The blow, full on the forehead, did not break his neck; but it ought to have done. It cast him clean over backwards out of his own front-door, where he fell down the bank, and was received, all his little short paws scrambling for a hold, by a thistle, and would have told all the world, with a thin, high squeak, what he had sat on, if the squeak had not frozen between his chisel teeth.
There had shot out of the hole, and back, a Thing. It might have been the thick end of a whip-lash or a spring, and, like a spring, as it recoiled it coiled, and was still.
The bank-vole saw. Most entirely did he see, and felt no joy in the seeing, either. Indeed, there was no room for mistake in the zigzag black chain down the back, in the unspeakably cruel, fixed stare of the glassy, lidless eyes, in the short head and flat cranium of the true viper—viper, adder, or whatever you like to call the calamity without legs, whose other name is death.
Now, bank-voles know all about vipers. They have to; they die, else. They die anyway; but no matter, for they are small and very many. Also, vipers know all about voles, field and bank; they specialize in ’em!
But our bank-vole knew all about the “freezing” game, too, and he “froze.” My word, how that little beggar was still, so utterly bereft of movement that a fly settled upon him—about the first and the last that would, I should judge! And if a learned native had come along the road at that moment—on tiptoe, of course—he would have said the viper had hypnotized friend vole with fear. Hypnotize your grandmother! But you may take it from me that serpent thing was playing his game, too. He was “freezing” to induce the quarry to move and give himself away, because, since the vole was motionless, he had no idea where the little fellow was, although he seemed to be looking straight at him—in that execrable way snakes have of seeming to look straight at everything.
You think it was a battle of patience? W-e-ll, maybe. Maybe, too, it was a battle of nerves. I like to think so, anyway, for that snake-servant of the Devil had none, and the bank-vole had; and the bank-voices broke under the awful tension—or seemed to—and the bank-vole broke the terrifying spell. Also, he broke the silence.
Away down the ditch he went, bouncing like a tiny ball of dark thistle-down, all in and out among the vegetation, which, worse luck for him, the ditch being under the accursed shadow of the firs, was scanty. And as he galloped he squeaked three times—like a little needle stabbing the late afternoon silence, it was.
His removal was one kind of quick dodge in the art of quitting; that of the viper another, and a very beastly one. The crawling thing was not much more than one-tenth of a second after the poor bank-vole in getting under way, and the rest was a—was a—oh, anything you please! I call it a sliding flicker that you rather “felt” than saw. Also, the thing rustled horribly, and Fact can say what she likes. I swear it shot along quite flat, crawling, not undulating; but, ough! what a lightning, footless, legless crawl! No wonder the poor little devil of a bank-vole squeaked! The wonder was he didn’t faint on the spot, for he knew what was coming.