What the Fawns Must Know
T O this day it is hard to understand how any eyes could have found them, they were so perfectly hidden. I was following a little brook, which led me by its singing to a deep dingle in the very heart of the big woods. A great fallen tree lay across my path and made a bridge over the stream. Now bridges are for crossing; that is plain to even the least of the wood folk; so I sat down on the mossy trunk to see who my neighbors might be, and what little feet were passing on the King's highway.
Here, beside me, are claw marks in the moldy bark. Only a bear could leave that deep, strong imprint. And see! there is where the moss slipped and broke beneath his weight. A restless tramp is Mooween, who scatters his records over forty miles of hillside on a summer day, when his lazy mood happens to leave him for a season. Here, on the other side, are the bronze-green petals of a spruce cone, chips from a squirrel's workshop, scattered as if Meeko had brushed them hastily from his yellow apron when he rushed out to see Mooween as he passed. There, beyond, is a mink sign, plain as daylight, where Cheokhes sat down a little while after his breakfast of frogs. And here, clinging to a stub, touching my elbow as I sit with heels dangling idly over the lazy brook, is a crinkly yellow hair, which tells me that Eleemos the Sly One, as Simmo calls him, hates to wet his feet, and so uses a fallen tree, or a stone in the brook, for a bridge, like his brother fox of the settlements.
Just in front of me was another fallen tree, lying alongside the stream in such a way that no animal more dangerous than a roving mink would ever think of using it. Under its roots, away from the brook, was a hidden and roomy little house, with hemlock tips drooping over its doorway for a curtain. "A pretty place for a den," I thought; "for no one could ever find you there." Then, as if to contradict me, a stray sunbeam found the spot and sent curious bright glintings of sheen and shadow dancing and playing under the fallen roots and trunk. "Beautiful!" I cried, as light fell on the brown mold and flecked it with white and yellow. The sunbeam went away again, but seemed to leave its brightness behind it; for there was still the gold-brown mold under the roots, and the flecks of white and yellow. I stooped down to see it better; I reached in my hand—then the brown mold changed suddenly to softest fur; the glintings of white and yellow were the dappled sides of two little fawns, lying there very still and frightened, just where their mother had hidden them when she went away.
They were but a few days old when I found them. Each had on his little Joseph's coat; and each, I think, must have had also a magic cloak somewhere about him; for he had only to lie down anywhere to become invisible. The curious markings, like the play of light and shadow through the leaves, hid the little owners perfectly, so long as they held themselves still and let the sunbeams dance over them. Their beautiful heads were a study for an artist,—delicate, graceful, exquisitely colored. And their great soft eyes had a questioning innocence, as they met yours, which went straight to your heart and made you claim the beautiful creatures for your own instantly. There is nothing in all the woods that so takes your heart by storm as the face of a little fawn.
They were timid at first, lying close, without motion of any kind. The instinct of obedience—the first and strongest instinct of every creature born into the world—kept them loyal to the mother's command to stay where they were and be still till she came back. So even after the hemlock curtain was brushed aside, and my eyes saw and my hand touched them, they kept their heads flat to the ground and pretended that they were only parts of the brown forest floor, and that the spots on their bright coats were but flecks of summer sunshine.
I felt then that I was an intruder; that I ought to go straight away and leave them; but the little things were too beautiful, lying there in their wonderful old den, with fear and wonder and questionings dancing in their soft eyes as they turned them back at me like a mischievous child playing peekaboo. It is a tribute to our higher nature that one cannot see a beautiful thing anywhere without wanting to draw near, to see, to touch, to possess it. And here was beauty such as one rarely finds, and, though I was an intruder, I could not go away.
The hand that touched the little wild things brought no sense of danger with it. It searched out the spots behind their velvet ears, where they love to be rubbed; it wandered down over their backs with a little wavy caress in its motion; it curled its palm up softly under their moist muzzles and brought their tongues out instantly for the faint suggestion of salt that was in it. Suddenly their heads came up. Play was over now. They had forgotten their hiding, their first lesson; they turned and looked at me full with their great, innocent, questioning eyes. It was wonderful; I was undone. One must give his life, if need be, to defend the little things after they had looked at him just once like that.
When I rose at last, after petting them to my heart's content, they staggered up to their feet and came out of their house. Their mother had told them to stay; but here was another big kind animal, evidently, whom they might safely trust. "Take the gifts the gods provide thee" was the thought in their little heads; and the taste in their tongues' ends, when they licked my hand, was the nicest thing they had ever known. As I turned away they ran after me, with a plaintive little cry to bring me back. When I stopped they came close, nestling against me, one on either side, and lifted their heads to be petted and rubbed again.
Standing so, all eagerness and wonder, they were a perfect study in first impressions of the world. Their ears had already caught the deer trick of twitching nervously and making trumpets at every sound. A leaf rustled, a twig broke, the brook's song swelled as a floating stick jammed in the current, and instantly the fawns were all alert. Eyes, ears, noses questioned the phenomenon. Then they would raise their eyes slowly to mine. "This is a wonderful world. This big wood is full of music. We know not. Tell us all about it,"—that is what the beautiful eyes were saying as they lifted up to mine, full of innocence and delight at the joy of living. Then the hands that rested fondly, one on either soft neck, moved down from their ears with a caressing sweep and brought up under their moist muzzles. Instantly the wood and its music vanished; the questions ran away out of their eyes. Their eager tongues were out, and all the unknown sounds were forgotten in the new sensation of lapping a man's palm, with a wonderful taste hidden somewhere under its friendly roughnesses. They were still licking my hands, nestling close against me, when a twig snapped faintly far behind us.
Now twig snapping is the great index to all that passes in the wilderness. Curiously enough, no two animals can break even a twig under their feet and give the same warning. The crack under a bear's foot, except when he is stalking his game, is heavy and heedless. The hoof of a moose crushes a twig, and chokes the sound of it before it can tell its message fairly. When a twig speaks under a deer in his passage through the woods, the sound is sharp, dainty, alert. It suggests the plop of a raindrop into the lake. And the sound behind us now could not be mistaken. The mother of my little innocents was coming.
I hated to frighten her, and through her to destroy their new confidence; so I hurried back to the den, the little ones running close by my side. Ere I was halfway, a twig snapped sharply again; there was a swift rustle in the underbrush, and a doe sprang out, with a low bleat as she saw the home log. At sight of me she stopped short, trembling violently, her ears pointing forward like two accusing fingers, an awful fear in her soft eyes as she saw her little ones with her archenemy between them, his hands resting on their innocent necks. Her body swayed away, every muscle tense for the jump; but her feet seemed rooted to the spot. Slowly she swayed back to her balance, her eyes holding mine; then away again as the danger scent poured into her nose. But still the feet stayed. She could not move; could not believe. Then, as I waited quietly and tried to make my eyes say all sorts of friendly things, the harsh, throaty K-a-a-a-h! k-a-a-a-h! the danger cry of the deer, burst like a trumpet blast through the woods, and she leaped back to cover.
At the sound the little ones jumped as if stung, and plunged into the brush in the opposite direction. But the strange place frightened them; the hoarse cry that went crashing through the startled woods filled them with nameless dread. In a moment they were back again, nestling close against me, growing quiet as the hands stroked their sides without tremor or hurry.
Around us, out of sight, ran the fear-haunted mother, calling, calling; now showing her head, with the terror deep in her eyes; now dashing away, with her white flag up, to show her little ones the way they must take. But the fawns gave no heed after the first alarm. They felt the change; their ears were twitching nervously, and their eyes, which had not yet grown quick enough to measure distances and find their mother in her hiding, were full of strange terror as they questioned mine. Still, under the alarm, they felt the kindness which the poor mother, dog-driven and waylaid by guns, had never known. And they stayed, with a deep wisdom beyond all her cunning, where they knew they were safe.
I led them slowly back to their hiding place, gave them a last lick at my hands, and pushed them gently under the hemlock curtain. When they tried to come out I pushed them back again. "Stay there, and mind your mother; stay there, and follow your mother," I kept whispering. And to this day I have a half belief that they understood, not the word but the feeling behind it; for they grew quiet after a time and looked out with wide-open, wondering eyes. Then I dodged out of sight, jumped the fallen log, to throw them off the scent should they come out, crossed the brook, and glided out of sight into the underbrush. Once safely out of hearing, I headed straight for the open, a few yards away, where the blasted white stems of the burned hillside showed through the green of the big woods, and climbed, and looked, and changed my position, till I could see the fallen tree under whose roots my little innocents were hiding.
The hoarse danger cry had ceased; the woods were all still again. A movement in the underbrush, and I saw the doe glide out beyond the brook and stand looking, listening. She bleated softly; the hemlock curtain was thrust aside, and the little ones came out. At sight of them she leaped forward, a great gladness showing eloquently in every line of her graceful body, rushed up to them, dropped her head and ran her keen nose over them, ears to tail and down their sides and back again, to be sure, and sure again, that they were her own little ones and were not harmed. All the while the fawns nestled close to her, as they had done a moment before to me, and lifted their heads to touch her sides with their noses, and ask in their own dumb way what it was all about, and why she had run away.
Then, as the smell of the man came to her from the tainted underbrush, the absolute necessity of teaching them their neglected second lesson, before another danger should find them, swept over her in a flood. She sprang aside with a great bound, and hoarse K-a-a-a-h! k-a-a-a-h! crashed through the woods again. Her tail was straight up, the white flag showing like a beacon light as she jumped away. Behind her the fawns stood startled a moment, trembling with a new wonder. Then their flags went up too, and they wabbled away on slender legs through the tangles and over the rough places of the wood, bravely following their leader. And I, watching from my hiding, with a vague regret that they could never again be mine, not even for a moment, saw only the crinkling lines of underbrush and here and there the flash of a little white flag. So they went up the hill and out of sight.
First, lie still; and second, follow the white flag. When I saw them again it needed no danger cry of the mother to remind them of these two things that every fawn must know who would live to grow up in the big woods.