St. Nicholas/Volume 40/Number 3/Babes of the Wild

St. Nicholas, Volume 40, Number 3
Babes of the Wild: Teddy Bear’s Bee-Tree by Charles G. D. Roberts





Uncle Andy and The Boy, familiarly known as “The Babe,” were exploring the high slopes of the farther shore of Silverwater. It had been an unusually long trip for the Babe’s short legs, and Uncle Andy had considerately called a halt, on the pretext that it was time for a smoke. He knew that the Babe would trudge on till he dropped in his tracks before acknowledging that he was tired. A mossy boulder under the ethereal green shade of a silver birch offered the kind of resting-place, comfortable yet unkempt, which appealed to Uncle Andy’s taste; and there below, over a succession of three low, wooded ridges, lay outspread the enchanting mirror of the lake. The Babe, squatting cross-legged on the turf, had detected a pair of brown rabbits peering out at him from the fringes of a thicket of young firs.

“Perhaps,” he thought to himself, “if we keep very still indeed, they ‘ll come out and play.”

He was about to whisper this suggestion, cautiously, to Uncle Andy, when, from somewhere in the trees behind him, came a loud sound of scrambling, of claws scratching on bark, followed by a thud, a grunt, and a whining, and then the crash of some heavy creature careering through the underbrush.

The rabbits vanished. The Babe, startled, shrank closer to his uncle’s knees, and stared up at him with round eyes of inquiry.

“He ’s in a hurry, all right, and does n’t care who knows it!” chuckled Uncle Andy. But his shaggy brows were knit in some perplexity.

“Who ’s he?” demanded the Babe.

“Well, now,” protested Uncle Andy, as much


as to say that the Babe ought to have known that without asking, “you know there ’s nothing in these woods big enough to make such a noise as that except a bear or a moose. And a moose can’t go up a tree. You heard that fellow fall down out of a tree, did n’t you?”

“Why did he fall down out of the tree?” asked the Babe, in a tone of great surprise.

“That ’s just what I—” began Uncle Andy. But he was interrupted.

“Oh! Oh! It’s stung me!” cried the Babe, shrilly, jumping to his feet and slapping at his ear. His eyes filled with injured tears.

Uncle Andy stared at him for a moment in grave reproof. Then he, too, sprang up as if the boulder had suddenly grown red-hot, and pawed at his hair with both hands, dropping his pipe.

“Glory! I see why he fell down!” he cried. The Babe gave another cry, clapped his hand to his leg where the stocking did not quite join the short breeches, and began hopping up and down on one foot. A heavy, pervasive hum was beginning to make itself heard.

“Come!” yelled Uncle Andy, striking at his cheek angrily and ducking his head as if he were going to butt something. He grabbed the Babe by one arm, and rushed him to the fir-thicket.

“Duck!” he ordered. “Down with you, flat!” And together they crawled into the low-growing, dense-foliaged thicket, where they lay side by side, face downward.

“They won’t follow us in here,” murmured Uncle Andy. “They don’t like thick bushes.”

“But I ’m afraid—we ’ve brought some in with us, Uncle Andy,” replied the Babe, trying very hard to keep the tears out of his voice. “I think I hear one squealing and buzzing in my hair. Oh!” and he clutched wildly at his leg.

“You ’re right!” said Uncle Andy, his voice suddenly growing very stern as a bee crawled over his collar and jabbed him with great earnestness in the neck. He sat up. Several other bees were creeping over him, seeking an effective spot to administer their fiery admonitions. But he paid them no heed. They stung him where they would, while he was quickly looking over the Babe’s hair, jacket, sleeves, stockings, and loose little trousers. He killed half a dozen of the angry crawlers before they found a chance to do the Babe more damage. Then he pulled out three stings, and applied moist earth from under the moss to each red and anguished spot.

The Babe looked up at him with a resolute little laugh, and shook obstinately from the tip of his nose the tears which he would not acknowledge by the attentions of his handkerchief or his fist.

“Thank you awfully,’ he began politely. “But oh, Uncle Andy, your poor eye is just dreadful. Oh-h-h !”’

“Yes, they have been getting after me a bit,” agreed Uncle Andy, dealing firmly with his own assailants now that the Babe was all right. “But this jab under the eye is the only one that matters. Here, see if you can get hold of the sting.”

The Babe’s keen eyes and nimble little fingers captured it at once. Then Uncle Andy plastered the spot with a daub of wet, black earth, and peered over it solemnly at the Babe’s swollen ear. He straightened his grizzled hair, and tried to look as if nothing out of the way had happened.

“I wish I ’d brought my pipe along,” he muttered. “It ’s over there by the rock. But I reckon it would n’t be healthy for me to go and get it just yet!”

“What ’s made them so awful mad, do you suppose?” inquired the Babe, nursing his wounds, and listening uneasily to the vicious hum which filled the air outside the thicket.

“It ’s that fool bear!” replied Uncle Andy. “He ’s struck a bee-tree too tough for him to tear open, and he fooled at it just long enough to get the bees good and savage. Then he quit in a hurry. And we ’ll just have to stay here till the bees get cooled down.”

“How long ’ll that be?” inquired the Babe, dismally. It was hard to sit still in the hot fir-thicket, with that burning, throbbing smart in his ear, and two little points of fierce ache in his leg. Uncle Andy was far from happy himself; but he felt that the Babe, who had behaved very well, must have his mind diverted. He fished out a letter from his pocket, rolled himself a cigarette as thick as his finger with his heavy pipe tobacco, and fell to puffing such huge clouds as would discourage other bees from prying into the thicket. Then he remarked consolingly:

“It is n’t always, by any means, that the bees get the best of it this way. Mostly it ’s the other way about. This bear was a fool. But there was Teddy Bear, now, a cub over in the foot-hills of Sugar Loaf Mountain, and he was not a fool. When he tackled his first bee-tree—and he was nothing but a cub, mind you—he pulled off the affair in good shape. I wish it had been these bees that he cleaned out.”

The Babe was so surprised that he let go of his leg for a moment.

“Why,” he exclaimed, “how could a cub do what a big, strong, grown-up bear could n’t manage?” He thought with a shudder how unequal he would be to such an undertaking.

“You just wait and see!” admonished Uncle Andy, blowing furious clouds from his monstrous cigarette. “It was about the end of the blueberry season when Teddy Bear lost his big, rusty-coated mother and small, glossy black sister, and found himself completely alone in the world. They had all three come down together from the high blueberry patches to the dark swamps, to hunt for roots and fungi as a variation to their fruit diet. The mother and sister had got caught together in a dreadful trap. Teddy Bear, some ten feet out of danger, had stared for two seconds in frozen horror, and then raced away like mad, with his mother’s warning screech hoarse in his ears. He knew by instinct that he would never see the victims any more; and he was very unhappy and lonely. For a whole day he moped, roaming restlessly about the high slopes and refusing to eat; till, at last, he got so hungry that he just had to eat. Then he began to forget his grief a little, and devote himself to the business of finding a living. But from being the most sunny-tempered of cubs, he became, all at once, as peppery as tabasco sauce.”

The Babe wagged his head feelingly. He had once tried tabasco sauce without having been warned of its sprightliness.

“As I have told you,” continued Uncle Andy, peering at him with strange solemnity over the mud patch beneath his swollen eye, “the blueberries were just about done. And as Teddy would not go down to the lower lands again to hunt for other kinds of rations, he had to do a lot of hustling to find enough blueberries for his healthy young appetite. Thus it came about that when, one day, on an out-of-the-way corner of the mountain, he stumbled upon a patch of belated berries, he fairly forgot himself in his greedy excitement. He whimpered; he grunted. He had no time to look where he was going. So, all of a sudden, he fell straight through a thick fringe of blueberry bushes, and went sprawling and clawing down the face of an almost perpendicular steep.

“The distance of his fall was not far short of thirty feet, and he brought up with a bump which left him not breath enough to squeal. The ground was soft, however, with undergrowth and debris, and he had no bones broken. In a couple of minutes, he was busy licking himself all over to make sure he was undamaged. Reassured on this point, he went prowling in exploration of the place he had dropped into.

“It was a sort of deep bowl, not more than forty feet across at the bottom, and with its rocky sides so steep that Teddy Bear did not feel at all encouraged to climb them. He went sniffing and peering around the edges in the hope of finding some easier way of escape. Disappointed in this, he lifted his black, alert little nose, and stared longingly upward, as if contemplating an effort to fly.

“He saw no help in that direction; but his nostrils caught a savor which, for the moment, put all thought of escape out of his head. It was the warm, delectable smell of honey. Teddy Bear had never tasted honey; but he needed no one to tell him it was good. Instantly he knew that he was very hungry. And instead of wanting to find a way out of the hole, all he wanted was to find out where that wonderful, delicious scent came from.

“From the deep soil at the bottom of the hole, grew three big trees, together with a certain amount of underbrush. Two of those were fir-trees, green and flourishing. The third was an old maple, with several of its branches broken away. It was quite dead all down one side, while on the other only a couple of branches put forth leaves. About a small hole near the top of this dilapidated old tree, Teddy Bear caught sight of a lot of bees, coming and going. Then he knew where that adorable odor came from. For though, as I think I have said, his experience was extremely limited, his mother had managed to convey to him an astonishing lot of useful and varied information.

“Teddy Bear had an idea that bees, in spite of their altogether diminutive size, were capable of making themselves unpleasant, and also that they had a temper which was liable to go off at half-cock. Nevertheless, being a bear of great decision, he lost no time in wondering what he had better do. The moment he had convinced himself that the honey was up that tree, up that tree he went to get it.”

“Oh!” cried the Babe, in tones of shuddering sympathy, as he felt at his leg and his ear; “oh! why did n’t he stop and think?”

Uncle Andy did not seem to consider that this remark called for any reply.

“That tree must have been hollow a long way down, for almost as soon as Teddy Bear’s claws began to rattle on the bark, the bees suspected trouble, and began to get excited. When he was not yet much more than half-way up, and hanging to the rough bark with all his claws,—biff! something sharp and very hot struck him in the nose. He grunted, and almost let go in his surprise. Naturally, he wanted to paw his nose,—for you know how it smarted!”

“T guess so!” murmured the Babe, in deepest sympathy, stroking the patch of mud on his ear.

“But that cub had just naturally a level head. He knew that if he let go with even one paw, he would fall to the ground, because the trunk of the tree, at that point, was so big he could not get a good hold upon it. So he just dug his smarting nose into the bark, and clawed himself around to the other side of the tree, where the branches that were still green sheltered him a bit.

“Luckily, here the bees did n’t seem to notice him. He kept very still, listening to their angry buzz till it had somewhat quieted down. Then, instead of going about it with a noisy dash, as he had done before, he worked his way up stealthily and slowly, till he could crawl into the crotch of the first branch. You see, that bear could learn a lesson.

“Presently he stuck his nose around to see how near he was to the bees’ hole. He had just time to locate it—about seven or eight feet above him —when, again—biff! and he was stung on the lip. He drew in his head again quick, I can tell you, quick enough to catch that bee and smash it. He ate it, indignantly. And then he lay curled up in the crotch for some minutes, gently pawing his sore little snout, and whimpering angrily.

“The warm, sweet smell of the honey was very strong up there. And, moreover, Teddy Bear’s temper was now thoroughly aroused. Most cubs, and some older bears, would have relinquished the adventure at this point; for, as a rule, it takes a wise old bear to handle a bee-tree successfully. But Teddy Bear was no ordinary cub, let me tell you,—or we would never have called him ‘Teddy.’ He lay nursing his anger and his nose till he had made up his mind what to do. And then he set out to do it.

“Hauling himself up softly from branch to branch, he made no more noise than a shadow. As soon as he was right behind the bees’ hole, he reached around, dug his claws into the edge of it, and pulled with all his might. The edges were rotten, and a pawful of old wood came. So did the bees!

“They were onto him in a second. He grunted furiously, screwed his eyes up tight, tucked his muzzle down under his left arm—which was busy holding on—and reached around blindly for an- other pull. This time he got a good grip, and he could feel something give. But the fiery torture was too much for him. He drew in his paw, crouched back into the crotch, and cuffed wildly at his own ears and face, as well as at the air, now thick with his assailants. The terrific hum they made somewhat daunted him. For a few seconds, he stood his ground, battling frantically. Then, with an agility that you would never have dreamed his chubby form to be capable of, he went swinging down from branch to branch, whining, and coughing, and spluttering, and squealing all the way. From the lowest branch he slid down the trunk, his claws tearing the bark and just clinging enough to break his fall.

“Reaching the ground, he began to roll himself over and over in the dry leaves and twigs, till he had crushed out all the bees that clung in his fur.”

“But why did n’t the rest of the bees follow him? They followed this other bear, to-day!” protested the Babe, feelingly.

“Well, they did n’t!” returned Uncle Andy, quite shortly, with his customary objection to being interrupted. Then he thought better of it, and added amiably: “That ’s a sensible question, a very natural question, and I ‘ll give you the answer to it in half a minute. I ’ve got to tell you my yarn in my own way, you know,—you ought to know that by this time,—but you ’ll see presently just why the bees acted so differently in the two cases.

“Well, as soon as Teddy Bear had got rid of his assailants, he clawed down through the leaves and twigs and moss—as I did just now, you remember—till he came to the damp, cool earth. Ah, how he dug his smarting muzzle into it, and rooted in it, and rubbed it into his ears and on his eyelids; till, pretty soon,—for the bee-stings do not poison a bear’s blood as strongly as they poison ours,—he began to feel much easier. As for the rest of his body,—well, those stings did n’t amount to much, you know, because his fur and his hide were both so thick.

“At last he sat up on his haunches and looked around. You should have seen him!”

“I ’m glad I was n’t there, Uncle Andy!” said the Babe, earnestly shaking his head. But Uncle Andy paid no attention to the remark.

“His muddy paws drooped over his breast, and his face was all stuck over with leaves and moss and mud—”

We must look funny, too,’ suggested the Babe, staring hard at the black mud-poultice under his uncle’s swollen eye. But his uncle refused to be diverted.

“—And his glossy fur was in a state of which his mother would have strongly disapproved. But his twinkling little eyes burned with wrath and determination. He sniffed again that honey smell. He stared up at the bee-tree, and noted that the opening was much larger than it had been before his visit. A big crack extended from it for nearly two feet down the trunk. Moreover, there did not seem to be so many bees buzzing about the hole.”

The Babe’s eyes grew so round with inquiry at this point that Uncle Andy felt bound to explain. °

“You see, as soon as the bees got it into their cunning heads that their enemy was going to succeed in breaking into their storehouse, they decided that it was more important to save their treasures than to fight the enemy. It was just as it is when one’s house is on fire. At first one fights to put the fire out. When that ’s no use, then one thinks only of saving the things. That’s the principle the bees generally go upon. At first they attack the enemy, in the hope of driving him off. But if they find that he is going to succeed in breaking in and burglarizing the place, then they fling themselves on the precious honey which they have taken so much pains to store, and begin to stuff their honey-sacks as full as possible. All they think of, then, is to carry away enough to keep them going while they are getting established in new quarters. The trouble with the fool bear who has got us into this mess to-day was that he tackled a bee-tree where the outside wood was too strong for him to rip open. The bees knew he could n’t get in at them, so they all turned out after him, to give him a good lesson. When he got away through the underbrush so quickly, they just turned on us, because they felt they must give a lesson to somebody!”

We did n’t want to steal their old honey!” muttered the Babe, in an injured voice.

“Oh, I ’m not so sure!” said Uncle Andy. “I should n’t wonder if Bill and I ’d come over here some night and smoke the rascals out. But we can wait. That ’s the difference between us and Teddy Bear. He would n’t even wait to clean the leaves off his face, he was so anxious for that honey—and his revenge.

“This time he went up the tree slowly and quietly, keeping out of sight all the way. When he was exactly on a level with the entrance, he braced himself solidly, reached his right paw around the trunk, got a fine hold on the edge of the new crack, and wrenched with all his might.

“A big strip of half-rotten wood came away so suddenly, that Teddy Bear nearly fell off the tree.

“A lot of bees came with it; and once more, Teddy Bear’s head was in a swarm of little, darting, piercing flames. But his blood was up. He held on to that chunk of bee-tree. A big piece of comb, dripping with honey and crawling with bees, was sticking to it. Whimpering, and pawing at his face, he crunched a great mouthful of the comb, bees and all.

“Never had he tasted, never had he dreamed of, anything so delicious! What was the pain of his smarting muzzle to that ecstatic mouthful? He snatched another, which took all the rest of the comb. Then he flung the piece of wood to the ground.

“The bees, meanwhile,—except those which had stung him and were now crawling, stingless and soon to die, in His fur,—had suddenly left him. The whole interior of their hive was exposed to the glare of daylight, and their one thought now was to save all they could. Teddy Bear’s one thought was to seize all he could. He clawed himself around boldly to the front of the tree, plunged one greedy paw straight into the heart of the hive, snatched forth a big, dripping, crawling comb, and fell to munching it up as fast as he could,—honey, bees, brood-comb, bee-bread, all together indiscriminately. The distracted bees paid him no more attention. They were too busy filling their honey-sacks.”

The Babe smacked his lips. He was beginning to get pretty hungry himself.

“Well,” continued Uncle Andy, “Teddy Bear chewed and chewed, finally plunging his whole head into the sticky mess,—getting a few stings, of course, but never thinking of them,—till he was just so gorged that he could n’t hold another morsel. Then, very slowly and heavily, grunting all the time, he climbed down the bee-tree. He felt that he wanted to go to sleep. When he reached the bottom, he sat up on his haunches to look around for some sort of a snug corner. His eyelids were swollen with stings, but his little round stomach was swollen with honey, so he did n’t care a penny. His face was all daubed with honey and dead bees. And his claws were so stuck up with honey and rotten wood and bark that he kept opening and shutting them like a baby who has got a feather stuck to its fingers and does n’t know what to do with it. But he was too sleepy to bother about his appearance. He just waddled over to a nook between the roots of the next tree, curled up with his sticky nose between his sticky paws, and was soon snoring.”

“And did he ever get out of that deep hole?” inquired the Babe, always impatient of the way in which Uncle Andy was wont to end his stories.

“Of course he got out. He climbed out,” answered Uncle Andy. “Do you suppose a bear like that could be kept shut up long? And now I think we might be getting out too! I don’t hear any more humming; I guess the coast ’s clear.”

He peered forth cautiously.

“It ’s all right. Come along,’ he said. “And there ’s my pipe at the foot of the rock, just where I dropped it,” he added, in a tone of great satisfaction. Then, with mud-patched, swollen faces, and crooked, but cheerful, smiles, the two refugees emerged into the golden light of the afternoon, and stretched themselves. But as Uncle Andy surveyed, first the Babe and then himself, in the unobstructed light, his smile faded.

“I ’m afraid Bill ’s going to have the laugh on us when we get home!” said he.