Our friend was the last, and another was the first, to discover a little hoard of seeds that some other tiny beastie not a bank-vole must have collected and forgotten all about, or been killed in the interval. In the wild, it is the law that "they should take who have the power, and they should keep who can."
Then Fate lifted her finger, and things happened. All that had gone before didn't count, it seemed. The little bank-vole was dimly aware of rolling under a big, warm, live shape. He was also aware of a funny little fussy grunt in his ear, and that a set of very white and business-like teeth flashed for an instant in the sun, as they chopped surprisedly at him going under them, and missed.
Climbing steadily upwards through the network of ivy-stems he had no wish to go down now, for he could hear the river talking to itself directly underneath him, and a false step meant a clean drop into the swirling black depths thirty feet or so below the bank-vole, with his companion in close and trusting attendance, presently came out on top of the cliff.
This trying position continued for perhaps five minutes. It seemed like five days to the wretched bank-vole. Then the slow temper of the funny old hedgepig smoldered gradually alight. His eyes grew red in the foxy head of him, his snout "worked," and he snuffled and grunted faster and faster. He made up his mind to fight. And the extraordinary combat began.
The black rat peered under the lower rung of a gate into a straw-yard, and heard the rustlings of little folk field-vole, bank-vole, and wood-mouse who had gone before him.
It was a fight to a finish, with no surrender save to death. The bank-vole had already fled; but it was in the direction that the fight finally veered that he had gone, and so, peeping from between the weed-stems at the mouth of a hole, he saw all.
I say "so it seemed" advisedly, since close by, and almost invisible because sitting quite still, was another bank-vole, who looked as if she were waiting for something; which she probably was a lover. It was, however, death that came, and he is a too attentive lover.
He blinked his star-bright eyes in his fat, furry, little square head, after the manner of one who thought he had been dreaming. But catch a bank-vole dreaming! Besides, how about the squirrel overhead? He was hanging over a branch where the flicker had been, swearing fit to slit his lungs, and old squirrel wasn't much given to make mistakes, as a rule.
But they must have heard the scrape of the snake's scales down that echoing tunnel following hard behind, for they avoided our bank-vole like the plague, and dived up one or other of the thousand and one side-tunnels, which opened on to the main one, too quickly for the viper to catch them. Then the poor, little, panting bank-vole found himself once more in the open.
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.