WHEN I came down the valley after trouting, the boys cried out that they had a baby Tarka. They had found it outside a field drain in the deer park, and had carried it home in a handkerchief.
A glance showed that the small, sinuous, brave-sly-eyed animal was no otter, but a stoat. The tip of its inchlong tail was dark brown, distinguishing it from a weasel. It was scarcely weaned. Its milk teeth were not yet hard. It made a shrill, chattering cry. Probably its mother had been trapped by one of the keepers, and it had wandered out in its hunger.
The boys declared it was an otter cub. Mother had said so. Farmer had said so. Their minds resisted readjustment. I said I thought it was a stoat; a little Swagdagger, not a baby Tarka.
‘Oh, I love it!’ cried the elder boy, aged seven, ecstatically.
‘ Better put it back where you found it,’ I retorted, irritable with too much to think about, which in turn had been caused by my own indolence.
‘Oh, I do love it!’ said the boy.
Half seriously I gave it the worst character: a bloodsucker, bird strangler, gnawer of rabbits’ eyes, eater of living flesh only.
‘But God made it,’ retorted the seven-year-old.
‘His religion,’ I explained to a friend, ‘comes entirely from his schooling, his parents having been impartial, noncommittal, even evasive about this profound problem.’ And turning to the boy, ‘How do you know God made it?’
‘You told me when I was four that God made trout and otters, so I thought God must have made this too,’ he replied. When sure that we were not laughing at him, but at me, he dared (being a very sensitive child) to ask again if he might keep it. Might he, please? Certainly, if he wanted to. He could always do what he liked.
It became for them ‘the dear one.’ After their bath (tepid) they came down in pyjamas to peer into the barrel and say good-night to it, where it lay curled in cotton wool beside a saucer of milk and bread. Such a darling little thing, was n’t it, Dad? Such sweet little paws and face, had n’t it, Mum? The elder boy hugged himself with joy. The next night it nipped his finger; he looked bewildered, then he scowled with mortification at the betrayal of his benevolent feelings, and gave the stoat to his brother, aged five.
The beast did not thrive. Occasionally I saw it trying to eat. It cluttered much, calling its parents. It was ill. Obviously it had been injured when they brought it home. I thought it would die soon of peritonitis; unless the Parson Jack Russell terrier, expert mouse snapper, secret-sly chicken slayer, got it first. The terrier, at every opportunity, and despite threats and thwacks of every kind, dashed to the barrel whenever he saw a chance.
Hearing or smelling the dog, the infant stoat would raise its long flat head, the shape of a hawk’s skull, and remain poised. It showed no fear (although it had fear). Weak, starved, soon to die, it did not cower or flinch, but waited with head upheld in the enemy’s direction.
Seeing its plight, the elder boy reclaimed it. We fed it on warm milk from an old fountain-pen filler. We wrapped it in cotton wool. He was heard praying at night for its recovery. Secretly, in the tenderest tones, while leaning cautiously over the barrel rim, he exhorted Swagdagger to live.
The fourth evening the terrier, whom no threat could daunt, got into the barrel. We hurried to the sounds of thumping, shoving, scrambling, chittering. He was lugged out and hurled away. There by the overturned saucer and crushed box stood the stoat, its head still upheld, but swaying on its neck.
In the morning it was curled on its side, a mite hardly big enough to fill the palm of the hand, languid with the chills of approaching death. I carried it in my trouser pocket, but soon ‘it was a-go,’ as the old people say of death in the West Country.
The seven-year-old appeared round the door, cheeks red, eyes wet with unhappiness. He would kill the dog. But why? God also made the dog. Oh, did God? The boy ran away, and hid; was observed shaking his fist at the sky; told his mother he would say no more prayers.
Later, when we buried ‘ the dear one’ under a rose tree, the boy became tranquil when it was suggested that he would perhaps see his friend again in a different form, but under the same sky. And the next day all was forgotten.