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.

22. The Story of the Trial of El-ahrairah

‘Now one evening, when El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle were sitting on a sunny bank, Prince Rainbow came through the meadows and with him was a rabbit that El-ahrairah had never seen before.

‘ “Good evening, El-ahrairah,” said Prince Rainbow. “This is a great improvement on the marshes of Kelfazin. I see all your does are busy digging holes along the bank. Have they dug a hole for you?”

‘ “Yes,” said El-ahrairah. “This hole here belongs to Rabscuttle and myself. We liked the look of this bank as soon as we saw it.”

‘ “A very nice bank,” said Prince Rainbow. “But I am afraid I have to tell you, El-ahrairah, that I have strict orders from Lord Frith himself not to allow you to share a hole with Rabscuttle.”

‘ “Not share a hole with Rabscuttle?” said El-ahrairah. “Why ever not?”

‘ “El-ahrairah,” said Prince Rainbow, “we know you and your tricks: and Rabscuttle is nearly as slippery as you are. Both of you in one hole would be altogether too much of a good thing. You would be stealing the clouds out of the sky before the moon had changed twice. No – Rabscuttle must go and look after the holes at the other end of the warren. Let me introduce you. This is Hufsa. I want you to be his friend and look after him.”

‘ “Where does he come from?” asked El-ahrairah. “I certainly haven’t seen him before.”

‘ “He comes from another country,” said Prince Rainbow, “but he is no different from any other rabbit. I hope you will help him to settle down here. And while he is getting to know the place, I’m sure you will be glad to let him share your hole.”

‘El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle felt desperately annoyed that they were not to be allowed to live together in their hole. But it was one of El-ahrairah’s rules never to let anyone see when he was angry and besides, he felt sorry for Hufsa because he supposed that he was feeling lonely and awkward, being far away from his own people. So he welcomed him and promised to help him settle down. Hufsa was perfectly friendly and seemed anxious to please everyone; and Rabscuttle moved down to the other end of the warren.

‘After a time, however, El-ahrairah began to find that something was always going wrong with his plans. One night, in the spring, when he had taken some of his people to a cornfield to eat the green shoots, they found a man with a gun walking about in the moonlight and were lucky to get away without trouble. Another time, after El-ahrairah had reconnoitred the way to a cabbage garden and scratched a hole under the fence, he arrived the next morning to find it blocked with wire, and he began to suspect that his plans were leaking out to people who were not intended to learn them.

‘One day he determined to set a trap for Hufsa, to find out whether it was he who was at the bottom of the trouble. He showed him a path across the fields and told him that it led to a lonely barn full of swedes and turnips: and he went on to say that he and Rabscuttle meant to go there the next morning. In fact El-ahrairah had no such plans and took care not to say anything about the path or the barn to anyone else. But next day, when he went cautiously along the path, he found a wire set in the grass.

‘This made El-ahrairah really angry, for any of his people might have been snared and killed. Of course he did not suppose that Hufsa was setting wires himself, or even that he had known that a wire was going to be set. But evidently Hufsa was in touch with somebody who did not stick at setting a wire. In the end, El-ahrairah decided that probably Prince Rainbow was passing on Hufsa’s information to a farmer or a gamekeeper and not bothering himself about what happened as a result. His rabbits’ lives were in danger because of Hufsa – to say nothing of all the lettuces and cabbages they were missing. After this, El-ahrairah tried not to tell Hufsa anything at all. But it was difficult to prevent him from hearing things because, as you all know, rabbits are very good at keeping secrets from other animals, but no good at keeping secrets from each other. Warren life doesn’t make for secrecy. He considered killing Hufsa. But he knew that if he did, Prince Rainbow would come and they would end in more trouble. He felt decidedly uneasy even about keeping things from Hufsa, because he thought that if Hufsa realized that they knew he was a spy, he would tell Prince Rainbow and Prince Rainbow would probably take him away and think of something worse.

‘El-ahrairah thought and thought. He was still thinking the next evening, when Prince Rainbow paid one of his visits to the warren.

‘ “You are quite a reformed character these days, El-ahrairah,” said Prince Rainbow. “If you are not careful, people will begin to trust you. Since I was passing by, I thought I would just stop to thank you for your kindness in looking after Hufsa. He seems quite at home with you.”

‘ “Yes, he does, doesn’t he?” said El-ahrairah. “We grow in beauty side by side; we fill one hole with glee. But I always say to my people, ‘Put not your trust in princes, nor in any –’ “

‘ “Well, El-ahrairah,” said Prince Rainbow, interrupting him, “I am sure I can trust you. And to prove it, I have decided that I will grow a nice crop of carrots in the field behind the hill. It is an excellent bit of ground and I am sure they will do well. Especially as no one would dream of stealing them. In fact, you can come and watch me plant them, if you like.”

‘ “I will,” said El-ahrairah. “That will be delightful.”

‘El-ahrairah, Rabscuttle, Hufsa and several other rabbits accompanied Prince Rainbow to the field behind the hill; and they helped him to sow it with long rows of carrot seed. It was a light, dry sort of soil – just the thing for carrots – and the whole business infuriated El-ahrairah, because he was certain that Prince Rainbow was doing it to tease him and to show that he felt sure that he had clipped his claws at last.

‘ “That will do splendidly,” said Prince Rainbow when they had finished. “Of course, I know that no one would dream of stealing my carrots. But if they did – if they did steal them, El-ahrairah – I should be very angry indeed. If King Darzin stole them, for instance, I feel sure that Lord Frith would take away his kingdom and give it to someone else.”

‘El-ahrairah knew that Prince Rainbow meant that if he caught him stealing the carrots he would either kill him or else banish him and put some other rabbit over his people: and the thought that the other rabbit would probably be Hufsa made him grind his teeth. But he said, “Of course, of course. Very right and proper.” And Prince Rainbow went away.

‘One night, in the second moon after the planting, El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle went to look at the carrots. No one had thinned them out and the tops were thick and green. El-ahrairah judged that most of the roots would be a little thinner than a fore-paw. And it was while he was looking at them in the moonlight that his plan came to him. He had become so cautious about Hufsa – and indeed no one ever knew where Hufsa would be next – that on the way back he and Rabscuttle made for a hole in a lonely bank and went down it to talk together. And there El-ahrairah promised Rabscuttle not only that he would steal Prince Rainbow’s carrots, but also that between them they would see the back of Hufsa into the bargain. They came out of the hole and Rabscuttle went to the farm to steal some seed corn. El-ahrairah spent the rest of the night gathering slugs; and a nasty business it was.

‘The next evening El-ahrairah went out early and after a little while found Yona the hedgehog pottering along the hedge.

‘ “Yona,” he said, “would you like a whole lot of nice, fat slugs?”

‘ “Yes, I would, El-ahrairah,” said Yona, “but they’re not so easily found. You’d know that if you were a hedgehog.”

‘ “Well, here are some nice ones,” said El-ahrairah, “and you can have them all. But I can give you a great many more if you will do what I say and ask no questions. Can you sing?”

‘ “Sing, El-ahrairah? No hedgehog can sing.”

‘ “Good,” said El-ahrairah. “Excellent. But you will have to try if you want those slugs. Ah! There is an old, empty box, I see, that the farmer has left in the ditch. Better and better. Now you listen to me.”

‘Meanwhile, in the wood, Rabscuttle was talking to Hawock the pheasant.

‘ “Hawock,” he said, “can you swim?”

‘ “I never go near water if I can avoid it, Rabscuttle,” said Hawock. “I dislike it very much. But I suppose if I had to, I could make shift to keep afloat for a little while.”

‘ “Splendid,” said Rabscuttle. “Now attend. I have a whole lot of corn – and you know how scarce it is at this time of year – and you can have it all, if only you will do a little swimming in the pond on the edge of the wood. Just let me explain as we go down there.” And off they went through the wood.

‘Fu Inlé, El-ahrairah strolled into his hole and found Hufsa chewing pellets. “Ah, Hufsa, you’re here,” he said. “That’s fine. I can’t trust anyone else, but you’ll come with me, won’t you? Just you and I – no one else must know.”

‘ “Why, what’s to be done, El-ahrairah?” asked Hufsa.

‘ “I’ve been looking at those carrots of Prince Rainbow’s,” replied El-ahrairah. “I can’t stand it any longer. They’re the best I’ve ever seen. I’m determined to steal them – or most of them, anyway. Of course, if I took a lot of rabbits on an expedition of this kind we’d soon be in trouble. Things would leak out and Prince Rainbow would be sure to get to hear. But if you and I go alone, no one will ever know who did it.”

‘ “I’ll come,” said Hufsa. “Let’s go tomorrow night.” For he thought that that would give him time to tell Prince Rainbow.

‘ “No,” said El-ahrairah, “I’m going now. At once.”

‘He wondered whether Hufsa would try to turn him against this idea, but when he looked at him he could see that Hufsa was thinking that this would be the end of El-ahrairah and that he himself would be made king of the rabbits.

‘They set out together in the moonlight.

‘They had gone a good way along the hedge when they came upon an old box lying in the ditch. Sitting on top of the box was Yona the hedgehog. His prickles were stuck all over with dog-rose petals and he was making an extraordinary squeaking, grunting noise and waving his black paws. They stopped and looked at him.

‘ “Whatever are you doing, Yona?” asked Hufsa in astonishment.

‘ “Singing to the moon,” answered Yona. “All hedgehogs have to sing to the moon to make the slugs come. Surely you know that?

O Slug-a-Moon, O Slug-a-Moon,

O grant thy faithful hedgehog’s boon!”

‘ “What a frightful noise!” said El-ahrairah and indeed it was. “Let’s get on quickly before he brings all the elil round us,” And on they went.

‘After a time they drew near the pond on the edge of the wood. As they approached it they heard a squawking and splashing and then they saw Hawock the pheasant scuttering about in the water, with his long tail feathers floating out behind him.

‘ “Whatever has happened?” said Hufsa. “Hawock, have you been shot?”

‘ “No, no,” replied Hawock. “I always go swimming in the full moon. It makes my tail grow longer and besides, my head wouldn’t stay red, white and green without swimming. But you must know that, Hufsa, surely? Everyone knows that.”

‘ “The truth is, he doesn’t like other animals to catch him at it,” whispered El-ahrairah. “Let’s go on.”

‘A little farther on they came to an old well by a big oak tree. The farmer had filled it up long ago, but the mouth looked very deep and black in the moonlight.

‘ “Let’s have a rest,” said El-ahrairah, “just for a short time.”

‘As he spoke, a most curious-looking creature came out of the grass. It looked something like a rabbit, but even in the moonlight they could see that it had a red tail and long green ears. In its mouth it was carrying the end of one of the white sticks that men burn. It was Rabscuttle, but not even Hufsa could recognize him. He had found some sheep-dip powder at the farm and sat in it to make his tail red. His ears were festooned with trails of bryony and the white stick was making him feel ill.

‘ “Frith preserve us!” said El-ahrairah. “What can it be? Let’s only hope it isn’t one of the Thousand!” He leapt up, ready to run. “Who are you?” he asked, trembling.

‘Rabscuttle spat out the white stick.

‘ “So!” he said commandingly. “So you have seen me, El-ahrairah! Many rabbits live out their lives and die, but few see me. Few or none! I am one of the rabbit messengers of Lord Frith, who go about the earth secretly by day and return nightly to his golden palace! He is even now awaiting me on the other side of the world and I must go to him swiftly, through the heart of the earth! Farewell, El-ahrairah!”

‘The strange rabbit leapt over the edge of the well and disappeared into the darkness below.

‘ “We have seen what we should not!” said El-ahrairah in an awe-stricken voice. “How dreadful is this place! Let us go quickly!”

‘They hurried on and presently they came to Prince Rainbow’s field of carrots. How many they stole I cannot say; but of course, as you know, El-ahrairah is a great prince and no doubt he used powers unknown to you and me. But my grandfather always said that before morning the field was stripped bare. The carrots were hidden down a deep hole in the bank beside the wood and El-ahrairah and Hufsa made their way home. El-ahrairah collected two or three followers and stayed underground with them all day, but Hufsa went out in the afternoon without saying where he was going.

‘That evening, as El-ahrairah and his people began to silflay under a fine red sky, Prince Rainbow came over the fields. Behind him were two great, black dogs.

‘ “El-ahrairah,” he said, “you are under arrest.”

‘ “What for?” asked El-ahrairah.

‘ “You know very well what for,” said Prince Rainbow. “Let me have no more of your tricks and insolence, El-ahrairah. Where are the carrots?”

‘ “If I am under arrest,” said El-ahrairah, “may I be told what for? It is not fair to tell me I am under arrest and then to ask me questions.”

‘ “Come, come, El-ahrairah,” said Prince Rainbow, “you are merely wasting time. Tell me where the carrots are and I will only send you to the great North and not kill you.”

‘ “Prince Rainbow,” said El-ahrairah, “for the third time, may I know for what I am under arrest?”

‘ “Very well,” said Prince Rainbow, “if this is the way you want to die, El-ahrairah, you shall have the full process of law. You are under arrest for stealing my carrots. Are you seriously asking for a trial? I warn you that I have direct evidence and it will go ill with you.”

‘By this time all El-ahrairah’s people were crowding round, as near as they dared for the dogs. Only Rabscuttle was nowhere to be seen. He had spent the whole day moving the carrots to another, secret hole and he was now hiding, because he could not get his tail white again.

‘ “Yes, I would like a trial,” said El-ahrairah, “and I would like to be judged by a jury of animals. For it is not right, Prince Rainbow, that you should both accuse me and be the judge as well.”

‘ “A jury of animals you shall have,” said Prince Rainbow. “A jury of elil, El-ahrairah. For a jury of rabbits would refuse to convict you, in spite of the evidence.”

‘To everyone’s surprise El-ahrairah immediately replied that he would be content with a jury of elil: and Prince Rainbow said that he would bring them that night. El-ahrairah was sent down his hole and the dogs were put on guard outside. None of his people was allowed to see him, although many tried.

‘Up and down the hedges and copses the news spread that El-ahrairah was on trial for his life and that Prince Rainbow was going to bring him before a jury of elil. Animals came crowding in. Fu Inlé, Prince Rainbow returned with the elil – two badgers, two foxes, two stoats, an owl and a cat. El-ahrairah was brought up and placed between the dogs. The elil sat staring at him and their eyes glittered in the moon. They licked their lips: and the dogs muttered that they had been promised the task of carrying out the sentence. There were a great many animals – rabbits and others – and every one of them felt sure that this time it was all up with El-ahrairah.

‘ “Now,” said Prince Rainbow, “let us begin. It will not take long. Where is Hufsa?”

‘Then Hufsa came out, bowing and bobbing his head, and he told the elil that El-ahrairah had come the night before, when he was quietly chewing pellets, and terrified him into going with him to steal Prince Rainbow’s carrots. He had wanted to refuse but he had been too much frightened. The carrots were hidden in a hole that he could show them. He had been forced to do what he did, but the next day he had gone as quickly as possible to tell Prince Rainbow, whose loyal servant he was.

‘ “We will recover the carrots later,” said Prince Rainbow. “Now, El-ahrairah, have you any evidence to call or anything to say? Make haste.”

‘ “I would like to ask the witness some questions,” said El-ahrairah; and the elil agreed that this was only fair.

‘ “Now, Hufsa,” said El-ahrairah, “can we hear a little more about this journey that you and I are supposed to have made? For really I can remember nothing about it at all. You say we went out of the hole and set off in the night. What happened then?”

‘ “Why, El-ahrairah,” said Hufsa, “you can’t possibly have forgotten. We came along the ditch, and don’t you remember that we saw a hedgehog sitting on a box singing a song to the moon?”

‘ “A hedgehog doing what?” said one of the badgers.

‘ “Singing a song to the moon,” said Hufsa eagerly. “They do that, you know, to make the slugs come. He had rose petals stuck all over him and he was waving his paws and –”

‘ “Now steady, steady,” said El-ahrairah kindly, “I wouldn’t like you to say anything you don’t mean. Poor fellow,” he added to the jury,” he really believes these things he says, you know. He doesn’t mean any harm, but –”

‘ “But he was,” shouted Hufea. “He was singing’O Slug-a-moon! O Slug-a-moon! O grant –’ “

‘ “What the hedgehog sang is not evidence,” said El-ahrairah. “Really, one is inclined to wonder what is. Well, all right. We saw a hedgehog covered with roses, singing a song on a box. What happened then?”

‘ “Well,” said Hufsa, “then we went on and came to the pond, where we saw a pheasant.”

‘ “Pheasant, eh?” said one of the foxes. “I wish I’d seen it. What was it doing?”

‘ “It was swimming round and round in the water –” said Hufsa.

‘ “Wounded, eh?” said the fox.

“No, no,” said Hufsa. “They all do that, to make their tails grow longer. I’m surprised you don’t know.”

‘ “To make what?” said the fox.

‘ “To make their tails grow longer,” said Hufsa sulkily. “He said so himself.”

‘ “You’ve only had this stuff for a very short time,” said El-ahrairah to the elil. “It takes a bit of getting used to. Look at me. I’ve been forced to live with it for the last two months, day in and day out. I’ve been as kind and understanding as I can, but apparently just to my own harm.”

‘A silence fell. El-ahrairah, with an air of fatherly patience, turned back to the witness.

‘ “My memory is so bad,” he said. “Do go on.”

‘ “Well, El-ahrairah,” said Hufsa, “you’re pretending very cleverly, but even you won’t be able to say you’ve forgotten what happened next. A huge, terrifying rabbit, with a red tail and green ears, came out of the grass. He had a white stick in his mouth and he plunged into the ground down a great hole. He told us he was going through the middle of the earth to see Lord Frith on the other side.”

“This time not one of the elil said a word. They were staring at Hufsa and shaking their heads.

‘ “They’re all mad, you know,” whispered one of the stoats,” nasty little beasts. They’ll say anything when they’re cornered. But this one is the worst I’ve ever heard. How much longer have we got to stay here? I’m hungry.”

‘Now El-ahrairah had known beforehand that while elil detest all rabbits, they would dislike most the one who looked the biggest fool. That was why he had agreed to a jury of elil. A jury of rabbits might have tried to get to the bottom of Hufsa’s story; but not the elil, for they hated and despised the witness and wanted to be off hunting as soon as they could.

‘ “So it comes to this,” said El-ahrairah. “We saw a hedgehog covered with roses, singing a song: and then we saw a perfectly healthy pheasant swimming round and round the pond: and then we saw a rabbit with a red tail, green ears and a white stick, and he jumped straight down a deep well. Is that right?”

‘ “Yes,” said Hufsa.

‘ “And then we stole the carrots?”

‘ “Yes.”

‘ “Were they purple with green spots?”

‘ “Were what purple with green spots?”

‘ “The carrots.”

‘ “Well, you know they weren’t, El-ahrairah. They were the ordinary colour. They’re down the hole!” shouted Hufsa desperately, “Down the hole! Go and look!”

‘The court adjourned while Hufsa led Prince Rainbow to the hole. They found no carrots and returned.

‘ “I’ve been underground all day,” said El-ahrairah,” and I can prove it. I ought to have been asleep, but it’s very difficult when m’learned friend – well, never mind. I simply mean that obviously I couldn’t have been out moving carrots or anything else. If there ever were any carrots,” he added. “But I’ve nothing more to say.”

‘ “Prince Rainbow,” said the cat, “I hate all rabbits. But I don’t see how we can possibly say that it’s been proved that that rabbit took your carrots. The witness is obviously out of his mind – mad as the mist and snow – and the prisoner will have to be released.” They all agreed.

‘ “You had better go quickly,” said Prince Rainbow to El-ahrairah. “Go down your hole, El-ahrairah, before I hurt you myself.”

‘ “I will, my lord,” said El-ahrairah. “But may I beg you to remove that rabbit you sent among us, for he troubles us with his foolishness?”

‘So Hufsa went away with Prince Rainbow and El-ahrairah’s people were left in peace, apart from indigestion brought on by eating too many carrots. But it was a long time before Rabscuttle could get his tail white again, so my grandfather always said.’


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