A Treason of Nature


    
    THE full moon of October, deep orange in a clear, deep sky, hung large and somewhat distorted just over the wooded hills that rimmed the lake. Through the ancient forest, a mixed growth of cedar, water-ash, black poplar, and maple, with here and there a group of hemlocks on a knoll, the light drained down confusedly, a bewildering chaos of bright patches, lines, and reticulations amid breaths of blackness. On the half-overshadowed cove, which here jutted in from the lake, the mingling of light and darkness wrought an even more elusive mystery than in the wood. For the calm just breathed, as it were, with a fading remembrance of the wind which had blown till sundown over the open lake. The pulse of this breathing whimsically shifted the reflections, and caused the pallid water-lily leaves to uplift and appeal like the glimmering hands of ghosts. The stillness was perfect, save for a ceaseless, faintly rhythmic h-r-r-r-r-r-ing, so light that only the most [Page 181] finely attentive ear, concentrated to the effort, might distinguish it. This was the eternal breathing of the ancient wood. In such silence there was nothing to hint of the thronging, furtive life on every side, playing under the moonlit glamour its uneven game with death. If a twig snapped in the distance, if a sudden rustle somewhere stirred the moss — it might mean love, it might mean the inevitable tragedy.
    Under a tall water-ash some rods back from the shore of the cove, there was a sharp, clacking sound, and a movement which caused a huge blur of lights and shadows to differentiate itself all at once into the form of a gigantic bull-moose. The animal had been resting quite motionless till the tickling of some insect at the back of his ear disturbed him. Lowering his head, he lifted a hind leg and scratched the place with sharp strokes of his sprawling, deeply cloven hoof; and the two loose sections of the hoof clacked together between each stroke like castanets. Then he moved a step forward, till his head and fore-shoulders came out into the full illumination of a little lane of moonlight pouring in between the tree-tops.
    He was a prince of his kind, as he stood there with long, hooked, semi-prehensile muzzle thrust [Page 182] forward, his nostrils dilating to savour the light airs which drifted almost imperceptibly through the forest. His head, in this attitude, — an attitude of considering watchfulness, — was a little lower than the thin-maned ridge of his shoulders, over which lay back the vast palmated adornment of his antlers. These were like two curiously outlined, hollowed leaves, serrated with some forty prongs; and their tips, at the point of widest expansion, were little less than six feet apart. His eyes, though small for the rough-hewn bulk of his head, were keen, and ardent with passion and high courage. His ears, large and coarse for one of the deer tribe to possess, were set very low on his skull — to such a degree, indeed, as to give somehow a daunting touch of the monstrous to his massive dignity. His neck was short and immensely powerful, to support the gigantic head and antlers. From his throat hung a strange, ragged, long-haired tuft, called by woodsmen the “bell.” His chest was of great depth, telling of exhaustless lung power; and his long forelegs upbore his mighty fore-shoulders so that their gaunt ridge was nearly seven feet from the ground. From this height his short back fell away on a slope to hindquarters disproportionately scant, so that had his appearance been altogether less imposing and [Page 183] formidable, he might have looked grotesque from some points of view. In the moonlight, of course, his colour was just a cold gray; but in the daytime it would have shown a rusty brown, paling and yellowing slightly on the under parts and inside the legs.
    Having sniffed the air for several minutes without discerning anything to interest him, the great bull bethought him of his evening meal. With a sudden blowing out of his breath, he heaved his bulk about and made for the waterside, crashing down the bushes and making, in sheer wantonness, a noise that seemed out of keeping with the time and place. Several times he paused to thrash amid the undergrowth with his antlers. Reaching the water, he plunged in, thigh-deep, with great splashings, and sent the startled waves chasing each other in bright curves to the farther shore. There he stood and began pulling recklessly at the leaves and shoots of the water-lilies. He was hungry, indeed, yet his mind was little engrossed with his feeding.
    As a rule, the moose, for all his bulk and seeming clumsiness, moves through the forest as soundlessly as a weasel. He plants his wide hoofs like thistle-down, insinuates his spread of antlers through the [Page 184] tangle like a snake, and befools his enemies with the nicest craft of the wilderness.
    But this was the rutting season. The great bull was looking for his mate. He had a wild suspicion that the rest of the world was conspiring to keep him from her, and therefore he felt a fierce indignation against the rest of the world. He was ready to imagine a rival behind every bush. He wanted to find these rivals and fight them to the death. His blood was in an insurrection of madness, and suspense, and sweetness, and desire. He cared no more for craft, for concealment. He wanted all the forest to know just where he was — that his mate might come to be loved, that his rivals might come to be ground beneath his antlers and his hoofs. Therefore he went wildly, making all the noise he could; while the rest of the forest folk, unseen and withdrawn, looked on with disapproval and with expectation of the worst.
    As he stood in the cool water, pulling and munching the lilies, there came a sound that stiffened him to instant movelessness. Up went his head, the streams trickling from it silverly; and he listened with every nerve of his body. It was a deeply sonorous, booming call, with a harsh catch in it, but softened to music by the distance. It came [Page 185] from some miles down the opposite shore of the lake. To the great bull’s ears it was the sweetest music he could dream of — the only music, in fact, that interested him. It was the voice of his mate, calling him to the trysting-place.
    He gave answer at once to the summons, contracting his flanks violently as he propelled the sound from his deep lungs. To one listening far down the lake the call would have sounded beautiful in its way, though lugubrious — a wild, vast, incomprehensible voice, appropriate to the solitude. But to a near-by listener it must have sounded both monstrous and absurd — like nothing else so much as the effort of a young farmyard bull to mimic the braying of an ass. Nevertheless, to one who could hear aright, it was a noble and splendid call, vital with all sincerity of response and love and elemental passion.
    Having sent forth his reply, he waited for no more. He was consumed with fierce anxiety lest some rival should also hear and answer the invitation. Dashing forward into the deep water, he swam at great speed straight across the cove, leaving a wide wake behind him. The summons came again, but he could not reply while he was swimming. As soon as he reached land he answered, and [Page 186] then started in mad haste down the shore, taking advantage of the open beach where there was any, but for the most part hidden in the trees, where his progress was loudly marked by the crashing and trampling of his impatience.
    All the furtive kindred, great as well as small, bold as well as timorous, gave him wide berth. A huge black bear, pleasantly engaged in ripping open an ant stump right in his path, stepped aside into the gloom with a supercilious deferring. Farther down the lake a panther lay out along a maple limb, and watched the ecstatic moose rush by beneath. He dug his claws deeper into the bark, and bared his fangs thirstily; but he had no wish to attempt the perilous enterprise of stopping the moose on his love errand. From time to time, from that same enchanted spot down the lake, came the summons, growing reassuringly nearer; and from time to time the journeying bull would pause in his stride to give answer. Little flecks of foam blew from his nostrils, and his flanks were heaving, but his heart was joyous, and his eyes bright with anticipation.
    Meanwhile, what was it that awaited him, in that enchanted spot by the waterside under the full moon, on which the eyes of his eager imagination [Page 189] were fixed so passionately as he crashed his wild way through the night? There was the little open of firm gravelly beach, such as all his tribe affected as their favoured place of trysting. But no brown young cow cast her shadow on the white gravel, standing with forefeet wide apart and neck outstretched to utter her desirous call. The beach lay bright and empty. Just back of it stood a spreading maple, its trunk veiled in a thicket of viburnum and withe-wood. Back of this again a breadth of lighted open, carrying no growth but low kalmia scrub. It was a highly satisfactory spot for the hunter who follows his sport in the calling season.
    There was no brown young cow anywhere within hearing; but in the covert of the viburnum, under the densest shadow of the maple, crouched two hunters, their eyes peering through the leafage with the keen glitter of those of a beast of prey in ambush. One of these hunters was a mere boy, clad in blue-gray homespuns, lank and sprawling of limb, the whitish down just beginning to acquire texture and definiteness on his ruddy but hawk-like face. He was on his first moose-hunt, eager for a trophy, and ambitious to learn moose-calling. The other was a raw-boned and grizzled woodsman, still-eyed, swarthy-faced, and affecting the Indian [Page 190] fashion of a buckskin jacket. He was a hunter whose fame went wide in the settlement. He could master and slay the cunning kindred of the wild by a craft finer than their own. He knew all their weaknesses, and played upon them to their destruction as he would. In one hairy hand he held a long, trumpet-like roll of birch-bark. This he would set to his lips at intervals, and utter through it his deadly perfect mimicry of the call of the cow-moose in rutting season. Each time he did so, there came straightway in response the ever-nearing bellow of the great bull hurrying exultantly to the tryst. Each time he did so, too, the boy crouching beside him turned upon him a look of marvelling awe, the look of the rapt neophyte. This tribute the old woodsman took as his bare due, and paid it no attention whatever.
    While yet the approaching bull was apparently so far off that even eyes so keen as his had no chance of discovering the ambush, the younger hunter, unused to so long a stillness, got up to stretch his cramped legs. As he stood forth into the moonlight, a loon far out in the silver sheen of the lake descried him, and at once broke into a peal of his startling and demoniacal laughter.
    “Git down!” ordered the old woodsman, curtly. [Page 193]
    “That bird tells all it sees!” And immediately setting the birchen trumpet to his lips, he sounded the most seductive call he knew. It was answered promptly, and this time from so near at hand that the nerves of both hunters were strung to instant tension. They both effaced themselves to a stillness and invisibility not excelled by that of the most secret of the furtive folk. In this stillness the boy, who was himself, by nature and affinity, of the woodland kin, caught for the first time that subtle, rhythmic hr-r-r-r-r-ing of the forest pulse; but he took it for merely the rushing of the blood in his too attentive ears.
    Presently this sound was forgotten. He heard a great portentous crashing in the underbrush. Nearer, nearer it came; and both men drew themselves together, as if to meet a shock. Their eyes met for one instant, and the look spoke astonished realisation of the giant approaching bulk. Then the old hunter called once more. The answer, resonant and vast, but almost shrill with the ecstasy of passion, blared forth from a dense fir thicket immediately beyond the moonlit open. The mighty crashing came up, as it seemed, to the very edge of the glade, and there stopped abruptly. No towering flight of antlers emerged into the light. [Page 194]
    The boy’s rifle — for it was his shot — was at his shoulder; but he lowered it, and anxiously his eyes sought the face of his companion. The latter, with lips that made no sound, shaped the words, “He suspects something.” Then, once more lifting the treacherous tube of birch-bark to his mouth, he murmured through it a rough but strangely tender note. It was not utterly unlike that with which a cow sometimes speaks to her calf just after giving birth to it, but more nasal and vibrant; and it was full of caressing expectancy, and desire, and question, and half-reproach. All the yarning of all the mating ardour that has triumphed over insatiable death, and kept the wilderness peopled from the first, was in that deceitful voice. As he ceased the call he raised himself stealthily behind the thick trunk of the maple, lifted a wooden bucket of water to the height of his shoulder, and poured out a stream, which fell with a noisy splashing on the gravel.
    The eager moose could not resist the appeal. His vague suspicions fled. He burst forth into the open, his eyes full and bright, his giant head proudly uplifted.
The boy’s large-calibre rifle spoke at that instant, with a bitter, clapping report, and a shoot of red [Page 195] flame through the viburnum screen. The tall moose neither saw nor heard it. The leaden death had crashed through his brain even before his quick sense had time to note the menace. Swerving a little at the shock, the huge body sank forward upon the knees and muzzle, then rolled over upon its side. There he lay unstirring, betrayed by nature in hour of his anticipation.
    With a sudden outburst of voices, the two hunters sprang up, broke from their ambush, and ran to view the prize. They were no longer of the secretive kindred of the wilderness, but pleased children. The old woodsman eyed shrewdly the inimitable spread of the prostrate antlers. As for the boy, he stared at his victim, breathless, his eyes a-glitter with the fierce elemental pride of the hunter triumphant. [Page 196]