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.


41. The Story of Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog

‘There was a big rabbit,’ said Dandelion. ‘There was a small rabbit. There was El-ahrairah; and he had the frost in his fine new whiskers. The earth up and down the runs of the warren was so hard that you could cut your paws on it and the robins answered each other across the bare, still copses, “This is my bit here. You go and starve in your own.”

‘One evening, when Frith was sinking huge and red in a green sky, El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle limped trembling through the frozen grass, picking a bite here and there to carry them on for another long night underground. The grass was as brittle and tasteless as hay and although they were hungry, they had been making the best of the miserable stuff so long that it was as much as they could do to get it down. At last Rabscuttle suggested that they might take a risk for once in a way and slip across the fields to the edge of the village, where there was a big vegetable garden.

‘This particular garden was bigger than any of the others round about. The man who worked in it lived in a house at one end and he used to dig or cut great quantities of vegetables, put them into a hrududu and drive them away. He had put wire all round the garden to keep rabbits out. All the same, El-ahrairah could usually find a way in if he wanted to: but it was dangerous, because the man had a gun and often shot jays and pigeons and hung them up.

‘ “It isn’t only the gun we’d be risking, either,” said El-ahrairah thinking it over. “We’d have to keep an eye open for that confounded Rowsby Woof as well.”

‘Now Rowsby Woof was the man’s dog; and he was the most objectionable, malicious, disgusting brute that ever licked a man’s hand. He was a big, woolly sort of animal with hair all over his eyes and the man kept him to guard the vegetable garden, especially at night. Rowsby Woof, of course, did not eat vegetables himself and anyone might have thought that he would be ready to let a few hungry animals have a lettuce or a carrot now and then and no questions asked. But not a bit of it. Rowsby Woof used to run loose from evening till dawn the next day: and not content with keeping men and boys out of the garden, he would go for any animals he found there – rats, rabbits, hares, mice, even moles – and kill them if he could. The moment he smelt anything in the nature of an intruder he would start barking and kicking up a shine, although very often it was only this foolish noise which warned a rabbit and enabled him to get away in time. Rowsby Woof was reckoned to be a tremendous ratter and his master had boasted about this skill of his so often and showed him off so much, that he had become revoltingly conceited. He believed himself to be the finest ratter in the world. He ate a lot of raw meat (but not in the evening, because he was left hungry at night to keep him active) and this made it rather easier to smell him coming. But even so, he made the garden a dangerous place.

‘ “Well, let’s chance Rowsby Woof for once,” said Rabscuttle. “I reckon you and I ought to be able to give him the slip if we have to.”

‘El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle made their way across the fields to the outskirts of the garden. When they got there, the first thing they saw was the man himself, with a white stick burning away in his mouth, cutting row after row of frosted cabbages. Rowsby Woof was with him, wagging his tail and jumping about in a ridiculous manner. After a time the man piled as many of the cabbages as he could into a wheel-thing and pushed them away to the house. He came back several times and when he had taken all the cabbages to the door of the house he began carrying them inside.

‘ “What’s he doing that for?” asked Rabscuttle.

‘ “I suppose he wants to get the frost out of them tonight,” replied El-ahrairah, “before he takes them away in the hrududu tomorrow.”

‘ “They’d be much better to eat with the frost out of them, wouldn’t they?” said Rabscuttle. “I wish we could get at them while they’re in there. Still, never mind. Now’s our chance. Let’s see what we can do up this end of the garden while he’s busy down there.”

‘But hardly had they crossed the top of the garden and got among the cabbages than Rowsby Woof had winded them and down he came, barking and yelping, and they were lucky to get out in time.

‘ “Dirty little beasts,” shouted Rowsby Woof. “How – how! How-how dare you come snou – snou – snouting round here? Get out – out! Out – out!”

‘ “Contemptible brute!” said El-ahrairah, as they scurried back to the warren with nothing to show for all their trouble. “He’s really annoyed me. I don’t know yet how it’s going to be done, but by Frith and Inlé! before this frost thaws, we’ll eat his cabbages inside the house and make him look a fool into the bargain.”

‘ “That’s saying too much, master,” said Rabscuttle. “A pity to throw your life away for a cabbage, after all we’ve done together.”

‘ “Well, I shall be watching my chance,” said El-ahrairah. “I shall just be watching my chance, that’s all.”

‘The following afternoon Rabscuttle was out, nosing along the top of the bank beside the lane, when a hrududu came by. It had doors at the back and these doors had somehow come open and were swinging about as the hrududu went along. There were things wrapped up in bags like the ones men sometimes leave about the fields; and as the hrududu passed Rabscuttle, one of these bags fell out into the lane. When the hrududu had gone Rabscuttle, who hoped that the bag might have something to eat inside, slipped down into the lane to have a sniff at it. But he was disappointed to find that all it contained was some kind of meat. Later, he told El-ahrairah about his disappointment.

‘ “Meat?” said El-ahrairah. “Is it still there?”

‘ “How should I know?” said Rabscuttle. “Beastly stuff.”

‘ “Come with me,” said El-ahrairah. “Quickly, too.”

‘When they got to the lane the meat was still there. El-ahrairah dragged the bag into the ditch and they buried it.

‘ “But what good will this be to us, master?” said Rabscuttle.

‘ “I don’t know yet,” said El-ahriarah. “But some good it will surely be, if the rats don’t get it. Come home now, though. It’s getting dark.”

‘As they were going home, they came on an old, black wheel-covering thrown away from a hrududu, lying in the ditch. If you’ve ever seen these things, you’ll know that they’re something like a huge fungus – smooth and very strong, but pad-like and yielding too. They smell unpleasant and are no good to eat.

‘ “Come on,” said El-ahrairah immediately. “We have to gnaw off a good chunk of this. I need it.”

‘Rabscuttle wondered whether his master was going mad, but he did as he was told. The stuff had grown fairly rotten and before long they were able to gnaw off a lump about as big as a rabbit’s head. It tasted dreadful, but El-ahrairah carried it carefully back to the warren. He spent a lot of time that night nibbling at it and after morning silflay the next day he continued. About ni-Frith he woke Rabscuttle, made him come outside and put the lump in front of him.

‘ “What does that look like?” he said. “Never mind the smell. What does it look like?”

‘Rabscuttle looked at it. “It looks rather like a dog’s black nose, master,” he answered, “except that it’s dry.”

‘ “Splendid,” said El-ahrairah, and went to sleep.

‘It was still frosty – very clear and cold – that night, with half a moon, but fu Inlé, when all the rabbits were keeping warm underground, El-ahrairah told Rabscuttle to come with him. El-ahrairah carried the black nose himself and on the way he pushed it well into every nasty thing he could find. He found a –’

‘Well, never mind,’ said Hazel. ‘Go on with the story.’

‘In the end (continued Dandelion), Rabscuttle kept well away from him, but El-ahrairah held his breath and still carried the nose somehow, until they got to the place where they had buried the meat.

‘ “Dig it up,” said El-ahrairah. “Come on.”

‘They dug it up and the paper came off. The meat was all bits joined together in a kind of trail like a spray of bryony, and poor Rabscuttle was told to drag it along to the bottom of the vegetable garden. It was hard work and he was glad when he was able to drop it.

‘ “Now,” said El-ahrairah, “we’ll go round to the front.”

‘When they got to the front, they could tell that the man had gone out. For one thing, the house was all dark but besides, they could smell that he had been through the gate a little while before. The front of the house had a flower garden and this was separated from the back and the vegetable garden by a high, close-boarded fence that ran right across and ended in a big clump of laurels. Just the other side of the fence was the back door that led into the kitchen.

‘El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle went quietly through the front garden and peeped through a crack in the fence. Rowsby Woof was sitting on the gravel path, wide awake and shivering in the cold. He was so near that they could see his eyes blink in the moonlight. The kitchen door was shut but near-by, along the wall, there was a hole above the drain where a brick had been left out. The kitchen floor was made of bricks and the man used to wash it with a rough broom and sweep the water out through the hole. The hole was plugged up with an old cloth to keep out the cold.

‘After a little while, El-ahrairah said in a low voice,

‘ “Rowsby Woof! O Rowsby Woof!”

‘Rowsby Woof sat up and looked about him, bristling.

‘ “Who’s there?” he said. “Who are you?”

‘ “O Rowsby Woof!” said El-ahrairah, crouching on the other side of the fence, “Most fortunate, most blessed Rowsby Woof! Your reward is at hand! I bring you the best news in the world!”

‘ “What?” said Rowsby Woof. “Who’s that? None of your tricks, now!”

‘ “Tricks, Rowsby Woof?” said El-ahrairah. “Ah, I see you do not know me. But how should you? Listen, faithful, skilful hound. I am the Fairy Wogdog, messenger of the great dog-spirit of the East, Queen Dripslobber. Far, far in the East her palace lies. Ah, Rowsby Woof, if only you could see her mighty state, the wonders of her kingdom! The carrion that lies far and wide upon the sands! The manure, Rowsby Woof! The open sewers! Oh, how you would jump for joy and run nosing all about!”

‘Rowsby Woof got to his feet and looked about in silence. He could not tell what to make of the voice, but he was suspicious.

‘ “Your fame as a ratter has come to the ears of the Queen,” said El-ahrairah. “We know you – and honour you – as the greatest ratter in the world. That is why I am here. But poor, bewildered creature! I see you are perplexed, and well you may be. Come here, Rowsby Woof! Come close to the fence and know me better!”

‘Rowsby Woof came up to the fence and El-ahrairah pushed the rubber nose into the crack and moved it about. Rowsby Woof stood close, sniffing.

‘ “Noble rat-catcher,” whispered El-ahrairah, “it is indeed I, the Fairy Wogdog, sent to honour you!”

‘ “Oh, Fairy Wogdog!” cried Rowsby Woof, dribbling and piddling all over the gravel, “Ah, what elegance! What aristocratic distinction! Can that really be decayed cat that I smell? With a delicate overtone of rotten camel! Ah, the gorgeous East!” ’

(‘What on earth’s “camel”?’ said Bigwig.

‘I don’t know,’ replied Dandelion. ‘But it was in the story when I heard it, so I suppose it’s some creature or other.’)

‘ “Happy, happy dog!” said El-ahrairah. “I must tell you that Queen Dripslobber her very self has expressed her gracious wish that you should meet her. But not yet, Rowsby Woof, not yet. First you must be found worthy. I am sent to bring you both a test and a proof. Listen, Rowsby Woof. Beyond the far end of the garden there lies a long rope of meat. Ay, real meat, Rowsby Woof, for though we are fairy dogs yet we bring real gifts to noble, brave animals such as you. Go now – find and eat that meat. Trust me, for I will guard the house until you return. That is the test of your belief.”

‘Rowsby Woof was desperately hungry and the cold had got into his stomach, but still he hesitated. He knew that his master expected him to guard the house.

‘ “Ah well,” said El-ahrairah, “Never mind. I will depart. In the next village there lives a dog –”

‘ “No, no,” cried Rowsby Woof. “No, Fairy Wogdog, do not leave me! I trust you! I will go at once! Only guard the house and do not fail me!”

‘ “Have no fear, noble hound,” said El-ahrairah. “Only trust the word of the great Queen.”

‘Rowsby Woof went bounding away in the moonlight and El-ahrairah watched him out of sight.

‘ “Are we to go into the house now, master?” asked Rabscuttle. “We shall have to be quick.”

‘ “Certainly not,” said El-ahrairah. “How could you suggest such double-dealing? For shame, Rabscuttle! We will guard the house.”

‘They waited silently and after a while Rowsby Woof returned, licking his lips and grinning. He came sniffing up to the fence.

‘ “I perceive, honest friend,” said El-ahrairah, “that you found the meat as swiftly as though it had been a rat. The house is safe and all is well. Now hark. I shall return to the Queen and tell her of all that has passed. It was her gracious purpose that if you showed yourself worthy tonight, by trusting her messenger, she would herself send for you and honour you. Tomorrow night she will be passing through this land on her way to the Wolf Festival of the North and she means to break her journey in order that you may appear before her. Be ready, Rowsby Woof!”

‘ “Oh, Fairy Wogdog!” cried Rowsby Woof. “What joy it will be to grovel and abase myself before the Queen! How humbly I shall roll upon the ground! How utterly shall I make myself her slave! What menial cringing will be mine! I will show myself a true dog!”

‘ “I do not doubt it,” said El-ahrairah. “And now, farewell. Be patient and await my return!”

‘He withdrew the rubber nose and very quietly they crept away.

‘The following night was, if anything, still colder. Even El-ahrairah had to pull himself together before he could set out over the fields. They had hidden the rubber nose outside the garden and it took them some time to get it ready for Rowsby Woof. When they had made sure that the man had gone out, they went cautiously into the front garden and up to the fence. Rowsby Woof was padding up and down outside the back door, his breath steaming in the frosty air. When El-ahrairah spoke, he put his head on the ground between his front paws and whined for joy.

‘ “The Queen is coming, Rowsby Woof,” said El-ahrairah from behind the nose, “with her noble attendants, the fairies Postwiddle and Sniffbottom. And this is her wish. You know the cross-roads in the village, do you not?”

‘ “Yes, yes!” whined Rowsby Woof. “Yes, yes! O let me show how abject I can be, dear Fairy Wogdog. I will –”

‘ “Very well,” said El-ahrairah. “Now, O fortunate dog, go to the crossroads and await the Queen. She is coming on the wings of night. It is far that she must come, but wait patiently. Only wait. Do not fail her and great blessing will be yours.”

‘ “Fail her? No, no!” cried Rowsby Woof. “I will wait like a worm upon the road. Her beggar am I, Fairy Wogdog! Her mendicant, her idiot, her –”

‘ “Quite right, most excellent,” said El-ahrairah. “Only make haste.”

=============================End disc 11

‘As soon as Rowsby Woof had gone, El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle went quickly through the laurels, round the end of the fence and along to the back door. El-ahrairah pulled the cloth out of the hole above the drain with his teeth and led the way into the kitchen.

‘The kitchen was as warm as this bank and at one end was a great pile of vegetables ready for the hrududu in the morning – cabbages, brussels-sprouts and parsnips. They were thawed out and the delicious smell was quite overpowering. El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle began at once to make amends for the past days of frozen grass and tree-bark.

‘ “Good, faithful fellow,” said El-ahrairah with his mouth full. “How grateful he will be to the Queen for keeping him waiting. He will be able to show her the full extent of his loyalty, won’t he? Have another parsnip, Rabscuttle.”

‘Meanwhile, down at the cross-roads, Rowsby Woof waited eagerly in the frost, listening for the coming of Queen Dripslobber. After a long time he heard footsteps. They were not the steps of a dog but of a man. As they came near, he realized that they were the steps of his own master. He was too stupid to run away or hide, but merely remained where he was until his master – who was returning home – came up to the crossroads.

‘ “Why, Rowsby Woof,” said his master, “What are you doing here?”

‘Rowsby Woof looked foolish and nosed about. His master was puzzled. Then a thought came to him.

‘ “Why, good old chap,” he said, “you came to meet me, did you? Good fellow, then! Come on, we’ll go home together.”

‘Rowsby Woof tried to slip away, but his master grabbed him by the collar, tied him by a bit of string he had in his pocket and led him home.

‘Their arrival took El-ahrairah by surprise. In fact, he was so busy stuffing cabbage that he heard nothing until the door-handle rattled. He and Rabscuttle had only just time to slip behind a pile of baskets before the man came in, leading Rowsby Woof. Rowsby Woof was quiet and dejected and did not even notice the smell of rabbit, which anyway was all mixed up with the smell of the fire and the larder. He lay on the mat while the man made some sort of drink for himself.

‘El-ahrairah was watching his chance to dash out of the hole in the wall. But the man, as he sat drinking and puffing away at a white stick, suddenly looked round and got up. He had noticed the draught coming in through the open hole. To the rabbits’ horror, he picked up a sack and plugged the hole up very tightly indeed. Then he finished his drink, made up the fire and went away to sleep, leaving Rowsby Woof shut in the kitchen. Evidently he thought it too cold to turn him out for the night.

‘At first, Rowsby Woof whined and scratched at the door, but after a time he came back to the mat by the fire and lay down. El-ahrairah moved very quietly along the wall until he was behind a big, metal box in the corner under the sink. There were sacks and old papers here too and he felt fairly sure that Rowsby Woof could not manage to see behind it. As soon as Rabscuttle had joined him, he spoke.

‘ “O Rowsby Woof!” whispered El-ahrairah.

‘Rowsby Woof was up in a flash.

‘ “Fairy Wogdog!” he cried. “Is that you I hear?”

‘ “It is indeed,” said El-ahrairah. “I am sorry for your disappointment, Rowsby Woof. You did not meet the Queen.”

‘ “Alas, no,” said Rowsby Woof: and he told what had happened at the cross-roads.

‘ “Never mind,” said El-ahrairah. “Do not be downhearted, Rowsby Woof. There was good reason why the Queen did not come. She received news of danger – ah, great danger, Rowsby Woof! – and avoided it in time. I myself am here at the risk of my own safety to warn you. You are lucky indeed that I am your friend, for otherwise your good master must have been stricken with mortal plague.”

‘ “With plague?” cried Rowsby Woof. “Oh how, good fairy?”

‘ “Many fairies and spirits there are in the animal kingdoms of the East,” said El-ahrairah. “Some are friends and there are those – may misfortune strike them down – who are our deadly enemies. Worst of them all, Rowsby Woof, is the great Rat-Spirit, the giant of Sumatra, the curse of Hamelin. He dares not openly fight our noble Queen, but he works by stealth, by poison, by disease. Soon after you left me, I learned that he has sent his hateful rat-goblins through the clouds, carrying sickness. I warned the Queen; but still I remained here, Rowsby Woof, to warn you. If the sickness falls – and the goblins are very near – it will harm not you, but your master it will slay – and me too, I fear. You can save him and you alone. I cannot.”

‘ “Oh horror!” cried Rowsby Woof. “There is no time to be lost! What must I do, Fairy Wogdog?”

‘ “The sickness works by a spell,” said El-ahrairah. “But if a real dog, of flesh and blood, could run four times round the house, barking as loudly as he could, then the spell would be broken and the sickness would have no power. But alas! I forgot! You are shut in, Rowsby Woof. What is to be done? I fear that all is lost!”

‘ “No, no!” said Rowsby Woof. “I will save you, Fairy Wogdog, and my dear master too. Leave it to me!”

‘Rowsby Woof began to bark. He barked to raise the dead. The windows shook. The coal fell in the grate. The noise was terrifying. They could hear the man upstairs, shouting and cursing. Still Rowsby Woof barked. The man came stamping down. He flung open the window and listened for thieves, but he could hear nothing, partly because there was nothing to hear and partly because of the ceaseless barking. At last he picked up his gun, flung open the door and went cautiously out to see what was the matter. Out shot Rowsby Woof, bellowing like a bull, and tore round the house. The man followed him at a run, leaving the door wide.

‘ “Quick!” said El-ahrairah. “Quicker than Wogdog from the Tartar’s bow! Come on!”

‘El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle dashed into the garden and disappeared through the laurels. In the field beyond they paused for a moment. From behind came the sounds of yelping and woofing, mixed with shouts and angry cries of “Come ’ere, damn you!”

‘ “Noble fellow,” said El-ahrairah. “He has saved his master, Rabscuttle. He has saved us all. Let us go home and sleep sound in our burrow.”

‘For the rest of his life Rowsby Woof never forgot the night when he had waited for the great Dog-Queen. True, it was a disappointment, but this, he felt, was a small matter, compared with the recollection of his own noble conduct and of how he had saved both his master and the good Fairy Wogdog from the wicked Rat-Spirit.’


 

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