Зображення сторінки
PDF
ePub

bird were immediately destroyed. The marmot endured this singular treatment for four hours, evincing, a strange power of resistance to so destructive an agent. Experiments of this nature cannot, it is true, be made upon the bear, which is much too powerful a creature to be thus treated; but there seems no reason to suppose that the animal is an exception to the general principles of the hybernating condition.

Upwards of fifteen thousand bear-skins are brought yearly into this country, nearly all coming from North America. This animal is therefore compelled to minister to the luxuries and comforts of men; for though he may appear of little use to us whilst living, when compared with the horse or the dog, he makes amends after death for the little service rendered by his life.

The fossil bears were probably allowed to live out their natural period without being slain for the sake of their coats; so that in this respect the modern bears are less happily circumstanced than their relations in olden times. Indeed, the annual destruction of so vast a host must tend

to diminish the stock in the great bear districts of the North. This, however, is more a question for the Hudson's Bay Company than for us, who do not charge upon our consciences the slaughter of many bears for the manufacture of our clothing. The bears, however, owe us few thanks, the general mildness of our climate having much more to do with the matter than any sublime sympathies with the old man in the fur coat.

The Sables, Ermines, and Martens.

THE reader must not be surprised to find these valuable fur animals grouped in the same chapter, for they are all placed in one class by zoologists, being ranked in the weasel family.' The regions inhabited by the above three species, and the high price set upon the fur of each, with the similarity of the means adopted for their capture, justify us in considering them together, even were they not united in a common genus by their habits.

The peasant who is startled in some copse by the appearance of a stoat, or the hen-keeper who dreads the ferocity of the escaped ferret amongst the feathered pets of the farm-yard, little thinks of the eagerness with which, in the distant regions of the North, the Esquimaux and the Siberian

animals somewhat resembling the ferret. To capture the sable or the ermine the vast steppes of the Asiatic deserts are crossed, and each snowcovered waste watched for the well-known tracts by the trained eyes of the hunter, who fears neither the treacherous snowdrift nor the desolating tempest when the object of his chase is near. From such toils of hardy and unknown men the judge receives his ermine, and the princess her rich sable robing.

pursue

1 The zoological name for all this class is Mustellidæ, in which the marten, sable, ermine, otters, and polecats, are placed.

The size of the bear's fur may seem sufficient to excite men, exposed to the bitter frosts of high latitudes, to obtain so ample a covering, which will by itself furnish a warm dreadnought for a man, when the storm howls from the north-east over the wintry waste. The smallness of the sable and ermine would appear, at the first view, to render their fur almost worthless; but quality, not quantity, is the object of the sable-hunter, who knows that a few of these highly-prized skins will be a full reward for the perils and privations of the most trying chase.

It may assist the reader's memory to treat of these animals separately; we therefore commence with

THE SABLES.

These are but a division of the marten family ; but the extraordinary price set upon their furs, and the consequences produced by the keen rivalry of the hunters, justify the writer in treating of these animals by themselves. This species is called by some naturalists the Sibelline marten, and Zable by the German and Russian traders, from which comes our term, sable. The estimation in which the fur was held ages ago, appears from the statement of Baiver, who, in the sixteenth century, describes a small bundle of these skins as selling for a thousand pieces of gold. This precious animal is almost confined to Siberia, across the frozen plains of which it pursues its prey, in the depth of the most piercing winter, with a perseverance only equalled by that with which man hunts the itself. Though much has been written about the animal, not half-a-dozen naturalists have seen it in its living state and native haunts; and a modern zoologist says, that two only of the vast crowds of zoologists have really seen the live sable. This is not very surprising

; for Siberia is not the beaten ground of the tourist, and it is much more pleasant to read about the sable than to plunge through the snow-drifts of Russia in search of the haunts of the creature.. We, however, nced not lament over this, nor be in haste to urge our zoological societies to despatch agents to Siberia, with note-book and pencilcase; for the habits of the sable are, in all probability, like those of the more common martens. We must, therefore, rest satisfied with sometimes seeing the coat of the sable instead of the living animal in his own proper person; a degree of knowledge which we must resign to the Siberian hunter and the wild trapper of the northern deserts.

The value of this fur depends on its length and softness,--two

ness.

qualities which enable the animal to resist the intense and longcontinued cold of its frost-bound homes. The same properties which render this fur so suitable for the defence of the sable itself, serve also to enhance its value in the eyes of the trader. The pursuit of this precious marten has led the daring hunter over many a wide tract, and far beyond the circles of civilisation, until strange countries were thus discovered, and laid open to the knowledge of the more cultivated regions of the earth. The pursuit of the sable has, in fact, led to the discovery of Siberia, and thrown open to the dominion of the Czar the vast plains between the Ural Mountains and the Pacific. Had not the chase of this animal led the hunters far into the untrodden regions of the East, no very strong impulse would have led men into the depths of that wilder

But the desire of gaining a rich bundle of sable-skins drew hundreds of hardy men from the more cultivated countries in the south and west. Thus the sable led the way to that wide penal land into which Russia sends her criminals of high and low degree. Hence we see, in two opposite regions of the globe, extended and barren wastes raised to importance by the skins of animals; for both the Hudson's Bay territory and the Siberian steppes are made valuable by the fur-trade, while the islands of the South Sea owe their discovery to the long voyages of the hardy whale-fisher ; thus the once unknown territories of the easterr. and western hemispheres have been explored by the American or Asiatic hunter. How strongly does this illustrate the all-powerful influence of civilisation! A nation of savages would not have undertaken the labour of the whale-fishery, nor would a tribe of barbarians have developed the vast apparatus of the fur-trade. Hence both on sea and land the empire of man has been increased by such simple matters as the pursuit of one animal for its fat, and of another for its fur; for without the existence of the wants which these articles supply, men would not have been persuaded to undergo the risk and hardships which led to such discoveries. The pursuit of the sable, therefore, must be numbered amongst the causes which have led to the introduction of civilisation, and its long train of blessings, into the heart of Siberia. In future ages, when this northern tract is covered with the fruits of industry and commerce, it will not be beneath the historian's labour to record, how the desire of possessing the fur of the sable first led Europeans to cross those Asiatic wilds.

Many a condemned criminal has rendered his desolate lot more tolerable by the chase of this animal; and little is the lady aware of the sufferings and toil which have attended the capture of that narrow piece of fur which edges her mantle. We must not, however, forget that pleasure is also connected with the sablehunting, and some readers may be able to form at least a faint idea of the happiness which fills the Siberian exile's heart, when, returning to his desert hut after weeks of absence, he presents to

his delighted children the small bundle of precious skins collected in lonely forests and by the banks of silent rivers. Great skill is required for this chase, in addition to long patience and sustained perseverance, as the hunter must contrive to kill the animal without inflicting many wounds, which would damage the fur. Hence those who use fire-arms are compelled to employ a single ball; and to hit so small an animal with this requires, of course, long practice and the keenest eye. Some of the hunters shoot with blunted arrows, by which the sable is stunned without the skin being torn.

No one who has seen the genuine fur, and marked the long glossy hairs, can wonder at these precautions to preserve the skin from the smallest injury. Thus, with skill and patience, do the inhabitants of these deserts provide the wealthy sons of Europe and Asia with the soft and luxurious covering so prized by the furrier, but so rarely obtained by his customers. It may not perhaps be unsuitable to remark, that the nature of the sable by no means corresponds in softness to its fur, the animal ranking with the most ferocious and carnivorous creatures. The ferret is well known, and also the tenacity with which it clings to the victim it has once seized ; not less ferocious is the sable, which springs with murderous aim upon the small animals frequenting its native forests. Some one may here ask, what causes the peculiar richness and softness of the sable's fur, when compared with that of the ferret and common marten, which it so much resembles ? Even to so simple a question no satisfactory answer can be given; for cold alone cannot be the cause, because other animals are found in the same regions, which do not possess the like richness and abundance of fur. The causes of such beauty in the sable's coat may remain a mystery, but the fact itself must not be forgotten when numbering up the agencies which have effected great changes in human history. Whenever we see a piece of sable fur, we shall be wise to remember the importance attached to those dark and glossy hairs by the rude tribes in far-distant countries.

THE ERMINE.

Many who have heard of these furs, and have been taught to connect them with ideas of judicial power and the solemn tribunals of justice, may not be aware that the ermine animal is a native of our own country. Hundreds of Englishmen have nevertheless frequently seen the little creature in our wooded lanes and forest glades. We do not, however, dignify it in this country with the name of erinine, having long attached to the animal the more common epithet, “stoat.Some sceptical reader may here exclaim, “ What, is this savage little creature related to the noble ermine, and is this the animal from which the judge procures his robe of state, and the heralds their rich emblazonry?The first part of such a question must be answered in the affirmative; there is certainly a relationship between our vulgar stoat and the princely ermine, however different the two animals may appear to a hasty observer. But to the second part of the inquiry we must reply by observing, that the ermine fur does not come from our stoat, but from the species inhabiting the colder countries of the North ; for in this climate the skin does not acquire its rich whiteness, but in general the colour is too dingy to merit the furrier's attention. In the countries where the full winter change is produced, the perfect white of the body is beautifully contrasted with the black tip on the tail. Those who have remarked the clear ground of the fur, and the black spots which diversify its surface, must not imagine that these dark marks are distributed over the fur of the living animal. The ermine skins are, in fact, made up by the furriers, who fasten the black portions from the tail on various parts of the skin, and thus produce the black and white diversities of this famous fur. In the north of our island the animal frequently acquires its winter coat, and is then called the white stoat; but in the summer season the very same creature is known as the brown stoat.

It is, however, in Siberia that the ermine, like its cousin, the sable, developes that peculiar beauty of fur which is so closely connected with the influence of frost. There, amid the sandy and stony deserts, the fierce little creature tempts man to set his traps and spread his snares to lure the coveted quadruped within his power. As it is in winter that the fur acquires its valuable properties, so it is necessary that all the perils of such a season should be risked by the hunter, in addition to the savage desolation of those far-spreading plains and lonely forests. Magnificent scenes of nature must often reveal themselves to the lonely ermine-hunter, either from the heavens, suffused with the innumerable tints of the aurora, or on the earth, when lashed by the sublime force of the wintry storm. But these grand forms are doubtless all unheeded by the rude men, who see more to fascinate the gaze in the traces of an ermine, than in all the beauties of the natural world. The ermine, being a member of the weasel family, possesses

all the ferocity and courage which distinguish this most carnivorous race. This disposition of the animal is shewn wherever it settles ; for however climate affects the value of its fur, no change is thereby produced in the habits of this creature by the heat of summer or frosts of winter. In England and Scotland it becomes the terror of all peaceably-disposed rabbits and well-mannered hares, which it slaughters without respect of age or kind. The ermine is also as brave as it is carnivorous; from which we must not wonder to find the living stoat as much hated by the game

« НазадПродовжити »