“You know me as a hunter,” began Mr Fox “a warrior, a leader among fox-kind … But – alas! It was not always so. There was a time when –” Who shall blame him if his voice faltered to confess it? “I became a Subject of Mockery – at the hands of Poultry!”
Poultry! It took Mrs Fox a moment to overcome her agitation, but her smile did not falter. “Tell me all, and then we will put it behind us.”
“It was a Human who was the cause of my downfall,” continued Mr Fox, who had scarcely managed to wait long enough for her permission to avail himself of it.
“Until I came upon the town of Caledorne I was a good old fashioned cave-fox who ate rabbits for breakfast, cheerfully savaged any creature he did not like, and cared not a fig for any animal’s opinion. On that calamitous winter afternoon, however, all this was destined to change.
“The forests were already covered with snow, and I had caught nothing for a week but one hapless sparrow, though I had prowled and lurked through every bush and tree hollow from here to the Valuné. I had never before eaten humans – yes, my dear, I was forced to contemplate even that extremity.
“As I stood on the edge of the Forest shivering and scratching my fur, the first coach of the day drew up at The Tinklin’ Bell. I took it as a Sign, and after some basic lurking and prowling, selected as my prey a diminutive female in a black and yellow skin. Alack! Had I but known then that I was slinking fast to my Doom!
“Murderers had been known to become sheepishly contrite in That Presence; nay, even her own parents trembled inwardly as they addressed her. In my deplorable ignorance, I contemplated the ultimate sacrilege – laying violent paws upon this formidable personage!
“‘Reveal yourself at once!’ Hands on her bow-knot-belted waist, a frown gathering over disapprovingly pursed lips, Miss Guinace Dunthair sternly contemplated this poor malefactor, who was trying now to steal away unnoticed.
“‘Stop!’ I stopped – ‘Turn around and come here!’ I turned around and went there. I can see that you think it rather poor-spirited conduct, but I really couldn’t help it.
“I was surveyed over a short straight nose wrinkled with disgust. ‘And just who may you be, my good sir? You are quite the most Peculiar Person I have ever come across!’
‘I – I’m a fox.’
“‘A fox? Hmm. Go and put on a respectable black frock-coat instead of this absurd brown. Moreover, please attend immediately to these horridly long nails. Does your mother not order them to be clipped regularly?
My mother! At my age! I ask you! ‘I – don’t have – a mother!’ That took more courage than a whole pride of snake-fanged lions would have called for.
“In a moment her censorious manner vanished.
“‘Oh you poor dear thing!’ She patted my head sympathetically. ‘How very dreadful! I do not wonder that you have no notion of Proper Conduct. However, this cannot be permitted to continue. I will undertake your instruction personally.’
“And thus I found myself washed and brushed, permed and polished, by a horde of attendants most provocatively aquiver with terror, so that I longed to growl a little just for fun. My nails were cut so short they ached constantly, and these hind paws were encased in buckled boots. On my frame, trimmed to the last stray hair, were smothering linen swathings, fawn-skin breeches, and as decreed by Mademoiselle, a black frock-coat. The ensemble was rounded off by a bowler-hat and a strangulation device called a cravat.
“A horribly cold and cramped ‘house’ had been constructed, since my cosy cave was now taboo. Within, furnishings and accessories were tastefully and meticulously arranged. She left also an hour-long list of orders, which I shall spare you, though I shall retain of that discourse for the rest of my life an ineffaceable impression.
“At length I recovered enough to feel a bit peckish. I tried valiantly to content myself with the rations approved by my benefactress, but tea and seed-cake quite unequivocally made me sick. So I went out to hunt again. Unfortunately, mincing through the forest on one’s hind-legs, body held stiff and head resolutely erect, is perhaps not the best way of hunting that a Fox can adopt. Yet I could not take the hat off – it would not have been Proper to step out of doors without a hat.
“And then! Woeful hour! I chanced upon a roosting hen. Noiselessly I crept up, and scooped her into my butterfly net. Once upon a time I would just have pounced upon her and ripped out her throat, but that was conduct grossly unworthy of a Gentle-fox. Wherefore, I clicked my heels and raised my hat to the hen as I tipped her into a sack, and walked home just in time to drag it into the larder and tuck myself in for an afternoon nap. I woke precisely at the time Proper etiquette dictated, and sat down to wait for Supper. I dared not commit the heinous crime of Eating Between Meals.
The hen soon pecked her way out of the flimsy sacking. She filled it up with pebbles – it took her a good half hour, as she later informed me, but she felt it was wholly worth it – and knotted it up again. Then she ran off cackling to tell all her friends.
“When my watch finally struck seven, I lit a fire in the newly established stone hearth, and emptied the sack onto it. Imagine my shock when only pebbles came out! I watched them helplessly, uncertain as to the Proper Conduct in such a case. The fire hissed and crackled as they dried, and having drunk its fill, began to spit them out.
“The first hit me on the nose, making me leap upwards with a decidedly Improper oath, and the relentless bursts of stony splinters that followed caused me to perform twists and contortions which would have won a serpent’s admiration.
“The thrashed and battered hat made Mrs Thrush and Company an excellent nest for the winter. The cravat and garments provided magpies for miles around with heirlooms generations would preen themselves upon. The boots were colonised by an old mouse woman with a dozen rascally children. The house went down in human history, as indeed it should have done. An old half-blind historian declared it the work of a new indigenous people, and pioneered the movement that led to their discovery five years later.
“But here I lurked, my reputation in shreds –”
“But you redeemed yourself,” said Mrs Fox quickly.
“Ah yes, yes, my dear, but I am afraid I had acquired a – a taste – that I have never since managed to shake off, for what the humans call Reading. They take the flesh of trees and scratch marks upon them, and these marks become pictures in the brain … I – I hope you do not mind very much if I read sometimes?”
But Mrs Fox’s pungently expressed rejoinder we must consign to decent and – er – Proper oblivion.