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Watership Down, Page 2

Richard Adams

  "They'd take it from you," said Fiver suddenly.

  "That's very nice of you," said the Threarah again. "Well, perhaps they would, perhaps they would. But I should have to consider it very carefully indeed. A most serious step, of course. And then-"

  "But there's no time, Threarah, sir," blurted out Fiver. "I can feel the danger like a wire round my neck-like a wire-Hazel, help!" He squealed and rolled over in the sand, kicking frantically, as a rabbit does in a snare. Hazel held him down with both forepaws and he grew quieter.

  "I'm awfully sorry, Chief Rabbit," said Hazel. "He gets like this sometimes. He'll be all right in a minute."

  "What a shame! What a shame! Poor fellow, perhaps he ought to go home and rest. Yes, you'd better take him along now. Well, it's really been extremely good of you to come and see me, Walnut. I appreciate it very much indeed. And I shall think over all you've said most carefully, you can be quite sure of that. Bigwig, just wait a moment, will you?"

  As Hazel and Fiver made their way dejectedly down the run outside the Threarah's burrow, they could just hear, from inside, the Chief Rabbit's voice assuming a rather sharper note, interspersed with an occasional "Yes, sir," "No, sir."

  Bigwig, as he had predicted, was getting his head bitten off.

  3. Hazel's Decision

  What am I lying here for?… We are lying here as though we had a chance of enjoying a quiet time… Am I waiting until I become a little older?

  Xenophon, The Anabasis

  "But, Hazel, you didn't really think the Chief Rabbit would act on your advice, did you? What were you expecting?"

  It was evening once more and Hazel and Fiver were feeding outside the wood with two friends. Blackberry, the rabbit with tipped ears who had been startled by Fiver the night before, had listened carefully to Hazel's description of the notice board, remarking that he had always felt sure that men left these things about to act as signs or messages of some kind, in the same way that rabbits left marks on runs and gaps. It was another neighbor, Dandelion, who had now brought the talk back to the Threarah and his indifference to Fiver's fear.

  "I don't know what I expected," said Hazel. "I'd never been near the Chief Rabbit before. But I thought, 'Well, even if he won't listen, at least no one cay say afterward that we didn't do our best to warn him. »

  "You're sure, then, that there's really something to be afraid of?"

  "I'm quite certain. I've always known Fiver, you see."

  Blackberry was about to reply when another rabbit came noisily through the thick dog's mercury in the wood, blundered down into the brambles and pushed his way up from the ditch. It was Bigwig.

  "Hello, Bigwig," said Hazel. "You're off duty?"

  "Off duty" said Bigwig, "and likely to remain off duty."

  "How do you mean?"

  "I've left the Owsla, that's what I mean."

  "Not on our account?"

  "You could say that. The Threarah's rather good at making himself unpleasant when he's been woken up at ni-Frith for what he considers a piece of trivial nonsense. He certainly knows how to get under your skin. I dare say a good many rabbits would have kept quiet and thought about keeping on the right side of the Chief, but I'm afraid I'm not much good at that. I told him that the Owsla's privileges didn't mean all that much to me in any case and that a strong rabbit could always do just as well by leaving the warren. He told me not to be impulsive and think it over, but I shan't stay. Lettuce-stealing isn't my idea of a jolly life, nor sentry duty in the burrow. I'm in a fine temper, I can tell you."

  "No one will steal lettuces soon," said Fiver quietly.

  "Oh, that's you, Fiver, is it?" said Bigwig, noticing him for the first time. "Good, I was coming to look for you. I've been thinking about what you said to the Chief Rabbit. Tell me, is it a sort of tremendous hoax to make yourself important, or is it true?"

  "It is true," said Fiver. "I wish it weren't."

  "Then you'll be leaving the warren?"

  They were all startled by the bluntness with which Bigwig went to the point. Dandelion muttered, "Leave the warren, Frithrah!" while Blackberry twitched his ears and looked very intently, first at Bigwig and then at Hazel.

  It was Hazel who replied. "Fiver and I will be leaving the warren tonight," he said deliberately. "I don't know exactly where we shall go, but we'll take anyone who's ready to come with us."

  "Right," said Bigwig, "then you can take me."

  The last thing Hazel had expected was the immediate support of a member of the Owsla. It crossed his mind that although Bigwig would certainly be a useful rabbit in a tight corner, he would also be a difficult one to get on with. He certainly would not want to do what he was told-or even asked-by an outskirter. "I don't care if he is in the Owsla," thought Hazel. "If we get away from the warren, I'm not going to let Bigwig run everything, or why bother to go?" But he answered only, "Good. We shall be glad to have you."

  He looked round at the other rabbits, who were all staring either at Bigwig or at himself. It was Blackberry who spoke next.

  "I think I'll come," he said. "I don't quite know whether it's you who've persuaded me, Fiver. But anyway, there are too many bucks in this warren, and it's pretty poor fun for any rabbit that's not in the Owsla. The funny thing is that you feel terrified to stay and I feel terrified to go. Foxes here, weasels there, Fiver in the middle, begone dull care!"

  He pulled out a burnet leaf and ate it slowly, concealing his fear as best he could; for all his instincts were warning him of the dangers in the unknown country beyond the warren.

  "If we believe Fiver," said Hazel, "it means that we think no rabbits at all ought to stay here. So between now and the time when we go, we ought to persuade as many as we can to join us."

  "I think there are one or two in the Owsla who might be worth sounding," said Bigwig. "If I can talk them over, they'll be with me when I join you tonight. But they won't come because of Fiver. They'll be juniors, discontented fellows like me. You need to have heard Fiver yourself to be convinced by him. He's convinced me. It's obvious that he's been sent some kind of message, and I believe in these things. I can't think why he didn't convince the Threarah."

  "Because the Threarah doesn't like anything he hasn't thought of for himself," answered Hazel. "But we can't bother with him any more now. We've got to try to collect some more rabbits and meet again here, fu Inlé. And we'll start fu Inlé, too: we can't wait longer. The danger's coming closer all the time-whatever it is-and, besides, the Threarah isn't going to like it if he finds out that you've been trying to get at rabbits in the Owsla, Bigwig. Neither is Captain Holly, I dare say. They won't mind odds and ends like us clearing off, but they won't want to lose you. If I were in your place, I'd be careful whom I picked to talk to."

  4. The Departure

  Now sir, young Fortinbras,

  Of unimproved mettle hot and full,

  Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there

  Sharked up a list of lawless resolutes

  For food and diet to some enterprise

  That hath a stomach in't.

  Shakespeare, Hamlet

  Fu Inlé means "after moonrise." Rabbits, of course, have no idea of precise time or of punctuality. In this respect they are much the same as primitive people, who often take several days over assembling for some purpose and then several more to get started. Before such people can act together, a kind of telepathic feeling has to flow through them and ripen to the point when they all know that they are ready to begin. Anyone who has seen the martins and swallows in September, assembling on the telephone wires, twittering, making short flights singly and in groups over the open, stubbly fields, returning to form longer and even longer lines above the yellowing verges of the lanes-the hundreds of individual birds merging and blending, in a mounting excitement, into swarms, and these swarms coming loosely and untidily together to create a great, unorganized flock, thick at the center and ragged at the edges, which breaks and re-forms continually like clouds or waves-until tha
t moment when the greater part (but not all) of them know that the time has come: they are off, and have begun once more that great southward flight which many will not survive; anyone seeing this has seen at work the current that flows (among creatures who think of themselves primarily as part of a group and only secondarily, if at all, as individuals) to fuse them together and impel them into action without conscious thought or will: has seen at work the angel which drove the First Crusade into Antioch and drives the lemmings into the sea.

  It was actually about an hour after moonrise and a good while before midnight when Hazel and Fiver once more came out of their burrow behind the brambles and slipped quietly along the bottom of the ditch. With them was a third rabbit, Hlao-Pipkin-a friend of Fiver. (Hlao means any small concavity in the grass where moisture may collect-e.g., the dimple formed by a dandelion or thistle cup.) He too was small, and inclined to be timid, and Hazel and Fiver had spent the greater part of their last evening in the warren in persuading him to join them. Pipkin had agreed rather hesitantly. He still felt extremely nervous about what might happen once they left the warren, and had decided that the best way to avoid trouble would be to keep close to Hazel and do exactly what he said.

  The three were still in the ditch when Hazel heard a movement above. He looked up quickly.

  "Who's there?" he said. "Dandelion?"

  "No, I'm Hawkbit," said the rabbit who was peering over the edge. He jumped down among them, landing rather heavily. "Do you remember me, Hazel? We were in the same burrow during the snow last winter. Dandelion told me you were going to leave the warren tonight. If you are, I'll come with you."

  Hazel could recall Hawkbit-a rather slow, stupid rabbit whose company for five snowbound days underground had been distinctly tedious. Still, he thought, this was no time to pick and choose. Although Bigwig might succeed in talking over one or two, most of the rabbits they could expect to join them would not come from the Owsla. They would be outskirters who were getting a thin time and wondering what to do about it. He was running over some of these in his mind when Dandelion appeared.

  "The sooner we're off the better, I reckon," said Dandelion. "I don't much like the look of things. After I'd persuaded Hawkbit here to join us, I was just starting to talk to a few more, when I found that Toadflax fellow had followed me down the run. 'I want to know what you're up to, he said, and I don't think he believed me when I told him I was only trying to find out whether there were any rabbits who wanted to leave the Warren. He asked me if I was sure I wasn't working up some kind of plot against the Threarah and he got awfully angry and suspicious. It put the wind up me, to tell you the truth, so I've just brought Hawkbit along and left it at that."

  "I don't blame you," said Hazel. "Knowing Toadflax, I'm surprised he didn't knock you over first and ask questions afterward. All the same, let's wait a little longer. Blackberry ought to be here soon."

  Time passed. They crouched in silence while the moon shadows moved northward in the grass. At last, just as Hazel was about to run down the slope to Blackberry's burrow, he saw him come out of his hole, followed by no less than three rabbits. One of these, Buckthorn, Hazel knew well. He was glad to see him, for he knew him for a tough, sturdy fellow who was considered certain to get into the Owsla as soon as he reached full weight.

  "But I dare say he's impatient," thought Hazel, "or he may have come off worst in some scuffle over a doe and taken it hard. Well, with him and Bigwig, at least we shan't be too badly off if we run into any fighting."

  He did not recognize the other two rabbits and when Blackberry told him their names-Speedwell and Acorn-he was none the wiser. But this was not surprising, for they were typical outskirters-thin-looking six-monthers, with the strained, wary look of those who are only too well used to the thin end of the stick. They looked curiously at Fiver. From what Blackberry had told them, they had been almost expecting to find Fiver foretelling doom in a poetic torrent. Instead, he seemed more calm and normal than the rest. The certainty of going had lifted a weight from Fiver.

  More time went slowly by. Blackberry scrambled up into the fern and then returned to the top of the bank, fidgeting nervously and half inclined to bolt at nothing. Hazel and Fiver remained in the ditch, nibbling halfheartedly at the dark grass. At last Hazel heard what he was listening for; a rabbit-or was it two? — approaching from the wood.

  A few moments later Bigwig was in the ditch. Behind him came a hefty, brisk-looking rabbit something over twelve months old. He was well known by sight to all the warren, for his fur was entirely gray, with patches of near-white that now caught the moonlight as he sat scratching himself without speaking. This was Silver, a nephew of the Threarah, who was serving his first month in the Owsla.

  Hazel could not help feeling relieved that Bigwig had brought only Silver-a quiet, straightforward fellow who had not yet really found his feet among the veterans. When Bigwig had spoken earlier of sounding out the Owsla, Hazel had been in two minds. It was only too likely that they would encounter dangers beyond the warren and that they would stand in need of some good fighters. Again, if Fiver was right and the whole warren was in imminent peril, then of course they ought to welcome any rabbit who was ready to join them. On the other hand, there seemed no point in taking particular pains to get hold of rabbits who were going to behave like Toadflax.

  "Wherever we settle down in the end," thought Hazel, "I'm determined to see that Pipkin and Fiver aren't sat on and cuffed around until they're ready to run any risk just to get away. But is Bigwig going to see it like that?"

  "You know Silver, don't you?" asked Bigwig, breaking in on his thoughts. "Apparently some of the younger fellows in the Owsla have been giving him a thin time-teasing him about his fur, you know, and saying he only got his place because of the Threarah. I thought I was going to get some more, but I suppose nearly all the Owsla feel they're very well off as they are."

  He looked about him. "I say, there aren't many here, are there? Do you think it's really worth going on with this idea?"

  Silver seemed about to speak when suddenly there was a pattering in the undergrowth above and three more rabbits came over the bank from the wood. Their movement was direct and purposeful, quite unlike the earlier, haphazard approach of those who were now gathered in the ditch. The largest of the three newcomers was in front and the other two followed him, as though under orders. Hazel, sensing at once that they had nothing in common with himself and his companions, started and sat up tensely. Fiver muttered in his ear, "Oh, Hazel, they've come to-" but broke off short. Bigwig turned toward them and stared, his nose working rapidly. The three came straight up to him. "Thlayli?" said the leader.

  "You know me perfectly well," replied Bigwig, "and I know you, Holly. What do you want?"

  "You're under arrest."

  "Under arrest? What do you mean? What for?"

  "Spreading dissension and inciting to mutiny. Silver, you're under arrest too, for failing to report to Toadflax this evening and causing your duty to devolve on a comrade. You're both to come with me."

  Immediately Bigwig fell upon him, scratching and kicking. Holly fought back. His followers closed in, looking for an opening to join the fight and pin Bigwig down. Suddenly, from the top of the bank, Buckthorn flung himself headlong into the scuffle, knocked one of the guards flying with a kick from his back legs and then closed with the other. He was followed a moment later by Dandelion, who landed full on the rabbit whom Buckthorn had kicked. Both guards broke clear, looked round for a moment and then leaped up the bank into the wood. Holly struggled free of Bigwig and crouched on his haunches, scuffling his front paws and growling, as rabbits will when angry. He was about to speak when Hazel faced him.

  "Go," said Hazel, firmly and quietly, "or we'll kill you."

  "Do you know what this means?" replied Holly. "I am Captain of Owsla. You know that, don't you?"

  "Go," repeated Hazel, "or you will be killed."

  "It is you who will be killed," replied Holly. Without anoth
er word he, too, went back up the bank and vanished into the wood.

  Dandelion was bleeding from the shoulder. He licked the wound for a few moments and then turned to Hazel.

  "They won't be long coming back, you know, Hazel," he said. "They've gone to turn out the Owsla, and then we'll be for it right enough."

  "We ought to go at once," said Fiver.

  "Yes, the time's come now, all right," replied Hazel. "Come on, down to the stream. Then we'll follow the bank-that'll help us to keep together."

  "If you'll take my advice-" began Bigwig.

  "If we stay here any longer I shan't be able to," answered Hazel.

  With Fiver beside him, he led the way out of the ditch and down the slope. In less than a minute the little band of rabbits had disappeared into the dim, moonlit night.

  5. In the Woods

  These young rabbits… must move out if they are to survive. In a wild and free state they… stray sometimes for miles… wandering until they find a suitable environment.

  R.M. Lockley, The Private Life of the Rabbit

  It was getting on toward moonset when they left the fields and entered the wood. Straggling, catching up with one another, keeping more or less together, they had wandered over half a mile down the fields, always following the course of the brook. Although Hazel guessed that they must now have gone further from the warren than any rabbit he had ever talked to, he was not sure whether they were yet safely away: and it was while he was wondering-not for the first time-whether he could hear sounds of pursuit that he first noticed the dark masses of the trees and the brook disappearing among them.