W HAT a beautiful day it was! How bright the sun shone, and how pleasantly the birds were singing,—for it was the lovely season of spring. All the air was full of melody, so that it seemed to Tommy Smith as if he had somehow got inside a very large musical box, which would keep on playing. And so he had, really, only it was Nature's great musical box,—the music was immortal, and the works were alive.
Far up in the sky the lark was doing his very best to please little Tommy Smith and everybody else, for he made whoever heard him feel happier than they had felt before. But what was little Tommy Smith doing to show how grateful he was to the bird that gave him so much pleasure? Why, I am sorry to say that he was trying to find the poor lark's nest, so that he might take away the eggs which were in it,—those eggs which the mother lark had been taking so much trouble to keep warm, so that little baby larks might come out of them, which she meant to feed and take care of till they were grown up, and could fly and sing like herself. It was the thought of those eggs, and of the mother bird sitting upon them, which made the lark himself sing so gladly up in the air, for, when he looked down, he fancied he could see them; and he knew that there was someone waiting for him there who would be glad to see him again, when he came down to roost. But Tommy Smith did not think of this, for nobody had talked to him about it. All he thought of was how he could get the eggs, so that he could take them away with him, and show them to other boys.
Ah! what was that? How gracefully the cowslips waved, and up went a lark into the sky; and as he rose he seemed to shake a song out of his wings. Tommy Smith thought there was sure to be a nest close to where he had risen, so he went to look; but before he had got to the place, away went something—something brown like a lark, but ever so much larger, and, instead of flying, it galloped along over the ground; so, you see, it was not a bird at all. What was it? Tommy Smith knew well enough, for he had often seen such an animal before. "Ha!" he cried. "Puss! puss! A hare! a hare!" and he sent the stick which he had in his hand whizzing after it; but, I am glad to say, he did not hit it.
The hare did not seem so very frightened. Perhaps he knew that he could run away faster than any stick thrown by a little boy could come after him. At any rate, before he had gone far, he stopped, and then he turned round, and raised himself right up, almost on his hind legs, and looked back at Tommy Smith.
"Well," he said, as Tommy Smith came up; "you see you cannot catch me."
"No," said Tommy Smith—he was getting quite accustomed to having talks with animals,—"you run too quickly."
"For my part," said the hare, "I wonder how any little boy who has a kind heart can like to tease and frighten a poor, timid animal who is persecuted in so many ways as I am."
"What do you mean by 'persecuted'?" said Tommy Smith. "That is a word which I don't understand. It is too long for me."
"It is a great pity," the hare went on, "that a little boy should always be doing something which he does not know the word for. To 'persecute' people is to be very cruel to them, and whenever you hurt, or annoy, or frighten, or ill-treat any of us animals, then you are persecuting us."
"If I had know that," said Tommy Smith, " I would not have done it."
"Then you mustn't do it any more," said the hare; "and especially not to me, because I have so many enemies who are always trying to injure me."
"Why, what enemies have you?" said Tommy Smith.
"Plenty," the hare said. "First, there is that wicked animal the fox, who is always ready to kill and eat me whenever he has the chance. He is very cunning, and, as he knows he cannot run fast enough to catch me, he tries all sorts of ways to pounce upon me when I am not expecting it. Sometimes he will wait by a hole in the hedge that he has seen me go through, and when I come to it again, he springs out and seizes me with his teeth and kills me, for he is much stronger than I am. Then sometimes one fox will chase me past a place where another fox is hiding, and then the fox that was hiding jumps out at me, and they both eat me together."
"How wicked!" said Tommy Smith.
"Is it not?" said the hare. "And then there is that horrid little creature the weasel. He follows me about till he catches me, and then he bites me in the throat, so that I bleed to death."
"That is horrid of him," said Tommy Smith. "But there is one thing which I cannot understand. The weasel does not go so very fast, and you can run faster than a horse. I am sure that if you were to run away, he would never be able to catch you."
"You don't know what it is," said the hare. "That odious little animal follows me about, and never leaves off. You see, wherever I go I leave a smell behind me."
"Do you?" said Tommy Smith. "That seems very funny. Why, I am close to you, and I don't smell anything."
"Little boys cannot smell nearly as well as animals," said the hare. "However, I don't quite understand it myself, for I am sure I am as clean as any animal can be, and there is nothing nasty about me; and yet whenever my feet touch the ground, they leave a smell upon it. That is my 'scent'; but other animals have their scent too as well as I, so I needn't mind about it. Now the weasel has a very good nose, so that he is able to follow the scent that I have left on the ground, until he comes to where I am; and, besides, when I know that that cruel little animal is following me, I get so frightened that I cannot run away, as I would from you, or from a fox, or a dog. And so he comes up and kills me."
"Poor hare!" said Tommy Smith. "I feel very sorry for you. I am afraid that you are not clever like other animals, or else you would escape and get away more often. The rat would run down a hole, I am sure, and so would the rabbit. I have often seen him do it."
"Pray do not compare me to the rabbit," said the hare. "I have twice as much sense as he has, and I can tell you that you make a great mistake if you think I am not clever, for I am very clever indeed, as I will soon show you. If you will follow me a few steps, I will take you to the place where I was lying when you frightened me out of it. See, here it is. Look how nicely the grass is pressed downward and bent back on each side, so that it makes a pretty little bower for me to rest in when I am tired of running about. That is better, I think, than a mere hole in the ground; and, for my part, I look upon burrowing as a very foolish habit. I prefer fresh air, and I think that it is much nicer to see all about one than to live in the dark. This little bower of mine is what people call my 'form,' and I am so fond of it that, however often I am driven away, I always come back to it again. And now, how do you think I get into this form of mine? I have told you that wherever I go I leave a scent upon the ground, so if I just came to my form and walked into it, any animal that crossed my scent would be able to follow it till he came to where I was. Now, what do you think I do to prevent this?"
"I don't know," said Tommy Smith, after he had thought a little; "I don't see how you can prevent it, for you must come to your form on your feet,—you cannot fly."
"No," said the hare; "but I can jump. Look!" And he gave several leaps into the air, which made Tommy Smith clap his hands and call out, "Bravo! How well you do it!"
"Now," said the hare, "when I am coming back to my form, I leap first to this side and then to that side, and then I make a very big jump indeed, and down I come in my own house. Of course, by doing this, I make it much more difficult for a fox or a weasel to smell where I have been, for it is only where my feet touch the ground that I leave my scent upon it."
"Ah, I see," cried Tommy Smith; "so, when you make long jumps, your feet will not touch the ground at so many places as they would if you only just ran along it."
"Of course not," said the hare.
"And then there will not be so many places for a dog or a fox to smell where you have been," said Tommy Smith.
"Not nearly so many," said the hare; "that is the reason why I do it. I hope you think that quite as clever as just running down a hole, which is what the rat and the rabbit do."
"I think it very clever, indeed," said Tommy Smith; "and I see now that you are a clever animal."
"I have other ways of escaping when I am chased," the hare went on; "and I think, when you have heard them, you will confess they are quite as clever as anything which that conceited animal, the rat, has shown you. As to the rabbit, I say nothing. He is a relation of mine, and we have always been friendly. But the brains are not on his side of the family."
"Please go on, Mr. Hare," said Tommy Smith. "I should like to hear all you can tell me."
"Well," the hare said, "I have told you about the fox and the weasel, but they are not my only enemies. I have others—horses and dogs, and, worst of all, hard-hearted men and women, who ride the horses, and teach the dogs to run after me, and to catch me. It is a pretty sight to see them all meet together in some field or lane. First one rides up, and then another, until there are quite a number. They laugh and talk whilst they wait for the huntsman to come with his pack of hounds. All are merry and light-hearted; even the horses neigh, they are in such spirits. Does it not seem funny that one creature's wretchedness should make so many creatures happy? And there are women—ladies, some of them quite young, and so pretty—like angels. I have seen them smile as if they could not hurt any living thing. You would have thought that they had come to stroke me, instead of to hunt me to death. But I know better. They are not to be trusted. They have soft cheeks, and soft eyes, and soft looks, but their hearts are hard.
"At last, up comes the huntsman, in his green coat and black velvet cap. He cracks his whip, and the dogs leap and bark around him—such a noise! I hear it all as I lie crouched in my form, and my heart beats with terror. But I cannot lie there long, for now they are coming towards me. I start up, and run for my life. Away I go, one poor, timid animal, who never hurt anyone, and after me come men and women, boys and girls, horses and dogs, all happy, and all thinking it the finest thing in the world to hunt and to kill—a hare."
"Are the dogs greyhounds?" said Tommy Smith.
"No," answered the hare; "the dogs I am talking about now are not greyhounds, but beagles. They hunt me by scent, but the greyhound hunts me by sight, for he runs so fast that he can always see me."
"Does he run as fast as you do?" asked Tommy Smith.
"Yes, indeed," said the hare; "he runs much faster but he does not always catch me, for all that. When he is close behind me, I stop all of a sudden, and crouch flat on the ground. The greyhound cannot stop himself so quickly, for he is not so clever as I am. He runs right over me, and it is several seconds before he can turn round again. But I turn round as soon as he has passed me, and then I run as fast as I can the other way, so that, when he starts after me again, he is a good way behind. When he catches up to me, I do the same thing again. This clever trick of mine is called doubling, and I am so proud of it, for if it was not for that, the greyhound would catch me directly."
"Then does he never catch you?" said Tommy Smith.
"He never has yet," said the hare. "But I have other ways of getting away from him, as well as from other dogs, and I will tell you some of them. Sometimes I run under a gate. The dogs are too big to do this, so they are obliged to jump over it. Then, when they are near me, on the other side I double, in the way I told you, run as fast as I can back to the gate, and go under it again. Of course they have to jump over it a second time, and in this way I keep running under the gate and making them jump over it until they are quite tired, for, of course, it is more tiring to jump over anything than only to run under it. At last, when they are too tired to run any more, I slip quietly through a hedge and gallop away."
"Bravo!" cried Tommy Smith.
The hare looked very pleased, and said, "I see that you are not at all a stupid boy, so I will tell you something else. Now, supposing you were being chased across the fields by a lot of dogs and you were to come to a flock of sheep, what would you do?"
Tommy Smith thought a little, and then he said, "I think I should call out to the shepherd and ask him to help me."
"Yes, and I daresay he would help you," said the hare, "for he would remember the time when he was a little boy, and he would feel sorry for you. But he would not feel sorry for me, who am only a little hare (he was never that, you know). He would throw his stick at me, as you did, and then he would do all he could to help the dogs to catch me. No, it is not the shepherd that I should ask to help me, but the sheep—they are so gentle,—and when I came to them I should run right into the middle of them, and then the dogs would not be able to find me."
"But would not the dogs follow you in amongst the sheep and catch you there?" said Tommy Smith.
"No," said the hare, "they would not be able to; for the flock would keep together, so that the dogs could only run round the outside of it. But I should keep right in the middle, and wherever the sheep went, I should go with them; I could run between their feet, you know. Besides, the dogs would not be able to see me amongst so many sheep."
"No," said Tommy Smith. "But could not they still follow you by your scent?"
"No, indeed, they could not," said the hare; "for, you see, sheep have a stronger scent than I have, and they would put down their feet just in the very place where I had put down mine, and then their scent would hide mine. So, you see, by hiding amongst a flock of sheep I should save my life, for the dogs would not be able either to see me, or smell me, or to follow me, even if they could."
"Have you ever done it?" said Tommy Smith.
"Oh yes!" said the hare; "and there is something else which I have done. Sometimes when the dogs were chasing me, I have run to where I knew another hare was sitting, and I have pushed that hare out of his place, so that the dogs have followed him instead of me. I sat down where he had been sitting, and they all went by without finding it out."
"Well," said Tommy Smith, "that may have been very clever, but I don't think it was at all kind to the other hare."
The hare looked a little surprised at this, as if he had not thought of it before. "One hare should help another, you know," he said; "and, besides, I daresay the dogs did not catch him after all. He may have found another hare."
Tommy Smith was just beginning with "Oh, but"—when the hare said, "Never mind!" rather impatiently, and then he continued, "And now I am going to tell you something which will show you that, although I am not a large or a fierce animal, I can sometimes be revenged on those who injure me, though they are larger and fiercer than myself."
"Oh, do tell me," said Tommy Smith, for the hare had paused a little, and seemed to be thinking.
"Ah!" he began again; "how well I remember it. I was very nearly caught that time. How fast the greyhounds ran, and how close behind me they were! What could I do to get away? I had gone up steep hills to tire them; and I had tired them, but then I had tired myself still more. I had run up one side of a hedge and down the other, so that they should not see me, and then I had gone through the roughest and thorniest part of that hedge, in hopes that they would not be able to follow. But they had kept close after me all the time, and now they were just at my heels. Then I doubled. Oh, how close I lay on the ground as the greyhounds leaped over me! I saw their white teeth, and their glaring eyes, and their red tongues lolling out of their great open mouths. But they had missed me, and I was saved for a little while. But where was I to run to next? There were no hedges now; no woods, or hills, or rocky ground, nothing but smooth level grass, which is just what greyhounds love to race over. Was there no escape? Yes. What was that long line far away where the green grass ended and the blue sky began? White birds were wheeling above it, and, from beneath, came a sound as though a giant were whispering. That was the sound of the sea, and the long line meeting the sky was the line of the cliffs. Oh, if I could reach it! But, first, I had to double—once—twice—three times; over me they flew, and off I darted again. And now the line grew nearer, the white birds looked larger as they sailed in the air, and the whispering sound was changing to a moan—to a roar. Yes, I was close to it now, but the greyhounds were just behind me, and their hot breath blew upon my fur. They had caught me! No. On the very edge of the cliffs I doubled once more, and once more they went over me."
"And over the cliffs?" said Tommy Smith.
"Yes," said the hare; "over me, and over the cliffs as well. Something hid the sky for a moment,—a dark cloud passed above me. Then the sky was clear again; and there were no greyhounds now. Over and over, down, down, down they went, and were dashed to pieces on the black rocks, and drowned in the white waves. I know they were, for I peeped over the edge and saw it. You may ask the seagulls, if you like. They saw it too."
"Were they all drowned?" said Tommy Smith.
"Yes, all," said the hare.
"And were you glad?" he asked, for it seemed to him very dreadful.
"Well," the hare said, "I was glad to escape, of course, and so would you have been. But yet I could not help feeling sorry for the poor dogs, because they had been taught to chase me, and it was not their fault. Do you know who I should have liked to see fall over the cliffs instead of them?"
"Who?" said Tommy Smith.
"The cruel, hard-hearted men who taught them," said the hare. "It is they who ought to have been drowned, and I am very sorry that they were not."
"You poor hare!" said Tommy Smith, as he stroked its soft fur, and played with its long, pretty ears. "It is very hard that you should always be hunted, and I do think that you are very badly treated. But what clever ways you have of escaping! Do you know, I think you are the cleverest animal I have had a talk with yet, and I like you very much."
"Ah! it is all very well to say that now," said the hare. "But who was it that threw a stick at me?"
"I never will again," said Tommy Smith. "You know you jumped up all of a sudden, so that I had no time to think. But I did not come out on purpose to throw it at you. I only wanted to find a lark's nest, so as to get the eggs."
When the hare heard that, I cannot tell you how sad and grieved he looked. "What!" he said. "Would you take the poor lark's eggs away, and make it unhappy? No, no; if you really like me, as you say you do, you must promise me not to do anything so cruel as that. The lark is the best friend I have. He sings to me as I lie in my form, and consoles me for all my troubles. His voice cheers me too, when I am being chased by the dogs, for he always seems to be saying, 'You will get away; I know you will get away.' Then sometimes he comes down to roost quite close to me, and we talk to each other. He tells me what it is like up above the clouds, and I tell him all that has been going on down here. He has his trials too, for there are hawks that try to catch him, just as there are greyhounds that try to catch me; so we sit and comfort each other. Promise me never to be unkind to my friend the lark."
"I won't hurt him," said Tommy Smith. "And if ever I find his nest with eggs in it, I will only just look at them and leave them there."
"Oh, thank you," the hare said; "and you won't hurt me either?"
"No, indeed, I won't" said Tommy Smith. "Do you know, I begin to think that it would be better not to hurt any animal."
"Oh, much better!" said the hare, as he skipped gladly away. "Except the fox,—and the weasel, you may hurt him—if you can catch him."