The Whimsical Goddess


A NEGRO man walked briskly along a ricefield bank at Twickenham Plantation, in the green Carolina low-country. A little distance away some other negroes were repairing a road, and, while they worked, three or four of the little mongrel dogs that almost all low-country negroes possess were trailing a rabbit in the swampy thickets. Suddenly the man on the ricefield bank, his eyes glaring with terror, yelled with all the force of his lungs and staggered back, clasping in his arms a clawing, spitting wildcat.

Now that was an occurrence so extraordinary, so utterly amazing, that it might well be called a miracle of nature. You may search the books of natural history and of sport from cover to cover, and in those that are of good repute you will find very few, if any, precedents for the thing that I have just related. Yet this thing happened. It may never have happened before and it may never happen again, but it happened this time; and, miracle of nature though it was, the way of its happening was simple enough when one came to study it out. The dogs trailing the rabbit jumped a wildcat in the thickets. The cat, hearing the voices of the men who were repairing the road, ran in the opposite direction. This brought it almost at once to the ricefield bank. Along that narrow parapet, thickly grown with bushes and vines, it bounded swiftly, jumping high to clear the rank weeds, and ran full tilt into the negro, in all likelihood landing fairly on the man’s chest. Neither was aware of the other until the moment of collision, and then it was too late, for instantly man and wildcat, equally terrified, were locked in close embrace. The negro, never doubting that he was being attacked by a furious wild beast, believed that his one chance lay in throttling it, so he crushed the cat to his breast with arms of steel, screaming as few men have ever screamed before. Within a few minutes the men who had been working on the road reached him, yet by that, time his shirt had been torn to shreds and all the lower parts of his body were bloody. But he kept his deadly grip on the cat to the end, and the rescuing party killed it.

Here is something for the slaves of rule and rote to gnash their teeth about. There is no more firmly established rule in the books than the rule that the wildcat never attacks man, and it is virtually an axiom that all tales of desperate encounters between men and wildcats are false. Yet here is one tale of such an encounter which is not false but true; and all the dozens of authorities who have affirmed that no wildcat ever yet sprang upon a man cannot alter the fact that this wildcat did spring upon this man — though most unwillingly.

The incident is memorable, not mainly for the sake of its fine dramatic quality, or even primarily because it is a matter of interest to naturalists and to all who care about the lore of wild things, but because it is so excellent an illustration of the infinite variety, not merely of the forms, but of the very soul of Nature. Rules and laws we may lay down concerning her, setting forth that Nature does thus and so, that this is her way, her chosen custom, her immemorial usage. But she will shatter now and then the most firmly fixed of those rules; she will disobey now and then the most sacred axioms of the books; once in a while, as if just for the fun of it, she will laugh the most learned of her interpreters to scorn. For she is a whimsical goddess when all is said and done; and therein lies, for all who are in any true sense her lovers, half, at least,

— the dearer, more precious half, — of her mystical, ageless charm.


One June morning, while exploring the jungle-like woods on one of the islands that fringe this coast, — the kind of wood, as Stevenson says somewhere, for murderers to crawl among,

— I was suddenly aware that there were murderers about. At least, they would be murderers if I gave them the chance, for the fangs of the cottonmouth moccasin can kill a man, and there were moccasins all around me. To the right was a big, thick-bodied, wicked-looking fellow, half concealed by a tuft of grass; to the left was another, lying arrogantly in the open on the warm sand; ahead were two more, under a small cassena bush; and, glancing back, I saw lhat I must have come within a foot or two of stepping on one of the ugly reptiles as I passed, unconscious of peril, into the very midst of them.

The discovery brought a thrill by no means pleasant. The danger seemed virtually over now that I was aware of the snakes’ presence, for henceforward I would watch my steps carefully until I was away from the place. But it had been too narrow an escape to look back upon with any sense of enjoyment; and my heart was still beating a little faster than usual when I discovered that close to my foot, close enough, I thought, to strike me if it chose, lay another big, brown, mottled cotton-mouth which until that instant I had not seen. I jumped away quickly, and perhaps rashly, since it was scarcely safe to move at all in that reptilian headquarters without first scanning carefully the spot on which one planned to place his foot. Then, seizing a stick which lay within reach, I leaned over and with three or four strokes killed the snake that had given me such a scare.

Up to this moment all the moccasins round about me — and there were eight or ten of them within view, and undoubtedly others amid the vines and fallen palmetto branches — had lain passive, or had merely crawled sluggishly about their business. But no sooner had I killed this serpent, than the one lying nearest it raised its hideous, diamond-shaped head , opened its wide jaws till I could see the white lining within that gives the cotton-mouth its name, and started for me. I still held my stick, and it was a good stout one. There could be no appreciable danger unless I took to my heels, in which case I might step on some hidden reptile and be bitten. So I simply waited until the snake, with lifted head and swiftly vibrating tail, had crossed the strip of sand eight or ten feet wide which it had to traverse before it came within reach; and then, without moving from my tracks, I killed it as I had killed the other. I looked about me, not without some nervousness, to see whether there were to be other attacks; and presently, feeling that I had had my fill of herpetology for one day, I left the place very discreetly, poking about with my stick to make sure that no assassin lurked in the weeds and grass through which I must make my passage.

Why did that moccasin of the island jungle attack me? For that it did attack me there is not a particle of doubt, and it was not the moccasin’s fault that it lacked speed enough to get within the guard of my stick before I could strike it down. I have never known any other snake to make deliberately and of its own choice an attack upon a human being. One hears tales, it is true, of snakes charging viciously from ambush; but these are either pure inventions or products of lively imaginations working at fever-heat under the stimulus of the strange, tingling panic which the mere sight of a snake of any sort so often engenders. Our North American serpents are not an aggressive race in their behavior toward man. Even the great diamond-back rattler, the bravest of them all, contents himself with a defiant defensive. Almost any of the snakes, of course, will fight if cornered — almost any of them except the dangerous-looking spreading adder, feared by most people as among the deadliest of all the crawling tribes, but in reality as harmless as a new-born babe and as gentle as any cooing dove. Also, there are many snakes which, suddenly finding themselves in close proximity to a human foot or leg, will lunge at it quickly before gliding away; but that, of course, is not at all the same thing as a deliberate attack such as the one which I have described, an attack which remains unique in my experience and for which I can find in the experience of others no wellestablished parallel. Was the first snake that I killed the mate of the other, which thereupon gave up its own life in a gallant attempt to avenge the murder? That is a good sentimental theory, and it is the theory that many would adopt unhesitatingly; but there are difficulties in the way of that explanation, and I am slow to indorse it. Perhaps in sober truth there is no explanation at all, save simply that this was another whim of Nature, that whimsical goddess. Nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine of the cotton-mouth moccasins she has made would have fled from me or, at least, have left me alone. But she had made the ten-thousandth one of sterner stuff, to show me that day in the island woods the vanity of dogmatism, and to remind me that she is her own mistress after all.


There was — and I hope still is — a sharp-shinned hawk with whom I had some acquaintance, who might in much the same sense be termed the ten-thousandth sharp-shinned hawk. He came to my garden last winter, as others of his kind have been coming every winter; welcome arrivals always, for at least three reasons. First, because the sharpshinned hawk, or blue darter as he is sometimes more appropriately called hereabouts, is a perfect expression of his type, so wonderfully and so beautifully made for his appointed work in the world, that the dullest mind must recognize him as a masterpiece. Second, because his favorite food when he comes to the garden is the English sparrow. And third, because the sight of a hawk of any kind here in the city brings with it always a vision of the countryside, and that is a pleasant experience for the mind, as if a fresh, sweet wind blew through it.

When I first saw this falcon perched on the naked topmost branch of the tall elm which is the chosen watch-tower of the hawks that visit the garden, I noticed nothing to distinguish him from all the others of his species that I had known. He seemed no larger than the average; he was as slim and rakish-looking as any other, but no more so; he had the same air of alertness, but in no greater degree than the normal. Yet, as time proved, this sharp-shinned hawk was such a one as had never visited the garden before in all my long experience of the spot. The others that I had known were just the everyday sort, the norm, the type of the race. This one was a d’Artagnan among ordinary bravos, a white-plumed Henri Quatre among common kings, a Grahame of Claverhouse, a Rupert, a Murat.

He had not been about the place long before he gave me a hint of his quality. A flock of English sparrows foraging on the lawn suddenly took fright and fled helter-skelter into a thicket of privet nearby. I knew what that meant, for I had seen the same performance many times repeated; and I said to myself, meanwhile glancing up to see the hawk,

‘ Brother Blue Darter, you were too slow that time.’ Every sparrow had reached the thicket, and nine times out of ten the little vagabonds are safe when once they have gained the shelter of those closely interlacing branches.

But this time I — and doubtless they also — reckoned without sufficient knowledge of our falcon. Down like a little thunderbolt he came, all in the twinkling of an eye and in far less time than I have taken to tell it. The last sparrow was scarcely under cover before the hawk was at the thicket’s green edge. I saw him swerve slightly just before reaching the outmost barrier of twigs, and the next instant he was within the thicket itself and fairly in among the sparrows. Above the fluttering of wings I heard a shrill cry; and when in a moment the hawk emerged, he bore a tousled little gray body clutched in his sharp talons.

That was the neatest raid and altogether the most skillful piece of work of its sort that I had ever seen. It set this hawk apart at once as one whose activities would be worth watching; for he had done what I had never seen one of these hawks do before — he had outwitted the sparrows at their own game and on their own ground, following them into their fortress, twisting and turning with extraordinary skill and address through its maze of twigs and branches, and carrying out the whole manœuvre so adroitly that there was scarcely any disturbance of the thicket’s foliage, and, except for the fluttering of the frightened sparrows’ wings, there was no sound.

Usually the hovering or swooping hawk, perceiving that the sparrows on which he had his eye have gained the thicket’s shelter, gives them up as lost and passes on in search of others less wary. Occasionally, if he is very close upon the quarry, I have seen a hawk smash head-on into the thicket after the fleeing finches, either unable to check his descent in time or else actually trying to break his way through the stiff barricade of twigs by the force of the impact. But these smashing assaults, though fine and spirited spectacles for the onlooker, are seldom fruitful of results. The hawk usually gets more or less tangled up in the twigs; in the moment or two which he requires to extricate himself, the sparrows have left for parts unknown; and Mr. Blue Darter, in spite of all the fine fury of his charge and all the commotion he has caused, presently takes himself off empty-handed, and probably in very bad humor.

I wondered whether my d’Artagnan of blue darters would repeat his exploit — whether it was really an indication of exceptional talent or merely a tour de force. He repeated it several times to my knowledge, and doubtless many times when I did not chance to see him, and I find in some notes which I put down at the time concerning his achievements and methods that for a period of several weeks the English sparrows disappeared almost completely. Indeed, my notebook is not needed to recall that memorable fact. It was something unique in the garden’s history, and it was due entirely to this blue darter’s unparalleled effectiveness as an engine of destruction.

But, pleasant as it was to be rid of the alien pests, there was a fly in the ointment. For the hawk, finding that sparrows had become a rarity, ceased to confine himself to sparrow-meat, as is the laudable custom of the sharp-shin when he comes to town — perhaps because these city gamins of the feathered world, less accustomed to the ways of hawks than most other birds, are most easily captured. This blue darter, when he had made a scarcity of sparrows, forgot the ancient rule of immunity for the other garden birds and abused my hospitality by raiding cardinals, mockingbirds, and others of the garden’s privileged folk. Just as I had almost made up my mind to fire a shot somewhere near him, as a hint that he had outworn his welcome, he took his departure and was seen no more that season. If he comes again he will be welcome; for the sparrows are now as numerous as ever, and there is need of his efficient beak and claw.1

It is only by luck, as in this instance, or else by diligent searching, that one comes across a case of marked individuality as striking as that of the hawk whose deeds are here celebrated. The outstanding individual is lost sight of among the common run; and if you are fortunate enough to meet with him and record his doings, you may be called a Münchausen for your pains. Nor can the world be blamed for being skeptical, for indeed it has need of caution in such matters. There is a strong temptation to make heroes out of animals upon

very flimsy evidence, which is all very well if one is writing an animal novel, but not at all well if one is trying to write sober natural history. A real hero — in the sense of unusual efficiency — I believe this memorable blue darter of the garden was; for I saw him often during a considerable period and could compare him with many others studied in the same place and under the same conditions. But this is the only instance of the sort in my experience that I am sure of. Certainly the island moccasin was no hero in this meaning of the word, but a fool whose folly cost him very dear.

The observer, coming upon some apparent case of exceptional physical or mental achievement in the wild world of Nature’s creatures, must go very slowly in drawing conclusions. What may seem, upon a casual or limited acquaintance, to be unusual courage or skill or intelligence in some mammal or bird may be, in reality, nothing of the sort, but simply the result of circumstances of the moment, imperceptible to, or at least not perceived by, the observer. The negro on the ricefield bank, when the wildcat leaped upon him, would have taken oath that here was a wildcat with courage enough to attack a man; yet that Twickenham wildcat was as much of a coward as wildcats in general are. Nature, the fanciful goddess, was in jocund mood that morning. She lurked in the green thickets of Twickenham, and her bright eyes were mischievous and merry. It may be that the day, or the hour, before, she had made a shattering earthquake in Asia or had sent a great forest in Canada roaring to destruction in a red inferno of towering flame; but now her humor was light and gay, she must have a bit of fun. So, at a stamp of her foot, there came about that amazing, almost incredible encounter on the ricefield bank — for all its strangeness, nothing more than the perfectly natural result of an unusual combination of circumstances, an extraordinary sequence of events. Here, despite appearances, was no animal hero, no Bayard among wildcats, fit subject for some eager sentimentalist’s pen. Here, simply, was Nature — that beautiful, wayward Undine, as Hudson, one of the dearest of her lovers, calls her — playing a prank for the fun of it, laughing slyly the while amid the green sheltering leaves.


For the benefit of some gray squirrels which had taken up their abode in the garden, I had placed a stout box, with a hole in its end, about twenty feet up in a cedar tree. That was in autumn; and the following spring—the squirrels apparently not caring for the box, perhaps because its doorway was too large to suit their taste — I conceived the suspicion that it had become a domicile for rats. So I sent Ben Goff, colored factotum and remarkably spry for one who recalls the bombardment of Fort Sumter, up into the tree to investigate. The quest was almost fatal for Ben. He peered into the hole in the end of the box and nearly fell out of the tree. Ben is not lacking in respect for the recorded wisdom of the ages, but he prefers the evidence of his own senses every time. Neither science nor reason could convince him that the animal which he had seen in the box was not a pig. It might be true, he agreed, that no pig as yet known to philosophy was equipped for climbing trees or for flying. Nevertheless, he maintained with all the emphasis of unshakable conviction that a pig had somehow entered that box twenty feet up in the cedar, and was at that instant lying in the box with its head facing the entrance and its jaws wide open.

I doubt whether he was ever fully persuaded of his error; for when I had climbed the tree and looked cautiously into the box and discovered that its occupant. was a ’possum, I was too much pleased at the discovery to disturb the animal’s siesta any further and thus run the risk of making him discontented with the garden as a home. How he had come there through miles of city streets was, and still is, a mystery, but I wanted him to remain. For he too brought that vision of the quiet woods that is so refreshing to the spirit; and it was very pleasant to know that, here in the heart of the city, even some of the shy fourfooted woods folk might sometimes come and go unknown to the world of men.

So I left him in peace, and doubtless in a few minutes he was once more asleep and enjoying his long nap, which probably lasted till dark. Though I never saw him again by day, he lived in and about the garden all that spring and summer, fairly prosperous, very unobtrusive, and for a long time doing no harm to anyone. There were hens in the chicken-yard that he might have raided, but he never did so. He was content, it seemed, to regale himself each night upon the contents of the garbage-cans of the neighborhood; an easy and unadventurous life, its even tenor disturbed only occasionally by my dog who, coming upon him now and then between sunset and sunrise, compelled him to ascend some convenient, tree or fence rather more rapidly than comported with the ’possum’s lazy and leisurely habits. But after a while my vegetable patch in the backyard began to suffer. It seemed reasonable to suspect Br’er Possum; and when the Airedale’s excited barking announced that he had ‘ treed ’ the midnight wanderer again, I got a light, went to the spot, and, without injuring him at all, took the suspect into custody. I would keep him prisoner over night, I thought, and then, by examining the vegetable patch in the morning, establish his guilt or innocence. He was ‘playing ’possum’ when I placed him in a small patent chicken-coop of galvanized iron, feigning death after the strange manner of his kind; and when I left him he was curled up in the coop, never moving a limb or even an eyelid, though, as usual, the ruse was imperfect, since, watching him closely, one could see the slight movement of his flanks as he breathed. He was as much alive as I was when I bade him good-night; yet in the morning he was dead.

Why did he die? A novelist neighbor to whom the question was put declared instantly that it was a clear case of a broken heart. There spoke the romantic temperament, as was right and proper in a novelist; but this is natural history, not romance. Some mammals and some birds have been known to die of fright; but of all living things on this continent the ’possum is the last of which this might be expected. He is the sole survivor in North America of an ancient race, masters of the world at one time far back in geological history, but long since surpassed, conquered, and superseded by higher forms of life everywhere save in Australia. There the primitive and antiquated marsupial family continued to flourish in great abundance and variety even down to our own day, because Australia was cut off by the sea from the Asiatic mainland at about the time when the marsupials were at the height of their glory, and those of them inhabiting that vast island were thus saved from competition with the more highly developed, more aggressive mammalian types that presently took possession of the rest of the world and gradually supplanted all the marsupials in it except our ’possum and certain cousins of his in Central and South America. Hence, of all the fourfooted inhabitants of this continent, the ’possum stands lowest in physical structure; and since the most highly organized animals — as the biologists phrase it — are the most high-strung, the most sensitive, the most subject to nervous shock, a ’possum should be the very last of all to flicker out as a result of the impact of some unaccustomed, frightening experience upon his nervous system or upon his crude, slowfunctioning rudiment of a mind.

Experience confirms this reasoning. It would be hard to imagine anything that ought to be more terrifying to the victim, anything better calculated to freeze the very marrow in his bones, than a typical ’possum hunt. Probably there is no other form of the chase practised in America which in this respect can be compared with it. You must put yourself in the victim’s place. For the hunted ’possum the end does not come suddenly in the form of a bullet from some hidden foe lurking in ambush, or even as the climax of a swift flight through the woods before pursuing hounds and horsemen. Slow, lumbering creature that he is, he must take to a tree when the clamor of the dogs draws near in the night; and he huddles helpless on a branch while beneath him bedlam reigns, the yells of the negroes and the yelping of their curs resounding all about him, and the flaring torches— which the wild things fear most of all the deviltries of man — obliterating the friendly darkness.

And this is but the prelude. He will be taken alive if the hunters can contrive it, so that he may be fattened for the feast. Presently he is either shaken out of the tree by some agile negro who climbs up into it, or else the tree is felled and he falls with it, clutching wildly at its branches. The eager dogs are upon him in an instant, but even this is not the end. Rescued from their jaws, he is either thrust into a sack or else is borne through the woods suspended, head down, from a split stick snapped onto his tail in such a way as to hold him helpless. In such fashion as this have countless ’possums come to the end of the long trail that leads, not to the persimmon tree, but to the pot — surely an ordeal that ought to dry up the springs of life and strike the victim dead from terror if anything could. Yet I never heard of a ’possum that thus gave up the ghost; and many of them, within a quarter of an hour after they are placed in the fattening coop on the return of the hunters, have already so far recovered their equanimity as to eat with great, relish sweet potatoes or tablescraps or any other edible thing that is placed in the coop with them.

Hence, to conclude that this ’possum of my garden perished as the result of a sudden access of fear seems contrary to all the inferences to be drawn from ’possum history, to all the implications of ’possum lore, and to the very constitution of the animal itself. Yet, if fear did not kill him, I do not know what did; for it is hardly conceivable that he feigned death so earnestly as actually to induce death; and no other explanation fits the case.

There is nothing for it, I think, but to say that here was Nature in capricious mood again, snapping her fingers at rule and law, making sport of age-long custom and the learning that men put into books. It was a whim of the whimsical goddess to have it happen so, and so it did happen, though all experience and all logic forbade it. For no better cause than this, for no deeper reason — so far as we may discover — than the infinite and entrancing variability of Nature’s inmost soul, a thousand things happen every day, every hour, every instant, in the wild world, for which there will be found no warrant in the learned treatises wherein the ways and usages of the wild world and the theories and laws that underlie them are learnedly set forth.

Who will complain of these quips and pranks? Certain crabbed professors, no doubt, who spend their lives within four walls, reducing everything to formulæ, and who are vastly annoyed to see their laborious theories upset. But surely not those for whom sunsets glow and nonpareils flash their colors in the light and the water hyacinth paints a single golden spot upon a single petal of her lilac bloom to make loveliness yet more lovely.

  1. It is really an arbitrary assumption to assign this hawk to the masculine gender. The sexes are identical as to plumage, but the female is generally a little larger than her lord. Perhaps my feathered d’Artagnan was a Boadicea,—THE AUTHOR.