to detect even the
faintest signs which indicated that her dread enemy--man--had crossed
her path. One night she smelt the touch of a hand on the grass-bents
near her "form," and found also that the herbage had been moved aside.
Though the scent was faint--the intruder having visited the spot soon
after the leveret had set out in quest of food--the cautious creature
forsook her lair, and spent the day in a sheltered retreat beside a heap
of dry and withered leaves near the outskirts of a copse on the slope
overlooking the moor.

Gradually she grew big and strong, becoming unusually fat as the autumn
advanced, so that she would be able, if required, to withstand the
rigour and the waste of a severe winter. Her coat was thick and
beautifully soft, for protection against cold and damp. But while she
increased in weight, she remained in hard condition because of her long
journeys and frequent change of quarters.

It happened, however, that her first winter was helpful to the welfare
of animal life in general. The heavy rains, it is true, greatly
distressed the leveret. The nights were so dark, and the constant patter
of the rain so interfered with even her highly trained powers of
hearing, that, while the wet weather lasted, she seldom dared to leave
the neighbourhood of her favourite resort, but crouched in the grass at
the margin of the copse, and tried to obtain a meal as best she could
from the sodden herbage.

Though on certain occasions Puss might have been discovered in hiding
on the marsh, yet there, whenever possible, she chose a dry spot for her
"seat." She loved, best of all, the undulating hills far above the
river-mists, which, chilled at nightfall by an occasional frost,
descended on the fields like crystal dust, and almost choked her if she
chanced to pass within these wreathing drifts that brought discomfort
and disease to man and beast alike.

But the want of exercise so affected her, that, when again the weather
was fine and she ventured from her lair, she found herself unable to
cover the usual distance of her nightly rambles. As the first cold
glimmer of the dawn appeared in the south-eastern sky, she started back,
in alarm at her fatigue, to complete the remaining mile of her journey
home. Her weakness soon became apparent. Then, finding herself powerless
to proceed, she turned reluctantly aside, and crouched, with Nature's
mimicry for her protection, on the brown ploughland where the winter
wheat was thrusting up its first green sprouts above the soil. But after
a few days she was well and strong again. She suffered far less from
the short, sharp frost that bound the countryside with its icy fetters,
than from the rains. The frost scarcely interfered with her movements;
indeed, it made exercise more than ever necessary. Forced to seek
diligently for her food, she found it in a deserted stubble; there, when
the sheep lay sleeping in the bright winter moonlight, she would squat
beside them, nibbling the turnips scattered over the field as provender
for the flock.



II.

MARCH MADNESS.


March came in "like a lion." The wind whistled round the farmstead on
the hill, and through the doorway of the great kitchen, and down the
open chimney. It woke up the old, grey-haired farmer who dozed on the
"skew" in the ingle-nook by the crackling wood-fire; it almost made him
feel young again with the vigour of the boisterous spring. It sang in
the key-hole of the door between the passage and the best parlour; the
mat at the threshold flapped with a sound as of pattering feet; and the
gaudy calendars on the wall flew up like banners streaming in the
breeze. The old man turned, and eagerly watched the hailstones, as they
dropped tinkling on the roofs of the outhouses, or, driven aslant by
the wind, crashed hissing against the ground, and, rebounding, rolled
across the pebbled yard. The labourers came home to the mid-day meal,
and, pausing at the door, shook the hail from their garments.

"Lads," said the farmer, "I've been spared to hear the whisper of
another spring."

"God be thanked!" said the hind, "for seasonable weather at last. Every
man to his trencher! the broth is in the bowls."

Out on the marsh the reeds beat in the wind. Every grass-fibre twisted
and swung; the matted tussocks, drooping over stagnant pools near which
the snipe, with ruffled feathers, probed the soil in search of food,
were shaken and disentangled, so that the bleached blades of last year's
growth fell apart, and exposed the fresh young sprouts rising from the
bed of winter's death. Over the wide waste the March wind drove
furiously, with blessing in the guise of chastisement, while, far above,
the grey-blue clouds whirled fast across a steely sky, till the ashen
moon gazed coldly on the waning day, as one by one the stars flashed
overhead, the clouds rolled down into the pink and silver west, and the
song of the wind became only a murmur in the leafless willows by the
brook.

With the advent of March, a great change passed over the wild life of
the uplands. The jack-hares threw aside their timidity, and wandered,
reckless of danger, over the marsh, across the stubbles, and through the
woods. Even in broad daylight, they frisked and quarrelled, in courtship
and rivalry.

The leveret was now full-grown, and Nature's mothering instincts were
strong within her. One evening, as she louped along her accustomed trail
towards the turnip-field, she discovered a suitor following in her wake.
Half in misgiving, half in wantonness, she turned aside and hid in the
ditch. Presently she felt a soft touch on her neck: the jack-hare was
pushing his way through the undergrowth. For a moment she stopped to
admire him as the moonlight gleamed on a white star in the centre of his
forehead. Then away she jumped, dodging round the bushes and hither and
thither among the grassy tangles, while her admirer followed, frisking
and leaping in sportive gaiety. Another jack-hare now came along the
hedgerow. In utter mischief, Puss called "leek, leek, leek," as if
pretending to be in distress and in need of help. "Leek, leek," came the
low response, as, quickening his pace, the second hare sprang into the
fern. But his audacity was not to go unchallenged. The first suitor
immediately showed himself, and, making a great pretence of reckless
bravery, prepared to give the second a warm reception. The doe-leveret,
apparently indifferent, but nevertheless keenly interested in the
combat, crouched on a little knoll by the path, while the jack-hares,
sitting on their haunches, boxed and scratched, and rolled over each
other in a singularly harmless conflict, neither suffering more than the
loss of a few tufts of fur. The comedy might, however, have had a tragic
ending. Presently one of the combatants--the hare that had come late on
the scene--became slightly exhausted, and, ignominiously yielding to his
rival's superior dexterity, ran back towards the distant hedge. Almost
at once a fox crept out from the furze at the corner of the field, and
trotted away on the scent of the fleeing hare, while Puss and her mate
made off in the direction of a more secluded pasture.

A month passed--a month of general hilarity and indiscriminate fighting
among all the hares in the district--and then, within a neat, dry
"form," that Puss, with a mother's solicitude, had made in a carefully
selected spot on a mound where the grass was tall and thick, her little
leveret was "kittled." The doe-hare tended her offspring as carefully as
she herself had been tended a year before. Her faithless lover had gone
his own way. But Puss cared little for his desertion: she wished to live
alone, under no monopoly as far as her affections were concerned, though
for the time her leveret wholly engaged her mothering love.

So strong was her strange new passion that she was ready, if needs be,
to brave death in defence of her young. And, not long after the
leveret's birth, the mother's courage was tested to the utmost. A
peregrine falcon, from the wild, rocky coast to the west, came sailing
on wide-reaching wings across the April sky. Puss was resting in a clump
of brambles not far from her "form," and saw the big hawk flying swiftly
above. Any movement on her part would have instantly attracted the
attention of her foe, so she squatted motionless, while her leveret
also instinctively lay still in its "form." But the keen eyes of the
falcon detected the young hare, and the bird descended like a stone on
his helpless victim. Instantly, the doe rushed to the rescue, and,
effectually warding the attack, received the full force of the "stoop"
on her shoulders. As the hawk rose into the air, the doe felt a sharp
pain in one of her ears--the big talons, closing in their grasp, had
ripped it as with the edge of a knife. She screamed, then, grunting
savagely, leaped hither and thither around the leveret, meanwhile urging
it to escape into the adjacent thicket. The bird, aloft in the air,
seemed perplexed, and eventually prepared to "stoop" again. In the nick
of time, Puss vanished with her little one beneath an impenetrable
tangle of friendly thorns, while the baffled peregrine proceeded on his
way.

For some weeks, the hare languished under the effects of the falcon's
blow. When her leveret was old enough to find food for itself, she
rested, forced by the wound to live quietly in hiding, till the scar
healed and life once more became enjoyable. But she always bore the
marks of the talons, and so was spoken of by the country folk as "the
slit-eared hare."

The superstitious recalled the tales of a bygone century, and half
believed the hare to be a witch in disguise, for she seemed to bear a
charmed life, and, though known everywhere in the parish, successfully
eluded to the end all the devices that threatened her. No matter how
artfully the wire noose was set above the level of the ground in her
"run," she brushed it by and never blundered into the treacherous loop.
A net failed even to alarm her: it might almost be imagined that she
became an experienced judge of any such contrivance, and knew every
individual poacher by the method with which his toils were spread across
her path.

Not having bred during the year in which she was born, Puss had thrived,
and weighed about nine pounds in the late autumn of her second season.
But according to popular opinion she was much heavier. Will, the
cobbler, who was fond of coursing, stoutly maintained, to a group of
interested listeners in the bar-parlour of the village inn, that she
seemed like a donkey when she escaped from his greyhound into the wood.

Family cares again claimed the hare's attention in July; and, having
taken to heart her experience with the peregrine, she left the uplands
and made her home in the thickets of a river-island. At that time the
river was low, and, on one side of the island, the bed of the stream had
become a dry, pebbly hollow, save for a large pool fed by the backwater
at the lower end, where the minnows played, and whither the big trout
wandered from the rapids to feed during the hot summer nights.

Late one afternoon, when long shadows lay across the mossy bank of the
river beyond the tall beeches standing at the entrance to the island
thickets, Puss was waiting for the dusk, and dozing meanwhile, but with
wide-open eyes, beside her leveret. Since there was another little mouth
besides her own requiring food, she generally felt hungry long before
nightfall, and so, when the afterglow began to fade in the west, was
wont to steal away to the clover above the woods that fringed the long,
still pool up-stream.

As the day wore on, the hare heard the unmistakable tread of human feet
approaching through the woods. The sounds became increasingly distinct;
then a pebble rattled and splashed into the water as the intruder walked
across the river-bed. He passed close to the "form," and, turning
down-stream, was lost to sight amid the bushes. At intervals, the hare
imagined that the faint, muffled sounds of footsteps came from the
distance; but again the sounds drew near, ceasing, however, when the man
was a few yards from the nest.

I can complete the story. Since spring I had been studying the wild life
of this lonely island below the rocky gorge extending hither from the
village bridge. The wood-wren, the willow-wren, and the garden-warbler
had nested in the thickets, and every evening I had visited the place to
pry on their doings, and to note how the flowers in glad succession
blossomed and faded--their presence in this lonely sanctuary known only
to myself, and to the birds, bees, and butterflies, and to the little
shrews that rustled over the dry leaves beneath. But now the
garden-warblers had left for the copse on the far side of the river, and
the wood-wrens and the willow-wrens had retreated to the inner recesses
of the thickets, where, amid the luxuriant verdure of midsummer, their
movements baffled my observation.

On the July evening, as I lay in the matted grass at the edge of the
copse by the pebbles, watching a whitethroat among the bushes opposite,
my eye happened to rest for an instant on a patch of bare mud
immediately before me. There, to my surprise, I discovered the
footprints of the hare. The five toes of the fore-feet, and the four
toes of the hind-feet, were as clearly outlined as if each impression
had been taken in plaster. And yet, when I stood up to look at the spot,
the marks seemed to have wholly disappeared. On nearer examination I
found that the track of the hare was in the direction of the island.
From their shape, and the distance between each, the footprints
indicated that the movements of the hare had not been hurried. Similar
footprints were visible in a straight line between the bank and the
island. Only one conclusion seemed possible--the hare had crossed to the
island early that morning, after the heavy shower that had fallen just
before dawn. It would have been contrary to her habits had she crossed
later; and, had she passed the place at any time before, the rain would
have washed away the marks in such an open spot, or, at any rate, would
have blurred them beyond recognition.

After placing a white stone by the footprints to indicate their
whereabouts, I searched along the river-bed for signs that would show a
track towards the bank; but not a single mark could be found pointing in
that direction. It was obvious that the hare had not left the island
till, at any rate, some hours after the rain. Then, however, the sun
would have been so high that Puss would have been loath to leave her
lair. Faintly discernible beside a large pebble, one other footprint
appeared, leading like the rest towards the island. The mark was old,
and had been saved from obliteration by the sheltering stone; but it
suggested that the hare had made her home not far away. Taught by
experience, I decided not to penetrate the copse and risk disturbing its
probable tenant. I approached it only so far as to examine another bare
place in a line with the footprints on the mud, where, to my delight, I
found fresh footprints similar to those at the dried-up ford, together
with other and much smaller marks undoubtedly made by a tiny leveret.

I now re-crossed the ford and went home. But before nightfall I
returned, and, hiding behind the hedgerow on the bank, watched, unseen,
the approach to the island. My patience was soon rewarded. Just as the
dusk was deepening over the woodlands, "the slit-eared hare" left her
"form" and stood in full view by the ford. There, having lazily
stretched her long, supple limbs, she played awhile with her leveret,
sometimes pausing to nibble a few clover-leaves as if to direct the
little one's attention towards its suitable food. Then she ambled
leisurely across the river-bed, and, with graceful, swinging gait,
passed through the meadow beyond--while her offspring disappeared within
the thickets of the island.

The hot weather broke up in July, and henceforth, till late September,
rain descended almost every day. The shower that had revealed the
whereabouts of the hare was the first sign of the change. On the
following night, a thunderstorm broke over the countryside, washed down
the soil from the pastures, and sent the river roaring in flood through
the gorge. While on the far side of the island the main torrent raged
past beneath the willows, the divided stream under the near bank formed
salmon-pools and trout-reaches, where, before, the pebbles had been bare
and dry.

Anxious to know how the flood would interfere with the movements of the
hare, I came back on the following evening to my hiding place by the
hedgerow. In the dusk, Puss appeared at the margin of the copse, and
moved down the bank to the edge of the stream. There she paused,
apparently perplexed, and called to her leveret. Presently the young
hare joined her mother at the water's edge, and both hopped along the
brink, seeking a dry place by which they might reach the field on the
slope. Finding none, they adjourned to the mossy bank where I had seen
the leveret's footprints. Then the doe went down boldly to the stream,
called to her companion, waded in, and swam across. Ascending into the
field, she shook the water from her fur, and again called repeatedly.
The young one hesitated, and ran to and fro crying piteously,
"leek--leek." Suddenly, in the excitement, it missed its footfall and
fell into the river. Bewildered, but hearing its mother's call, it swam
down the pool through the still water below the little rapid, and landed
on the opposite bank, where it joined its parent, and, following her
example, shook the water from its downy limbs. Soon both disappeared
within the wood; and, satisfied with my evening's sport, I turned
homewards across the fields.

During the rest of the summer, the hare frequented the rough pastures
skirting the ploughlands, and visited the cornfields only when the
weather was dry. Hares suffer little discomfort in rainy weather, if
only the fine fur beneath the surface of the coat remains dry--after a
shower they can easily shake off any outside moisture. But they dislike
entering damp places where the vegetation is tall and their fur may get
matted and soaked by the raindrops collected on the herbage. In wet
weather hares may often be found in cover, especially near thick
furze-brakes on a well drained hillside, but their presence in such a
situation may imply that they sought shelter before the rain began to
fall.

In September, for the third time during the year, Puss was occupied with
family affairs. Now, three tiny leverets were "kittled," and the nest
occupied an almost bare place on the top of a ridge in the root-field
where last season the succulent carrots grew. The hare had been greatly
distressed by the unusually wet summer, and one of her leverets was in
consequence a weakling; another leveret was killed by a prowling polecat
while the mother wandered from the "form"; and only the third grew up
robust and strong.

The approach of winter brought Puss many strange experiences, from some
of which she barely emerged with her life. When the season was passed,
it had become more than ever difficult to approach her; she would slip
away to cover directly her keen senses detected the presence of a
stranger in the field where she lay in her "form." As she grew older,
her leverets sometimes numbered four or five, but as a rule she gave
birth to three only, her productiveness being probably dependent on the
ease with which she obtained food.

One day in February, just before bringing an early little family into
the world, she almost met her death. A village poacher, ferreting on the
hillside, chanced to see her, as she lay not far off in a patch of
clover. Without waste of time, he proceeded to attempt the capture of
the hare by a well-known trick. Thrusting a stake into the ground, he
placed his hat on it, and strolled unconcernedly away. Then, as though
he had changed his mind, he walked round the clump, in ever narrowing
circles, gradually closing on his prey. Meanwhile, the hare, her
attention wholly diverted by the improvised scarecrow, remained
motionless, baffled by the artifice. Suddenly she felt the touch of the
man's hand. The poacher had thrown himself down on the tuft, hoping to
clutch the hare before she could move. But in endeavouring to look away
from the spot, and, at the same time, measure the distance of his fall,
he had miscalculated the hare's position. She sprang up, and with ears
held low sped away towards the wood, leaving the poacher wild with rage
at the failure of his ruse, and vowing vengeance on the timid creature,
whose life, at such a time, would hardly, even to him, have been worth
an effort.



III.

THE CHASE.


Of all the hounds employed in the chase of the hare, the basset promises
to become the prime favourite among some true-hearted sportsmen who love
sport for its own sake, and not from a desire to kill. He is a loose,
lumbering little fellow--resembling his relative, the dachshund--low and
long, with out-turned legs, sickle-shaped "flag," and features which, in
repose, seem to suggest that he has borne the grief and the care of a
hundred years, but which, when the huntsman comes to open the kennel
doors, are radiant with delight. Mirthfulness and dignity seem to seek
expression in every movement of the quaint, old-fashioned little hound,
and in every line of his face. As for his music--who would expect such a
deep, bell-like note from this queer midget among hunters, standing not
much higher than the second button of the huntsman's legging? Withal, he
is a merry, lively little fellow, with a good nose for the scent of a
rabbit or a hare, and, when in fit condition, is able to follow, follow,
follow, if needed, from earliest dawn till the coming of night. The
chase being ended, he with his companions, Harlequin and Columbine, and
all the stragglers of the panting pack, will surround the tired hare,
and will wait, bellowing lustily, but without molesting the quarry, till
the Master appears and calls them to heel.

If the ten to twenty sportsmen often to be found in a village would
combine, each keeping a basset for the common Hunt, they might derive
the utmost pleasure from following their pets afield, and incidentally
would assist to prevent the extermination of an innocent wildling of our
fields and woodlands. For the sake of the sport shown by the
basset-hounds, many of the farmers near the villages, who dearly love to
hear the deep music of a pack in full cry, would protect Puss from those
more cunning and powerful enemies of hers, who, lurcher in leash or gun
in hand, steal along the hedgerows at nightfall, so that, from a secret
transaction thereafter with some local game-dealer, they may get the
wherewithal for a carouse in the kitchen of the "Blossom" or the "Bunch
of Grapes."

One morning in December, when the rime lay thick on the fields, and the
unclouded sun, rising in the steel-blue sky, cast a radiance over the
glittering countryside, our village basset-hounds found the "cold" scent
of the hare in the woods above the church, where Puss had sheltered
beside a prostrate pine-trunk before returning to her "form" at dawn.
After endeavouring in vain for some time to discover the direction of
her "run," they set off, "checking" occasionally, across the stubble,
through the root-crop field, and down over the fallow to the bottom of
the dingle. There, near a bubbling spring, Puss had hidden since
daybreak. Hearing the far-off music, she slipped out of the field
unobserved, till, reaching the uplands, she was seen to pass leisurely
by in the direction of the furze-brake.

Directly the bassets came to the spring, a chorus of deep sounds
announced that the quarry had been tracked to her recent lair. All
through the morning they continued their quest; they streamed in a long,
irregular line up the hillside, their black and tan and white coats
gaily conspicuous in the sunlight; they trickled over the hedgerows, and
dotted the furrows of the deserted ploughlands; they moved in "open
order" through the copse, and plodded along by the furze-brakes or
through the undergrowth where the sharp-thorned brambles continually
annoyed and impeded them; they worked as if time needed not to be taken
into the slightest account. The least scent met with loud and hearty
recognition; fancy ran riot with the excited puppies; the atmosphere at
every turn seemed to betray the near presence of Puss. But every
condition of weather and fortune was against good sport. The ground was
steadily thawing in the warmth of the sun, and the rising vapour,
trembling in the light, seemed to carry the scent too high for accurate
hunting.

So the hare ambled along her line of flight--a wide, horse-shoe curve
that began and ended in the fallow on the slope. When a considerable
distance had been placed between herself and her pursuers, she ceased
to hurry. Indeed, the music of horn and hounds seemed almost to
fascinate the creature, and frequently she lingered for a few moments to
listen intently to the clamour of her enemies. A farm labourer, who
tried to "grab" her as she passed down the grassy lane, said that she
"was coming along as cool as a cucumber. Sometimes she'd sit down to
tickle her neck with her hind-feet. Then she'd give a big jump,
casual-like, to one side of the path, and sit down again, with her ears
twitching and turning as if she thought there was mischief in every
flutter of a leaf or creak of a bough."

Frightened almost out of her wits by the labourer's sudden and well-nigh
successful endeavour to secure her, Puss rushed back along the lane,
crossed a gap, and sped over the uplands once more, leaving her usual
horse-shoe line of flight, and taking a much greater curve towards the
fallow. But gradually her pace slackened as she discovered she was no
longer followed; and then, not far from her lair by the spring, she
paused to rest. The music of the hounds was faint, distant, and
intermittent; and at last it entirely ceased. Somewhat exhausted
towards the end of her journey, she had withheld her scent, and had thus
completely outwitted her slow but patient pursuers.

Once, and once only, towards the end of January, she found herself
chased by her more formidable foes, the beagles. At first she eluded
them by stealing off without yielding the faintest scent; but she was
"viewed" in crossing the meadow, and the hounds, making a long, wide
cast, "picked up" as soon as a slight, increasing taint in the air was
perceptible, then followed for several miles. But, ultimately, they were
baffled, and Puss made good her escape.

It had happened that, after creeping through a gutter in the hedgerow of
a stubble, she had come in sight of a flock of sheep grazing on the
opposite side. Like Vulp, the fox, she knew how to hinder the chase by
mingling her scent with that of other animals; so without hesitation she
passed through the flock, and made straight for an open gateway in the
far corner of the field. When the beagles, in hot pursuit, appeared on
the scene, the startled sheep, rushing away, took the line of the hunted
hare through the opening, and thus "fouled" the scent so thoroughly
that the hunt came to a "check." After the hare had left the fields
frequented by the sheep, she took the direction of a path leading over a
wide bog towards the woodland. On the damp ground the scent lay so
badly, that when, some time later, the beagles crossed her line, they
were unable, even after repeated "casts," to follow her track. Presently
the impatient huntsman, with hounds at heel, moved away to the nearest
road and relinquished his quest.

Luckily for Puss, the harriers never visited her neighbourhood, and only
on special occasions was coursing permitted on the estate. If at night a
lurcher entered the field in which she grazed amid the clover, her
knowledge of the poacher's artifices immediately prompted her to slip
over the hedge and past the treacherous nets. Her life, beset with
hidden dangers, was preserved by a chain of wonderfully favourable
circumstances, that befriended her even when the utmost caution and
vigilance had been unavailing.

Once, so mild was the winter that the hare's first family for the year
came into the world in January. A few weeks afterwards, when she was
about to separate from her leverets, an incident occurred that might
have been attended with fatal results. A poacher, prowling along the far
side of the hedgerow, and occasionally stopping to peep through the
bushes for partridges "jugging" in the grass-field, caught sight of the
leverets nibbling the clover near a small blackthorn. In the feeble
afterglow, he was uncertain that the objects before him were worth the
risk of a shot, so he crawled towards a gap to obtain a nearer view. To
his astonishment, when he reached the gap nothing was visible by the
thorn-bush; the leverets had vanished in the ferns. But the poacher was
artful and experienced. He hid in the undergrowth of the ditch, where,
after waiting awhile, and seeing no sign of movement in the grass, he
gave utterance to a shrill cry like that of a young hare in distress.
Five minutes passed, and the cry was repeated--tremulous, prolonged,
eloquent of helpless suffering. At intervals, the same artifice was
employed, but apparently without success.

The poacher was about to crawl from his hiding place, when suddenly,
close beside the hedgerow, the head of the doe hare came into sight.
Startled, in spite of expectation, by her sudden appearance, and excited
as he recognised the "slit-eared hare," the poacher involuntarily moved
to grasp his gun. He looked down for an instant to make sure that his
gun was in readiness, but when he lifted his eyes again the hare was
gone. Do what he might, not another glimpse of his quarry was to be
obtained, and so, half believing that he had seen a witch or that he had
dreamed, he stole away into the darkening night.

Deceived by the poacher's cries, the doe-hare had hurried home, but had
found her young alive and well. Then, scenting danger, she had vanished
with her offspring into the nearest bramble-clump, and in the deep
shadow of the hedgerow had led them safely away.

During the last year of her life, she frequented the hawthorn hedges and
the furze brakes of an estate diligently "preserved" by a lover of
Nature as a sanctuary whither the furred and feathered denizens of the
countryside might resort without fear of hounds or poachers, and where a
gun was never fired except at vermin. The winter was severe; on two
occasions snow lay thick on the ground for more than a week. But Puss
was fairly comfortable; she had her "form" on a dry, rough heap of
stones, gathered from the fields and thrown into a disused quarry near
the woods; and for four or five nights she remained at home, the snow
covering her completely but for a breathing hole in the white walls of
her tiny hut. At last, impatient of confinement, and desperately hungry,
she broke through the snow-drift, and sought the nearest root-crop
field, where, after scratching the snow from a turnip, she was able to
make a hearty meal. While returning slowly towards the wood through the
soft, yielding snow that rendered her journey difficult and tiresome,
she unexpectedly discovered, near the hedge beyond the furrows, a tasty
leaf or two of the rest-harrow, together with a few yellow sprouts of
young grass where a stone had been kicked aside by a passing
sheep--these were the tit-bits of her provender.

In the early morning, the hare, too cautious to re-enter the "form,"
which, now that its surroundings were torn asunder, had become a
conspicuous rent in the white mantle of the old quarry, crept over the
hedge into the woods, and, moving leisurely beneath the snow-laden
undergrowth, where her deep footprints could not easily be tracked,
selected a suitable spot for a new "form" in the friendly shelter of a
fallen pine.

But even in this woodland sanctuary she encountered an enemy. A cat from
the farm on the hill, having acquired poaching habits, had strayed, and
taken up her abode among the boulders at the foot of a wooded precipice
adjoining the lower pastures of the estate. In a gallery between these
boulders, she had made her nest of withered grass and oak-leaves, where,
at the time of which I write, she was occupied with a family of kittens.
The wants of the kittens taxed the mother's utmost powers; she prowled
far and wide in search of food, and was as much a creature of the night
as were the fox and the polecat that also lived among the rocks.

There is no greater enemy of game than the renegade cat. She is far more
destructive than a fox. Many animals that can evade Reynard are helpless
in the grip of a foe armed so completely as to seem all fangs and
talons. The special method of slaughter adopted by the cat towards a
victim of her own size is cruel and repulsive in the extreme. Grasping
it with her fore-claws and holding it with her teeth, she lies on her
back and uses her hind-claws with such effect that often her prey is
lacerated to death.

Roaming at night in the shadow, the cat came unexpectedly on the scent
of the hare and traced it to the "form," but the desired victim was not
at home. The cat returned to the spot before dawn, and lurked in hiding
beneath the hawthorns. The hare, however, was not to be easily trapped.
Coming into the wood against the wind, she fortunately detected the
enemy's presence quite as readily as the cat had discovered her "form"
amid the grass-bents. With ears set close, and limbs and tail twitching
with excitement, the cat crouched ready for the deadly leap. But the
hare suddenly sprang aside from her path, climbed the hedgerow, and
disappeared, outpacing with ease the cat's half-hearted attempt at
pursuit.

At length the "slit-eared hare" met her death, in a manner befitting the
wild, free existence she had led among the hills and the valleys. Her
dead body was brought me by the head keeper of the woodland estate, and,
as it rested on my study table, I gazed at it almost in wonder. The
russet coat, turning grey with age, was eloquent of the brown earth, the
sere leaf, and the colourless calm of twilight, and told me of the
creature's times and seasons. The big, dark eyes, their marvellous
beauty and expressiveness dimmed by death, and the long, sensitive ears,
one ripped by the falcon's talon and both slightly bent at the tip with
age, were suggestive of persecution, and of a haunting fear banished
only with the coming of night, when, perchance, the early autumn moon
rose over the corn, and the hare played with her leverets among the
shadowy "creeps." My hands rested on the fine, white down that took the
place of the russet coat where Nature's mimicry was needed not; it was
pure and stainless, like the lonely wildling's inoffensive life.

[Illustration: "WHEN THE EARLY AUTUMN MOON ROSE OVER THE CORN."]

A terrible thunderstorm had raged over the countryside all the evening
and throughout the night. Ben, the carter, coming home to the farm with
his team, had dropped at the very threshold of the stable, blasted in
a lurid furnace of sudden fire. A labourer's cottage had been
wrecked; many a stately forest tree had been rent or blighted; the
withering havoc had spread far and wide over the hills. On the following
morning, the keeper, going his rounds, had found the dead hare beside a
riven oak.



THE BADGER.

I.

A WOODLAND SOLITUDE.


Even in our own densely peopled land, there are out of the way districts
in which human footsteps are seldom heard and many rare wild creatures
flourish unmolested. Near such parts the naturalist delights to dwell,
in touch, on one side, with subjects that deserve his patient study,
and, on the other side, with kindly country folk, who, perhaps, supply
him with food, and are the means of communication between him and the
strenuous world. In this western county, however, the naturalist, in
order to gain expert knowledge, does not need to live on the fringe of
civilisation. Here, among the scattered upland farms around the old
village, creatures that would elsewhere be in daily danger because of
their supposed attacks on game are almost entirely free from
persecution. In several of our woods, polecats seem to be more numerous
than stoats, and badgers are known, but only to the persistent observer,
to be more common than foxes; and both polecats and badgers are seldom
disturbed, though the farmers may regularly pass their burrows.

The immunity of such animals from harm is, to some extent, the result of
the farmer's lack of interest in their doings. He strongly resents the
presence of too many rabbits on his land, "scratching" the soil,
spoiling the hedges, and devouring the young crops, and, therefore,
cherishes no grudge against their enemies so long as his stock is
unmolested. He is no ardent protector of game, and, if a clutch of eggs
disappears from the pheasant's nest he has chanced to discover in the
woods, thinks little about the incident, and concludes that Ned the
blacksmith's broody hen has probably been requisitioned as a
foster-mother, and that some day he will know more of the true state of
affairs when he visits the smithy at the cross-roads.

Another circumstance to which the badger hereabouts is indebted for
security is that terriers are not the favourite dogs of the countryside.
When shooting, the sportsman prefers spaniels, particularly certain
"strains" of black and brown cockers--untiring little workers with a
keen, true power of scent--which for many years have been common in the
neighbourhood; and the farmer's sheep-dog is unfitted for any sport
except rabbiting. Here and there, among the poaching fraternity, may be
found a mongrel fondly imagined by its owner to be a terrier--a good
rabbit "marker," and wonderfully quick in killing rats, but no more
suited than the sportman's spaniel for "lying up" with a badger.

Undoubtedly, however, the security of some of our most interesting wild
animals, and especially of the badger, is to be accounted for by their
extreme shyness. They venture abroad only when the shadows of night lie
over the woods. For countless years, dogs and men have been their
greatest foes, and their fear of them is found to be almost as strong in
remote districts as where, near towns, their existence is continually
threatened. Wild life in our quiet valley will be deemed of unusual
interest when I say that less than six hours before writing these lines
I visited a badger's "set"--a deep underground hollow with several main
passages and upper galleries, where, as I have good reason to believe, a
fox also dwells--an otter's "holt" beneath gnarled alder-roots fringing
the river-bank, and another fox's "earth," all on the outskirts of a
wooded belt not more than a mile from my home, and all showing signs of
having long been inhabited.

Unless systematically persecuted, the fox, the otter, and the badger
cling to their respective haunts with such tenacity that, season after
season, they prowl along the same familiar paths through the woods or by
the river, and rear their young in the same retreats. This is the case
especially with the badger; from the traditions of the countryside, as
well as from the careful observation of sporting landowners, it may be
learned that for generations certain inaccessible "sets" have seldom, if
ever, been uninhabited. Always at nightfall the "little man in grey" has
climbed the slanting passage from his cave-like chamber, ten or--if
among the boulders of some ancient cairn--even from twenty to thirty
feet below the level of the soil, and sniffed the cool evening air, and
listened intently for the slightest sound of danger, before departing on
his well worn trail to hunt and forage in the silent upland pastures.
And with the first glimpse of light, when the hare stole past towards
her "form," and the fox, a shadowy figure drifting through the haze of
early dawn, returned to the dense darkness of the lonely wood, he has
sought his daytime snuggery of leaves and grass industriously gathered
from the littered glades.

In a deep burrow at the foot of a hill, about a quarter of a mile from a
farmstead built on a declivity at a bend of the broad river, Brock, the
badger, was born, one morning about the middle of spring. Three other
sucklings, like himself blind and wholly dependent on their parents'
care, shared his couch of hay and leaves. Day by day, the mother badger,
devoted to their welfare, fed and tended her unusually numerous
offspring, lying beside them on the comfortable litter, while the sire,
occupying a snug corner of the ample bed, dozed the lazy hours away; and
evening after evening, when twilight deepened into darkness as night
descended on the woods, she arose, shook a few seed-husks from her coat,
and with her mate adjourned to an upper gallery leading to the main
opening of the "set," whence, assured that no danger lurked in the
neighbourhood of their home, both stole out to forage in the clearings
and among the thickets on the brow of the hill.

Just as with Lutra, the little otter-cub in the "holt" above the river's
brim, the first weeks of babyhood passed uneventfully, so with Brock,
the badger, nothing of interest occurred till his eyes gradually opened,
and he could enjoy with careless freedom the real beginning of his
woodland life. Even thus early, what may be called the nocturnal
instinct was strong within him. He was alert and playful chiefly at
night, when, deep in the underground hollow, nothing could be heard of
the outer world but the indistinct, monotonous wail of the wind in the
upper passages of the "set." Droll, indeed, were the revels of the young
badgers when the parents were hunting far away. The little creatures,
awakened from a heavy sleep that had followed the last fond attentions
of their mother, were loath to frolic at once with each other in the
lonely, silent chamber. In their parents' absence they felt unsafe; that
mysterious whisper of admonition, unheard but felt, which is the voice
of the all-pervading spirit of the woods forever warning the kindred of
the wild, bade them be quiet till the dawn should bring the mother
badger to the lair once more. So, huddled close, they were for a time
satisfied with a strangely deliberate game of "King of the Castle," the
castle being an imaginary place in the middle of their bed. Towards that
spot each player pushed quietly, but vigorously, one or other gaining a
slight advantage now and again by grunting an unexpected threat into the
ear of a near companion, or by bestowing an unexpected nip on the flank
of the cub that held for the moment the coveted position of king. Withal
this was a sober pastime, unless Brock, the strongest and most
determined member of the family, chanced to provoke his playmates
beyond endurance, and caused a general, reckless scramble, in which tiny
white teeth were bared and tempers were uncontrolled.

As the night wore on, it almost invariably happened, however, that the
"Castle" game gave place to a livelier diversion akin to "Puss in the
Corner," when, on feeble, unsteady legs, the "earth-pigs" romped in
pursuit of each other, or squatted, grunting with excitement, in
different spots near the wall of their nursery. But, tired at last, they
ceased their gambols an hour or so before dawn, lay together in a warm,
panting heap, and slept, till, on the return of their mother to the
"set," they were gathered to the soft comfort of her folded limbs, and
fed and fondled to their hearts' content.

Though Brock grew as rapidly as any young badger might be expected to
grow, a comparatively long time passed by before he and the other small
members of the family ventured out of doors. Repeatedly they were
warned, in a language which soon they perfectly understood, that, except
under the care of their parents, a visit to the outer world would end
disastrously; so, while the old ones were abroad, the little creatures
dared not move beyond the opening to the dark passage between the
chamber and the gallery above. Sometimes, following their dam when she
climbed the steep passage to her favourite lookout corner within a mouth
of the burrow, they caught a glimpse of the sky, and of the trees and
the bracken around their home; but a journey along the gallery was never
made before the twilight deepened.

The purpose of such close confinement was, that the young badgers should
be taught, thoroughly and without risk, the first principles of
wood-craft, and thus be enabled to hold their own in that struggle for
existence, the stress of which is known even to the strong. Obedience,
ever of vital importance in the training of the forest folk, was
impartially exacted by the mother from her offspring. It was also taught
by a system of immediate reward. The old badger invariably uttered a low
but not unmusical greeting when she returned to her family at dawn.
Almost before their eyes were open, the sucklings learned to connect
this sound with food and comfort, and at once turned to the spot from
which it proceeded. Later, when the same note was used as a call, they
recognised that its meaning was varied; in turn it became, with subtle
differences of inflection, an entreaty, a command, and a warning that it
would be folly to ignore; but, whatever it might indicate, they
instinctively remembered its first happy associations, and hurried to
their mother's side. Hardly different from the call, when it conveyed
the idea of warning, was a note of definite dissent, directing the
youngsters to cease from squabbling, and to become less noisy in their
rough-and-tumble play. After they had learned each minute difference in
the call notes, their progress in education was largely determined by
that love of mimicry which always prompts the young to imitate the old;
and in time they acquired the tastes, the passions, and the experiences
of their watchful teachers.

While prevented from wandering abroad, they nevertheless were not
entirely ignorant of what was happening in the woods. They were not
quickly weaned; it was necessary, before the dam denied them Nature's
first nourishment, that they should have ready access to the brook that
trickled down the hillside hollow not far from the "set." But
meanwhile, young rabbits, dug from the breeding "stops" of the does,
were frequently brought to them, and the badgers were encouraged to
gratify a love for solid food which nightly became stronger.

In this part of the education of their young, the parent badgers adopted
methods similar to those of the fox and other carnivorous animals. When
first the mother badger brought a rabbit home, she placed it close
beside her cubs, so that they could not fail to be attracted by its
scent. For a moment, aware of something new and strange, they showed
signs of timidity, and crouched together in the middle of the nest; but
the presence of their mother reassured them, and they sniffed at the
warm body with increasing delight. The dam seemed to know each trifling
thought passing through their minds; and, observing their eager
interest, she dragged the rabbit into a corner of the bed, making great
show of savagery, as if guarding it from their attacks. Time after time,
she alternately surrendered and withdrew her victim, till the tempers of
the little animals, irritated beyond control by her tantalising methods,
blazed out in a free fight among themselves for possession of the
prize. The mother now retired to a corner of the "set," and listened
attentively to all that happened, till they had finished their quarrel,
and Brock, the middle figure in a group of tired youngsters, lay fast
asleep with his head on the rabbit's neck. Then she turned, climbed
quietly to the upper galleries, and, stealing out among the shadows of
the wood, came again to the breeding "stop," where she unearthed and
devoured a young rabbit that had been suffocated in the loose soil
thrown up during her former visit. After quenching her thirst at the
brook in the hollow, she journeyed to the upland fields, crossed the
scent of her mate in the gorse, and then "cast" back across the
hillside, making a leisurely examination of each woodland sign, to
satisfy herself that no danger lurked in the neighbourhood of her home.

For the badger, as for the tiny field-vole in the rough pastures of the
Cerdyn valley, the various scents and sounds were full of meaning, and
constituted a record of the night such as only the woodland folk have
learned fully to understand. The smell of the fox lay strong on a path
between the oaks; with it was mingled the scent of a bird; and a white
feather, caught by a puff of wind, fluttered in the grass: young
Reynard, boldest of an early family in the "earth," had stolen a fowl
from a neighbouring farmyard near the river, and had carried it--not
slung over his shoulders, as fanciful writers declare, but with its tail
almost touching the soil--into the thicket beyond the wood. Rabbits had
wandered in the undergrowth; and, near a large warren, the stale,
peculiar odour of a stoat that had evidently prowled at dusk lingered on
the dewy soil. The signs of blackbirds and pigeons among the loose
leaf-mould were also faint; as soon as night had fallen, the birds had
flown to roost in the branches overhead. The short, coughing bark of an
old fox came from the edge of the wood; and then for some time all was
quiet, till the musical cry of an otter sounded low and clear from the
river beneath the steep.

These familiar voices of the wilderness caused the badger no anxiety;
they told her of freedom from danger; they were to her assuring signals
from the watchers of the night. But the howl of a dog in a distant
farmstead, and the bleat of a restless sheep in the pasture on the far
side of the hill, told her a different story; they reminded her, as the
smell of the fowl had done, that man, arch-enemy of the woodland people,
might in any capricious moment threaten her existence, seeking to
destroy her even while by day she slumbered in her chamber under the
roots of the forest trees.

She crossed the gap, where the river-path joined the down-stream
boundary of the wood, then, with awkward, shambling stride, climbed the
steep pasture, and for a few moments paused to watch and listen in the
deep shadows of the hedge on the brow of the slope. A rabbit, that had
lain out all night in her "seat" beneath the briars, rushed quickly from
the undergrowth, and fled for safety to a burrow in the middle of the
field. A small, dim form appeared for a moment by a wattled opening
between the pasture and the cornfield above, then, with a rustle of dry
leaves, vanished on the further side--a polecat was returning to her
home in a pile of stones that occupied a hollow on the edge of the wood.

Day was slowly breaking. A cool wind, blowing straight from the
direction of a homestead indistinctly outlined against the dawn, stirred
the leaves in the ditch, and brought to the badger's nostrils the
pungent scent of burning wood--the milkmaid was already at work
preparing a frugal breakfast in the kitchen of a lonely farm. Fearing
that with the day the birds would mock her as she passed, and thus
reveal her whereabouts to some inquisitive foe, the badger sought the
loneliest pathway through the wood, and returned, silently but hastily,
to her home.



II.

HOME DISCIPLINE.


During the mother badger's absence from home, an unlooked-for
event--almost the exact repetition of an incident in the training of
Vulp, the young fox--had happened in the education of her cubs. Her
mate, hunting in an upland fallow, had been surprised by a poacher, and,
long before daybreak, had discreetly returned to the "set." The success
he had met with had enabled him to feed to repletion, so he was not
tempted by the dead rabbit carried home by the mother and left in the
chamber. Fearing to leave his hiding place, he wisely determined to
devote the time at his disposal, before settling to sleep, to his
children's instruction. With a grunt like that of the mother when she
greeted her offspring, he at once aroused the slumbering youngsters,
and then, heedless of their attentions, as, mistaking him for the dam,
they pressed at his side, he laid hold of the rabbit and dragged it into
a far corner. Full of curiosity, the cubs followed, but with well
assumed anger he drove them away. As if in keen anticipation of a feast,
he tore the dead animal into small pieces which he placed together on
the floor of the chamber. This task complete, he retired to his
accustomed resting place, and listened while the cubs, overcoming their
timidity, ventured nearer and nearer to the dismembered rabbit, till,
suddenly smelling the fresh blood, they gave way to inborn passion, and
buried their teeth in the lifeless flesh. An inevitable quarrel ensued;
Brock and his companions could not agree on the choice of tit-bits, and
a medley of discordant grunts and squeals seemed to fill the chamber,
though now and again it partly subsided, as two or three of the cubs,
having fixed on the same portion of the rabbit, tugged and strained for
its possession--so intent on the struggle that they dared not waste
their breath in useless wrangling.

The old badger, satisfied that his progeny gave excellent promise of
pluck and strength, was almost dropping off contentedly to sleep, when
one of the excited combatants, retreating from the fray, backed
unceremoniously, and awoke him with an accidental blow on the ribs. This
was more than the crusty sire could endure, and he administered such
prompt and indiscriminate chastisement to the youngsters, that, in a
subdued frame of mind, they forgot their differences, forgot also the
toothsome remnants of their feast, and nestled together in bed, desiring
much that their patient dam would come to console them for the ill-usage
just received.

On returning to the "set," the mother badger stayed for a few minutes at
the edge of the mound before the main entrance, and, rearing herself on
her hind-legs, rubbed her cheek against a tree-trunk, and sniffed the
air for the scent of a lurking enemy. Then, satisfied that all was safe,
she entered the deep chamber, and was greeted by the little creatures
that for an hour had expectantly awaited her arrival. Unusually
boisterous in their welcome, they instantly disregarded the presence of
their sire; and such, already, was the magic effect of the meal of raw
flesh on their tempers, that, with an eagerness hitherto unknown, they
followed every movement of their dam, till, submitting to their
importunities, she lay beside them, and fed and fondled them to sleep.

Almost nightly, she brought something new with which to tempt their
appetites--young bank-voles dug from their burrows on the margin of the
wood, weakling pigeons dropped from late nests among the leafy boughs,
snakes, and lizards, and, chiefly, suckling rabbits unearthed from the
shallow holes which the does had "stopped" with soil thrown back into
the entrance when they left to feed amid the clover.

Though young rabbits, in breeding "stops" barely a foot below the level
of the ground, were never safe from the badger's attack, a flourishing
colony dwelt within the precincts of the "set." Early in spring, when
the badgers were preparing for their expected family, a doe rabbit,
attracted by the great commotion caused by their efforts to remove the
big heap of soil thrown up at the entrance to their dwelling, hopped
quietly out of the fern, and sat for a long time watching from between
the bushes the occasional showers of loam which indicated the progress
of the work. Judged by the standard of a rabbit, Bunny was a fairly
clever little creature, and the plans she formed as she hid in the
undergrowth seemed to show that she possessed unusual forethought. She
waited and watched for several nights, till the badgers had ceased to
labour, and the mound before the "set" remained apparently untouched.
Then, one evening, after she had seen the badgers go off together into
the heart of the wood, she entered, and moved along the gallery, pausing
here and there to touch the walls with her sensitive muzzle. Coming to a
place where a stone was slightly loosened, she began to dig a shaft
almost at right angles to the roomy gallery, and for a time continued
her work undisturbed; but an hour or so before dawn she retired to sleep
in a thicket, some distance beyond the plain, wide trail marking the
badger's movements to and from the nearest fields.

The badgers, on returning home, were sorely puzzled at the change that
had taken place during their absence. To all appearance, a trick had
been played on them, for, whereas their house had been left neat and
tidy at dusk, there was now a pile of earth obstructing the main
passage. However, they accepted the situation philosophically, and
completed the rabbit's work by clearing the gallery and adding to the
heap beyond the entrance.

Night after night, the wily rabbit watched for the badgers' departure,
carried on her work, and gave them a fresh task for the early morning,
till a short but winding burrow, some depth below the level of the
ground, formed an antechamber where the little family to which she
presently gave birth was reared in safety.

Though the badgers, aware that the shallow "stops" in the woods were
more easily unearthed than this deeper burrow near the mouth of the
"set," did not seek to disturb their neighbours, the mother rabbit,
directly her family grew old enough to leave the nest, became
increasingly vigilant, and, when about to lead them to or from their
dwelling, was ever careful to be satisfied that all was quiet in the
chambers and the galleries below. Generally she ventured abroad before
the badgers awoke from the day's sleep, came back during their absence,
and once more stole out to feed when they had returned and were resting
in their snuggery. The danger that lurked in her surroundings supplied a
special excitement to life, and she never heard without fear the ominous
sounds that vibrated clearly through every crack and cranny when the
badgers occasionally arose from their couch, stretched their cramped
limbs, shook their rough grey coats, and grunted with satisfaction at
the feeling of health and strength which nearly all wild animals delight
occasionally to express.

The forest trees had donned their verdure; the tall bracken had lifted
its fronds so far above the grass that the mother rabbit no longer found
them a convenient screen through which to peer at the strange antics of
the old badgers as they came from their lair and sat in the twilight on
the mound by the entrance of their home; and the rill in the dingle,
which, during winter and early spring, leaped, a clear, rushing torrent,
on its way to the river below the steep, had dwindled to a few drops of
water, collected in tiny pools among the stones, or trickling
reluctantly down the dank, green water-weed. The young badger family
had grown so strong and high-spirited that their dam, weakened by
motherhood, and at a loss to restrain their increasing desire for
outdoor air and exercise, determined to wean them, and to teach them
many lessons, concerning the ways of the woodland people, which she had
learned long ago from her parents, or, more recently, from her own
experiences as a creature of the dark, mysterious night.

Brock, in particular, was the source of considerable anxiety to her. He
was the leader in every scene of noisy festivity; she was repeatedly
forced to punish him for following her at dusk to the mound outside the
upper gallery, and for disobedience when she condescended to take part
in a midnight romp in the underground nursery. He tormented the other
members of the family by awakening them from sleep when he desired to
play, also by appropriating, till his appetite was fully appeased, all
the food his dam brought home from her hunting expeditions, and, again,
by picking quarrels over such a trifling matter as the choice of a place
when he and his little companions wished to rest.

Nature's children are wilful and selfish; and in their struggle for
existence they live, if independent of their parents, only so long as
they can take care of themselves. Among adult animals, however,
selfishness seems to become inoperative in the care they take of their
offspring. But though the mother badger was unselfish towards her little
ones, she spared no effort to instruct them in the ways of selfishness.

The night of Brock's first visit to the woods was warm and unclouded.
For an hour after sunset, he played about the gallery by the door, while
his mother, a vigilant sentinel, remained motionless and unseen in the
darkness behind. Now and again, he heard the rabbits moving in the
burrow, but they, aware of his presence, stayed discreetly out of view.
Under his mother's guidance, or even if his playmates had been bold
enough to accompany him, he would at once have been ready to explore the
furthest corner of the rabbit-hole. But the old badger was too big, and
the youngsters were too timid, to go with him into the mysterious
antechamber; so, after repeated attempts to explore the passage as far
as the bend, and finding to his discomfort that there the space became
narrower, he gave up the idea of prying on the doings of his neighbours,
and contented himself with droll, clumsy antics, such as those by which
wild children often seek to convince indulgent parents that they are
eager and fearless.

As the darkness deepened, the dog-badger, after hunting near the
outskirts of the wood, returned to the "set." His manner indicated that
he was the bearer of an important message. He touched his mate on the
shoulder; then, as she responded to his greeting, he thrust his head
forward so that she could scent a drop of blood clinging to his lip;
and, while she sniffed enquiringly along the fringe of his muzzle, he
seemed to be assuring her that his message was of the utmost
consequence. As soon as she understood his meaning, he vanished into the
gallery, and for a few moments was evidently busy. Faint squeals and
grunts, which gradually became louder and louder, proceeded from the
central chamber, and, again, from the inner passages; and presently the
big badger appeared in sight, driving his family before him, and
threatening them with direst punishment if they attempted to double past
him and thus regain their dark retreat.

Wholly unable to appreciate the real position of affairs, Brock,
perplexed and frightened, found himself hiding among the ferns and
brambles outside the "set," while the sire, standing in full view on the
mound, and grunting loudly, forbade the return of his evicted family.
Unexpectedly, too, the mother badger, when the little ones looked to her
for sympathy in their extraordinary treatment, took the part of the
crusty old sire, and snapped and snarled directly they attempted to move
back towards the mound. Utterly bewildered and much in fear, since their
dam, hitherto the object of implicit trust, had suddenly deserted their
cause, the young badgers crouched together under the bushes, and watched
distrustfully each movement of their parents. The sire stuck to his post
on the mound, and, with hoarse grunts, varied occasionally by thin,
piping squeals that did not seem in the least to accord with his
wrathful demeanour, continued to keep them at a distance.

Soon the dam moved slowly away, climbed the track towards the top of the
wood, and then called to the cubs as they sat peering after her into the
darkness. Released from discipline, and eagerly responsive to her cry,
they lurched after her, and followed closely as she led them further and
still further from home. Presently, the dog-badger overtook his family.
His manner, as well as the dam's, had changed; and though great caution
was exercised as they journeyed along paths well trodden, and free from
twigs that might snap, or leaves that might rustle, and though silence
was the order of the march, the little family--proud parents and shy,
inquisitive children--seemed as happy as the summer night was calm. The
distant sound of a prowling creature, heard at times from the margin of
the wood, caused not the slightest alarm to the cubs: the intense
nervousness always apparent in young foxes was not evinced by the little
badgers.

In comparison with the fox-cubs, they were not easily frightened; they
already gave promise of the presence of mind which, later, was often
displayed when they were threatened by powerful foes. Brock,
nevertheless, betrayed astonishment when a dusky form bolted through the
whinberry bushes close by; and several moments passed before he was
able, by his undeveloped methods of reasoning, to connect the scent of
the flying creature with that of the rabbits often carried home by his
mother, and, therefore, with something good for food.

At the top of the wood, the old badgers turned aside and led the way
through a thicket, where, in obedience to their mother, the youngsters
came to a halt, while their sire, proceeding a few yards in advance,
sniffed the ground, like a beagle picking up the line of the hunt.
Having found the object of his search, he called his family to him, that
they might learn the meaning of the various signs around. But the doings
of the woodland folk could not yet be learnt by the little badgers, as
by the experienced parents, from trifling details, such as the altered
position of a leaf or twig, the ringing alarm-cry of a bird, the fresh
earth-smell near an upturned stone, or the taint of a moving creature
in the grass. Beside them lay a small brown and white stoat, its head
almost severed from its body by a quick, powerful bite, and, just
beyond, the motionless form of a half-grown rabbit, unmarked, save by a
small, clean-cut wound between the ears. The scent of both creatures was
noticeable everywhere around, and with it, quite as strong and fresh,
the scent of the big male badger. Walking up the path, soon after
nightfall, the badger had arrived on the scene of a woodland tragedy,
and had found the stoat so engrossed with its victim that to kill the
bloodthirsty little tyrant was the easy work of an instant. Afterwards,
mindful of the education of his progeny, he had hurried home to arrange
with his mate a timely object lesson in wood-craft.

The stoat was left untasted, but the rabbit was speedily devoured; and
then the badger family resorted to the riverside below the "set," where
the cubs were taught to lap the cool, clear water. Thence, before
returning home, they were taken to a clearing in the middle of the wood,
and, while the sire went off alone to scout and hunt, the mother badger
showed them how to find grubs and beetles under the rotting bark of the
tree-butts, in the crevices among the stones, and in the soft, damp
litter of the decaying leaves.



III.

FEAR OF THE TRAP.


Night after night, the cubs, sometimes under the protection of both
their parents, and sometimes under the protection of only the dam,
roamed through the by-ways of the countryside. From each expedition they
gleaned something of new and unexpected interest, till they grew wise in
the ways of Nature's folk that haunt the gloom--the strong, for ever
seeking opportunities of attack; the weak, for ever dreading even a
chance shadow on the moonlit trail.

A strange performance, which, for quite a month, seemed devoid of
meaning to the cubs, but which, nevertheless, Brock soon learned to
imitate, took place whenever the tainted flesh of a dead creature was
found in the way. The old badgers at once became alert, moved with the
utmost caution, smelt but did not touch the offensive morsel, and,
instead of seizing it, rolled over it again and yet again, as if the
scent proved irresistibly attractive. One of the cubs, that had always
shown an inclination to act differently from the way in which her
companions acted, and often became lazy and stupid when lesson-time
arrived, was destined to pay dearly for neglecting to imitate her
parents. Lagging behind the rest of the family, as in single file they
moved homeward after a long night's hunting in the fallow, she chanced
to scent some carrion in the ditch, turned aside to taste it, and
immediately was held fast in the teeth of an iron trap. Hearing her
cries of pain and terror, the mother hastened to the spot, and, for a
moment, was so bewildered with disappointment and anger that she
chastised the cub unmercifully, though the little creature was enduring
extreme agony. But directly the old badger recovered from her fit of
temper, she sought to make amends by petting and soothing the frightened
cub, and trying to remove the trap. Finally, after half an hour's
continuous effort, she accidentally found that the trap was connected
by a chain with a stake thrust into the ground. Quickly, with all the
strength of her muscular fore-paws, she dug up the soil at the end of
the chain, and then, with powerful teeth, wrenched the stake from its
position. Dragging the cruel trap, the young badger slowly followed her
dam homeward, but when she had gone about a hundred yards pain overcame
her, and she rolled down a slight incline near the hedge. For a few
minutes, she lay helpless; then, grunting hoarsely, she climbed the
ditch, and continued her way in the direction of a gap leading into the
wood. There, as she gained the top of the hedge, the trap was firmly
caught in the stout fork of a thorn-bush. Further progress was
impossible; all her frantic struggles failed to give her freedom. The
dam stayed near, vainly endeavouring to release her, till at dawn a
rustle was heard in the hedge, and a labourer on his way to the farm
came in sight above a hurdle in the gap. Reluctantly, the old badger
stole away into the wood, leaving the cub to her fate. It came--a single
blow on the nostrils from a stout cudgel--and all was over.

The lesson thus taught left a salutary impression on the minds of the
other cubs. From it they learned that the presence of stale flesh was
somehow associated with the peculiar scent of oiled and rusty iron, or
with the taint of a human hand, and was fraught with the utmost danger.
They somehow felt that their dam acted wisely in rolling over any
decaying refuse she happened to find on her way; and later, when Brock,
seizing an opportunity to imitate his mother, sprang another trap,
which, closing suddenly beneath his back, did no more harm than to rob
him of a bunch of fur, they recognised how a menace to their safety
might be easily and completely removed by the simple expedient taught
them by their careful parent.

Though she invariably took the utmost precaution against danger from
baited traps, the old she-badger was nevertheless surprised, almost as
much as were the cubs, at the incidents just described. At various times
she had sprung more than a dozen traps, but in each case her attention
had been directed to the trap only by the scent of iron, or of the human
hand. However faint that scent might be, and however mingled with the
smell of newly turned earth or of sap from bruised stalks of woodland
plants, she immediately detected it, rolled on the spot, and then noted
the signs around--the disturbed leaf-mould, and the foot-scent of man
leading back among the bilberry bushes, or down the winding paths
between the oaks, where, occasionally, she also found faint traces of
the hand-scent on bits of lichen, or on rotten twigs, fallen from the
grasp of her enemy as he clutched the tree-trunks in his steep descent
towards the riverside. But never before had she seen a baited trap. Her
dam had never seen one; her grand-dam had been equally ignorant; and yet
both, like herself, had always rolled on any tainted flesh they chanced
to come across on their many journeys.

For generations, in this far county of the west, the creatures of the
woods, except the fox, had never been systematically hunted. The
vicissitudes of history had directly affected the welfare of wild
animals. The old professional hunting and fighting classes had become
unambitious tenant farmers; and, partly through the operations of an old
Welsh law regarding the equal division of property, the land beyond the
feudal tracts of the Norman Marches were, in many instances, broken up
into small freeholds owned by descendants of the princely families of
bygone ages. But hard, incessant work was the lot of tenant and
freeholder alike. When the aims and the experiences of the old fighting
and sporting days had passed away, and nothing was left but ceaseless
toil, these essentially combative people, to whom violent and continuous
excitement was the very breath of life, became, for a while at least,
knavish and immoral, sunk almost to one dead social level, and totally
uninteresting because, in their new life of peaceful tillage--a life far
more suited to their English law-givers than to themselves--they were
apparently incapable of maintaining that complete, vigilant interest in
their ordinary surroundings which makes for enlightenment and success.

Having lost the love of "venerie" possessed by their forefathers, the
farmers cared little about any wild creatures but hares and rabbits; a
badger's ham was to them an unknown article of food. The fear of a
baited trap had, therefore, probably descended from one badger to
another since days when the green-gowned forester came to the farm, from
the lodge down-river, and sought assistance in the capture of an animal
for the sport of an otherwise dull Sunday afternoon in the courtyard of
the nearest castle; or even since ages far remote, when a badger's flesh
was esteemed a luxury by the earliest Celts.

Unbaited traps, in the "runs" of the rabbits, had at intervals been
common for centuries; but now the carefully prepared baits and the
unusually strong traps seemed to indicate nothing less than an organised
attack on other and more powerful night hunters. The badger's fears,
however, were hardly warranted. Five traps had been placed in the wood
by a curious visitor staying at the village inn. In one of these,
Brock's sister had been caught; but the owner of the trap knew nothing
beyond the fact that it had mysteriously disappeared from the spot where
he had seen it fixed. Another was sprung by Brock; two at the far end of
the wood were so completely fouled by a fox that every prowling creature
carefully avoided the spot; while in the fifth was found a single
blood-stained claw, left to prove the visit of a renegade cat.

It may well be imagined that a large and interesting animal like the
badger, keeping for many years to an underground abode so spacious that
the mound at its principal entrance is often a quite conspicuous
landmark for some distance in the woods, would be subject to frequent
and varied attacks from man, and thus be speedily exterminated. It may
also be imagined that the habits of following the same well worn paths
night after night, of never ranging further than a few miles from the
"set," and of living so sociably that the community sometimes numbers
from half-a-dozen to a dozen members, apart from such lodgers as foxes,
rabbits, and wood-mice, would all combine to render the creature an easy
prey.

But if the badger's ways are carefully studied, the very circumstances
which at first seem unfavourable to him are found to account for much of
his immunity from harm. The depth of his breeding chamber and the length
of the connecting passages are, as a rule, indicated by the size of the
mound before his door. The fact that he regularly pursues the same paths
in his nightly excursions enables him to become familiar, like the fox,
with each sight and scent and sound of the woods, so that anything
strange is at once noticed, and danger avoided. His sociability is a
distinct gain, because he receives therefrom co-operation in his sapping
and mining while he aims to secure the impregnability of his fortress;
and his tolerance of cunning and timid neighbours gains for him this
advantage: sometimes in the dusk, before venturing abroad, he receives a
warning that danger lurks in the thickets around his home--perhaps from
a double line of scent indicating that the fox has started on a journey
and then hurriedly turned back, or from numerous cross-scents at the
mouth of the burrow, where the rabbits and the wood-mice have passed to
and fro, deterred by fear in their frequent attempts to reach feeding
places beyond the nearest briar-clumps. His methods, however, when
either his neighbours or the members of his own family become too
numerous, are prompt and drastic.

Shy, inoffensive, and, for a young creature unacquainted with the
responsibilities of a family, deliberate to the point of drollery in all
his movements, Brock grew up beneath his parents' care; and, with an
intelligence keener than that possessed by the other members of the
little woodland family, learned many lessons which they failed to
understand. When his mother called, he was always the first to hasten to
her side. Each incident of the night, if of any significance, was
explained to her offspring by the mother. Often Brock was the only
listener when she began her story, and the late arrivals heard but
disconnected parts.

Beautiful beyond comparison were those brief summer nights, silent,
starlit, fragrant, when the badgers led their young by many a devious
path through close-arched bowers amid the tangled bracken, or under
drooping sprays of thorn and honeysuckle in the hidden ditches, or
through close tunnels, as gloomy as the passages of their underground
abode, in the dense thickets of the furze. Sometimes they wandered in
the corn and root-crop, or in the hayfield where the sorrel, a cooling
medicinal herb for many of the woodland folk, grew long and succulent;
and sometimes they descended the steep cattle-path on the far side of
the farm, where the big dor-beetles, as plentiful there as in the
grass-clumps of the open pasture, were easily struck down while they
circled, droning loudly, about the heaps of refuse near the hedge.

Once, late in July, when the badgers were busily catching beetles by the
side of the cattle-path, Brock, thrusting his snout into the grass to
secure a crawling insect, chanced to hear a faint, continuous sound, as
of a number of tiny creatures moving to and fro in a hollow beneath the
moss-covered mound at his feet. He listened intently, his head cocked
knowingly towards the spot whence the sound proceeded; then, scratching
up a few roots of the moss, he sniffed enquiringly, drawing in a long,
deep breath, at the mouth of a thimble-shaped hole his sharp claws had
exposed.

Unexpectedly, and without the help of the dam, he had discovered a
wild-bees' nest. His inborn love of honey was every whit as strong as a
bear's, and he recognised the scent as similar to that of insects known
by him to be far more tasty than beetles; so, without a moment's
hesitation, he began to dig away the soil. The nest was soon unearthed,
and the little badger, completely protected by his thick and wiry coat
from the half-hearted assaults of the bewildered bees, greedily devoured
the entire comb, together with every well-fed grub and every drop of
honey the fragile cells contained. His eagerness was such that these
spoils seemed hardly more than a tempting morsel sufficient to awaken a
desire for the luscious sweets of the wayside storehouses. He carefully
hunted the hedgerow, as far as a gate leading to a rick-yard, and at
last, close to a stile, found another nest, which, also, he quickly
destroyed.

Henceforth, till the end of August, there were few nights during which
he did not find a meal of honey and grubs. The summer was fine and warm,
a lavish profusion of flowers adorned the fields and the woods, and
humble-bees and wasps were everywhere numerous. As if to taunt the
badgers with inability to climb, a swarm of tree-wasps lived in a big
nest of wood-pulp suspended from a branch ten feet or so above the
"set," and, every afternoon, the badgers, as they waited near the mouth
of their dwelling for the darkness to deepen, heard the shrill, long
continued humming of the sentinel wasps around the big ball in the
tree--surely one of the most appetising sounds that could ever reach a
badger's ears. But the wasps that had built among the ferns near the
river-path, and in the hollows of the hedges, were remorselessly hunted
and despoiled. Their stings failed to penetrate the thick coat and hide
of their persistent foes, while a chance stab on the lips or between the
nostrils seemed only to arouse the badgers from leisurely methods of
pillage to quick and ruthless slaughter of the adult insects as well as
of the immature grubs. But Brock never committed the indiscretion of
swallowing a full-grown wasp. With his fore-paws he dexterously struck
and crippled the angry sentinels that buzzed about his ears, and, with
teeth bared in order to prevent a sting on his tender muzzle, disabled
the newly emerged and sluggish insects that wandered over the comb.

As autumn drew on, the cubs grew strong and fat on the plentiful
supplies of food, which, with their parents' help, they readily found in
field and wood. Brock gave promise of abnormal strength, and was already
considerably heavier than his sister. They fared far better than the
third cub, a little male, that, notwithstanding a temper almost as fiery
as Brock's, was worsted in every dispute and frequently robbed of his
food, and still, never owning himself beaten, persisted in drawing
attention to his success whenever he happened on something fresh and
toothsome. At such times, instead of hastily and silently regaling
himself, he made a great a-do, grunting with rage and defiance, like a
dog that guards a marrow-bone but will not settle down to gnaw its juicy
ends.

Brock's brother was so often deprived of his legitimate spoils, that,
while his surliness was increased, his bodily growth was checked. He was
small and thin for his age; and so, when a kind of fever peculiar to
young badgers broke out in the woodland home, he succumbed. His grave
was a shallow depression near the path below the "set," whither his
parents dragged his lifeless body, and where the whispering leaves of
autumn presently descended to array him in a red and golden robe of
death.

The other young badgers quickly recovered from their fever; and by the
end of October all the animals were, as sportsmen say, "in grease," and
well prepared for winter's cold and privation. The old badgers became
more and more indisposed to roam abroad; and, whereas in summer they
sometimes wandered four or five miles from the "set," they now seldom
went further than the gorse-thicket on the fringe of the wood.



IV.

THE WINTER "OVEN."


The badger-cubs, while not so well provided against the cold as were
their parents, grew lazy as winter advanced, and spent most of their
time indoors on a large heap of fresh bedding, that had been collected
under the oaks and carried to a special winter "oven" below the chamber
generally occupied in summer. Here, the sudden changes of temperature
affecting the outer world were hardly noticeable; and so enervating were
the warmth and indolence, that the badgers, in spite of thick furs and
tough hides, rarely left their retreat when the shrill voice of the
north-east wind, overhead in the mouth of the burrow, told them of frost
and snow.

About mid-winter, the first of two changes took place in the colour of
the young badgers' coats; from silver-grey it turned to dull brownish
yellow, and the contrasts in the pied markings of the cheeks became
increasingly pronounced. This change happened a little later with Brock
than with his sister. Eventually, late in the following winter, the
young female, arriving at maturity, donned a gown of darker grey, and
her face was striped with black and white; shortly afterwards, Brock,
too, assumed the livery of a full-grown badger.

Meanwhile, till events occurred of which the second change was only a
portent, all remained fairly peaceful in the big burrow under the whins
and brambles. Occasionally, in the brief winter days, Brock was awakened
from his comfortable sleep by the music of the hounds, as they passed by
on the scent of Vulp, the fleetest and most cunning fox on the
countryside, or by the stamp of impatient hoofs, as the huntsman's mare,
tethered to a tree not far from the "set," eagerly awaited her rider's
return from a "forward cast" into the dense thicket beyond the glade.

One afternoon in late winter, a young vixen, that, without knowing it,
had completely baffled her pursuers, crept, footsore and
travel-stained, into the mouth of the "set," and lay there, panting
loudly, till night descended, and she had sufficiently recovered from
her distress to continue her homeward journey. Now and again, the sharp
report of a shotgun echoed down the wood; and once, late at night, when
Brock climbed up from the "oven" to sit awhile on the mound before his
door, the scent of blood was strong in the passage leading to the
rabbit's quarters. Unfortunate bunny! Next night, stiff and sore from
her wounds, she crawled out into the wood, and Vulp and his vixen put an
end to her misery long before the badgers ventured from their lair.

Winter, with its long hours of sleep, passed quietly away. Amid the
sprouting grasses by the river-bank, the snowdrops opened to the breath
of spring; soon afterwards, the early violets and primroses decked the
hedgerows on the margin of the wood, and the wild hyacinths thrust their
spike-shaped leaves above the mould. The hedgehogs, curled in their beds
amid the wind-blown oak-leaves, were awakened by the gentle heat, and
wandered through the ditches in search of slugs and snails. One
evening, as the moon shone over the hill, the woodcock, that for months
had dwelt by day in the oak-scrub near the "set," and had fed at night
in the swampy thickets by the rill, heard the voice of a curlew
descending from the heights of the sky, and rose, on quick, glad
pinions, far beyond the soaring of the lark, to join a great bird-army
travelling north. Regularly, as the time for sleep drew nigh, the old
inhabitants among the woodland birds--the thrushes, the robins, the
finches, and the wrens--squabbled loudly as they settled to rest: their
favourite roosting places were being invaded by aliens of their species,
that, desirous of breaking for the night their northward journey,
dropped, twittering, into every bush and brake on the margin of the
copse. And into Nature's breast swept, like an irresistible flood, a
yearning for maternity.

The vixen, that once had rested inside the burrow to recover from her
"run" before the hounds, remembered the sanctuary, returned to it, and
there in time gave birth to her young; and, though almost in touch with
such enemies as the badger and the fox, a few of the rabbits that had
been reared during the previous season in the antechamber of the "set"
enlarged their dwelling place, and were soon engaged in tending a
numerous offspring. The timid wood-mice, following suit, scooped out a
dozen tiny galleries within an old back entrance of the burrow, and
multiplied exceedingly. But, while all other creatures seemed bent on
family affairs, Brock's parents, following a not infrequent habit of
their kindred, deferred such duties to another season.

As spring advanced, food became far more abundant than in winter, and
the badgers' appetites correspondingly increased. Directly the evening
shadows began to deepen, parents and cubs alike became impatient of the
long day's inactivity, and adjourned together to one or other of the
entrances, generally to the main opening behind the big mound. There,
unseen, they could watch the rooks sail slowly overhead, and the
pigeons, with a sharp hiss of swiftly beating wings, drop down into the
trees, and flutter, cooing loudly, from bough to bough before they fell
asleep. Then, after a twilight romp in and about the mouth of the
burrow, the badgers took up the business of the night, and wandered away
over the countryside in search of food, sometimes extending their
journeys even as far as the garden of a cottage five miles distant,
where Brock distinguished himself by overturning a hive and devouring
every particle of a new honeycomb found therein.

Autumn, beautiful with pearly mists and red and golden leaves, again
succeeded summer, and the woods resounded with the music of the
huntsman's horn, as the hounds "harked forward" on the scent of fleeing
fox-cubs, that had never heard, till then, the cries of the pursuing
pack.

One morning, Brock lay out in the undergrowth, though the sun was high
and the rest of his family slept safely in the burrow. At the time, his
temper was not particularly sweet, for, on returning to the "set" an
hour before dawn, he had quarrelled with his sire. Among the dead leaves
and hay strewn on the floor of the chamber usually inhabited by the
badgers in warm weather, was an old bone, discovered by Brock in the
woods, and carried home as a plaything. For this bone Brock had
conceived a violent affection, almost like that of a child for a
limbless and much disfigured doll. He would lie outstretched on his bed,
for an hour at a time, with his toy between his fore-feet, vainly
sucking the broken end for marrow, or sharpening his teeth by gnawing
the juiceless knob, with perfect contentment written on every line of
his long, solemn face. If disturbed, he would take the bone to the
winter "oven" below, and there, alone, would toss it from corner to
corner and pounce on it with glee, or, with a sudden change of manner,
would grasp it in his fore-paws, roll on his back, and scratch, and
bite, and kick it, till, tired of the fun, he dropped asleep beside his
plaything; while overhead, the rabbits and the voles, at a loss to
imagine what was happening in the dark hollows of the "earth," quaked
with fear, or bolted helter-skelter into the bushes beyond the mound.

When, just before the quarrel, Brock sought for his bone, as he was wont
to do on returning home, he scented it in the litter beneath a spot
completely overlapped on every side by some part or other of his
recumbent sire. For a few moments, he was nonplussed by the situation;
then, desperate for his plaything, he suddenly began to dig, and, in a
twinkling, was half buried in the hay and leaves; while to right and to
left he scattered soil and bedding that fell like a shower over his
mother and sister. Before the old dog-badger had realised the meaning of
the commotion, Brock had grabbed his treasure, and, withdrawing his head
from the shallow pitfall he had hurriedly fashioned, had caused his
drowsy parent to roll helplessly over. This was more than a
self-respecting father could possibly endure in his own home and among
his own kin, so, with unexpected agility, as he turned in struggling to
recover his balance, he gripped Brock by the loose skin of the neck, and
held him as in a vice from which there seemed no escape. Brock,
doubtless thinking that his right to the bone was being disputed, strove
vigorously to get hold of his sire, but the grip of the trap-like jaws
was inflexible, and kept him firmly down till his rage had expended
itself, and he was cowed by his parent's prompt, easy show of tremendous
power. When, at last, the old badger relinquished his hold, Brock shook
himself, and sulkily departed from the "set," followed to the door by
his relentless chastiser. An hour before noon, Brock heard the note of a
horn--sounding far distant, but really coming only from the other side
of the hill--succeeded by the eager baying of a pack of fox-hounds.
Then, for a while, all was silent, but soon the cries of the hounds
broke out again, away beyond the farm by the river. Evidently something
was amiss. Brock, though hardly, perhaps, alarmed, shifted uneasily in
his retreat under the yellow bracken, and finally, almost fascinated,
lay quiet, watching and listening. Presently the ferns parted; and a
fox-cub appeared in full view, treading lightly, his tongue lolling out,
his jaws strained far back towards his ears, and his face wearing the
look of a creature of excessive cunning, though for the time frightened
nearly out of his wits. The fox-cub paused an instant, turned as if to
look at something in the dark thickets by the glen, climbed the mound,
and, after another hasty glance, entered his home among the outer
chambers of the "set." Unknown, of course, to Brock, the leading hounds
were running mute on the fox-cub's scent down the path by the river.
They swerved, and lost the line for a moment, then, "throwing their
tongues," crashed through the briars into the fern; and at once Brock
was surrounded.

Luckily, he had neither been punished too severely by his sire, nor had
exhausted himself in hotly resisting the chastisement. For a few
seconds, however, as the hounds pressed closely in the rough-and-tumble
fray, trying to tear him limb from limb, he was disconcerted. But
quickly regaining his self-possession, he began to make the fight
exceedingly warm for his assailants. A hound caught him by the leg;
turning, he caught the aggressor by the muzzle. His strong, sharp teeth
crashed through nose and lip clean to the bone, and the discomfited
hound, directly one of the pack had "created a diversion," made off at
full speed, running "heel," and howling at the top of his voice. One
after another, Brock served two couples thus, till the wood was filled
with a mournful chorus altogether different from the usual music of the
hounds.

Little hurt, except for a bruise or two on his loose, rough hide, and
feeling almost as fresh as when the attack began, Brock, with his face
to the few foes still remaining to threaten him hoarsely from a safe
distance, retired with dignity to the mound, and disappeared in the
tunnel just as reinforcements of the enemy hastened up the slope.

Henceforth, even in leafy summer, he seldom remained outside his
dwelling during the day, and any fresh sign of a dog in the
neighbourhood of his immediate haunt never failed to fill him with rage
and apprehension.

Since the time when their silvery-grey coats had turned to
brownish-yellow, the badger cubs had become more and more independent of
their parents; and before long, familiar with the forest paths, they
often wandered alone. Yet so regular was their habit of returning home
during the hour preceding dawn, that, unless something untoward
happened, the last badger to reach the "earth" was rarely more than a
few minutes after the first. Towards the end of autumn, however, the
female cub seemed to have lost this habit; on several occasions dawn was
breaking when she sought her couch; and one morning she was missing
from the family. Her regular home-coming had given place to meeting, in
a copse over the hill, a young male badger reared among the rocks of a
glen up-stream; and by him she had at last been led away to a home,
which, after inspecting several other likely places, he had made by
enlarging a rabbit burrow in a long disused quarry.

Brock was in no hurry to find himself a spouse; he waited till the end
of winter. Meanwhile, the colour of his coat changed from yellow to
full, dark grey, and simultaneously a change became apparent in his
disposition. Wild fancies seized him; from dusk to dawn he wandered with
clumsy gait over the countryside, little heeding how noisily he lumbered
through the undergrowth. The gaunt jack-hare, that, crying out in the
night, hurried past him, was not a whit more crazy.

At one time, Brock met a young male badger in the furze, attacked him
vigorously, and left him more dead than alive. At another time, he even
turned his rage against his sire. The old badger was by no means
unwilling to resent provocation: he, too, felt the hot, quick blood of
spring in his veins. The fight was fierce and long--no other wild animal
in Britain can inflict or endure such punishment as the badger--and it
ended in victory for Brock. His size and strength were greater than his
father's; he also had the advantage of youth and self-confidence; but
till its close the struggle was almost equal, for the obstinate
resistance of the experienced old sire was indeed hard to overcome.
Brock forced him at last from the corner where he stood with his head to
the wall, and hustled him out of doors. Then the victor hastened to the
brook to quench his thirst, and, returning to the "set," sought to sleep
off the effects of the fight. When he awoke, he found that the mother
badger had gone to join her evicted mate. The inseparable couple
prepared a disused part of the "set" for future habitation; there they
collected a heap of dry bedding, and, free from further interruption,
were soon engaged with the care of a second family.

For nearly a week after his big battle, Brock felt stiff and sore, and
altogether too ill to extend his nightly rambles further than the
boundaries of the wood. But with renewed health his restlessness
returned, and he wandered hither and thither in search of a mate to
share his dwelling. A knight-errant among badgers, he sought adventure
for the sake of a lady-love whose face he had not even seen.

Sometimes, to make his journeys shorter than if the usual trails from
wood to wood had been followed, he used the roads and by-ways leading
past the farmsteads, and risked encounter with the watchful sheep-dogs.
For this indiscretion, he almost paid the penalty of his life. Crossing
a moonlit field on the edge of a covert, he saw a flock of sheep break
from the hurdles of a fold near the distant hedge, and run
panic-stricken straight towards him. Long before he had time to regain
the cover, they swept by, separating into two groups as they came where
he stood. Immediately afterwards, he saw that one of the sheep was lying
on her back, struggling frantically, while a big, white-ruffed collie
worried her to death. The dog was so engrossed with his victim that the
badger remained unnoticed. Having killed the sheep, the dog sat by,
panting because of his exertions, and licking the blood from his lips.
Suddenly, raising his head, he listened intently, his ears turned in the
direction of the fold. Then, growling savagely, he slunk away, with his
tail between his legs, and disappeared within the wood.

He had scarcely gone from sight, when the farmer and his boy climbed
over the hedge near the field and hastened across the pasture. They saw
the sheep lying dead, and, not far from the spot, the badger lumbering
off to the covert. Instantly believing that Brock was the cause of their
trouble, they called excitedly for help from the farm, and dashed in
pursuit. As Brock gained the gap by the wood, he felt a sharp, stinging
blow on his ribs. On the other side of the hedge, he reached an opening
in the furze, and the sticks and stones aimed at him by his pursuers, as
he turned downwards through the wood, fell harmlessly against the trees
and bushes. The noise he made when crashing through the thickets was,
however, such a guide to his movements, that he failed to baffle the
chase till he reached a well worn trail through the open glades. Luckily
for him, as he emerged from cover a cloud obscured the moon, and he was
able to make good his escape by crossing a deep dingle to the lonely
fields along his homeward route, where, in the shadows of the hedges,
though now the moon again was bright, he could not easily be seen.

It was fortunate for the badger, not only that the moon was hidden by a
cloud as he crossed the dingle when fleeing from the wood, but also that
his home was distant from the scene of the tragedy in the upland pasture
near the farm. A hue-and-cry was raised, and for days the farmer's boy
searched the wood around the spot where Brock had disappeared, hoping
there to find the earth-pig's home. Other sheep were mysteriously killed
on farms still further from the badger's "earth"; then watchers, armed
with guns, lay out among the cold, damp fields to guard the sleeping
flocks; and the collie, a beautiful creature whose character had
hitherto been held above reproach, was shot almost in the act of closing
on a sheep he had already wounded, close to the corner of a field where
a shepherd lay in hiding.

The farmer and his boy were chaffed so unmercifully--for this story of
the badger was now considered a myth--that they grew to hate the very
name of "earth-pig," and to believe that after all they must have chased
through the wood some incarnation of Satan.



V.

HILLSIDE TRAILS.


Several times during his search for a mate, Brock struck the trail of a
female badger, and followed its windings through the thickets and away
across the open fields towards the distant valley, only, however, to
lose it near some swollen brook or on some well trodden sheep-path. The
female had evidently come to a little copse on the crest of a rugged
hill overlooking the river, and, after skirting a pond where wild duck
sheltered among the flags, had retraced her steps. Brock's most
frequented tracks led close to the spot where the stranger's return
trail joined the other near an opening from an almost impenetrable
gorse-cover into a marshy fallow. There, late one night, he found, as he
crossed the opening, that the female badger had travelled forward, but
had not yet returned. Revisiting the spot some minutes afterwards, he
discovered that the backward "drag" was strong on the damp grass. He
followed it quickly, and, in a stubble beyond the gorse, came up at last
with the object of his oft-disappointed quest. She was a widow badger,
older and more experienced than Brock, but smaller and of lighter build.

Perhaps because she wished to test the loyalty of her new lover, and to
find whether he would fight for her possession with any intruder, she
resisted his advances, and refused to go with him to his home. So he
followed her far away to her own snug dwelling on the fringe of the
moorlands. Thence, with the first streak of dawn in the south-eastern
sky, he hurried back to his lair.

Early next evening, Brock went forth to meet his lady-love; and
throughout the long night and for nights afterwards he wandered at her
side, till, concluding that no other suitor was likely to appear, she
accompanied him to his home, and entered on the season's house-keeping
in the central chamber of the great "set" where he had been born. There
they lived happily, and without the slightest annoyance from the old
badgers; and, since the time of the spring "running" was over, they
wandered no further afield than in the cold winter nights. Filled with
the joy of the life-giving season, they often romped together in the
twilight for half an hour at a time, chasing one another in and out of
the entrances to the "set," or kicking up the soil as if they suddenly
recollected that their claws needed to be filed and sharpened, or
standing on their hind-feet and rubbing their cheeks delightedly against
a favourite tree--grunting loudly in their fun the while, and in general
behaving like droll, ungainly little pigs just escaped from a stye. At
last, their frolic being ended, they "bumped" away into the bushes, and,
meeting on the trail beyond, proceeded soberly towards the outskirts of
the wood.

As in the previous spring, the big burrow was soon the scene of family
affairs other than those of the badgers. By the end of February, there
were cubs in the vixen's den, and both the wood-mice and the rabbits
were diligently preparing for important family events. Brock's
companion, unlike himself was not accustomed to a house inhabited by
other tenants. None but members of her own family had dwelt in the
"earth" near the moor; and, being somewhat exclusive in her ideas, she
strongly resented the presence of the vixen in any quarter of her new
abode. A little spiteful in her disposition, she lurked about the
passages, and by the mound outside the entrance, intending to give her
neighbour "a bit of her mind" at the first opportunity. But since she
did not for the present care to enter the vixen's den, that opportunity
never came till her own family arrangements claimed her undivided
attention, and effectually prevented her from following the course of
action she had planned.

In the first week of April, the badger's spring-cleaning began in
downright earnest. The old bedding of fern, and hay, and leaves was
cleared entirely from the winter "oven," and, after a few windy but
rainless days and nights, when the refuse of Nature's woodland garden
was dry, new materials for a cosy couch were carried to the lair, and
arranged on the floor of the roomy chamber where Brock's mother had
brought him into the world. The badgers' methods of conveying the
required litter were quaintly characteristic, for the animals possessed
the power of moving backward almost as easily and quickly as forward.
They collected a pile of leaves, and, grasping it between their
fore-legs, made their way, tail first, to the mound, and thence, in the
same manner, along their underground galleries, as far as the place
intended for its reception, strewing everywhere in the path proofs of
their presence, quite sufficient for any naturalist visiting their
haunts.

On a dark, wet night rather less than a fortnight after they had
completed their preparations, when Brock returned to his home for
shelter from the driving storm, three little cubs were lying by their
mother's side.

The training of the badger-cubs during the first two months was left
wholly to their dam; but afterwards Brock shared the work with his mate,
teaching the youngsters, by his example, how to procure food, and, at
the same time, to detect and to avoid all kinds of danger. In so doing,
he simply acted towards his cubs as his sire had acted towards him.
Apart from family ties, however, his life--that of a strong, deliberate
animal, self-possessed in peril and in conflict, yet shy and cautious to
a fault--was of extreme interest to both naturalist and sportsman.

Five young foxes, as well as the vixen, now dwelt in the antechamber
near the main entrance of the "set," and the presence of this numerous
family became, for several reasons, so objectionable to the she-badger,
that, about the middle of May, the antipathy which, since her
partnership with Brock, she had always felt towards the vixen, was
united with a fixed determination to get rid of her neighbours. She was
too discreet, however, to attempt to rout them during the day, when some
dreaded human being might be attracted by the noise; so she endeavoured
to surprise the vixen and her cubs together at night.

For a while, she was unsuccessful. She happened to frighten them by an
impetuous, blustering attack in the rear, from which they easily
escaped; thus her difficulties had been increased, since the objects of
her aversion became loath to stay in the "earth" after nightfall. But
at last, probably more through accident than set purpose, the badger
out-manoeuvred the wily foxes.

Lying one evening in the doorway, she heard the vixen, followed by the
young foxes, creeping stealthily from the den. Retreating quickly, she
barred their exit, thus compelling them to return to their lair; then
she took up her position in the neck of the passage, and waited
patiently till midnight before commencing her assault. At last, in the
dense darkness, she crawled along the winding tunnel, and, directly, the
den was the scene of wild confusion and uproar, as its inmates leaped
and tumbled over each other in their frantic efforts to escape. For a
few minutes, the advent of danger unnerved them; then, as if peculiarly
fascinated by the grim, motionless enemy blocking their only outlet,
they began an aimless, shuffling dance, baring their teeth and hissing
as they lurched from side to side. Their suspense was soon ended. The
badger, emerging partly from the passage, gripped one of the cubs by a
hind-leg, and dragged it backwards along the passage to the thicket
outside, where, after worrying her victim unmercifully, she ended its
life by crushing its skull, above the muzzle, into fragments between
her teeth.

Once more, but this time furious with the taste of blood, she hurried to
the den; and the scene of fear and violence was repeated. Her third
visit was futile: the vixen with the other cubs had bolted into the main
gallery, and escaped thence to the wood, through an old opening, almost
choked with withered leaves, at the back of the "set."

They never returned, but the following spring a strange vixen from the
rocks across the valley came to the burrow, gave birth to her young,
and, in due course, without loss, was evicted by Brock's relentless
mate.

[Illustration: "HE CLIMBED FROM HIS DOORWAY, AND STOOD MOTIONLESS, WITH
UPLIFTED NOSTRILS, INHALING EACH BREATH OF SCENT."]

On the night after the death of the fox-cubs, when Brock was led by the
she-badger to the spot where her victims lay, he noticed that man's
foot-scent was strong on the grass around, and also that his hand-scent
lingered on the fur of the slain animal. Often, during the succeeding
two months, he was awakened in the day by quick, irregular footsteps
overhead; and later, when he climbed from his doorway, and stood
motionless, with uplifted nostrils, inhaling each breath of scent, he
found that the dreaded signs of man were numerous on the trail, on
the near beech-trunk, and even on the mound before the "set." Once, on
returning home with his family, he was greatly alarmed to discover that
in the night the man had visited his haunts, and that a dog had passed
down the galleries and disturbed the bed on which he slept.
Henceforward, he used the main opening as an exit only, and invariably
entered the "set" by the opening through which the vixen had escaped
from his mate, passing, on his way, the mouth of a side-gallery
connected with the apartments occupied by his old sire and dam, together
with their present family. Eventually, through these precautions, he
saved his principal earthworks from destruction.

Had Brock been able to ascertain the meaning of man's frequent visits to
the neighbourhood of his dwelling, he would have sorely lamented the
killing of the young foxes by the female badger. In the eyes of the
Hunt, vulpicide was an unpardonable crime, whether committed by man or
beast; and, when the dead fox-cubs were shown to the huntsman, he vowed
vengeance on the slayer. Because of a recent exchange, between the two
local Hunts, of certain outlying farms, it happened that this huntsman
was not he who in past seasons had tethered his horse near the "set"
while he "drew" the cover on foot. The new-comer soon discovered the
"earth"; but after a brief examination, from which he concluded, because
of the strong taint still lingering, that it was tenanted by a fox, he
walked away towards the farm. Fearing a reprimand from the Master if the
mysterious slaughter of the foxes could not be explained, he made
careful enquiries of the farmers, by whom he was told of the badger and
the sheep, as well as of the poacher who had seen Brock's sire in the
upland fields two years ago; but he laughed at the first tale, and for
want of adequate information paid no heed to the second. Nevertheless,
when he again visited the "earth," and, stooping, saw the withered
leaves and fern, and detected, not now the scent of a fox, but the scent
of half a dozen badgers, his sluggish brain began to move in the right
direction. Stories he had heard by the lodge fireside when he was a lad,
casual remarks dropped by followers of the Hunt, questions asked him by
an inquisitive boy-naturalist--he slowly remembered them all; and then
the revealing light dawned on his mind, that no animal but a badger
could with ease have broken the limbs of a fox-cub, and cracked the
skull as though it were a hazel-nut. Filled with a sense of
self-importance, befitting the bearer of a momentous message, the
huntsman rode away in the breathless summer twilight to the country
house where the Master lived, and presently was shown into the gun-room
to wait till dinner was over.

The Master prided himself on his love of every kind of sport; and before
the huntsman had finished a long, rambling story of the woodland tragedy
he had formed his plans for the punishment of the offender and was
writing a brief, urgent letter to a distant friend. As the result, a few
days afterwards three little terriers, specially trained for "drawing" a
badger, arrived at the Master's house, and were accommodated in a vacant
"loose-box" in the stables. Late at night, one of these was introduced
to the "set," and from the experiment the Master was led to believe
that, though the place, as he surmised, was empty of its usual tenants
at the time, it held sure promise of sport for an "off" day, as soon as
the otter-hounds, now about to hunt in the rivers of the west, had
departed from the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, according to his strictest
orders, the little terriers were well fed, regularly exercised, and kept
from quarrelling, and their coats were carefully brushed and oiled that
they might be as fit as fiddles for the eventful "draw."

The Master was a rigid disciplinarian in all matters concerned with
sport. His servants, one and all, from the old, white-haired family
butler down to the little stable-boy, idolised him, but never presumed
to disobey his slightest command. For many years before he came to live
at the mansion, the Hunt had fallen into a state of extreme neglect; the
pack was one of the worst in the kingdom, the subscriptions were
irregular, the kennel servants were ill-paid, the poor cottagers never
received payment for losses when Reynard visited their hen-coops, and
even the farmers began to grumble at needless damage to their hedges,
and to refuse to "walk" the puppies. But the new Master had changed all
this. He bore his share, but no more, of the expense caused by the
reforms he at once introduced, and he reminded his proud yet stingy
neighbours that the pack existed for their sport as much as for his own,
that arrears were shown in his secretary's subscription-books, and that,
unless the funds were augmented, he would reconsider the step he had
taken in accepting the Mastership. Useless servants, useless hounds, and
merely ornamental members of the Hunt, alike disappeared; and with
system and discipline came season after season of prosperity,
contentment, and justice, till it seemed that the best old traditions of
British sport were revived in a community of hard-working, rough-riding
fox-hunters, among the isolated valleys of the west.

As might be inferred from the personality of the Squire, everything was
in apple-pie order on the glorious summer morning when he and his
huntsmen made their way down river to the wood inhabited by Brock. A
complete collection of tools--crowbar, earth-drill, shovels, picks, a
woodman's axe, and a badger-tongs that had been used many years ago to
unearth a badger in a distant county, and ever since had occupied a
corner in the Squire's harness-room--had already been conveyed to the
scene of operations, together with a big basket of provisions and a cask
of beer, it being one of the Squire's axioms that hard work deserved
good hire. Four brawny labourers were also there; and, near by, each in
leash, the three little terriers lay among the bilberries. Punctually at
the time appointed, the work of the day began. A terrier was led to the
main entrance of the "set," but, to the dismay of the huntsman, he
refused to enter. When, however, he was brought to the entrance that
artful Brock had lately used, he at once became keenly excited, dragged
at his leash, and, on being freed, disappeared in the darkness of the
burrow. The Master knelt to listen; and presently, as the sound of
furious growls and barks came from the depths, he arose, saying: "Now,
my men, we may begin with picks and shovels; our badger is at home."

What followed, from that early summer morning till twilight shadows fell
over the woods, and men and dogs, completely beaten, wended their way
homewards along the river-path, may best be told, perhaps, in a bare,
simple narrative of events as they occurred.

When the terrier went "to ground," he crawled down a steep, winding
passage into a hollow, from twelve to fifteen feet below the entrance.
Thence, guided by the scent of a badger, he climbed an equally steep
passage, to a gallery about six feet below the surface. Following the
gallery for a yard or so, he came to a spot where it was joined by a
side passage, and here, as well as in the gallery beyond, the scent was
strong. He chose the side passage, crept down a slight declivity, and
came where Brock's sire had, a few minutes before, been lying asleep,
while his mate and cubs occupied the centre of the chamber. Awakened by
the approach of the terrier, the she-badger and her offspring had
hurried to another chamber of the "set," and the male had retreated to a
blind alley recently excavated back towards the main gallery. The
terrier, keeping to the line he had struck at the sleeping place, found
the male badger at work there, throwing up a barrier between himself and
his pursuing enemy, and at once diverted his attention by feinting an
attack in the rear. For two hours, the game little dog, avoiding each
clumsy charge and yet not giving the badger a moment's peace, remained
close by, while the men cut further and further into the "set," till
they stood in the first deep chamber through which the terrier had
passed. Then the terrier came out to quench his thirst, and was led away
by the huntsman to the river, while the second dog was speedily
despatched to earth, that the badger might be allowed no breathing space
during which he could bury himself beyond the reach of further attack.
The second dog, on coming to the junction of the passage and the
gallery, chose the alternative line of scent in the gallery, and
wandered far away into the chamber where Brock, whose family had
descended some time before to the winter "oven," awaited his coming.
When the faint barking of the second terrier told that the badger had
seemingly shifted his quarters to an almost incredible distance from the
trench, the faces of the Squire and his assistants evinced no little
surprise. For a moment, the men were inclined to believe that the dog
was "marking false," but, presently, their doubts were dispelled, and
their hopes revived, as the sounds indicated that the terrier,
contesting hotly every inch of the way, was retreating towards them
before his enraged enemy. The labourers resumed work, though not with
the confidence of the early morning, when their task seemed lighter than
the experienced Master would admit. Hour after hour they toiled; the
dogs were often changed; and at last the trench was long enough to be
within a yard or so of the spot where the dog was engaged. Then, to the
mortification of the sportsmen, the sounds of the conflict suggested
another change: Brock was retiring leisurely to his chamber. The
earth-drill was soon put into play, and the badger's position
discovered, but directly afterwards the animal again moved, this time to
the deep "oven" below.

Night was now rapidly closing over the woods, and the weary,
disappointed men and dogs reluctantly gave up their task. The Squire
admitted that on this occasion, at any rate, he was fairly and squarely
beaten. Brock and his mate are still in possession of the old burrow
beyond the farm; and Brock's sire, a patriarch among badgers, lives, as
the comrade of another old male, among the boulders of a rugged hillside
a mile from the "set."



THE HEDGEHOG.

I.

A VAGABOND HUNTER.


At the lower end of our village, the valley is joined by a deep ravine
through which a sequestered road--hidden by hawthorn hedges, and crossed
by numerous water-courses where the hillside streams, dropping from
rocks of shale, ripple towards a trout-brook feeding the main
river--winds into the quiet country. The rugged sides of the ravine are
thickly clothed with gorse and brambles, and dotted with hazels,
willows, and oaks. This dense cover is inhabited by large numbers of
rabbits; in a sheltered hollow half-way up the slope a badger has dug
his "set"; and in the pastures above the thickets a fox may be seen
prowling on almost any moonlit night. Past the gorge, the glen opens out
in rich, level pastures and meadows bounded on either side by the
hills. The nearest farmsteads are built high among the sunny dingles
overlooking the glen, and the corn and the root-crops are grown on the
slope beyond the broad belts of gorse and bramble.

In winter, the low-lying lands are seldom visited by the peasantry,
except when the dairymaid drives the cattle to and fro, or the hedger
trims the undergrowth along the ditches. Though the sportsman with gun
and spaniels and the huntsman with horse and hounds are frequently heard
in the thickets, they never visit the "bottom," unless the partridges
fly down from the stubble, or the hare, pursued by the beagles, takes a
straight line from the far side of the glen to a sheep-path leading up
the gorge. And in summer, except when the fisherman wanders by the
brook, and the haymakers are busy in the grass, the glen is an
undisturbed sanctuary, given over to Nature's wildlings, where, in
safety, as far as man is concerned, they tend their hidden young.

In this quiet, windless place, on the day when first the haymakers came
to the meadows, five little hedgehogs were born in a nest among the
roots of a tree, deep in the undergrowth of a tangled hedgerow. The
nest was made of dry grass and leaves, and with an entrance so arranged
amid the "trash," that, when the parent hedgehogs went to or from their
home, they pushed their way through a heap of dead herbage, which,
falling behind them, hid the passage from inquisitive eyes.

It may be asked why such a warm retreat was necessary, inasmuch as the
hedgehog sucklings came into the world in the hottest time of the year.
Nature's reasons were, however, all-sufficient; the little creatures,
feeble and blind, needed a secure hiding place, screened from the
changeful wind of night and from every roving enemy. The haymakers,
moving to and fro amid the swathes, knew nothing of the hedgehogs'
whereabouts; but when the dews of night lay thick on the strewn wild
flowers, the parent "urchins," leaving their helpless charges asleep
within their nest, wondered greatly, while they hunted for snails and
slugs in the ditch, at the quick change that had passed over the silent
field.

For a week or more, the spines sprouting from round projections on the
bodies of the young hedgehogs were colourless and blunt, and so
flexible that they could have offered no defence against the teeth or
the claws of an enemy; while every muscle was so soft and feeble that
not one of the little animals was as yet able to roll itself into the
shape of a ball. The spines, however, served a useful purpose: they kept
the tender skin beneath from being irritated by the chance touch of the
mother hedgehog's obtrusive quills.

Soon the baby hedgehogs' eyes opened wide to the pale light filtering
between the leaves at the entrance to the chamber, and their spines,
gradually stiffening, assumed a dull grey colour. Then, one still, dark
night, the little creatures, with great misgiving, followed their
parents from the nest, and wandered for a short distance beside the
tangled hedge. Presently, made tired and sleepy and hungry by exercise
and fresh air, they were led back to their secret retreat, where, after
being tended for a few moments by their careful mother, they fell
asleep, while their parents searched diligently for food in the dense
grass-clumps left by the harvesters amid the briars and the furze.

Henceforth, every night, they ventured, under their mother's care, to
roam afield, their journeys becoming longer and still longer as their
strength increased, till, familiar with the hedgerow paths, they were
ready and eager to learn the rudiments of such field-craft as concerned
their unpretending lives.

A glorious summer, far brighter than is usual among the rainy hills of
the west, brooded over the countryside. The days were calm and sunny,
but with the coming of evening occasional mists drifted along the
dingles and scattered pearl-drops on the after-math; and the nights were
warm and starlit, filled with the silence of the wilderness, which only
Nature's children break. The "calling season" for the hare had long
since passed, and for the fox it had not yet arrived; so the voices of
the two greatest wanderers on the countryside were not at this time
heard.

A doe hare had made her "form" hardly twenty yards from the hedgehogs'
nest, and night after night, just when the "urchins" moved down the
hedge from the old tree-root, she ambled by on her way to the
clover-field above the heath.

Once, a little before dawn, a fox, coming to drink at the brook,
detected the scent of the hedgehogs near a molehill, followed it to the
litter of leaves by the tree, and caused considerable alarm by making a
vigorous attempt to dig out the nest; but, probably because of the
dampness of the loamy soil, he failed to determine the exact whereabouts
of the hedgehog family; and, after breaking a tooth in his vain efforts
to cut through a tough, close-fibred root, he made his way along the
hedge, and soon disappeared over the crest of the moonlit hill. But the
next night, when the wind blew strong, and the rain pattered loudly on
the leafy trees, he came again to the "urchins'" haunt. The doe hare had
long since rustled by, and the hedgehogs were busy munching a cluster of
earthworms discovered in a heap of refuse not far from the gate, when
Reynard stole over the fence-bank, and sniffed at the nest. Not finding
the family at home, he followed their scent through the ditch, and soon
surprised them. To kill one of the tiny "urchins" was the work of a
moment; then, made eager by the taste of blood, the fox turned on the
mother hedgehog and tried to fix his fangs in the soft flesh beneath the
armour of her spines. But, feeling at once his warm breath, she, with a
quick contraction of the muscles, rolled herself into a prickly ball,
and remained proof against his every artifice. He was a young fox, not
yet learned in the wiles of Nature's feebler folk, and so, when he had
recovered from his astonishment, he pounced on the rigid creature, and,
thoughtlessly exerting all his strength, endeavoured to rend her in
pieces with his powerful jaws. He paid dearly for his temerity. The
prickly ball rolled over, under the pressure of his fore-paws, the sharp
points of the spines entered the bare flesh behind his pads, and as,
almost falling to the ground, he bit savagely to right and left in the
fit of anger which now possessed him, his mouth and nostrils dripped
blood from a dozen irritating wounds. Thoroughly discomfited, he leaped
back into the field, where, sick with pain, he endeavoured to gain
relief by rubbing his muzzle vigorously in the grass and against his
aching limbs. Then, sneezing violently, and with his mouth encrusted
with froth and loam, he bolted from the scene of his unpleasant
adventure, never pausing till he reached his "earth" on the hillside, in
which, hidden from the mocking gaze of other prowlers of the night, he
could leisurely salve his wounds with the moisture of his soft, warm
tongue, and ponder over the lessons of his recent experience.

By far the most intelligent and powerful enemy of the young hedgehogs
was the farmer's dog; but, as he slept in the barn at night, and
generally accompanied the labourers to the upland fields by day, they
escaped, for a while, his unwelcome attentions. Foes hardly less
dreaded, because of their insatiable thirst for blood, were two polecats
living in a hole half-way up the wall of a ruined cottage not far from
the hillside farm-house. The polecats, however, were so occupied with
the care of a family, that, finding young rabbits plentiful in the
burrows on the heath, they seldom wandered into the open fields, till
the little "urchins," ready, at the first sign of danger, to curl
themselves within the proof-armour of their growing spines, were well
able to resist attack.

The hedgehogs were about three months old, and summer, brief and
beautiful, was passing away, when an incident occurred that might have
proved disastrous, though, fortunately, it resulted only in a practical
joke, such as Nature often plays on the children of the wilds. One calm,
dark night, while they were busy in the grass, a brown owl, hunting for
mice, sailed slowly by. Now, the brown owl, in spite of proverbial
wisdom gained during a long life in the dim seclusion of the woods, is
occasionally apt to blunder. Her character, indeed, seems full of quaint
contradictions. As she floats through the moonlight and the shadows of
the beech-aisles of Dollan, she appears to be a large bird, with a
philosophic contentment of mind--an ancient creature that, shunning the
fellow-ships of the garish modern day and loving the leisure and the
solitude of night, dreams of the past. But, beneath its loose feathery
garments, her body, hardly larger than that of a ringdove, is altogether
out of proportion to her long, narrow head and wide-spreading talons.
Visions of the past may come to her, as, blinking at the light of day,
she sits in the hollow of the tree, but at night she is far too
wide-awake to dream. And so great are the owl's powers of sight and
hearing, and so swift is her "stoop" from the sky to the ground, that
the bank-vole has little chance of escape should a single grass-stalk
rustle underfoot when she is hovering near his haunt. Far from being shy
and retiring in her disposition, the brown owl, directly night steals
over the woodlands, is so fearless that probably no animal smaller than
the hare can in safety roam abroad.

As the owl flew slowly past the fence, she heard the faint sound of a
crackling shell--the hedgehogs were feeding on snails. She could barely
distinguish a moving form in a tangle of briars, but its position
discouraged attack; so she flew away and continued to hunt for mice.
Presently, returning to the spot, the owl was once more attracted by the
sound of some creature feeding in the grass; and, detecting a slight
movement beside the briars, she swooped towards the ditch, grasped one
of the "urchins" in her claws, and rose into the air. Her quarry,
feeling the sudden grip of the sharp talons, made a desperate,
convulsive movement, and the owl found, to her astonishment, that her
grasp had shifted, and that she was holding, apparently, a hard bunch of
thorns. Nevertheless, she tightened her grasp; but an unendurable twitch
of pain, as the spines entered her flesh immediately above the scales of
her talons, caused her to drop the hedgehog into the leaf-mould of the
ditch. Immediately afterwards, she herself, eager to find out the cause
of her discomfiture, dropped also to the earth, and, standing beside the
hedgehog, clawed savagely at the motionless creature, seeking some
defenceless point among the bristling spines. At last, her patience
exhausted, the owl gave up the ineffectual assault, and glided away into
the gloomy night. Unhurt, but for a slight wound inflicted when first
the bird descended, the hedgehog crawled back to the brambles, where the
rest of her family were still busy with the snails, and joined them in
their feast.

Autumn's sere leaves had fallen from the trees, and the hedgehogs had
found such a plentiful supply of all kinds of food that they were ready
for their winter sleep, when a gipsy boy, the proud possessor of a
terrier trained for hunting hedgehogs, set forth in haste one evening
from his tent by the wayside above the farm. The boy was smarting from
cruel blows inflicted by his drunken parents, who, after unusual success
in disposing of baskets and clothes-pegs, had spent much of the day's
profit in a carouse at the village inn. Having escaped a continuance of
his parents' brutalities, and eluded their ill-conducted pursuit, the
young gipsy, in the company of his only friend, soon forgot his miseries
as his thoughts turned to a vagabond's rough sport in the stillness of
the harvest night. Thrusting a long stick here and there into the
briars, he strolled along by the fence, till his dog, diligently beating
in line amid the undergrowth, gave a quick yelp of delight, and, an
instant later, a curled-up hedgehog rolled down into the ditch. The boy
placed the animal in his ragged handkerchief, the corners of which he
was proceeding to tie together when the terrier again attracted
attention with unmistakable signs of a "find." For a few brief minutes
sport was keenly exciting, but at last all the "urchin" family, with the
exception of one member, were captured, and the boy, now thoroughly
happy, his pockets and handkerchief heavy with spoil, turned homewards
through the darkness. Next morning, the slain hedgehogs, baked in clay
among the hot ashes of a fire of rotten twigs, formed the principal item
in the gipsies' bill of fare, and the terrier enjoyed the remnants of
the meal.

The hedgehog surviving the gipsy's raid was a young female, that, while
the terrier beat the fence, remained quietly munching a large lob-worm
at the foot of a mound a dozen yards away, and so knew nothing of the
fate of her kindred.

The last weeks of the year passed uneventfully, as far as her little
life was concerned; then, as the nights grew longer and the cold
increased, she set about preparing in earnest for her long, deep sleep.

In a sheltered spot close to the woodlands, where, a month before, a
badger had unearthed a wild bee's nest, she collected a heap of withered
oak-leaves, hay, and moss, and with these simple materials made a large,
snug nest, a winter house so constructed that the rain might trickle
down to the absorbent soil beneath. For a little while, however, she
did not enter into her unbroken rest. Still, nightly, she roamed abroad,
moving in and out of the dried herbage everywhere strewn in her paths
among the tree-roots, till the sapless leaves impaled on the sharp
points of her spines formed such a cluster that she lost all semblance
of a living creature. Insects were becoming rarer and still rarer as the
year drew to its close, and those surviving the frosts retired to
countless secret chambers at the roots of the moss and under the tough
bark of the trees. The lizards sought shelter in warm hollows deep below
the piles of stones left here and there by the labourers, when, every
spring, they cleared the freshening fields. And the big round snails,
the luscious tit-bits of the hedgehog's provender, crept into the holes
of the red mice and into the chinks of walls and banks, where, protected
by their shells, each being fastened to its resting place by a neat rim
of hardened glue, they lived unconscious of decay and gloom. Then the
hedgehog, having become drowsier and still drowsier with privation and
cold, ceased to wander from her nest at dark, and began that slumber
which was to last till the sweet, warm breath of spring awoke her, and
other wildlings of the night, to a life among the early primroses and
violets.



II.

AN EXPERIENCE IN SNAKE-KILLING.


The many changes of winter passed over the countryside; tempests raged,
rain beat down in slanting sheets or enveloped the fields in mist, snow
fell heavily and then vanished before the breath of a westerly breeze,
black frost held the fields for days in an iron clutch, and sometimes,
from late dawn to early dusk, the sun shone clearly in the southern sky.
The sportsman with his spaniels wandered by the hedge, the huntsman with
his beagles chased the hare across the sodden meadows, and the report of
a gun or the note of a horn echoed among the surrounding hills. But in
spite of changing weather and dangers from unresting foes, the hedgehog
slept peacefully within her nest of withered leaves till awakened by
the whisper of the warm south-western wind.

It was a calm day towards the end of March when the hedgehog awoke.
Gradually, since the winter solstice, the shadows of noon, cast from the
wooded slope across the meadows in the glen, had become shorter; and
now, when the sun reached its meridian, its beams fell directly on the
spot where the hedgehog rested among the littered leaves. She felt the
strange and subtle influence of spring, and crawled feebly from her
retreat. The light above her nest was far too brilliant for her eyes,
which had been closed for three long months, and were at best only
accustomed to the gloom of night, so she sought the shadow of a
tree-trunk near, and there, for a while, remained quite motionless. With
the leaves of last autumn still clinging thickly to her spines, she
seemed an oddly fashioned creature belonging to a distant age, a little
Rip Van Winkle of the woods, with a new, quick world of unfamiliar joys
and sorrows claiming her half-conscious life. Extremely feeble from cold
and privation, and knowing, as all Nature's wildlings seem to know,
that sunlight brings with it health and strength, she presently left the
shadow of the tree-trunk, and, closing her eyes, basked in complete
enjoyment of the balmy day. The heat and the gentle wind soon dried her
armour of spines and surcoat of leaves. Stealing in through the tunnel
left open when the hedgehog came forth from her sleep, the wind cleansed
and ventilated the nest, and soon all traces of winter's mustiness had
vanished from both herself and her home. By sundown, the "urchin" had
gained strength that enabled her to wander slowly into the meadow, where
she found sufficient food to stay her growing hunger.

During the first few nights, her appetite, though keen, was easily
satisfied, for the digestive organs, unaccustomed to their work, could
not retain much nutriment, and hours of slumber seemed necessary after
every trifling meal. But gradually her powers were restored, till almost
any kind of fresh animal matter that came in her way was greedily
devoured. A spider sleeping in a folded leaf, a fly hiding beneath a
stone, a snail, a slug, a worm, a frog, a weakling bird fallen from an
early nest, a lizard, or a snake--all alike were welcome as she thrust
her damp, blunt snout, that looked like a little fold of black rubber,
here and there amid the herbage.

Her eyesight was faulty--she had no great need of it; her enemies were
few, and she did not live the life of the hunted that fear each footfall
on the grass; but, as if to balance all deficiencies, her sense of smell
was singularly acute, so that she could follow with ease the trail of a
beetle or of an earthworm in its windings over the soil. The eggs and
young of the lark, the corncrake, the partridge, or of any other bird
that built on the ground, were never safe once the hedgehog had crossed
the lines of scent left by the parents around their nest. Even the robin
and the wren, nesting in holes along the hedge, and the field-mouse in
its chamber sheltered by the moss, were at any time likely to have their
family affairs most cruelly upset. The wild-bee's sting could not save
her honeyed cells and helpless grubs, and the sharp-fanged adder,
writhing from the hedgehog's sudden bite, would hurl itself in vain
against the prickly ball that instantly confronted each counter attack.

The hedgehog's first experience of snake-killing occurred late one
evening, when she discovered a viper, some distance from its hole,
coiled asleep on a bare patch of soil where the sunlight had lingered at
the close of day. Her manner instantly changed; she became eager and
alert. Pausing only a second to make sure of her attack, she bit the
snake sharply near the neck, then, withdrawing her head and limbs into
the shelter of her spines, rolled over, an inanimate ball. The viper,
mad with pain, thrust back its head from its sinuous coils, rose, and
struck with open jaws at its assailant. Its fangs closed strongly, but
failed to get a grip, and the smooth underside of its throat glanced
past the hedgehog's slanting prickles with such force that the whole
body of the snake was lifted from the ground, and fell, like a bent
arrow, about a yard behind its foe. Again the snake rose, and struck
with no effect; but this time the stroke, coming from the rear, was met
by the sharp points of the spines, and the adder's mouth dropped blood
from a clean-cut wound on the upper edge of the palate. Repeatedly, the
snake, hissing loudly and fighting for its life, attacked its armoured
enemy--at first dashing itself senselessly against the sharp points of
the hedgehog's spines, then, with caution, swaying to and fro its
bleeding head and snapping harmlessly at an apparently unguarded spot,
till, from sheer exhaustion and pain, and with its store of poison
almost exhausted, it retired from the unequal combat and slowly wriggled
into the grass. Presently, the "urchin" uncoiled, and, as soon as the
inquisitive little snout discovered the whereabouts of the snake,
started in pursuit. With a hard, firm bite, she luckily managed to break
the backbone of the viper; then, at once, she again assumed the shape of
a ball. Desperate now, the snake expended all its remaining strength in
wild attacks, till, limp and helpless, and utterly at the mercy of the
hedgehog, it lay outstretched. Then the relentless hedgehog, assured
that her prey was quite defenceless, severed almost every bone in its
body, tore the scales from the flesh, and fed to repletion.

Such a struggle often happens in the fields and the woodlands. During
the first few weeks of life, the hedgehog, if its parents are absent,
may be at the adder's mercy; but, later, the tables are completely
turned, the once helpless creature becomes the strong aggressor, and is
revenged by removing, not only an enemy, but a rival subsisting on food
often similar to that which is its own.

For a while after her awakening, the hedgehog fed chiefly on the big
earthworms which, induced by the increasing warmth, forsook the deep
recesses of their burrows, and tunnelled immediately beneath the
grass-roots, coming forth at night to lie outstretched amid the
undergrowth. She had, of necessity, to match their fear by her excessive
cunning. They frequently detected her presence by the slight vibrations
of the soil beneath her soft, slow-moving feet, and hurriedly withdrew
from her path, but more often she surprised and captured them by the
simple artifice of waiting and watching beside the burrows where scent
was fresh, and where, notwithstanding the noises reaching her from
above, she could readily distinguish the sounds of stretching, gliding
bodies moving to the surface through the tortuous passages below.

She soon became a wanderer, deserting her winter nest, and roaming
nightly further and yet further from the valley meadows, till she
reached a rough pasture at the end of the glen. In a thick hedgerow
skirting a secluded pond among alders and willows, she found food
unexpectedly varied and plentiful. Luscious snails, with striped yellow
and brown shells, were so common in the ditch beyond a certain
cattle-path, that, even after a whole day's fast, her hunger was quickly
appeased.

April drew near, the leaves of the trees expanded, and the voice of the
night wind in the branches changed from a moan to a whisper. At noon,
flies came forth to bask on the stones; the furze, decked with yellow
flowers, was visited by countless bees; and bronze-winged beetles crept
among the thorny branches of the hawthorn and the sloe. The hedgehog
knew little of the pulsing life of mid-day, but at dusk she sometimes
found a tired fly, or bee, or beetle, hiding in the matted grass
beneath the gorse, and so was made aware of summer's near approach.

Among the flags and the rushes of the pond, a pair of fussy moorhens
built their nest on an islet of decayed vegetation clustered round a
stone. At all hours of the day, the birds sailed gaily hither and
thither, or wandered, happy and impulsive, along the margin of the pool.
No care had they, and the solitude of their retreat seemed likely never
to be disturbed, till, one moonlit night, the fox, that last year had
killed the baby hedgehog in the glen, stole through the shadows of the
alders, caught the scent of the moorhens, and approached the nest where
the female was brooding over her eggs. The bird had watched the fox's
movements since first he appeared on the bank beyond the trees. Quietly
she dropped into the pond beside the nest, dived, came up on the far
side of the islet, and stayed there, with only her head above the
surface of the water. She saw, with fear, the fox approach her nest, and
recognised that it was hardly possible for her treasures to be saved,
when, suddenly, her mate, having doubtless watched the marauder as
closely as she herself had done, walked out of a reed-clump two or three
yards from her hiding place, and, in full view of the fox, swam slowly
to and fro, beating his wings as if in mortal pain. Without the
slightest hesitation, Reynard, thinking to obtain an easy prize, plunged
into the pond, but the bird just managed to elude him, and to flutter
into another reed-clump a short distance away. Completely deceived by
the ruse, the fox was drawn further and further from the nest, till he
reached a distant corner of the pond, when, to his astonishment, the
moorhen vanished, leaving him to a vain search which at last so much
annoyed him that, instead of returning along the bank towards the nest,
he crossed the glen, trotted up the cattle-path, and entered the dense
thicket on the slope.

With most wild creatures, fear seems to be a feeling that quickly comes
and quickly goes. But over some of Nature's weaklings, fear seems to
throw a spell that remains long after the danger has passed; as, for
instance, in the case of a rabbit hunted by a stoat, or of a vole
pursued by a weasel. The animal trembles with fright, cries as if in
pain, and limps, half-paralysed, towards its home, some time after its
pursuer may have turned aside to follow a line of scent leading in a
quite opposite direction. Now and then, a young rabbit is so overcome by
fright, that the sly, watchful carrion crow obtains, with little
trouble, an unexpected meal. The birds of the hedgerow--finches, robins,
and the like--are also subject to the distressing influence of fear,
directly they catch sight of a hungry weasel "performing" in the ditch.
When the weasel sets itself to lure any such creatures, its movements
are remarkably similar to the contortions of a snake; and the birds,
fascinated as their enemy's strange actions are rapidly repeated,
flutter helplessly from spray to spray, till one or other becomes a
victim and the weasel ambles off with its prey. Then, released from the
spell, the birds proceed to mob the bloodthirsty tyrant, and, at times,
with such effect that he is compelled, before making good his escape, to
resort to stratagems similar to those that previously held the birds
enthralled. Reynard seems to have learned from the weasel's manoeuvres,
for he, too, is wont to entice the rabbits towards him by extraordinary
methods, twirling round, like a cat, in pursuit of his tail, and
affording such a spectacle to any onlookers that they must needs, from
sheer curiosity, find out the meaning of a woodland farce, which, alas!
is often followed by a tragedy. It is not known that the fox ever
succeeds in fascinating the moorhen; the bird, directly she caught sight
of his circling form, would probably dive, and in the cool refuge of the
water, her sharp eyes peeping from between the flags, would wisely
conclude that such an unaccountable display meant danger. It is,
however, tolerably certain that the influence of fear seldom causes a
nesting bird, or a breeding mammal, to become helpless in the presence
of an enemy, though when family cares are over the conditions might be
entirely reversed. Even such timid creatures as rabbits and hares
sometimes strenuously defend their young from the attacks of weasels and
stoats.

As the fox trotted up the hillside path, the moorhen joined her mate in
the tangle of the reeds, and, without fear, wandered over the marshy
ground in the neighbourhood of her nest. Then she swam out across the
narrow channel, and settled down, in fancied security, to brood once
more over her speckled eggs. She had just taken her accustomed position,
when the hedgehog, pushing the reeds aside, became aware of the strong
scent on the margin of the pond. The hungry "urchin's" intelligence,
though limited, at once suggested that the scent of a mothering bird
might lead to a clutch of delicious eggs, or to a brood of plump and
juicy nestlings. Following the trail, the hedgehog came to the marshy
ground at the margin of the narrow passage where the bird had crossed,
and, with head erect, sniffed the tainted wind blowing gently shorewards
from the brooding moorhen. In her eagerness, she lifted herself slightly
at the edge of the bank, missed her footing, and fell into the pond, not
more than two or three feet from the moorhen. The bird, hearing the
splash, dived instantly; her mate again came quickly to the scene and
tried to lead the enemy away, but the hedgehog, heedless of every
artifice, paddled slowly to the platform of dry flags, and helped
herself to a repast more appetising than any she had recently enjoyed,
while the birds, flapping their wings, circled angrily about the pond,
and pecked vigorously, but vainly, at the marauder's prickly coat.

Late the next evening, the hedgehog discovered a fledgling thrush hidden
in the grass beyond the alders. In response to the cry of the young
bird, the mother thrush flew straight to the spot, and, with a lucky
blow struck full at the hedgehog's snout, so intimidated her enemy that
she curled up immediately and allowed the fledgling to escape unharmed.

The tender grass was reaching up to seed, the may blossom was burdening
the air with rich perfume, and summer had almost come, when, late one
night, the hedgehog, hunting among the shadows of the trees, chanced to
hear a low, bleating sound, like the voice of a leveret calling to the
mother hare out feeding in the clover. She had never heard that sound
before, but its meaning, nevertheless, was plain, and without hesitation
she replied. Again the sound broke the stillness, as a dim form lifted
itself clumsily from the ditch and came towards her. Presently she felt
an inquiring touch, and, turning, found herself face to face with a male
hedgehog that had followed her path through the undergrowth. Nature had
not been lavish in his adornment; like the female, he was a plain little
creature, brown and grey, fitted to sleep unnoticed among the wind-blown
leaves and twigs beside a sheltering mound.

Theirs was an odd and awkward courtship--its language a medley of
unmusical squeals and grunts; and if a difference arose it was settled
by one curling up into a ball till the other had forgotten the quarrel.
But soon they became good friends, hunted together all night and slept
together all day, while the year drew on to summer and then, almost
imperceptibly, declined. Devoting much of their attention to domestic
affairs, they built a large, dry nest among the foxgloves near the
stream; where, towards the end of hay harvest, three naked little
"urchins" came into the world, to be reared, just as the mother hedgehog
herself had been reared, till autumn merged into winter, and winter's
cold induced each to go in loneliness and build a snuggery for sleep.



NIGHT IN THE WOODS.

I.

HAUNTS OF THE BADGER AND THE FOX.


Comparatively little seems to be known of the night side of wild life in
this country. Night watching involves prolonged exposure, unremitting
vigilance, absolute quietness; and yet, to the most alert observer, it
often results in nothing but disappointment and vexation.

Some time ago, during the moonlit nights of several months, I kept
watch, near a "set" inhabited by half-a-dozen badgers, a vixen and her
cubs, a rabbit and her numerous progeny, and a solitary little buck
wood-mouse, whose close acquaintanceship I made after I had captured him
in a butterfly-net placed as a spring-trap above his narrow run-way in
the grass. This "set"--which I have already partly described, in writing
of Brock, the badger--seemed to be the common lodging house of the
wood. Its numerous inhabitants, though not on terms of friendship, were,
apparently, not at enmity. The wood-mouse and the rabbits, while
entering or leaving the underground passages, and wandering through the
paths in the wood, took care to avoid their powerful neighbours; the
foxes, believing that out of sight is out of mind, avoided with equal
care all chances of encountering the badgers; and the badgers, sluggish
in movement and tolerant in disposition, refrained from evicting the
foxes or digging out the rabbits.

In the undergrowth, but away from the well worn tracks used by the
creatures as they stole out to feed, I had chosen three hiding places,
representing in their relative positions the corners of a triangle the
centre of which was the main entrance to the "set." I was thus able,
whatever might be the direction of the wind, to lie to leeward and
obtain a clear view of the principal opening, while I incurred but
slight risk of detection, unless the rabbits or the wood-mouse crept
into the brambles.

It was during the last week of watching that my patience received its
best rewards. Almost regularly then, as the shadows deepened before
moonrise, the rabbits stole out, and, sometimes with no hesitation,
sometimes after much cautious reconnoitring and sniffing the air and
"drumming" alarm signals on the mound before their door, hopped along
the paths towards the clover-fields outside the wood. Soon after the
rabbits appeared, the wood-mouse timidly peeped around the corner of the
entrance, and, seeing nothing of his enemy, the brown owl, disappeared,
with a rustle, among the dead leaves that filled a hollow where the old,
disused workings of the "set" had "shrunk."

On several occasions, the vixen led forth her cubs long before the
badgers came in view, and while the light yet lingered on the crests of
the neighbouring hills. The little family went away silently to a dense
furze-brake about a hundred yards distant on the lower edge of the wood,
and, till the sun had gone down, remained close-hidden in a lair that I
afterwards discovered amid the long grass in the heart of the thicket.

More frequently, however, I saw nothing of the vixen till nightfall,
though the cubs, impatient of confinement, now and again visited the
mound outside the "set," and for a few moments played together on the
bare soil thrown up by the hard-working badgers, as, in spring, they
enlarged their breeding chamber. But, in the first calm hour of night,
when the red afterglow had faded from the hills, and the moon, ascending
cloudless in the southern sky, cast long, mysterious shadows down the
aisles of the wood, the fox-cubs and their dam came boldly out, and,
instead of moving off towards the furze, adjourned to a rill close by,
whence, after quenching their thirst, they repaired to a glade above the
"set," and in this favourite playground frisked and romped,
unremittingly guarded from danger by their devoted mother. My presence
unsuspected, I watched them, little dim figures, flitting to and fro.

When they had gone far up the winding pathway to the cornfields, and the
silence was no longer broken by their low cries of dissembled rage and
fear, I sometimes lingered in my hiding place; and as on the grass I
lay, looking towards the stars that twinkled between the motionless
leaves of the trees above me, my thoughts went back to a time long
before our village had been built beside the river; before Giraldus
Cambrensis had journeyed hence with the pilgrim band towards Sant Dewi's
shrine; before the great Crag of Vortigern, across the near dingle, had
resounded with the blare of the trumpets of war; before even, in the
primitive hut-circle on the opposite hill, wild little children had
played about the twilight fires kindled in readiness for the home-coming
of the weary hunters--a time when the fox, the badger, and the tiny
mouse had nightly journeyed through the woods, and the call of the gaunt
wolf to his mate had weirdly echoed and re-echoed in the valley,
startling the innocent hare in the open waste above the slope, and the
busy beaver on the dam below in the pool at the bend of the river.

The badgers--or "earth-pigs" as the country folk have named them--were
the original occupants of the "set," unless, however, the earliest
excavations had been made by the ancestors of the old doe-rabbit now
inhabiting a side apartment. The foxes and the wood-mouse might have
been looked upon as interlopers, but they often played the part of
scouts and sentinels, quick to give alarm to the tolerant, easy-going
badgers, in case of imminent danger from the visit of a dog or a man to
the neighbourhood of their retreat.

The badgers were more irregular as to the time when they left the "set"
than were any of the other inhabitants. Perhaps they suspected a human
presence, because of some peculiar vibration in the earth through a
false step of mine. Perhaps, during certain conditions of the
atmosphere, a taint--borne from me, on a wave rather than a current of
air, to the wide archway beneath the tree-roots in front of the main
entrance, and then drawn down into the draughty passages--was detected
by them immediately they passed beyond the stagnant atmosphere of the
blind-alley where they slept. Evening after evening, one of the old
badgers would appear at the mouth of the "set," and, with snout uplifted
in the archway of the tree-roots, would stay as motionless, but for the
restless twitching of the alert nostrils, as were the trees and the
stones around his home, while I, not even daring to flick an irritating
gnat from my forehead or neck, would wait and long for the philosopher
in grey to make up his slow-moving mind.

With regard to the badger's habit of staying for some time in the
doorway of his home, it may be mentioned that years afterwards, when one
night I compared my notes with those of a companion who had hidden near
the main opening of the "set" while I had watched by a hole higher in
the wood, I found that each entrance had, simultaneously and for long,
been occupied by a vigilant badger; and, as both animals were full-grown
"greys," I concluded that parent badgers not unusually took ample
precautions against surprise before allowing their cubs to venture out
into the night.

Once away from the "set," the old male badger seemed to lose suspicion
of any obnoxious presence. Then, lumbering after him, every member of
his family would appear in full view on the mound, and, with little fits
and starts of pretended rage and fright, would roll over and over each
other, rush helter-skelter back to the underground dwelling and out
again, and round and round the tree-trunks. A favourite trick, indulged
in by young and old alike, was that of raising themselves on their
hind-legs close beside a broad beech-trunk near the "set," and then, on
tiptoe, stretching out their fore-claws to the fullest extent and
scratching vigorously at the bark.

This trick irresistibly reminded me of an incident connected with a
shooting expedition to the moors, when, one evening, after much gossip
in the ingle-nook, I accompanied my jolly host to the barn, and there,
much to the merriment of all concerned, acted as judge, while, by the
light of a lantern, the farmer measured and recorded the height of his
wife, as well as of each of his six children and his servants, against
the oaken door-post, and finally insisted that he himself, a veritable
giant, should submit to the test, and gave orders for a chair to be
fetched that "mother," a stout little woman of some sixty inches in
height and, also, in circumference, might mount to the level necessary
for "chalking his mark."

One day a keen naturalist and sportsman, whose acquaintance I had
recently formed, proposed to join me in my vigil near the badger's home.
In the declining afternoon, we left the village, crossed the bridge, and
made a detour of the river path. As we passed along, I showed him an
otter's "holt" under a shelving bank, where, on the fine, wet sand, the
prints of the creature's pads were fresh and clearly outlined. We then
visited an "earth" within the wood, in which dwelt a lonely old fox I
had often watched as he stole along the rabbit-tracks towards the Crag
of Vortigern; and there I pointed out how crafty Reynard, having
selected a convenient rabbit burrow, had blocked up every hole--but one,
in a thick clump of brambles--with soil thrown out in digging, and how
the grass and the ground-ivy had luxuriantly covered the bare mounds,
and so encroached on the fox's winding track through the wood and about
the bramble clump, that even to an experienced visitor the only fox-sign
likely to be detected was in the loose arrangement of the bents and the
twigs by the arch of the run-way as it entered the thicket.

Rabbits, as well as water-voles and field-voles, are particularly
careful to nibble off wind-blown or sprouting twigs that encroach on
their tracks through the undergrowth; but foxes, otters, and badgers
simply brush them aside as they pass.

The sun had not yet gone down when we arrived at the "set." I had
planned an early visit, so that my friend might have an opportunity of
examining the much frequented track-ways, the footprints of the badgers
on the soft earth of the mound, and the scratches on the tree-trunk
where the badgers had sharpened their claws and incidentally measured
themselves. These numerous claw-marks were especially interesting, and,
on a certain tree by the "set," they formed irregular lines extending
from a foot above the ground to a height of three feet or rather more.
The lowest scratches had been made by the cubs seated on their haunches
and facing the tree; a little higher, the marks were those of the parent
animals while in a similar position; after a space in which a few
abrasions occurred, the marks showed how the cubs had gradually grown
till they could reach within a few inches of the clear, deep furrows
scratched by the old male badger as he measured his full length against
the tree.

[Illustration: "AS HE MEASURED HIS FULL LENGTH AGAINST THE TREE." (_See_
p. 419).]

After making observations with the utmost wariness, we hurried away, so
that, before dusk, our scent might evaporate, and become almost
imperceptible in the vicinity of the principal entrance to the lonely
burrow.

After a second ramble by the riverside, we returned in the face of the
wind, and at twilight began our silent watch. A robin sang plaintively
from the hawthorns on the outskirts of the wood; the rooks sailed slowly
above us, and then, gossiping loudly of the day's events, congregated
around their nests in the great elms dimly outlined against the pearly
southern sky; the wood-pigeons dropped one by one into the beech-trees
near us; and a jay, uttering his harsh alarm, hopped in and out of some
young hazels fringing the glade beyond the "set." Presently, a brown
owl, in a group of tall pines near the little rill that made faint music
in the woods, began to mutter and complain, in those low, peculiar notes
that are often heard before she leaves her daytime resting place. Then
no sound disturbed the stillness but the far-off cawing of the rooks,
and the only creatures visible were some rabbits playing in the moonlit
glade, and a glow-worm shining with her soft green light on a bramble
spray within my reach.

Nearly half an hour passed by, and no sign of life came from the
badgers' home. Then the familiar white and black striped head, framed in
the darkness beneath the gnarled tree-root, suddenly appeared, and as
suddenly vanished. Another half-hour went by, and yet another, but no
further sign was given. My companion, unused to such a long vigil,
shifted uneasily, and protested that he was tingling with cramp and
longing for sleep; presently, unable to endure his discomfort, he arose,
and stretched his limbs before settling down again amid the briars.

Our patience was in vain. Once more the badger came in sight, but my
companion did not see what I myself had noticed, for sleep had sealed
his tired eyes, and when I nudged him he awoke with such a start that
the badger instantly withdrew into the burrow.

By the glow-worm's lamp, I found from my watch that midnight had long
passed; and so, since the hour was towards dawn and the moon was not
favourable for close observation of the "earth-pigs," even if they
crossed the open glade, I whispered to my friend that the proceedings,
in which his interest had manifestly waned, were over for the night. His
disappointment was keen, and though to me the night seemed warm, he,
accustomed to a tropical climate, chattered with the cold. He had not
even noticed the first appearance of the "earth-pig," and henceforth
night watching held no charm for him.

My own disappointment, if only for my friend's sake, was also keen; but,
on the evening following those hours of fruitless watching, I discovered
the vixen's lair in the furze-brake, and learned why she resorted
thither with her cubs, before the badger family had awakened from their
day-dreams, or the pale glow-worm's rays had lit up the dew-besprinkled
spider-webs.

Knowing that badgers are, as the country folk say, _pwdu_ (pouty)
creatures, likely to sulk at home for several nights if they consider
it unsafe to roam abroad, I carefully examined the mound of earth and
the beech-trunk near the "set," that I might learn whether the animals
had been out of doors since my previous visit. On the soil, fresh
footprints could be seen, their outlines clearly lit and deeply shadowed
as the sun sank in the west, and, in some of the scratches on the beech,
the pith had barely changed its colour from creamy white to the faintest
tinge of brown. I concluded, therefore, that the badgers had been out,
as usual, some time before the dawn. My eyes, however, were not
sufficiently trained to detect any sure evidence of the recent movements
of the vixen and her cubs.

Walking along the tracks, I chanced to notice that the path by which the
vixen sought the shelter of the furze-brake branched off at a sharp
angle, and led into the thicket at a bend that was hidden from my sight
while I watched near the "set." Picking my way in a line straight
through the tangle and parallel with this path, I came to an opening
where the grass was beaten down for about six square yards--more
particularly for two or three yards in the part nearest the spot at
which the tunnelled run-way entered it. Along the margin of this open
place, I could find no second entrance; everywhere at the foot of the
surrounding gorse-bushes the long grass grew in an unbroken line, except
close to the mouth of the run-way. There I found a shallow depression,
not unlike the "form" of a hare, but longer and broader, and I
determined to keep strict watch evening after evening, till I learned
the reason for the occasional visits of the vixen and her cubs to the
brake. But I little imagined that the secret would quickly be disclosed,
for it was my belief that, should the vixen venture to the mouth of the
"set" before the gloom was deepening into night, she would cross the
line of my scent, and either move away from the direction of the
furze-brake or return to her underground chamber. And yet previous
experiences led me to hope that, if certain atmospherical conditions
should prevail, the scent would probably become so weak that she would
recognise no cause for alarm.

It was the work of a few minutes for me to make couch of grass and twigs
behind a screen of broken furze-branches well in from the grassy
opening. Then, by raising with a prong-shaped stake the grass I had
trodden down, and by thrusting back the bramble-trails and fern-fronds I
had brushed aside, I carefully removed as far as possible all traces of
my visit.

I had scarcely settled down to watch and listen, when the faint snap of
a twig reached my ears, and I saw that the vixen with her cubs had
arrived on the scene. She walked around the enclosure, sniffing now and
again in the grass, while the young foxes frisked and gambolled with
each other, or trotted demurely by her side. She was at first
suspicious, but for some reason she soon gained confidence; then she
squatted in her lair, and surrendered herself, with patient motherhood,
to be the plaything of her healthy, headstrong youngsters.

For more than a half hour I watched the happy family, the little ones
climbing over the mother's back, and licking or biting her ears, her
pads, her brush, or racing over the grassy plot, frolicking with each
other till some little temper was aroused and play degenerated into a
fight. In general, they behaved like wild children without a thought of
care, yet they never went beyond the grass-fringe into the thicket, and
to each low note of warning or encouragement from their dam they gave
immediate attention. Sometimes the vixen bounded gaily about the edge of
the gorse, stooping again and again to snap with pretended rage at one
or another of her offspring. But for most of the time she remained in
her lair, listening intently for the slightest sound of danger, and
guarding the only approach through the bushes.

I longed to discover what she would have done had I suddenly come upon
her and cut off her retreat, but I dared not move for fear of raising
alarm. It is more than likely that, finding me in the path, she,
snarling and hissing, would have dashed without hesitation into any part
of the furze-brake, and her young would have followed with desperate
haste and vanished at her heels within the shadows.

By-and-by she led her little ones back through the run-way, and when, a
few minutes afterwards, I stole to the outer edge of the thicket, I saw
the merry family stooping in a row beside the rill, and lapping the
cool, delicious water, which refreshed them after their rough-and-tumble
sport. From the rill they wandered off into the gloom beneath the
beech-trees, and I, satisfied with having added to my knowledge of the
life of the woods, returned homewards in the light of the rising moon.



II.

THE CRAG OF VORTIGERN.


One of the chief difficulties with which the naturalist has to contend
while watching at night is the frequent invisibility of wild creatures
among the shadows, even when the full moon is high and unclouded. The
contrasts of light and shade are far more marked by night than by day;
by night everything seems severely white where the moonbeams glance
between the trees, or over the fields, or on the river, and the shadows
are colourless, mysterious, profound; whereas by day variety of tone and
colour may be observed in both light and shade, and every hour new and
unexpected charms are unfolded in bewildering succession.

The wild creatures of the night often seem to be aware of their
invisibility in the gloom, and of the risk they run while crossing open
spaces towards trees and hedgerows where an enemy may lurk awaiting
their approach. A fox is so familiar with his immediate surroundings
that, till his keen senses detect signs of danger, he will roam
unconcernedly hither and thither in the dark woods near his "earth,"
frolicking with his mate, or hunting the rabbits and the mice, or
sportively chasing the wind-blown leaves, as if a hound could never
disturb his peace. The fox knows the shape of each tree and bush, and of
each shadow thrown on the grass; he notes the havoc of the tempest and
the work of the forester. When the wind roars loudly in the branches
overhead, or the raindrops patter ceaselessly on the dead herbage
underfoot, or the mists blot out the vistas of the woods, he seldom
wanders far from home, for at such times Nature plays curious tricks
with sound and scent and sight, and danger steals upon him unawares.

The hunted creatures of the night so dislike the rain, that during a
storm Reynard would have difficulty in obtaining sufficient food; but
down in the river-pools below the wood, fearless Lutra, unaffected by
the inclement weather, swims with her cubs from bank to bank, and learns
that frogs and fish are as numerous in the time of tempest as when the
moon is bright and the air is warm and still.

Since my earliest years of friendship with Ianto the fisherman and
Philip the poacher, I have regarded night watching in the woods or by
the riverside as a fascinating sport, in which my knowledge of Nature is
put to its severest test. By close, patient observation alone, can the
naturalist learn the habits of the creatures of the night; and if it
should be his good fortune to become the friend of such men as I have
mentioned he would find their help of inestimable value.

To Ianto and Philip I owe a debt of gratitude, of which I become
increasingly conscious with the passing of the years. I could never make
them an adequate return for their kindness; but I am solaced by my
recollection that I was able to comfort such staunch old friends when
they were passing into the darkness of death--haply to find, beyond,
some fair dawn brighter than any we had together seen from the hills
around my home. Often, as I write, I see them sitting in the evening
sunlight of my little room; often, in my garden, I see them walking up
the path attended by my dogs that now are dead; often, in the river
valley, whether I wander by night or by day, I see them at my side.

Ianto and Philip were always eager to help me by every means in their
power, but Philip, because of the risk to my health, would never invite
me to accompany him when the night was cold and stormy. One afternoon,
as Ianto and I were returning home from the riverside, the old fisherman
remarked: "I met Philip last night, sir, and he wants you and me to come
along with him for a ramble to the woods above the Crag. He's got
something to show you; I think it's an old earth-pig that lives in the
rocks. What do you say to joining me by the church as soon as you've had
something to eat? Then we'll go together as far as the bridge, but I'll
leave you there, for I've got a little job on hand that'll keep me till
sundown, I think. You'll find Philip at the 'castell' (prehistoric
earth-work) above the Crag, and I'll wade the river and be with you
again sometime 'between the lights.' Keep to cover, or to the hedges and
the lanes, and look about you well, most of all afore you cross a gap,
and when you're going out of cover or into it. Nobody must have a chance
of following you to-night to the Crag; so, if you meet a farm labourer
sudden-like, make off to the furze by the river farm, and double back
through the woods. You'll get to Philip early enough. He's going to net
the river after we leave him. It's a game I don't care much for--maybe
because I've given it up myself--but I've promised to do something
aforehand, that, if Philip didn't want you particular, he'd be bound to
do hisself. That's why I'm to leave you at the bridge."

I was tired after a day's hard fishing, but I readily fell in with the
arrangements my two old friends had made. On the way to the bridge,
Ianto gave me further instructions. "If, when you're nigh the Crag, sir,
you happen to come across a farm servant, or even if you think, from
seeing a _corgi_ (sheep-dog), that a farm servant is near, get right
away, and, as soon as you're sure nobody knows where you are, give that
signal I taught you--four quick barks of a terrier with a howl at the
end of 'em. Philip'll understand. But if everything goes well till you
get to the Crag, make that other signal--the noise of young wood-owls
waking up for the night--and Philip's sure to answer with a hoot. Then
let him come up to you; but, mind, don't you go to him."

A little mystified by Ianto's last injunction, I crossed the bridge,
passed through a succession of grassy lanes that for years had fallen
into disuse, picked my footsteps cautiously through the woods, and
arrived without adventure at the top of the Crag.

Getting down into the oak-scrub, I stood within the deep shadows at the
base of the great rock, and gave the signal--a harsh, unmusical cry,
such as a hungry young owl would utter at that time of the evening.

The cry had scarcely gone forth, when I was startled by a voice from
some hollow quite close to my side: "I'm Philip. Don't move--don't
speak. A man's watching you from the blackthorns at the top of the wood.
He hasn't seen me. Don't look his way, but walk along the path below,
and when you reach the end of the wood turn up and hide in the
cross-hedges, so that you can watch him if he comes out anywhere in the
open. And, mind, don't let him see you then. If he goes back to the
farm, give the signal again; or, if I give two hoots, one about ten
seconds after the other, come to me, but don't pass this place. The
fellow isn't of much account, but we must get rid of him before I can
stir. He's kept me here for the last half-hour."

Philip ceased speaking, and I walked carelessly down the wood, pausing
here and there to peep through a patch of undergrowth and to satisfy
myself that the man at the top of the wood had not moved. When outside
the wood, I turned rapidly up the hill and found an excellent hiding
place among some brambles on a thick hedge. From this spot I could
command a view of the meadows above the wood, and could easily retreat
unseen if the farm labourer happened to come towards me.

I watched patiently for twenty minutes or so, then heard Philip's
welcome signal from a fir-spinney on the far side of the Crag, and
hastened to his side. In reply to my question as to what had become of
the man who had watched from the blackthorn thicket, he pointed to the
opposite hillside, where a dim figure could be seen ascending the
ploughland in the direction of a distant farmstead. "I expect to be able
to show you a badger to-night," he said, "but of course I'm not sure
about it. A badger's comings and goings are as uncertain as the weather.
But first we'll climb further up the hill. You were asking me about the
leaping places of the hares: I know of one of these leaping places, and
I think I know of two hares that use them and have lately 'kittled' in
snug little 'forms' not far away. We must hurry, else the does will have
left the leverets and gone to feed in the clover. You go first. Wait for
me in the furze by the pond on the very top of the hill."

When Philip had rejoined me on the hill-top, he rapidly led the way to
the fringe of the covert, where he pointed to a low hedge-bank between
the gorse and a peat-field partly covered with water. "Hide in the hedge
about ten yards from this spot," he said, "so that you can see on
either side of the bank, then watch the path on this side." With a smile
he added: "This isn't a bad locality for a fern-owl. So, if you happen
to hear the rattle of that bird, you'll know the hare has started from
her 'form.'" Then, turning quickly into the furze and taking a bypath
through the thickest part of the tangle, Philip left me, and, soon
afterwards, I moved to my allotted hiding place.

Before I had waited long, the cry of the fern-owl reached me with
astonishing clearness from an adjoining field. Presently, I saw a hare
emerge from the gorse and come along the path towards me. At the exact
spot indicated by the poacher, she paused, and then with a single bound
cleared the wide space between herself and the hedge. With another bound
she landed on the marsh beyond, where she splattered away through the
shallow water till a dry reed-bed was reached on a slight elevation in
the marsh. There she was lost to view; the rank herbage screened her
further line of flight.

A minute afterwards, the fern owl's rattle once more broke on the quiet
evening, now from a few fields away to my right. For some time, I
closely watched the open space around the hedge-bank, but no animal
moved on the path. Suddenly, however, I thought I detected a slight
movement in a bracken frond beside the furze. It was not repeated, and I
had concluded that it signified nothing, when, to my amazement, I caught
sight of a second hare squatting in the middle of the path near the
bracken. How she came there I was unable to understand; for some time my
eyes had been directed towards the spot, and certainly I had not seen
her leave the ferns. She seemed to have risen from the earth--something
intangible that had instantly assumed the shape of a living creature.
She took a few strides towards my hiding place, but, exactly where the
first hare had leaped, she turned sharply at right angles to the path,
and with a long, easy bound sprang to the top of the hedge-bank; then
with another bound she flung herself into the marshy field. Making
straight for the reed-bed, she, too, was soon out of sight.

All that thus happened appeared to be the outcome of long experience;
the adoption by the hares of a more perfect plan to mislead a single
enemy pursuing by scent could hardly be conceived. A pack of hounds,
"checking" on the path, would in all probability have "cast" around,
and, sooner or later, would have struck the line afresh in the marshy
field, but a fox or a polecat would surely have been baffled, either at
the leaping places or where the hares had crossed through the shallow
water.

Man's intelligence, united with the intelligence, the eagerness, the
pace, the endurance, and the marvellous powers of scent possessed by a
score of hounds, and then pitted against a single creature fleeing for
its life, should well nigh inevitably attain its end. Nature has not yet
taught her weaklings how to match that powerful combination. And so a
naturalist, in studying the artifices adopted by hunted animals, should
be interested chiefly as to how such artifices would succeed against
pursuers unassisted by human intelligence. I am inclined to believe that
even a pack of well-trained harriers would have been unable to follow
the doe-hares I have referred to, unless the scent lay unusually well on
the surface of the marsh.

I stayed in the covert awhile, but when the call came for me to rejoin
Philip I hastened to the field in which he was waiting. I told him what
I had seen, and, together, we paid a visit to the doe-hares' "forms."
One of the "forms" lay in a clump of fern and brambles near the corner
of a fallow, the other on a slight elevation where a hedger had thrown
some "trash" beside a ditch in a field of unripe wheat.

While we stood in the wheat-field, Philip remarked: "We mustn't stay
long before going back to the Crag; but I'll call the doe I sent you
from this 'form,' and perhaps you'll see one of her tricks to mislead a
fox as she returns home. She's very careful of her young till they're
about a fortnight old, though soon afterwards she lets them 'fend' for
themselves. We'll hide in the ditch, and I'll imitate a leveret's cry.
But I mustn't imitate it so that she may think her little one is hurt,
else she's as likely as not to come with a rush, and you won't see how
she'd act under ordinary circumstances."

When we were comfortably settled in the fern, the poacher twice uttered
a feeble, wailing cry, and, after being silent for some minutes,
repeated the quavering call. Then, after a long interval, he again,
though in a much lower tone, repeated the cry. No answering cry was
heard, but suddenly, as she had appeared on the path by the furze, the
doe-hare came in sight at the edge of the ditch a little distance away.
She approached for several yards, then disappeared, with two or three
long, graceful bounds, into the corn that waved about her as she leaped.
She appeared once more, and squatted in the ditch on the other side of
the field; hence she jumped high into the air, and alighted on the
hedge; then, by a longer bound than any I had previously seen, she
gained a spot well out into the field, and raced along, till, directly
opposite us, she yet again leaped into the hedge, and from the hedge
into the wheat-field, where she immediately lay down with her little
ones in the "form."

Ianto, Philip, and I at last settled quietly to watch for the badger's
visit to the clearing. Philip told in a whisper of jokes he had played
on the keeper; Ianto capped these stories with reminiscences of younger
days and nights; and I, though hating bitterly the ruffian loiterers of
the village who subsisted on the spoils of the trap, the snare, and the
net, and were guilty of cowardly acts of revenge when checkmated in the
very game they chose to play, felt a certain sympathy with the two old
men by my side, who, as I was convinced, had fairly and squarely entered
into the game, and taken their few reverses without retaliation, only
becoming afterwards keener than ever to avoid all interference.

In the height of my enjoyment of an unusually good story, Philip, with a
slight movement, drew my attention to a faint, crackling noise coming
from the margin of the glade, where moonlight and shadow lay in sharp
contrast at the foot of the trees; he then whispered that the old badger
was standing there. Ianto almost simultaneously drew my attention
thither, but all that I could see at the spot indicated were small,
flickering patches of light and shadow.

I quietly drew close to Philip, and murmured in his ear: "Are you sure
it's the badger?" He nodded; and I continued, "I see a movement in the
leaves, but nothing else." The old man turned his head slightly, and
replied, "What you see is the badger scratching his neck against a tree;
the ticks are evidently tickling him." And he chuckled as he recognised
his unintentional pun.

For some minutes I could hardly believe he was right; then, slowly, I
recognised the shape of the badger's head, and what I had taken to be
flickering lights and shadows on the leaves changed to the black and
white markings of the creature's face. I had never before seen a badger
under similar conditions; and I had often wondered what purpose those
boldly contrasted markings could serve. Now, as their purpose was
revealed, I was startled by the manifestation of Nature's protective
mimicry. Even when, a little later, the animal ventured out from the
oak, and stood alert for the least sight or sound or scent of danger,
the moonlight and the shadow blended so harmoniously with the white and
the black of his face markings, and with the soft blue-grey of his body,
that he seemed completely at one with his surroundings, and likely to
elude the most observant enemy. Fully a half hour went by before he
decided to cross the glade. Then, as if irritated by a sense of his own
timidity, he abandoned his excessive caution, and hastened along his
run-way through the clearing; and, as he passed, I noted his queer,
rolling gait, and heard his squeaks and grunts as if he were angrily
complaining to himself of some recent wrong, and vowing vengeance; I
heard, also, the snapping of leaves and twigs beneath his clumsy feet,
and I smelt the sure and certain smell of a badger.

Soon, the fisherman and I turned homewards, and left the poacher to less
innocent sport. As we gained the crest of the hill, the melancholy cry
of the brown owl came to our ears; and Ianto said, "Philip is a big
vagabond--bigger than me, I think. No doubt he's fetched his nets from
the cave beneath the Crag, and is down at the river by now. Promise me,
sir, as you'll never go nigh that cave when he's alive. It's his secret
place, as only him and me knows anything about. He told me to ask you
that favour."

Long after both Ianto and Philip were dead, I happened one day, while in
the woods, to remember the incidents I have just related, and I made my
way to the foot of the Crag. I found no opening in the face of the rock,
except one--apparently a rabbit hole--near a rent in the boulder.
Climbing around the rock, however, I noticed that a large, flat stone
lay in a rather unexpected position on a narrow cleft. I removed it, and
saw that it covered the entrance to a dark hollow. At the same moment I
heard a slight rustle behind me, as some animal darted from the hole I
had previously examined. I scrambled down into the chamber, and there,
when my eyes had become accustomed to the darkness, I saw three tiny
fox-cubs huddled on the damp, mossy ground. As I knelt to stroke them
gently, and my hand rested for a moment on the floor beside them, I
touched the remains of an old, rotting net.

[Illustration: Decoration]


FOOTNOTES:

[1] In "Ianto the Fisherman, and Other Sketches of Country Life."



INDEX.


  Animals, wild, awakening from hibernation, 146
    ----, ----, dislike rain, 428
    ----, ----, feet made tender by hibernation, 154
    ----, ----, habit of sociable, 160
    ----, ----, keeping to old haunts, 298
    ----, ----, selfishness of, 318

  Ant, habits of queen, 156
    ----, habits of yellow, 65, 66

  Autumn, bird-migration in, 12


  Badger, and fox-hounds, 349
    ----, and stoat, 323
    ----, attempt to unearth, 367-373
    ----, fondness of, for honey, 335, 336, 345
    ----, food of, 305, 310-313, 324, 335
    ----, mocked by birds when abroad in daylight, 309
    ----, persecuted for supposed sheep-killing, 353-355
    ----, regular habits in returning to "set" at dawn, 350
    ----, sociability of, 332, 333
    ----, winter habits of, 340, 341

  Badger-cub, and wasps, 337
    ----, caught in trap, 326, 327

  Badger-cubs, at play, 301, 302, 346
    ----, closely confined by parents, 303
  Badger-cubs, dying from distemper, 338
    ----, less nervous than fox-cubs, 321

  Badgers, at play, 359
    ----, carrying bedding to "set," 361
    ----, reconnoitring before young leave "set," 415
    ----, sulking at home if suspicious of danger, 422
    ----, two families inhabiting same "set," 359

  Bank-voles, and kestrel, 147
    ----, colony of, 147

  Basset-hounds, described, 278
    ----, hunting with, 280-282

  Bell, use of, hung round ram's neck, 18

  Blood, significance of fresh-spilt, 75

  Bob, the black-and-tan terrier, 55-62


  Character, differences of, in animals of one species, 64
    ----, human, developed by independence of action, 23

  Collie, sheep-killing, 354-356


  Dabchick, oar-like wings of, 12

  Ducks, wild, at play, 31
    ----, ----, wedge-shaped flight of, 32


  "Earth," fox's artificial, 194


  Fear, how it affects wild creatures, 401

  Field-vole, and carrion crow, 165
    ----, and fox, 164
    ----, and kestrel, 148, 149
    ----, and owl, 144, 145, 157, 167, 175
    ----, and weasel, 137, 140
    ----, avoiding rabbit's "creeps," 160
    ----, enemies of, 164
    ----, food of, 137, 142, 143, 154, 155
    ----, hibernation of, 145, 146, 150
    ----, home of, 149
    ----, limbs of, cramped by winter sleep, 153
    ----, restlessness of, in spring, 157

  Field-voles, described, 162
    ----, harvesting seeds, 141, 142
    ----, plague of, 173, 174
    ----, stung to death by adder, 172

  Fox, see also _Vixen_
    ----, and hedgehog, 382-384
    ----, and moorhen, 400
    ----, and wasp, 229
    ----, avoiding traps, 236
    ----, burying rat, 184
    ----, careful not to sleep on straight trail, 237
    ----, careful not to tread on rustling leaves, 220
    ----, entering "breeding-earth" when close pressed, 191
    ----, finding hen's nest in hedgerow, 182
    ----, fight with rival, 227
    ----, hating jays and magpies, 234
    ----, knowledge of the countryside, 238, 428
    ----, luring rabbits, 403
    ----, methods of hunting rabbits, 180
    ----, robbed of spoil by vixen, 183
    ----, seeks mate, 225
    ----, taught by mate, 227

  Fox-cub, chased by lurcher, 222
    ----, cleanly habits of, 212
    ----, described, 203
    ----, food of, 218, 235
    ----, killing hare, 219
    ----, killing polecat, 215, 216
    ----, stealing chickens, 24

  Fox-cubs and partridges, 211
    ----, at play, 412, 422-426
    ----, eagerness of, for flesh, 209

  Foxes, method of preparing "breeding earth," 232

  Fox-hound, "rioting" on cold scent, 189

  Fox-hunt, 186-193

  Frogs, devoured by otters, 35


  Geese, wild, 31

  Gipsy, seeking hedgehogs, 387-389


  Hare, and renegade cat, 288
    ----, and peregrine falcon, 265, 266
    ----, and poacher, 276, 285, 286
    ----, bravely defends young, 265
    ----, covered with fur at birth, 245
    ----, dislikes entering damp undergrowth, 274
    ----, does not wander far in wet weather, 258
    ----, food of, 248, 249, 251, 260
    ----, "form" described, 245
    ----, killed by lightning, 291
    ----, "leaping places" of, 434
    ----, method of fighting among males, 264
    ----, netted by keeper, 255
    ----, productiveness of, probably influenced by food supply, 276
    ----, recklessness of, in early spring, 263
    ----, running through flock of sheep, 283
    ----, suffers from want of exercise, 259
    ----, suffers less from frost than from rain, 260
    ----, swims across river, 273
    ----, winter habits of, 287
    ----, withholds scent when hard pressed, 283

  Hedgehog, and fox, 382-384
    ----, and moorhens, 400, 401, 403-405
    ----, and owl, 385
    ----, and terrier, 388
    ----, food of, 394, 395, 398, 399
    ----, haunt of, 377
    ----, killing snake, 396, 397
    ----, nest of, 379, 389

  History, vicissitudes of, affecting wild animals, 329

  Hounds, miscellaneous pack, 54, 83

  Hunt, rival, 60
    ----, village, 77, 78, 83

  Huntsman, feeding fox-cubs, 209


  Ianto, the fisherman, 28, 30, 83, 429-442


  Joker, the bob-tailed sheep-dog, 54, 55, 58-60


  Kestrel, attacking field-voles, 148
    ----, preying on bank-voles, 147


  Man, dreaded by wild animals, 13, 40
    ----, senses dulled by immunity from fear, 72

  Mange, attacking carnivorous animals, 212

  March, great changes to wild life in, 263

  Minnows, playing about ledges of rock, 103

  Moorhen, eluding terrier, 61
    ----, killed by otter, 32

  Mouse, singing, 82


  Nature, haunted by Fear, 75
    ----, spirit of restlessness in, 156

  Night, described, 3, 85, 86
    ----, spiritual influence of, 85
    ---- -watching, difficulties of, 427
    ---- - ----, methods of, 410


  Otter, and big trout, 106
    ----, and dabchick, 12
    ----, and "red" fish, 101
    ----, and water-vole, 86-89, 101
    ----, fighting terrier, 42
    ----, food of, 15, 35, 47, 48
    ----, hunting methods of, 20
    ----, inhabiting drain-pipe, 9
    ----, in winter, 15, 47
    ----, migrating to sea, 46
    ----, playing in heavy stream, 33, 34
    ----, position of, when sleeping, 33
    ----, related to weasel, 22
    ---- -cub, capturing salmon, 22
    ----, described, 21
    ----, learns to swim, 9
    ---- -cubs, at play, 11
    ---- -hounds, 36
    ---- -hunt, 37-39, 41-44, 84

  Owl, brown, described, 385, 386
    ----, and fox-cub, 205, 214
    ----, and water-vole, 88, 89
    ----, attacks hedgehog, 385, 386
    ----, preying on field-voles, 157

  Owls, as friends of farmer, 169

  Owls, inhabiting farm buildings, 7


  Philip, the poacher, 429-443

  Polecats, enemies of young hedgehogs, 384


  Rabbit, burrowing in badgers' "set," 314, 315

  Rabbits, clearing tracks, 418

  Rat, brown, attacked by water-voles, 123
    ----, ----, habits of, 64, 110
    ---- -hunting, by riverside, 58-60

  Rats, migration of, 110

  "Redd" of salmon, 99


  Salmon, migration of, 95, 96
    ---- -fishing, experiences in, 26-30
    ---- -pool, seldom visited, 25
    ---- -spawn, destroyers of, 99
    ---- - ----, guarded by salmon, 98, 100, 101

  Sheep-dog, and otter, 17

  Sorrel, as medicinal herb for wild animals, 335

  Sport, winter, 54

  Squirrel, harvesting only ripe seeds and nuts, 105
    ----, inquisitive, 92

  Stoats, following rats in migration, 110

  Stone-fly, 20


  Teal, 31

  Terrier, worsted by otter, 44

  Thrush, autumn song of, 24
    ----, defending young against hedgehog, 405

  Trick, poacher's, to capture hare, 276

  Trout, an old, carnivorous, 95
    ----, habit of, in spring, 19


  Viper, attacked by hedgehog, 397
    ----, enemy of young hedgehogs, 398

  Vixen, dispossessing another of "breeding earth," 201
    ----, life spared by hounds, 219
    ----, routing terrier from "breeding earth," 191

  Vixen-cubs, quicker to learn than fox-cubs, 210

  Voles, see _Bank-voles, Field-voles, Water-voles_


  Water-shrew, described, 93
    ----, food of, 93, 94, 106, 107
    ----, habits of, 93, 94

  Water-vole, and otter, 86-89
    ----, and owl, 89, 118
    ----, and trout, 94, 125
    ----, as singer, 79-82, 89
    ----, constructing nest, 121, 122
    ----, described, 121
    ----, enemies of, 79
    ----, food of, 71, 105, 106
    ----, habits studied, 80
    ----, home of, 68, 69, 103, 109, 110, 117, 126
    ----, love episodes of, 117-120
    ----, methods of fighting, 119, 123
    ----, winter storehouse of, 105, 109, 126

  Water-voles, attacking brown rat, 123

  Weasel, ferocity of, 76
    ----, food for fox-cub, 213

  Weasels, following rats in migration, 110

PRINTED AT THE EDINBURGH PRESS, 9 AND 11 YOUNG STREET





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