The moment came. The fox had been found in a spinney running down to Withy Brook, and his race for life had begun. With a happy shout, the hunt was up and off in a twinkling, and the stranger and I were left alone on the broad common.
I had scanned him furtively as he stood near me; a tall, slightly build man of about fifty, with perfectly white hair, and strangely gentle blue eyes. There was a curious, sad distinction over him, and he had watched the scene with a smile of blended humour and pity.
Turning to me, as we were left alone, and speaking almost as though to himself: “It is a strange sight,” he said with a sigh. “I wonder if it seems as strange to you? Think of all those grown-up, so-called civilized people being so ferociously intent on chasing one poor little animal for its life—and feeling, when at last the huntsman holds up his poor brush, with absurd pride (if indeed the fox is not too sly for them), that they have really done something clever, in that with so many horses and dogs and so much noise, they have actually contrived to catch and kill one fox!”
“It is strange!” I said, for I had been thinking just that very thing.
“Of course, they always tell you,” he continued, as we took the road together, “that the fox really enjoys being hunted, and that he feels his occupation gone if there are no hounds to track him, and finally to tear him to pieces. What wonderful stories human nature will tell itself in its own justification! Can one imagine any created thing enjoying being pursued for its life, with all that loud terror of men and horses and savage dogs at its heels? No doubt—if we can imagine even a fox so self-conscious—it would take a certain pride in its own cunning and skill, if the whole thing were a game; but a race with death is too deadly in earnest for a fox even to relish his own stratagems. Happily for the fox, it is probable that he does not feel so much for himself as some of us feel for him; but any one who knows the wild things knows too what terror they are capable of feeling, and how the fear of death is always with them. No! you may be sure that a fox prefers a cosy hen-roost to the finest run with the hounds ever made.”
“But even if he should enjoy being hunted,” I added, “the even stranger thing to me is that civilized men and women should enjoy hunting him.”
“Isn’t it strange?” answered my companion eagerly, his face lighting up at finding a sympathizer. “When will people realize that there is so much more fun in studying wild things than in killing them!...”
He stopped suddenly in his walk, to gather a small weed which had caught his quick eye by the roadside, and which he examined for a moment through a little pocket microscope which I noticed, hanging like an eyeglass round his neck, and which I learned afterward quite affectionately to associate with him. Then, as we walked on, he remarked: