Read CHAPTER XI - THE STORM IN THE NIGHT of Wood Magic A Fable , free online book, by Richard Jefferies, on

When the fox, after humbling himself in the dust, was rudely dismissed by King Kapchack, he was so mortified, that as he slunk away his brush touched the ground, and the tip of his nostrils turned almost white.  That he, whose ancestors had once held regal dignity, should thus be contemned by one who in comparison was a mere upstart, and that, too, after doing him a service by means of the gnat, and after bowing himself, as it were, to the ground, hurt him to his soul.  He went away through the fern and the bushes to his lair in the long grass which grew in a corner of the copse, and having curled himself up, tried to forget the insult in slumber.

But he could not shut his eyes, and after a while he went off again down the hedgerow to another place where he sometimes stayed, under thick brambles on a broad mound.  But he could not rest there, nor in the osier bed, nor in the furze, but he kept moving from place to place all day, contrary to his custom, and not without running great danger.  The sting lingered in him, and the more so because he felt that it was true — he knew himself that he had not shown any ability lately.  Slowly the long day passed, the shadows lengthened and it became night.  Still restlessly and aimlessly wandering he went about the fields noticing nothing, but miserable to the last degree.  The owl flew by on his errand to King Kapchack; the bats fluttered overhead; the wind blew and the trees creaked; but the fox neither saw, nor heard, nor thought of anything except his own degradation.  He had been cast forth as unworthy — even the very mouse had received some instructions, but he, the descendant of illustrious ancestors, was pointedly told that the wit for which they had been famous did not exist in him.

As the night drew on, the wind rose higher, the clouds became thicker and darker, the branches crashed to the earth, the tempest rushed along bearing everything before it.  The owls, alarmed for their safety, hid in the hollow trees, or retired to their barns; the bats retreated into the crevices of the tiles; nothing was abroad but the wildfowl, whose cries occasionally resounded overhead.  Now and then, the fall of some branch into a hawthorn bush frightened the sleeping thrushes and blackbirds, who flew forth into the darkness, not knowing whither they were going.  The rabbits crouched on the sheltered side of the hedges, and then went back into their holes.  The larks cowered closer to the earth.

Ruin and destruction raged around:  in Choo Hoo’s camp the ash poles beat against each other, oaks were rent, and his vast army knew no sleep that night.  Whirled about by the fearful gusts, the dying hawk, suspended from the trap, no longer fluttered, but swung unconscious to and fro.  The feathers of the murdered thrush were scattered afar, and the leaves torn from the boughs went sweeping after them.  Alone in the scene the fox raced along, something of the wildness of the night entered into him; he tried, by putting forth his utmost speed, to throw off the sense of ignominy.

In the darkness, and in his distress of mind, he neither knew or cared whither he was going.  He passed the shore of the Long Pond, and heard the waves dashing on the stones, and felt the spray driven far up on the sward.  He passed the miserable hawk.  He ran like the wind by the camp of Choo Hoo, and heard the hum of the army, unable to sleep.  Weary at last, he sought for some spot into which to drag his limbs, and crept along a mound which, although he did not recognise it in his stupefied state of mind, was really not far from where he had started.  As he was creeping along, he fancied he heard a voice which came from the ground beneath his feet; it sounded so strange in the darkness that he started and stayed to listen.

He heard it again, but though he thought he knew the voices of all the residents in the field, he could not tell who it was, nor whence it came.  But after a time he found that it proceeded from the lower part or butt of an elm-tree.  This tree was very large, and seemed perfectly sound, but it seems there was a crack in it, whether caused by lightning or not he did not know, which did not show at ordinary times.  But when the wind blew extremely strong as it did to-night, the tree leant over before the blast, and thus opened the crack.  The fox, listening at the crack, heard the voice lamenting the long years that had passed, the darkness and the dreary time, and imploring every species of vengeance upon the head of the cruel King Kapchack.

After a while the fox came to the conclusion that this must be the toad who, very many years ago, for some offence committed against the state, was imprisoned by Kapchack’s orders in the butt of an elm, there to remain till the end of the world.  Curious to know why the toad had been punished in this terrible manner, the fox resolved to speak to the prisoner, from whom perhaps he might learn something to Kapchack’s disadvantage.  Waiting, therefore, till the crack opened as the gust came, the fox spoke into it, and the toad, only too delighted to get some one to talk to at last, replied directly.

But the chink was so small that his voice was scarcely audible; the chink, too, only opened for a second or two during the savage puffs of the gale, and then closed again, so that connected conversation was not possible, and all the fox heard was that the toad had some very important things to say.  Anxious to learn these things, the fox tried his hardest to discover some way of communicating with the toad, and at last he hit upon a plan.  He looked round till he found a little bit of flint, which he picked up, and when the elm bent over before the gale, and the chink opened, he pushed the splinter of flint into the crevice.

Then he found another piece of flint just a trifle larger, and, watching his opportunity, thrust it in.  This he did three or four times, each time putting in a larger wedge, till there was a crack sufficiently open to allow him to talk to the toad easily.  The toad said that this was the first time he had spoken to anybody since his grandson, who lived in the rhubarb patch, came to exchange a word with him before the butt of the tree grew quite round him.

But though the fox plied him with questions, and persuaded him in every way, he would not reveal the reason why he was imprisoned, except that he had unluckily seen Kapchack do something.  He dared not say what it was, because if he did he had no doubt he would be immediately put to death, and although life in the tree was no more than a living death, still it was life, and he had this consolation, that through being debarred from all exercise and work, and compelled to exist without eating or drinking, notwithstanding the time passed and the years went by, still he did not grow any older.  He was as young now as when he was first put into the dungeon, and if he could once get out, he felt that he should soon recover the use of his limbs, and should crawl about and enjoy himself when his grandson who lived in the rhubarb patch, and who was already very old and warty, was dead.

Indeed by being thus shut up he should survive every other toad, and he hoped some day to get out, because although he had been condemned to imprisonment till the end of the world, that was only Kapchack’s vainglorious way of pronouncing sentence, as if his (Kapchack’s) authority was going to endure for ever, which was quite contrary to history and the teachings of philosophy.  So far from that he did not believe himself that Kapchack’s dynasty was fated to endure very long, for since he had been a prisoner immured in the earth, he had heard many strange things whispered along underground, and among them a saying about Kapchack.  Besides which he knew that the elm-tree could not exist for ever; already there was a crack in it, which in time would split farther up; the elm had reached its prime, and was beginning to decay within.  By-and-by it would be blown over, and then the farmer would have the butt grubbed up, and split for firewood, and he should escape.  It was true it might be many years hence, perhaps a century, but that did not matter in the least — time was nothing to him now — and he knew he should emerge as young as when he went in.

This was the reason why he so carefully kept the secret of what he had seen, so as to preserve his life; nor could the fox by any persuasion prevail upon him to disclose the matter.

“But at least,” said the fox, “at least tell me the saying you have heard underground about King Kapchack.”

“I am afraid to do so,” said the toad; “for having already suffered so much I dread the infliction of further misery.”

“If you will tell me,” said the fox, “I will do my very best to get you out.  I will keep putting in wedges till the tree splits wide open, so that you may crawl up the chink.”

“Will you,” said the toad, excited at the hope of liberty, “will you really do that?”

“Yes, that I will,” said the fox; “wait an instant, and I will fetch another flint.”

So he brought another flint which split the tree so much that the toad felt the fresh air come down to him.  “And you really will do it?” he said.

“Yes,” repeated the fox, “I will certainly let you out.”

“Then,” said the toad, “the saying I have heard underground is this:  ’When the hare hunts the hunter in the dead day, the hours of King Kapchack are numbered’.  It is a curious and a difficult saying, for I cannot myself understand how the day could be dead, nor how the hare could chase the sportsman; but you, who have so high a reputation for sagacity, can no doubt in time interpret it.  Now put in some more wedges and help me out.”

But the fox, having learnt all that the toad could tell him, went away, and finding the osiers, curled himself up to sleep.

The same night, the weasel, having had a very pleasant nap upon his divan in the elm in the squirrel’s copse, woke up soon after midnight, and started for the farm, in order to enjoy the pleasure of seeing the rat in the gin, which he had instructed Bevis how to set up.  Had it not been for this he would not have faced so terrible a tempest, but to see the rat in torture he would have gone through anything.  As he crept along a furrow, not far outside the copse, choosing that route that he might be somewhat sheltered in the hollow from the wind, he saw a wire which a poacher had set up, and stayed to consider how he could turn it to his advantage.

“There is Ulu, the hare,” he said to himself, “who lives in the wheat-field; I had her son, he was very sweet and tender, and also her nephew, who was not so juicy, and I have noticed that she has got very plump of late.  She is up on the hill to-night I have no doubt, notwithstanding the tempest, dancing and flirting with her disreputable companions, for vice has such an attraction for some minds that they cannot forego its pleasures, even at the utmost personal inconvenience.  Such revels, at such a time of tempest, while the wrath of heaven is wreaked upon the trees, are nothing short of sacrilege, and I for one have always set my mind against irreverence.  I shall do the world a service if I rid it of such an abandoned creature.”  So he called to a moor-hen, who was flying over from the Long Pond at a tremendous pace, being carried before the wind, and the moor-hen, not without a great deal of trouble, managed to wheel round (she was never very clever with her wings) to receive his commands, for she did not dare to pass over or slight so high a personage.

“Moor-hen,” said the weasel, “do you go direct to the hills and find Ulu, the hare, and tell her that little Sir Bevis, of whom she is so fond, is lost in the copse, and that he is crying bitterly because of the darkness and the wind, and what will become of him I do not know.  I have done my very best to show him the way home, but he cherishes an unfortunate prejudice against me, and will not listen to what I say.  Therefore if the hare does not come immediately and show him the way I greatly fear that he will be knocked down by the branches, or cry his dear pretty darling heart out; and tell her that he is at this minute close to the birches.  Go quickly, Moor-hen.”

“I will, my lord,” said the moor-hen, and away she flew.

Then the weasel proceeded on his way, and shortly afterwards arrived at the farm.  As he came quietly down from the rick-yard, he said to himself:  “I will keep a good way from the wall, as it is so dark, and I do not know the exact place where Bevis has put the trap.  Besides, it is just possible that the rat may not yet have passed that way, for he does most of his business in the early morning, and it is not yet dawn.”

So he crossed over to the wood-pile and listened carefully, but could hear no groans, as he had expected; but, on consideration, he put this down to the wind, which he observed blew the sound away from him.  He then slipped over to the grass by the cart-house wall, intending to listen at the mouth of the drain to hear if the rat was within, and then if that was not the case, to go on along towards the wall of the pig-sty, for he began to think the rat must have been stunned by the trap, and so could not squeak.

If that was the case, he thought he would just bite off the end of the rat’s tail, in revenge for the terrible meal he had once been obliged to make upon his own, and also to wake up the rat to the misery of his position.  But just as he approached the mouth of the drain, sniffing and listening with the utmost caution, it happened that a drop of rain fell through a chink in the top of Pan’s tub, and woke him from his slumber.  Pan shook himself and turned round, and the weasel, hearing the disturbance, dreaded lest Pan was loose, and had caught scent of him.  He darted forwards to get into the drain, when the trap, which the bailiff had so carefully removed from where Bevis had set it, snapped him up in a second.  The shock and the pain made him faint; he turned over and lay still.

About the same time the moor-hen, borne swiftly along by the wind on her way to the river, reached the hills, and seeing the hare, flew low down and delivered the weasel’s message as well as she could.  The hare was dreadfully alarmed about Sir Bevis, and anxious to relieve him from his fright in the dark copse, raced down the hill, and over the fields as fast as she could go, making towards that part of the copse where the birches stood, as the weasel had directed, knowing that in running there she would find her neck in a noose.

It happened just as he had foreseen.  She came along as fast as the wind, and could already see the copse like a thicker darkness before her, when the loop of the wire drew up around her neck, and over she rolled in the furrow.

Now the weasel had hoped that the wire would not hang her at once.  He intended to have come back from the farm, and from taunting the rat in the trap, in time to put his teeth into her veins, before, in her convulsive efforts to get free, she tightened the noose and died.

And this, too, happened exactly as the weasel had intended, but in a different manner, and with a different result; for it had chanced that the wind, in the course of its ravages among the trees, snapped off a twig of ash, which rolling over and over before the blast along the sward, came against the stick which upheld the wire, and the end of the twig where it had broken from the tree lodged in the loop.  Thus, when Ulu kicked, and struggled, and screamed, in her fear, the noose indeed drew up tight and half-strangled her, but not quite, because the little piece of wood prevented it.  But, exhausted with pain and terror, and partially choked, the poor hare at last could do nothing else but crouch down in the furrow, where the rain fell on and soaked her warm coat of fur.  For as the dawn came on the wind sank, and the rain fell.

In this unhappy plight she passed the rest of the night, dreading every moment lest the fox should come along (as she could not run away), and not less afraid of the daybreak, when some one would certainly find her.

After many weary hours, the bailiff coming to his work in the morning with a sack over his shoulders to keep out the rain, saw something on the grass, and pounced upon the wretched hare.  Already his great thumb was against the back of her neck — already she was thrown across his knee — already she felt her sinews stretch, as he proceeded to break her neck, regardless of her shrieks — when suddenly it occurred to him how delighted Bevis would be with a living hare.  For the bailiff was very fond of Bevis, and would have done anything to please him.  So he took the hare in his arms, and carried her down to the farm.

When Bevis got up and came to breakfast, the bailiff came in and brought him the hare, expecting that he would be highly pleased.  But Bevis in an instant recognised his friend who had shown him his way in the cowslips, and flew into a rage, and beat the bailiff with his fist for his cruelty.  Nothing would satisfy him but he must let the hare go free before he touched his breakfast.  He would not sit down, he stamped and made such a to-do that at last they let him have his own way.

He would not even allow the bailiff to carry the hare for him; he took her in his arms and went with her up the footpath into the field.  He would not even permit them to follow him.  Now, the hare knew him very well but could not speak when any one else was near, for it is very well known to be a law among hares and birds, and such creatures, that they can only talk to one human being, and are dumb when more than one are present.  But when Bevis had taken her out into the footpath, and set her down, and stroked her back, and her long ears, black at the tip, and had told her to go straight up the footpath, and not through the long grass, because it was wet with the rain, the hare told him how she came in the wire through the wicked weasel telling her that he was lost in the copse.

“I was not lost,” said Bevis; “I went to bed, and saw the owl go by.  The weasel told another of his stories — now, I remember, he told me to set the trap for the rat.”

“Did he?” said the hare; “then you may depend it is some more of his dreadful wickedness; there will be no peace in the world while he is allowed to go roaming about.”

“No,” said Bevis, “that there will not:  but as sure as my papa’s gun, which is the best gun in the country, as sure as my papa’s gun I will kill him the next time I see him.  I will not listen to the squirrel, I will cut the weasel’s tree down, and chop off his head.”

“I hope you will, dear,” said the hare.  “But now I must be gone, for I can hear Pan barking, and no doubt he can smell me; besides which, it is broad daylight, and I must go and hide; good-bye, my dear Sir Bevis.”  And away went the hare up the footpath till Bevis lost sight of her through the gateway.

Then he went to his breakfast, and directly afterwards, putting on his greatcoat, for it still rained a little, he went up to the wall by the pig-sty expecting to find the rat in the trap.  But the trap was gone.

“There now,” said he, falling into another rage, twice already that morning; “I do believe that stupid bailiff has moved it,” and so the bailiff trying to please him fell twice into disgrace in an hour.

Looking about to see where the bailiff had put the trap, he remembered what the weasel had told him, and going to the cart-house wall by the drain, found the trap and the weasel in it:  “Oh! you false and treacherous creature!” said Bevis, picking up a stone, “now I will smash you into seventy thousand little pieces,” and he flung the stone with all his might, but being in too much of a hurry (as the snail had warned him) it missed the mark, and only knocked a bit of mortar out of the wall.  He looked round for a bigger one, so that he might crush the wretch this time, when the weasel feebly lifted his head, and said:  “Bevis!  Bevis!  It is not generous of you to bear such malice towards me now I am dying; you should rather — ”

“Hold your tongue, horrid thing,” said Bevis; “I will not listen to anything you have to say.  Here is a brick, this will do, first-rate, to pound you with, and now I think of it, I will come a little nearer so as to make quite sure.”

“Oh, Bevis!” said the weasel with a gasp, “I shall be dead in a minute,” and Bevis saw his head fall back.

“Tell the hare I repented,” said the weasel.  “I have been very wicked, Bevis — oh! — but I shall never, never do it any more — oh! — ”

“Are you dead?” said Bevis.  “Are you quite dead?” putting down the brick, for he could not bear to see anything in such distress, and his rage was over in a minute.

“I am,” said the weasel, “at least I shall be in half-a-minute, for I must be particular to tell the exact truth in this extremity.  Oh! there is one thing I should like to say — ”

“What is it?” said Bevis.

“But if you smash me I can’t,” said the weasel; “and what is the use of smashing me, for all my bones are broken?”

“I will not smash you,” said Bevis, “I will only have you nailed up to the stable door so that everybody may see what a wretch you were.”

“Thank you,” said the weasel, very gratefully, “will you please tell the hare and all of them that if I could only live I would do everything I could to make up to them, for all the wickedness I have committed — oh! — I have not got time to say all I would.  Oh!  Bevis, Bevis!”

“Yes, poor thing,” said Bevis, now quite melted and sorry for the wretched criminal, whose life was ebbing so fast, “what is it you want?  I will be sure to do it.”

“Then, dear Sir Bevis — how kind it is of you to forgive me, dear Sir Bevis; when I am dead do not nail me to the door — only think how terrible that would be — bury me, dear.”

“So I will,” said Bevis; “but perhaps you needn’t die.  Stay a little while, and let us see if you cannot live.”

“Oh, no,” said the weasel, “my time is come.  But when I am dead, dear, please take me out of this cruel trap in which I am so justly caught, as I set it for another; take me out of this cruel trap which has broken my ribs, and lay me flat on the grass, and pull my limbs out straight, so that I may not stiffen all in a heap and crooked.  Then get your spade, my dear Sir Bevis, and dig a hole and bury me, and put a stone on top of me, so that Pan cannot scratch me up — oh! oh! — will you — oh!”

“Yes, indeed I will.  I will dig the hole — I have a capital spade,” said Bevis; “stay a minute.”

But the weasel gave three gasps and fell back quite dead.  Bevis looked at him a little while, and then put his foot on the spring and pressed it down and took the weasel out.  He stroked down his fur where the trap had ruffled it, and rubbed the earth from his poor paws with which he had struggled to get free, and then having chosen a spot close by the wood-pile, where the ground was soft, to dig the hole, he put the weasel down there, and pulled his limbs out straight, and so disposed him for the last sad ceremony.  He then ran to the summer-house, which was not far, and having found the spade came back with it to the wood-pile.  But the weasel was gone.

There was the trap; there was the place he had chosen — all the little twigs and leaves brushed away ready for digging — but no weasel.  He was bewildered, when a robin perched on the top of the wood-pile put his head on one side, and said so softly and sadly:  “Bevis, Bevis, little Sir Bevis, what have you done?” For the weasel was not dead, and was not even very seriously injured; the trap was old, and the spring not very strong, and the teeth did not quite meet.  If the rat, who was fat, had got in, it would have pinched him dreadfully, but the weasel was extremely thin, and so he escaped with a broken rib — the only true thing he had said.

So soon as ever Sir Bevis’s back was turned, the weasel crawled under the wood-pile, just as he had done once before, and from there made his way as quickly as he could up the field sheltered by the aftermath, which had now grown long again.  When Bevis understood that the weasel had only shammed dying, and had really got away, he burst into tears, for he could not bear to be cheated, and then threw his spade at the robin.