The Moonlight Trails


    
    THERE was no wind. The young fir-trees stood up straight and tall and stiffly pointed from the noiseless white levels of the snow. The blue-white moon of midwinter, sharply glittering like an icicle, hung high in a heaven clear as tempered steel.
    The young fir-trees were a second growth, on lands once well cleared, but afterward reclaimed by the forest. They rose in serried phalanxes, with here and there a solitary sentinel of spruce, and here and there a little huddling group of yellow birches. The snow-spaces between formed sparkling alleys, and long, mysterious vistas, expanding frequently into amphitheatres of breathless stillness and flooding radiance. There was no trace of that most ghostly and elusive winter haze which represents the fine breathing of the forest. Rather the air seemed like diamonds held in solution, fluent as by miracle, and not without strange peril to be jarred by sound or motion. [Page 33]
    Yet presently the exaggerated tension of the stillness was broken, and no disaster followed. Two small, white, furry shapes came leaping, one behind the other, down a corridor of radiance, as lightly as if a wind were lifting and drifting them. It was as if some of the gentler spirits of the winter and the wild had seized the magic hour for an incarnation. Leaping at gay leisure, their little bodies would lengthen out to a span of nearly three feet, then round themselves together so that the soft pads of their hinder paws would touch the snows within a couple of inches of the prints from which their fore paws were even then starting to rise. The trail thus drawn down the white aisle consisted of an orderly succession of close triplicate bunches of footprints, like no other trail of the wild folk. From time to time the two harmonious shapes would halt, sit up on their hindquarters, erect their long, attentive ears, glance about warily with their bulging eyes which, in this position, could see behind as well as in front of their narrow heads, wrinkle those cleft nostrils which were cunning to differentiate every scent upon the sharp air, and then browse hastily but with a cheerful relish at the spicy shoots of the young yellow birch. Feeding, however, was plainly not their chief purpose. [Page 34] Always within a few moments they would resume their leaping progress through the white glitter and the hard, black shadows.
    Very soon their path led them out into a wide glade, fenced all about with the serried and formal ranks of the young firs. It seemed as if the blue-white moon stared down into this space with a glassiness of brilliance even more deluding and magical than elsewhere. The snow here was crossed by a tangle of the fine triplicate tracks. Doubling upon themselves in all directions and with obvious irresponsibility, they were evidently the trails of play rather than of business or of flight. Their pattern was the pattern of mirth; and some half dozen wild white rabbits were gaily weaving at it when the two newcomers joined them. Long ears twinkling, round eyes softly shining, they leaped lightly hither and thither, pausing every now and then to touch each other with their sensitive noses, or to pound on the snow with their strong hind legs in mock challenge. It seemed to be the play of care-free children, almost a kind of confused dance, a spontaneous expression of the joy of life. Nevertheless, for all the mirth of it, there was never a moment when two or more of the company were not to be seen sitting erect, with watchful ears and [Page 35] eyes, close in the shadow of the young fir-trees. For the night that was so favourable to the wild rabbits was favourable also to the fox, the wildcat, and the weasel. And death stalks joy forever among the kindred of the wild.
    From time to time one or another of the leaping players would take himself off through the fir-trees, while others continued to arrive along the moonlight trails. This went on till the moon had swung perhaps an hour’s distance on her shining course; then, suddenly it stopped; and just for a fleeting fraction of a breath all the players were motionless, with ears one way. From one or another of the watchers there had come a signal, swift, but to the rabbits instantly clear. No onlooker not of the cleft-nose, long-ear clan could have told in what the signal consisted, or what was its full significance. But whatever it was, in a moment the players were gone, vanishing to the east and west and south, all at once, as if blown off by a mighty breath. Only toward the north side of the open there went not one.
    Nevertheless, the moon, peering down with sharp scrutiny into the unshadowed northern fringes of the open, failed to spy out any lurking shape of fox, wildcat, or weasel. Whatever the form in [Page 36] which fate had approached, it chose not to unmask its menace. Thereafter, for an hour or more, the sparkling glade with its woven devices was empty. Then, throughout the rest of the night, an occasional rabbit would go bounding across it hastily, on affairs intent, and paying no heed to its significant hieroglyphs. And once, just before moon-set, came a large red fox and sniffed about the tangled trails with an interest not untinged with scorn.

II.

    The young fir wood covered a tract of poor land some miles in width, between the outskirts of the ancient forest and a small settlement know as Far Bazziley. In the best house of Far Bazziley – that of the parish clergyman – there lived a boy whom chance, and the capricious destiny of the wild folk, led to take a sudden lively interest in the moonlight trails. Belonging to a different class from the other children of the settlement, he was kept from the district school and tutored at home, with more or less regularity, by his father. His lesson hours, as a rule, fell when the other boys were busy at their chores – and it was the tradition of Far Bazziley that boys were born to work, not play. Thus it happened that the boy had little of the companionship of his fellows. [Page 39]
    Being of too eager and adventurous a spirit to spend much of his leisure in reading, he was thrown upon his own resources, and often found himself hungry for new interests. Animals he loved, and of all the cruelty toward them he was fiercely intolerant. Great or small, it hurt him to see them hurt; and he was not slow to resent and resist that kind of discomfort.
    On more than one occasion he had thrashed other boys of the settlement for torturing, with boyish playfulness and ingenuity, superfluous kittens which thrifty housewives had confided to them to drown. These rough interferences with custom did him no harm, for the boys were forced to respect his prowess, and they knew well enough that kittens had some kind of claim upon civilisation. But when it came to his overbearing championship of snakes, that was another matter, and he made himself unpopular. It was rank tyranny, and disgustingly unnatural, if they could not crush a snake’s back with stones and then lay it out in the sun to die gradually, without the risk of getting a black eye or bloodied nose for it.
    It was in vain the boy explained, on the incontrovertible authority of his father, that the brilliant garter-snake, the dainty little green snake, and [Page 40] indeed all the snakes of the neighbourhood without exception, were as harmless as lady-bugs. A snake was a snake; and in the eyes of Far Bazilley to kill one, with such additions of painfulness in the process as could be devised on the moment, was to obey Biblical injunction. The boy, not unnaturally, was thrust more and more into the lonely eminence of his isolation.
    But one unfailing resource he had always with him, and that was the hired man. His mother might be, as she usually was, too absorbed in household cares to give adequate heed to his searching interrogations. His father might spend huge blanks of his time in interminable drives to outlying parts of his parish. But the hired man was always at hand. It was not always the same hired man. But whether his name were Bill or Tom, Henry or Mart or Chris, the boy found that he could safely look for some uniformity of characteristics, and that he could depend upon each in turn for some teaching that seemed to him more practical and timely than equations or the conjugation of nolo, nolle, nolui.
    At this particular time of the frequenting of the moonlight trails, the boy was unusually fortunate in his hired man. The latter was a boyish, enthusiastic fellow, by the name of Andy, who had [Page 41] an interest in the kind of things which the boy held important. One morning as he was helping Andy with the barn work, the man said:
    “It’s about full moon now, and right handy weather for rabbit-snarin’. What say if we git off to the woods this afternoon, if your father’ll let us, an’ set some snares fer to-night, afore a new snow comes and spiles the tracks?”
    The silent and mysterious winter woods, the shining spaces of the snow marked here and there with strange footprints leading to unknown lairs, the clear glooms, the awe and the sense of the unseen presences — these were what came thronging into the boy’s mind at Andy’s suggestions. All the wonderful possibilities of it! The wild spirit of adventure, the hunting zest of elemental man, stirred in his veins at the idea. Had he seen a rabbit being hurt he would have rushed with indignant pity to the rescue. But the idea of rabbit-snaring, as presented by Andy’s exciting words, fired a side of his imagination so remote from pity as to have no communication with it whatever along the nerves of sympathy or association. He was a vigorous and normal boy, and the jewel of consistency (which is usually paste) was therefore of as little consequence to him as to the most enlightened of his elders. He [Page 42] threw himself with fervour into Andy’s scheme, plied him with exhaustive questions as to the methods of making and setting snares, and spent the rest of the morning, under direction, in whittling with his pocket-knife the required uprights and cross-pieces, and twisting the deadly nooses of fine copper wire. In the prime of the afternoon the two, on their snowshoes, set off gaily for the wood of the young fir-trees.
    Up the long slope of the snowy pasture lots, where the drifted hillocks sparkled crisply, and the black stumps here and there broke through in suggestive, fantastic shapes, and the gray rampikes towered bleakly to the upper air, the two climbed with brisk steps, the dry cold a tonic to nerve and vein. As they entered the fir woods a fine, balsamy tang breathed up to greet them, and the body’s nostrils took eager note of it.
    The first track to meet their eyes were the delicate footprints of the red squirrel, ending abruptly at the foot of a tree somewhat large than its fellows. Then the boy’s sharp eyes marked a trail very slender and precise — small, clear dots one after the other; and he had a feeling of protective tenderness to the maker of that innocent little trail, till Andy told him that he of the dainty [Page 43] footprints was the bloodthirsty and indomitable weasel, the scourge of all the lesser forest kin.
    The weasel’s trail led them presently to another track, consisting of those triplicate clusters of prints, dropped lightly and far apart; and Andy said, “Rabbits! and the weasel’s after them!” The words made a swift picture in the boy’s imagination; and he never forgot the trail of the wild rabbit or the trail of the weasel.
    Crossing these tracks, they soon came to one more beaten, along which it was plain that many rabbits had fared. This they followed, one going on either side of it that it might not be obliterated by the broad trail of their snowshoes; and in a little time it led them out upon the sheltered glade whereon the merrymakers of the night before had held their revels.
    In the unclouded downpour of the sunlight the tracks stood forth with emphasised distinctness, a melting, vapourous violet against the gold-white of the snowy surface; and to the boy’s eyes, though not to the man’s, was revealed a formal and intricate pattern in the tangled markings. To Andy it was incomprehensible; but he saw at once that in the ways leading to the open it would be well to plant the snares. The boy, on the other hand, had a [Page 44] keener insight, and exclaimed at once, “What fun they must have been having!” But his sympathy was asleep. Nothing, at that moment, could wake it up so far as to make him realise the part he was about to play toward those childlike revellers of the moonlight trails.
    Skirting the glade, and stepping carefully over the trails, they proceeded to set their snares at the openings of three of the main alleys; and for a little while the strokes of their hatchets rang out frostily on the still air as they chopped down fragrant armfuls of the young fir branches.
    Each of the three snares was set in this fashion: First they stuck the fir branches into the snow to form a thick green fence on both sides of the trail, with a passage only wide enough for one rabbit at a time to pass through. On each side of this passageway they drove securely a slender stake, notched on the inner face. Over the opening they bent down a springy sapling, securing its top, by a strong cord, to a small wooden cross-piece which was caught and held in the notches of the two uprights. From the under side of this cross-piece was suspended the easy-running noose of copper wire, just ample enough for a rabbit’s head, with the ears lying back, to enter readily. [Page 45]
    By the time the snares were set it was near sundown, and the young fir-trees were casting long, pointed, purple shadows. With the drawing on of evening the boy felt stirrings of a wild, predatory instinct. His skin tingled with a still excitement which he did not understand, and he went with a fierce yet furtive wariness, peering into the shadows as if for prey. As he and Andy emerged from the woods, and strode silently down the desolate slopes of the pasture lots, he could think of nothing but his return on the morrow to see what prizes had fallen to his snares. His tenderness of heart, his enlightened sympathy with the four-footed kindred, much of his civilisation, in fact, had vanished for the moment, burnt out in the flame of an instinct handed down to him from his primeval ancestors.

III.

    That night the moon rose over the young fir woods, blue-white and glittering as on the night before. The air was of the same biting stillness and vitreous transparency. The magic of it stirred up the same merry madness in the veins of the wild rabbits, and set them to aimless gambolling instead of their usual cautious browsing in the thickets of yellow birch. One by one and two by [Page 46] two the white shapes came drifting down the shadowed alleys and moonlight trails of the fir wood toward the bright glade which they seemed to have adopted, for the time, as their playground. The lanes and ways were many that gave entrance to the glade; and presently some half dozen rabbits came bounding, from different directions, across the radiant open. But on the instant they stopped and sat straight up on their haunches, ears erect, struck with consternation.
    There at the mouth of one of the alleys a white form jerked high into the air. It hung, silently struggling, whirling round and round, and at the same time swaying up and down with the bending of the sapling-top from which it swung. The startled spectators had no comprehension of the sight, no signal-code to express the kind of peril it portended, and how to flee from it. They sat gazing in terror. Then, at the next entrance, there shot up into the brilliant air another like horror; and at the next, in the same breath, another. The three hung kicking in a hideous silence.
    The spell was broken. The spectators, trembling under the imminence of a doom which they could not understand, vanished with long bounds by the opposite side of the glade. All was still again [Page 47] under the blue-white, wizard scrutiny of the moon but those three kicking shapes. And these, too, in a few minutes hung motionless as the fir-trees and the snow. As the glassy cold took hold upon them they slowly stiffened.
    About an hour later a big red fox came trotting into the glade. The hanging shapes caught his eye at once. He knew all about snares, being an old fox, for years at odds with the settlement of Far Bazziley. Casting a sharp glance about, he trotted over to the nearest snare and sniffed up desirously toward the white rabbit dangling above him. It was beyond his reach, and one unavailing spring convinced him of the fact. The second hung equally remote. But with the third, he was more fortunate. The sapling was slender, and drooped its burden closer to the snow. With an easy leap the fox seized the dangling body, dragged it down, gnawed off its head to release the noose, and bore away the spoils in triumph, conscious of having scored against his human rivals in the hunt.
    Late in the morning, when the sun was pale in a sky that threatened snowfall, the boy and Andy came, thrilling with anticipation, to see what the snares had captured. At the sight of the first [Page 48] victim, the stiff, furry body hanging in the air from the bowed top of the sapling, the boy’s nerves tingled with a novel and fierce sense of triumph. His heart leapt, his eyes flamed, and he sprang forward, with a little cry, as a young beast might in sighting its first quarry. His companion, long used to the hunter’s enthusiasm, was less excited. He went to the next snare, removed the victim, reset the catch and noose; while the boy, slinging his trophy over his shoulder with the air of a veteran (as he had seen it done in pictures), hastened on to the third to see why it had failed him. To his untrained eye the trampled snow, the torn head, and the blood spots told the story in part; and as he looked a sense of the tragedy of it began to stir achingly at the roots of his heart. “A fox,” remarked Andy, in a matter-of-fact voice, coming up at the moment, with his prize hanging rigidly, by the pathetically babyish hind legs, from the grasp of his mittened fist.
    The boy felt a spasm of indignation against the fox. Then, turning his gaze upon Andy’s capture, he was struck by the cruel marks of the noose under its jaws and behind its ears. He saw, for the first time, the half-open mouth, the small, jutting tongue, the expression of the dead eyes; and his [Page 51] face changed. He removed his own trophy from his shoulder and stared at it for some moments. Then two big tears rolled over his ruddy cheeks. With an angry exclamation he flung the dead rabbit down on the snow and ran to break up the snares.
    “We won’t snare any more rabbits, Andy,” he cried, averting his face, and starting homeward with a dogged set to his shoulders. Andy, picking up the rejected spoils with a grin that was half bewilderment, half indulgent comprehension, philosophically followed the penitent. [Page 52]