Watership Down
by Richard Adams

These are stories about the legendary hero of rabbits, El-ahrairah, and his trusty companion, Rabscuttle — as told by Dandelion to his friends Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Pipkin, and others. Important Lapine (rabbit) words: owsla = guards; fighters, silflay = to graze for food, elil = all natural enemies of rabbits, Frith = the lord Sun, hrududu = any motor vehicle.


15. The Story of the King’s Lettuce

Don Alfonso: ‘Eccovi il medico, signore belle.’

Ferrando and Guglielmo: ‘Despina in maschera, che triste pelle!’

Lorenzo da Ponte Cost fan Tutte

‘They say that there was a time when El-ahrairah and his followers lost all their luck. Their enemies drove them out and they were forced to live down in the marshes of Kelfazin. Now where the marshes of Kelfazin may be I do not know, but at the time when El-ahrairah and his followers were living there, of all the dreary places in the world they were the dreariest. There was no food but coarse grass and even the grass was mixed with bitter rushes and docks. The ground was too wet for digging: the water stood in any hole that was made. But all the other animals had grown so suspicious of El-ahrairah and his tricks that they would not let him out of that wretched country and every day Prince Rainbow used to come walking through the marshes to make sure that El-ahrairah was still there. Prince Rainbow had the power of the sky and the power of the hills and Frith had told him to order the world as he thought best.

‘One day, when Prince Rainbow was coming through the marshes, El-ahrairah went up to him and said, “Prince Rainbow, my people are cold and cannot get underground because of the wet. Their food is so dull and poor that they will be ill when the bad weather comes. Why do you keep us here against our will? We do no harm.”

‘ “El-ahrairah,” replied Prince Rainbow, “all the animals know that you are a thief and a trickster. Now your tricks have caught up with you and you have to live here until you can persuade us that you will be an honest rabbit.”

‘ “Then we shall never get out,” said El-ahrairah, “for I would be ashamed to tell my people to stop living on their wits. Will you let us out if I can swim across a lake full of pike?”

‘ “No,” said Prince Rainbow, “for I have heard of that trick of yours, El-ahrairah, and I know how it is done.”

‘ “Will you let us go if I can steal the lettuces from King Darzin’s garden?” asked El-ahrairah.

‘Now King Darzin ruled over the biggest and richest of the animal cities in the world at that time. His soldiers were very fierce and his lettuce garden was surrounded by a deep ditch and guarded by a thousand sentries day and night. It was near his palace, on the edge of the city where all his followers lived. So when El-ahrairah talked of stealing King Darzin’s lettuces, Prince Rainbow laughed and said,

‘ “You can try, El-ahrairah, and if you succeed I will multiply your people everywhere and no one will be able to keep them out of a vegetable garden from now till the end of the world. But what will really happen is that you will be killed by the soldiers and the world will be rid of a smooth, plausible rascal.”

‘ “Very well,” said El-ahrairah. “We shall see.”

‘Now Yona the hedgehog was near-by, looking for slugs and snails in the marshes, and he heard what passed between Prince Rainbow and El-ahrairah. He slipped away to the great palace of King Darzin and begged to be rewarded for warning him against his enemies.

‘ “King Darzin,” he sniffled, “that wicked thief, El-ahrairah, has said he will steal your lettuces and he is coming to trick you and get into the garden.”

‘King Darzin hurried down to the lettuce garden and sent for the captain of the guard.

‘ “You see these lettuces?” he said. “Not one of them has been stolen since the seed was sown. Very soon now they will be ready and then I mean to hold a great feast for all my people. But I have heard that that scoundrel El-ahrairah means to come and steal them if he can. You are to double the guards: and all the gardeners and weeders are to be examined every day. Not one leaf is to go out of the garden until either I or my chief taster gives the order.”

‘The captain of the guard did as he was told. That night El-ahrairah came out of the marshes of Kelfazin and went secretly up to the great ditch. With him was his trusty Captain of Owsla, Rabscuttle. They squatted in the bushes and watched the doubled guards patrolling up and down. When the morning came they saw all the gardeners and weeders coming up to the wall and every one was looked at by three guards. One was new and had come instead of his uncle who was ill, but the guards would not let him in because they did not know him by sight and they nearly threw him into the ditch before they would even let him go home. El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle came away in perplexity and that day, when Prince Rainbow came walking through the marshes, he said, “Well, well, Prince with the Thousand Enemies, where are the lettuces?”

‘ “I am having them delivered,” answered El-ahrairah. “There will be rather too many to carry.” Then he and Rabscuttle went secretly down one of their few holes where there was no water, put a sentry outside and thought and talked for a day and a night.

‘On the top of the hill near King Darzin’s palace there was a garden and here his many children and his chief followers’ children used to be taken to play by their mothers and nursemaids. There was no wall round the garden. It was guarded only when the children were there: at night it was empty, because there was nothing to steal and no one to be hunted. The next night Rabscuttle, who had been told by El-ahrairah what he had to do, went to the garden and dug a scrape. He hid in the scrape all night; and the next morning, when the children were brought to play, he slipped out and joined them. There were so many children that each one of the mothers and nursemaids thought that he must belong to somebody else, but as he was about the same size as the children and not much different to look at, he was able to make friends with some of them. Rabscuttle was full of tricks and games and quite soon he was running and playing just as if he had been one of the children himself. When the time came for the children to go home, Rabscuttle went too. They came up to the gate of the city and the guards saw Rabscuttle with King Darzin’s son. They stopped him and asked which was his mother, but the King’s son said, “You let him alone. He’s my friend,” and Rabscuttle went in with all he others.

‘Now as soon as Rabscuttle got inside the King’s-palace, he scurried off and went into one of the dark burrows; and here he hid all day. But in the evening he came out and made his way to the royal store-rooms, where the food was being got ready for the king and his chief followers and wives. There were grasses and fruits and roots and even nuts and berries, for King Darzin’s people went everywhere in those days, through the woods and fields. There were no soldiers in the store-rooms and Rabscuttle hid there in the dark. And he did all he could to make the food bad, except what he ate himself.

‘That evening King Darzin sent for the chief taster and asked him whether the lettuces were ready. The chief taster said that several of them were excellent and that he had already had some brought into the stores.

‘ “Good,” said the king. “We will have two or three tonight.”

‘But the next morning the king and several of his people were taken ill with bad stomachs. Whatever they ate they kept on getting ill, because Rabscuttle was hiding in the store-rooms and spoiling the food as fast as it was brought in. The king ate several more lettuces but he got no better. In fact, he got worse.

‘After five days Rabscuttle slipped out again with the children and came back to El-ahrairah. When he heard that the king was ill and that Rabscuttle had done all he wanted, El-ahrairah set to work to disguise himself. He clipped his white tail and made Rabscuttle nibble his fur short and stain it with mud and blackberries. Then he covered himself all over with trailing strands of goose-grass and big burdocks and he even found ways to alter his smell. At last even his own wives could not recognize him, and El-ahrairah told Rabscuttle to follow some way behind and off he went to King Darzin’s palace. But Rabscuttle waited outside, on the top of the hill.

‘When he got to the palace, El-ahrairah demanded to see the captain of the guard. “You are to take me to the King,” he said. “Prince Rainbow has sent me. He has heard that the King is ill and he has sent for me, from the distant land beyond Kelfazin, to find the cause of his sickness. Be quick! I am not accustomed to be kept waiting.”

‘ “How do I know this is true?” asked the captain of the guard.

‘ “It is all one to me,” replied El-ahrairah. “What is the sickness of a little king to the chief physician of the land beyond the golden river of Frith? I will return and tell Prince Rainbow that the king’s guard were foolish and gave me such treatment as one might expect from a crowd of flea-bitten louts.”

‘He turned and began to go away, but the captain of the guard became frightened and called him back. El-ahrairah allowed himself to be persuaded and the soldiers took him to the king.

‘After five days of bad food and bad stomach, the king was not inclined to be suspicious of someone who said that Prince Rainbow had sent him to make him better. He begged El-ahrairah to examine him and promised to do all he said.

‘El-ahrairah made a great business of examining the king. He looked at his eyes and his ears and his teeth and his droppings and the ends of his claws and he inquired what he had been eating. Then he demanded to see the royal store-rooms and the lettuce-garden. When he came back he looked very grave and said, “Great king, I know well what sorry news it will be to you, but the cause of your sickness is those very lettuces by which you set such store.”

‘ “The lettuces?” cried King Darzin. “Impossible! They are all grown from good, healthy seed and guarded day and night.”

‘ “Alas!” said El-ahrairah,-“I know it well! But they have been infected by the dreaded Lousepedoodle, that flies in ever-decreasing circles through the Gunpat of the Cludge – a deadly virus – dear me, yes! – isolated by the purple Awago and maturing in the grey-green forests of the Okey Pokey. This, you understand, is to put the matter for you in simple terms, insofar as I can. Medically speaking, there are certain complexities with which I will not weary you.”

‘ “I cannot believe it,” said the king.

“The simplest course,” said El-ahrairah, “will be to prove it to you. But we need not make one of your subjects ill. Tell the soldiers to go out and take a prisoner.”

‘The soldiers went out and the first creature they found was Rabscuttle, grazing on the hill-top. They dragged him through the gates and into the king’s presence.

‘ “Ah, a rabbit,” said El-ahrairah. “Nasty creature! So much the better. Disgusting rabbit, eat that lettuce!”

‘Rabscuttle did so and soon afterwards he began to moan and thrash about. He kicked in convulsions and rolled his eyes. He gnawed at the floor and frothed at the mouth.

‘ “He is very ill,” said El-ahrairah. “He must have got an exceptionally bad one. Or else, which is more probable, the infection is particularly deadly to rabbits. But in any event, let us be thankful it was not Your Majesty. Well, he has served our purpose. Throw him out! I would strongly advise Your Majesty,” went on El-ahrairah, “not to leave the lettuces where they are, for they will shoot and flower and seed. The infection will spread. I know it is disappointing, but you must get rid of them.”

‘At that moment, as luck would have it, in came the captain of the guard, with Yona the hedgehog.

‘ “Your Majesty,” he cried, “this creature returns from the marshes of Kelfazin. The people of El-ahrairah are mustering for war. They say they are coming to attack Your Majesty’s garden and steal the royal lettuces. May I have your Majesty’s order to take out the soldiers and destroy them?”

‘ “Aha!” said the king, “I have thought of a trick worth two of that. ‘Particularly deadly to rabbits.’ Well! Well! Let them have all the lettuces they want. In fact, you are to take a thousand down to the marshes of Kelfazin and leave them there. Ho! Ho! What a joke! I feel all the better for it!”

‘ “Ah, what deadly cunning!” said El-ahrairah. “No wonder Your Majesty is ruler of a great people. I believe you are already recovering. As with many illnesses, the cure is simple, once perceived. No, no, I will accept no reward. In any case, there is nothing here that would be thought of value in the shining land beyond the golden river of Frith. I have done as Prince Rainbow required. It is sufficient. Perhaps you will be so good as to tell your guards to accompany me to the foot of the hill?” He bowed, and left the palace.

‘Later that evening, as El-ahrairah was urging his rabbits to growl more fiercely and run up and down in the marshes of Kelfazin, Prince Rainbow came over the river.

‘ “El-ahrairah,” he called, “am I bewitched?”

‘ “It is quite possible,” said El-ahrairah. “The dreaded Lousepedoodle –”

‘ “There are a thousand lettuces in a pile at the top of the marsh. Who put them there?”

‘ “I told you they were being delivered,” said El-ahrairah. “You could hardly expect my people, weak and hungry as they are, to carry them all the way from King Darzin’s garden. However, they will soon recover now, under the treatment that I shall prescribe. I am a physician, I may say, and if you have not heard as much, Prince Rainbow, you may take it that you soon will, from another quarter. Rabscuttle, go out and collect the lettuces.”

‘Then Prince Rainbow saw that El-ahrairah had been as good as his word, and that he himself must keep his promise too. He let the rabbits out of the marshes of Kelfazin and they multiplied everywhere. And from that day to this, no power on earth can keep a rabbit out of a vegetable garden, for El-ahrairah prompts them with a thousand tricks, the best in the world.’


 

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