"Of course, if you prefer honey to fresh bark," she said disappointedly. To please her Phil nibbled one end of the bough, and found it very bitter. He was thankful when her thoughts were distracted to her young ones, whose coats had to be nicely smoothed before they went to bed. Ere long they were all curled up under the thorny branches of a wild brier. Phil crept in between them, and was soon asleep, while the two old Beavers watched in turn to see that all was well.
The next few weeks were a delightful holiday for Phil. Day after day he roamed the woods with the gentle Beavers, making friends with the Bees and Squirrels, and finding out their haunts.
Sometimes he caught brief glimpses of other creatures, who glanced at him shyly and scampered off. He learnt to keep a sharp look out for the dreaded Wolverene, and was so curious to see him that he almost hoped that he might come. Nature had promised that nothing should harm him, and he would protect the Beavers.
Father Beaver devoted many hours to his young visitor. He told him much about woodcraft, and how Nature protected some of her weakest creatures against their foes by giving them the shape and colour of their surroundings. The little brown twig on the bough before them, he pointed out, was in reality a Caterpillar which Birds would have devoured long since if he had attracted their attention. The small dead leaf among the vines was a gorgeous Butterfly when he unfolded his wings, the under sides of which were a dingy brown.
"You will find this wherever you go," said Father Beaver, "Nature always protects her own."
"How does she protect you and me?" Phil asked him curiously, only half understanding.
"By giving us our wits," said the Beaver simply. "If you don't use them it is not her fault. When you grow up strong, and wise, and fearless, you will be able to protect others as well as yourself.
As for us, it was she who first taught us how to build. But for her we should be at the mercy of the Wolverene all through the winter, when he is fierce with hunger, and very strong. There is the Wild Cat, too. Sometimes we hear her tearing at our roof, and snarling with rage. It is a horrible sound to listen to on a still dark night."
"Why didn't you stay in England? There are no Wild Cats or Wolverenes in the woods at home--only Birds and Rabbits, and harmless creatures such as those."
Father Beaver gnawed a strip of bark from a young birch tree before he answered. "The Wolverene is not our worst enemy," he said slowly. "Beavers were driven from your shores by Man. Yes--" as Phil gave a little start of surprise--"we used to build in many of your streams and rivers; in Wales we were well known, and I have heard that in the time of Hoel-dda, the great Welsh lawgiver, one hundred and twenty pence--then a very large sum--was offered for each Beaver's skin. You see we were much thought of even in those days, though I must say I wish it had been for something else than for our fur. We are still to be found along some of the large rivers of Europe, such as the Rhone and Danube, and in many lakes; but the Rhone Beavers are solitary animals and do not build houses, dwelling instead in burrows, which go far down into the earth."
"Do those hunters you spoke of often come after you, Father Beaver?"
"Yes, my son," said the Beaver sorrowfully, "for our fur is in greater demand than ever. In the winter, which is the 'hunting season,' they do their best to force our houses with heavy weapons, and if we take to the water beneath the ice, and swim to our tunnels in the river side, they sound the ice above the banks with an iron chisel, which tells their practised ears the exact spot where our holes are to be found. Then they dig us out--and that is the end of us."
"I'm _very_ sorry, dear Beaver," Phil whispered, stroking the shining fur that brought such trouble on its possessors. "I'll tell them all when I leave the woods how cruel it is to hunt you, and p'raps they won't any more."
Father Beaver smiled mournfully. "There's always the Wolverene," he said. "His other name is the Glutton. It just exactly suits him, for he can eat more at a sitting than any other creature of his size. How does he look? Something like a small bear, with thick coarse hair of blackish brown. Until he shows his double row of glistening teeth, you would never guess how ferocious he could be.
His muzzle, as far as his eyebrows, and his large paws (they are so large that his trail is sometimes mistaken for that of a bear) are the colour of ebony. His horrible claws are as white as milk, and the natives use them for necklaces. I wish they had them all," he finished with a deep sigh. "I can't help thinking he'll pounce on us some day soon."
But nothing was seen of the Wolverene as time went on, and Father Beaver became quite gay. His coat filled out, and grew more glossy than ever; he would be "a portly old gentleman" before long, Mother Beaver told him; and at this he began to talk of tree-felling, for he did not like the idea of losing his figure.
"There is a time for work and a time for play," said Mother Beaver, looking smilingly at her young ones. "The time for work has not come yet, though it will soon be here. Let them play in the sunshine yet awhile."
TWO ENEMIES OF THE BEAVERS
By Lillian M. Gask
Father Beaver had left his family to its own devices for some time; he had been exploring the winding river, and diving under waterfalls in sheer delight at his own strength. He was full grown now, and fond as he was of his little wife and children, the roaming instinct was strong. The morning he rejoined them he was in great form.
"What have you been doing with yourself?" inquired Mother Beaver, eyeing him suspiciously, when she had told him all her news. The glossy fur at the back of his neck bore marks of recent bites, and there was an ugly tear in one of his ears.
Father Beaver looked at the sky.
"There is a lovely maple tree not far from here," he said, as if he had not heard her question. "I girdled it on my way back just now, and you'll find plenty of syrup oozing from it if you go there to-morrow."
The young Beavers sniffed eagerly, but Mother Beaver was not to be put off.
"You have met the Otter," she cried, her eyes growing very big, "and you've been fighting."
Father Beaver chuckled. "Last summer," he said, turning to Phil, "I was only two years old, and that Otter punished me so severely that but for Mother Beaver there, who came to my rescue in the nick of time, I should have been done for. But now--well, he will never trouble me again!"
Phil looked at him with a new reverence. The Otter, he knew, was a fierce foe to Beavers, with whom he disputed the lordship of the river; that Father Beaver should have conquered him single handed filled him with awe.
"Let us hear all about it!" cried Mother Beaver, coming quite close to him. But he brushed her aside good-humouredly, and spoke of other things.
"The Night Wind says that the frosts will come early this fall," he remarked, "and we are well into the summer now. There is a fine plantation of willows on the river-bank, only waiting for us to fell them. We will get to work at once. I shall be downright glad to begin."
"So shall we all," said Mother Beaver heartily. "Holiday-making is well enough for a while, but if we did not use our teeth on something harder than soft bark and lily roots, they would soon grow dull."
"Yours are as bright as the gleam of the moon on the water, my love," said Father Beaver with a glance of admiration; and Mother Beaver gave him an affectionate push, which was as near to a hug as she could go.
When they reached the group of trees that Father Beaver had planned to attack first, other Beavers belonging to the colony were already at work. These nodded kindly to Phil, but were too much absorbed in what they were at to take much notice of him. Mother Beaver was deputed to see what he could do, while the young Beavers were given a first lesson by their proud father.
Choosing a stout young sapling very close to the bank, Mother Beaver gnawed round it with her sharp, chisel-like teeth, taking care to bite most deeply on the side nearest the water, so that it might fall towards the stream and be quickly floated. In a very few moments it toppled over, cut clean through, and Mother Beaver looked round for another.
"We'll try that big one over there," she cried, with an approving glance at her young ones, who were hard at work on some slender willows. Phil hesitated and flushed, for he did not know how to begin. Mother Beaver touched him pityingly with her small forepaw.
"I forgot your teeth were so small and weak, my dear. It's not your fault, so you need not be ashamed. When I have felled the tree, you shall drag it down to the bank. That will be a great help, and leave us free for felling."
The tree took much longer to fell than the sapling had done, for the trunk was nearly as thick as a man's body. Phil was immensely interested to see how Mother Beaver set about her task; he had guessed from the first that she was remarkably clever, but now he was quite sure of it.
First of all she made a deep cut through the bark which circled the trunk as far from the ground as she could conveniently reach. Some three or four inches lower she cut a second ring, and then, slowly and surely, dug out the wood from between, splinter by splinter, with those sharp teeth of hers.
The day wore on, and still she worked. Father Beaver offered to help her; each time he came she sent him back. It was growing dusk; Phil saw that now the trunk of the tree between the cuts went in like a lady's waist. Each time that Mother Beaver drew out a splinter this "waist" became more slender still; a very little further, and the tree would have been cut right through, but Mother Beaver knew when to stop.
"Come away," she cried quickly to Phil; "at the next gust of wind that tree will fall, and only foolish creatures run knowingly into danger. I should be crushed beneath it if I drew out another splinter. Some of our family have already met their deaths that way; they were too impulsive, and did not stop to think."
The Night Wind came singing through the forest, and the branches of the big tree quivered; with a low groan it crashed to earth, and Phil found that it took all his new strength to drag the heavy mass down to the bank.
"I s'pose you'll all take a rest now," he said persuasively, for he was longing to hear about Father Beaver's encounter with the Otter, and thought that he would not mind trying some of that maple syrup himself. But the Beavers were only just getting into their work, as they told him gaily, though he, of course, might take a nap.
They were still at it when he awoke next morning.
"We shall go on until not a tree on this spot is left standing,"
Mother Beaver declared, cheerfully; and he quite believed her.
By the afternoon his arms began to ache, and the Beavers had found him so useful that one of the elders of the colony had remarked that he should have nothing to say against it if he wished to stay with them altogether. Phil thought this very kind of him; but, much as he liked the Beavers, there were many other animals that he wanted to meet. Perhaps Mother Beaver guessed something of this, for she told him pleasantly to go off to the woods.
"You'll work all the better to-morrow," she said; and Father Beaver flapped his tail by way of dismissal.
As neither she nor their father would hear of the young Beavers taking a holiday too, Phil wandered off by himself into the depths of the forest, where the beautiful golden sunlight, which had much ado to force its way through the thick leaves, was making long ladders on the moss. Some small red berries, quite sweet and tasting like strawberry cream, drew him further and further in; a Squirrel threw him a nut and turned aside, as if too lazy to play, and a drowsy Bee mistook his yellow head for honey, much to her own dismay. Phil felt uncommonly drowsy himself, in spite of his long night's rest, and was thinking of taking forty winks when a gentle rustle in the branches made him look up quickly. It was the Wolverene.
For a moment Phil thought that he must be mistaken; surely that benign looking animal, so very like his own brown bear, could not be the Beaver's voracious enemy? He was patting the boughs as a playful kitten might have done, and rolling himself over with surprising ease. His small brown eyes gazed at Phil good-naturedly, as if to read his thoughts.
"I don't look such a desperate character, do I?" he asked complacently. "My wife--I must really introduce you to her--thinks I am quite a fine fellow, and my two young sons adore me. I'll take you home to supper, and you shall see them. They are barely ten days old."
Phil was very curious to see the young Wolverenes, but somehow he did not think it would be fair to the Beavers to be on such friendly terms with an animal that ate them. So he thanked him most politely and said he must be going on.
The Wolverene left off his playful patting of the branches and showed his teeth in an ugly smile.