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
CREATURES OF THE NIGHT
A BOOK OF WILD LIFE IN WESTERN BRITAIN
BY ALFRED W. REES
AUTHOR OF "IANTO THE FISHERMAN"
LONDON JOHN MURRAY, ALBEMARLE STREET 1905
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."
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]
THE HOLT AMONG THE ALDERS.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 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 larvae 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 vertebrae 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.
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, 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.
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 larvae 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.
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.
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.
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.