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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.