This chapter is from the "Kittens: A Family Chronicle" book, by Svend Fleuron.
Black, shadowed by "Terror," walks straight towards the village copse; a little wilderness of elms and ashes, with a thick undergrowth of nettles, meadow-sweet, and buttercups. A flower-bedecked box-thorn hedge guides them from the fields into the twisting wood-scented tunnels, where a subdued greenish glimmer succeeds the strong white light of the meadow.
From a poplar over in the corner are heard gurglings and flutterings; the young crows, already big and able to fly, are receiving their first beakful of breakfast.
Black and Tiny sit down and listen eagerly. . . . Suddenly an old she-hare, homeward bound, comes running along the path towards them. At the sight of the giant animal "Terror" rushes off into hiding, but Black puts on his war-paint and stands his ground: he raises his back and shows his teeth, hoists his tail and erects a stiff bulwark of "brushes" all over him.
The hare stamps his forefoot on the ground; then vanishes like the wind.
Before Black has quite recovered from this shock he gets another: his enemy the old crow has spotted him, and hangs poised in the tree-top.
A horrid red-green haze overspreads "Madness'" eyes; he shakes and quivers all over his body each time the bird utters its loud, grating cry.
He hates that crow! His skill in climbing; his courage in attack; his swiftness of spring; are useless against it. Noisy and bragging, conscious of its enemy's powerless-ness, it balances high up in the air, shouting to the whole world that he, the cat, is about, that he is on the warpath!
Black's whiskers quiver; he growls with suppressed savagery and passion. . . . How he would like to catch that crow; torture it, eat it—eat it very slowly! . . .
Now he slips into hiding in a burdock clump and waits patiently for the squalling devil's curiosity to subside.
A blackbird whistles from a willow and a magpie warbles from the copse; he follows carefully by means of sounds what is happening . . . and when all is quiet again, he sneaks on once more—with his faithful follower at his tail-end.
A strong, earthy smell mingled with the scent of flowers fills the tunnels. The two cats have constant difficulty in breathing, and again make towards the outskirts of the copse.
"Madness" is already making for the boundary-hedge when he suddenly sees a young crow, with something heavy in its beak, flap into the top of an elder tree. His glance grows as black as a thunder-cloud—and without a second's hesitation he leaps back from the hawthorn and gallops to the tree.
"Terror" patters in his wake . . . until he reaches the root of the elder, where he sits up on his hind legs and watches the ascent.
Black climbs rapidly with short, agile springs. When he is half-way up the young crow flies away to another treetop. . . .
Black tries to follow by means of the lateral branches, but finding none of these strong enough to bear, he is compelled to descend to the bottom and begin all over again at the next tree.
The pursuit is carried on noiselessly. The bird has no suspicion that it is being pursued; otherwise its wild war-cry would begin instantly.
The elders are half grown and rather difficult to climb. Nevertheless, the cat's zeal is unabated; although he has soon cantered up and down three of them—but then, trees are for him nothing more formidable than extra steep hills.
In the fourth elder he gives up, and hangs panting, with claws anchored in the stem— while brother Tiny waits below, wildly excited as to the result of the expedition.
Very often whilst waiting in this same manner "Terror" has received his—in his opinion —well-earned reward in the shape of a dropped egg; or a wretched fledgling bird, which, horrified by the sight of the two evil, greedy eyes rising over the side of the nest, has flapped vainly into space on its half-formed wings, leaving Black to devour its helpless brothers and sisters. All such windfalls Tiny takes as thank-offerings from his big brother and promptly puts them out of sight. . . .
Was dear old "Madness" about to make another haul? The poltroon knows well that in any case there is nothing to do but sit and wait!
Whilst doing so, he dares not for his life make a sound—not the least hint of a "miauw!" Once, long ago, he did so—the next moment "Madness" left his ambush and fell on him tooth and nail. Tiny supposed at first that he was being attacked in mistake for the quarry. Would he be eaten? But no, he should only keep his mouth shut!
After a long "breather," the climber un-clamps himself and resumes his progress through the treetops. He comes soon to a place where the trees stand extra close together, so that Tiny constantly receives twigs and bits of bark in his face. Under this treatment the little rogue's keenness gradually diminishes—nothing good to eat comes down!
By chance Black stumbles on the tree where the crow's nest is situated. Walking along a cross branch he lowers himself into it. It is beautifully soft and comfortable—but, alas! long since empty. A good idea strikes him . . . the sunshine is so gloriously warm up here . . . why not take his midday nap in the nest!
He lies down and, shutting his eyes, falls into a half-doze, without taking the slightest regard for Tiny, who sits patiently waiting below. Comfortably rolled up on his side, his nose thrust between his thighs, he is wafted dreamily through space.
The sun goes gratefully down, saturating his coat with warmth and filling his mind and body with content. The rushing of the wind and the sighing of the long curved branches add to the sensuous enjoyment of his slumber. . . .
He has always loved thus to swing and sway. At home at the burial-mound his favourite position is right at the very top of the little, wind-blown poplar. On the occasions when he has quarrelled with all the rest he likes to creep up there, and sit like a marten, with his paws drawn well in under him. For hours at a time he sits there with wrinkled scruff and half-shut eyes, enjoying the view out over the undulating land. At long intervals he lowers his head and peeps solemnly down, like an owl waking from sleep.
"Terror" finds the wait endless! And the only explanation he can think of for his brother's lengthy residence above is that he has found something exceptionally good. "Terror's" large, wondering eyes sparkle with anticipation and excitement ... at the worst he is sure to get a few bones or feathers! He keeps scratching his claws impatiently on the tree-trunk; attempts also to clamber up, but soon gives it up as hopeless.
Suddenly his spine tingles with fear; he hears the old crow's hateful, angry shout—he
scurries away and hides in the cornfield. Black, also, jumps up hurriedly. He leaps out of the nest and clings to the trunk beneath, while with flattened ears he peers scowlingly into the air. . . .
Yes, there is the beast, hanging above him with its black wings outstretched. It opens its beak and shrieks mockingly down at him. It's black, glittering eyes follow him viciously, totally unabashed by his own raging, murderous glare.
"Madness" reaches a difficult fork in the tree and hesitates. . . .
The crow instantly seizes the opportunity!
Conscious of its superiority in the air, it hurtles down upon him. The cunning bird has long ago noticed that Black is an earth-bound animal—and now he has been so foolhardy as to leave the ground and venture up into his opponent's hunting-ground—yes, into its very nest—he should soon be made to regret his insolence!
The old crow is also strongly influenced by the prospect of an easy victory and a good feast afterwards. With all its might it fastens its claws in the black cat's shoulder.
The shock shakes Black from the fork, but he does not lose his balance; he just slides down backwards until he reaches an out-jutting branch. Clinging to this with his fore-paws, he uses his back legs to such good effect, that the crow is forced to let go his hold.
The kitten feels no fear; on the contrary, he is filled with hate. The fury of madness flames in his eyes, and a white scum begins to froth round his mouth.
The crow sits just before him on the branch, making vicious pecks at his nose and eyes in the hope of overbalancing him. Suddenly Black gathers his back legs beneath him and, in the same moment that his enemy makes a fresh dart at him, launches himself forward.
The old crow is swept helplessly backwards by the reckless fury of the assault. The next moment they are both whirling through the air towards the ground.
Black, however, knows nothing of his. He is utterly engrossed in the large, warm piece of meat, into which he now plunges his hind claws also, biting and tearing all the while at the bird's neck-feathers with his short, pointed teeth.
They crash to the earth . . . but continue fighting with unabated fury, wrestling and rolling over and over, feathers and fur-tufts flying in all directions.
The crow caws hoarsely, and struggles to break away from the kitten, whose fighting prowess it has so disastrously underestimated.
With widespread tail-feathers and frantically flapping wings it tries in vain to regain its feet, and shake off its maddened little opponent. It bites and pecks unceasingly at Black's fur, aiming cunningly at the soft places; for it knows by instinct the cat's most vulnerable points—eyes and nose.
But Black does not budge until the last breath is squeezed from the crow's lifeless body.
"Madness," having killed his foe, straightway sits down and begins gnawing its head. At the sound of the crunching several of the other kittens, who have watched terror-stricken the great black clump flutter through the air, understand at last the nature of the situation.
Big rushes to the spot with giant leaps; Grey sneaks cautiously after and springs upon the spoil, as if she herself had made the coup. "Terror" swaggers from his hiding-place and fixes his teeth in a wing, the toughness of which almost shakes his conviction that he is the very devil of a fellow!