AT HOME WITH THE BEAVERS

By Lillian M. Gask

The air was as warm as summer, and the murmur of the big brown velvet Bee that hovered over a purple flower made Phil think of the garden at home. A tiny Humming-Bird, gleaming against the willows like a spot of fire, flashed quickly past him, and lingered for a moment on a swaying branch; she had travelled nearly four thousand miles on those small wings of hers to reach her summer quarters, and even now was not at her journey's end.

Phil turned his head to look at her, and as he did so he found to his great joy that his stiff white collar had disappeared. So, too, had the drab serge suit and the clumsy hob-nailed boots that had hurt him so. Instead, he wore a single garment of some soft brown, the colour of earth, girdled by a broad green belt that felt like velvet. His feet were bare, and as he buried them in the thick grass on which he lay, he sighed with pleasure.

"Good morning," remarked someone in rather hoarse tones close at his elbow, and one of the quaint animals he had seen the night before shuffled awkwardly towards him with what was evidently intended for a pleasant smile. "Mother Beaver," Nature had called her, he remembered, and he had a dim idea that she had offered to take him under her care until he knew his way about the forests. He sat up now so that he might see her better, for in the daylight she looked stranger still. Her body, nearly three feet long, was covered with glossy hair; her tail was paddle-shaped and smooth, while her strong white tusks would have given her quite a fierce expression but for her twinkling eyes. These were very bright and most inquisitive, as if she found him quite as curious as he did her.

"Good morning," she repeated with friendly emphasis, as Phil tried in vain to think of something to say. "Where are your manners, young man? Haven't you learnt yet that it isn't polite to stare?"

"I beg your pardon," said Phil, smiling shyly at her. "I never knew that animals could speak until last night, and it's rather startling at first, you know. Do you mind telling me where I am?"

"In North America, on the banks of one of its swiftest rivers," she returned, proudly. "You are coming to school with me, I hear. I hope you are quick and industrious—we have too many idlers already, and there's any amount of work to be done before the autumn."

"I dare say you're as bright as any, if the truth were told. Can you swim?"

Phil nodded joyfully; an old sailor had taught him during a long happy summer he had spent by the sea, and had been quite proud of his pupil.

"Not that it would matter if you had never learnt," said Mother Beaver, struck by a sudden thought, "for Nature has made you an exception to all her rules. What is an exception? Well, you must wait until Father Beaver comes if you want it properly explained, but it means that while you are Nature's guest you will be able to do all those things that a small boy wouldn't be able to do in the usual way; such as breathe under water, for instance, as you will in a moment, when you come to my winter home. You will change your size, too, without knowing anything about it, just when and where it is most convenient, so that you can sit in nests, or run down burrows, as easily as the creatures to which they belong. And you'll never feel hungry, unless there is something near that you can eat, or thirsty, unless you are within easy distance of a stream. In short, my dear, Nature has been particularly kind to you for this one year; after that you'll be just an ordinary boy again."

Phil was rather bewildered; it sounded much too wonderful to be true, but Mother Beaver, seemed quite in earnest.

"Are you ready?" she said. "Then follow me. We're going to my winter lodge, where my young ones are still waiting for me. Their father and I only left it this morning to look round, for spring comes suddenly here in the north, and a day or two ago it was quite cold. The flowers are in bloom, the Bees say, before they have time to notice their buds, and the trees spread out their leaves in a single night. The winter has only just gone."

Phil followed her to the water's edge through clumps of rushes, and saw before him a cluster of dome-shaped houses, like giant thimbles, in the centre of the stream. Many were some feet above the surface of the water; they were covered with a smooth coating of hard mud, and so far as he could see they had no entrance.

"Did you make those?" he asked, as she led him on to the dam, so that he might get a better view of them. He was amazed that such an insignificant creature as the beaver could build such fortresses.

"Of course we did," she answered in matter-of-fact tones. "Yes—they took a long time, but we worked together, and worked with a will. The walls, you'll notice, are more than six feet thick. They have to be very strong," she added mysteriously. Phil wanted to ask her why, but she seemed so troubled that he said "How do you get in?" instead.

"Take a header and see," she told him, splashing from the dam and diving straight down, with Phil behind her, until they reached the deep projection, or "angle" as it is called, beneath which lay the entrance to her own particular home. It was very near the bed of the river, where the frost would not be likely to reach even in bitter weather.

"Here we are!" she cried, shaking the water off her tail as she scrambled through. Phil noticed that she was as agile in the water as she was clumsy on land, and that two toes on each foot were webbed.

Inside the winter house were three young Beavers, all very wide awake and covered with brown and glossy fur. Their three little beds were nicely arranged along the side of the wall, while two vacant ones, somewhat larger, and belonging to Father and Mother Beaver, were on the other side. The centre of the chamber was left free to move about in, and was so beautifully clean that Phil was sure Mother Beaver would be as particular about muddy boots as the matron at school. He was very glad he had left his behind him—bare feet were much more comfortable.

"Yes, my children," Mother Beaver was saying, as she patted each affectionately, "the time has come for us to go to the woods. Your father is exploring now, so that he may know where you can find the juiciest roots, and how far it is safe to venture. He will meet us before dusk."

She busied herself in smoothing their fur, while they stared hard at Phil. Under their shining chestnut hair was a thick soft coat of greyish brown, and Mother Beaver seemed very anxious that this should lie quite flat.

"They're very thin," she said, regretfully, "but then it has been a long winter, and our larder is nearly empty. We live on bark entirely when we are down here," she explained to Phil, as she made sure that all was straight before she left. "We find it very nourishing and tasty, though you might think it dry. Before the frosts come we lop off branches of willows and other trees, and sink them under layers of stones close to our houses. Last fall we laid in a larger supply than usual, for we knew the spring would be late in coming; but our neighbours had such enormous appetites that it soon went. Our neighbours? Yes—they live on the other side of our lodge; but we don't visit—it isn't our way."

With a last look round she left the winter house, and though Phil swam more quickly than he had ever done before, she and her young ones were first on the river bank.

"But we're good friends," she went on (Phil shook himself as she had done, and noticed with pleasure that his brown coat was dry in a moment), "and always work together in building or repairing our dams and houses. That's why they call us 'Social' Beavers. Some cousins of ours (there are not many of them, I believe) live quite alone."

The young Beavers had a fine time of it that bright spring day. Phil found them most amusing play fellows, for when they had satisfied their hunger on succulent roots and tender shoots they were quite ready for any game that he suggested. They were all in the highest spirits when Father Beaver came on the scene.

He was thinner than any of them, and much more serious. Phil was inclined to be frightened of him at first, but soon found him as kindly as the rest. He smoothed Phil's hair for him as if he were a son of his own, and asked to look at his teeth.

"H'm," he remarked thoughtfully. "They won't be much use for felling trees, but I daresay you can help us in other ways. We must set to work in the early summer," he continued, turning to Mother Beaver, "for there is a lot of rebuilding to be done this fall."

"Rebuilding?" echoed Phil. He had loved his bricks, and to make castles in the sand; building those dome-shaped houses must be great fun.

"Certainly," replied Father Beaver. "Our dam must be enlarged, and a new lodge put up. We shall want all the help we can get. Later on, when we have got up our strength, we must begin to cut those saplings."

Phil was feeling rather tired, so, while the young Beavers started another game, he sat with their parents, trying to understand what they meant when they spoke of "IT."

"I feel sure IT is somewhere about," said Father Beaver moodily. "I came across ITS traces two or three miles away."

Mother Beaver sighed. "There is no use in borrowing trouble," she said. "We must just keep a sharp look-out, and get our work done quickly. I'm glad now that we made those extra holes in the bank, though it did seem rather unnecessary at the time."

"Those holes, my son," said Father Beaver, in answer to Phil's inquiry, "lead to the deep tunnels in which we take refuge when we are pursued by our enemies. There we are comparatively safe, but in the open country or in the woods, owing to our clumsy movements on land, we are at their mercy."

His voice was gloomy, and it made Phil sad to think that such gentle animals as beavers had enemies.

"If they catch you, do they swing you up high, and make you all sick and giddy?" he asked, with a vivid recollection of the terrors of the barn.

"Worse," said the Beaver, shortly. "The hunters trap and kill us for our valuable fur, and IT—the Wolverene—actually eats us! This is why we go to so much trouble to make our houses secure, so that when the frost has hardened the thick layer of mud which we place each fall over the thatch of stones and driftwood, neither teeth nor claws can penetrate the hard surface."

Mother Beaver had shuffled off to her young ones, who were making up for the short commons of the winter by eating all the green shoots that came in their way. Their father, settling himself comfortably in the shelter of a low bush, invited Phil to sit beside him and have a chat.

"You want to learn our ways," he said, looking at him indulgently. "They are easy to understand, for though we are more skilled in building, perhaps, than other creatures, it is chiefly for our industry that we are noted. Nature has taught us to think ahead and provide for the future. I suppose you know what 'thinking ahead' means?"

"Not ezzactly," said Phil honestly, with a longing look at the young Beavers. The smallest of them appeared to have rolled himself into a round ball, and Phil couldn't help thinking what first-rate bats the others' broad tails would make.

The Beaver drew back his wandering attention with a light flap of his tail.

"One thing at a time," he counselled. "If I take the trouble to talk to you, the least you can do is to listen…. About looking ahead. If you had 'looked ahead' and learnt your geography the other day, instead of making paper boats in preparation time, you would have known that a continent wasn't 'a piece of land surrounded by water' and they wouldn't have called you—"

"Don't say it!" Phil entreated, and Father Beaver laughed and changed the subject.

"The Social Beavers to which we belong," he said, "live in small colonies, and work together for the general good. A certain number of us, whom hunters call 'the Idlers,' refuse to help at all, and are satisfied to live in tunnels instead of houses. These are usually sorry for their idleness when it is too late, for they are often captured by fur hunters, who know where to look for them, and easily dig them out. That is, if IT does not find them first."

"IT?" questioned Phil, snuggling closer to Father Beaver and speaking in an awed whisper.

"The Wolverene," he amended. "My wife cannot bear the sound of his name when she is weak from fasting, so we call him 'IT' at this time of the year. He carried off our eldest daughter last summer. She was proud and wilful, and would not stay by her mother's side…. She had a lovely tail."

"Don't you think we should be settling in for the night?" asked Mother Beaver, bustling back to them with a delicate green bough, from which she had stripped the leaves, as a titbit for Phil. She was surprised to hear that he was not hungry, until he reminded her how early that afternoon a dapper Bee in a velvet coat had invited him to a feast of honey. The Queen of the Fairies might have envied him that meal, so exquisite were the flower-cups in which he found it.

"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."