I’m sorry, Mole old chap, but it just won’t do you know’.
The Mole lifted his gaze from the golden coals of the fire. ‘What won’t do Ratty?’
‘There’s something going on in the Wild Wood. We haven’t seen Badger for months. I am starting to worry about him’.
The Mole looked round at the honest face of his friend, brow furrowed and whiskers twitching. Outside the light was already going from the sky, and the windows rattled in the wind. It was a day for firesides, and crumpets. With great fortitude he stood up. ‘Well’, he said bravely, ‘why don’t we go and try to find him?
‘Would you?’ said Ratty, ‘it’s no kind of a day for a walk’.
‘Of course it is’, said the Mole, moving now with bustling decision, ‘now where did I put my stick?’
Some time later, the Mole and the Rat drew close to the edge of the Wild Wood. It was not a place either of them liked very much: dark and forbidding, especially on a cold blustery November afternoon.
As they entered the wood, dusk was well advanced, the light of the grey sky leaking away. The Mole distinctly saw a little wedge-shaped face, looking out at him from behind a tree. He recalled another winter visit to the Wild Wood, and shuddered.
‘Hurry up’, he said, and quickened his pace, telling himself not to begin imagining things. But it was not his imagination. The wood was full of movement. There were lights, and noises far off. On the winding paths they caught sight of busy figures, moving purposefully. One, a weasel, stood staring at them, wearing a strange yellow jacket, another had a clipboard and appeared to be sizing up a tree.
‘I don’t like the look of this’ said the Rat.
At long last, when it was almost completely dark, they came to the solid little dark green door of Badger’s house, complete with its boot scraper. They knocked loudly, and the bolt shot back; Badger’s long nose stuck out.
‘Oh it’s you fellows. I wondered when you would drop by’. Badger sounded gruff. ‘Come in, come in’, he said, and opened the door to the dark passage behind.
When they were warming themselves by the fire in the kitchen, the Rat asked ‘what on earth’s going on in the Wood?’
‘It’s Toad again’ said the Badger. He looked at them in turn. ‘Things have really gone too far this time’.
‘What’s happened’ asked the Mole.
‘Railways’, said the Badger, his voice bitter. ‘Or rather one railway, right through the Wild Wood’. It’s the weasels and stoats, of course, doing it. They seem to think they can just do what they like. And Toad is helping them’.
‘Toad,’ said the Rat, ‘why?’
‘You had better ask him that yourself’ said the Badger leading them towards the back parlour, ‘I can’t get any sense out of him’.
He unlocked the door, to reveal the Toad apparently asleep by the fire. The Toad sprang up. ‘Hullo you fellows!’ he cried cheerfully on catching sight of them ‘I am glad to see you!’. ‘Badger, did you know I got stuck in here: the door wouldn’t open!’.
The Badger said nothing, and the Toad ran on ‘Oh, but never mind about that now, there are much more important things to talk about! Opportunities! Novelties! You’re just in time! I want to join me in a great—in a great—to join me in a great —in a—er—great—.’ His hearty accents faltered and fell away as he noticed the stern unbending look on the countenances of his silent friends, and his invitation remained unfinished.
‘Now then!’ the Badger said severely, ‘what is the meaning of this? Explain yourself!’
‘Ah’, said the Toad. ‘Well—um—it’s all about the new railway.’
‘What railway?’ said the Rat.
‘The one being built from London to somewhere else, to move everything around’. The Toad waved his hands, ‘I don’t recall the details’.
‘Why do we need a railway when we have the canal?’ said the Rat.
‘Speed!’ said the Toad: ‘speed and efficiency, that’s the future! Its no good moving things around at walking pace. You have to go fast! Nothing stands still! The railway will whizz people along at unimaginable speed, so they’ll get where they are going before they know they have left!’
The three animals looked at Toad with incomprehension.
‘But the thing I want to talk to you about is not the railway, but the Wild Wood’, said Toad, with some hesitation.
‘Yes?’ Said the Badger forbiddingly.
‘Yes’ said the Toad, ‘you see—well—you see—the Wild Wood is in the wrong place. It’s exactly on the railway’s route! It turns out they need to build the railway through the wood’.
‘Right through the middle of the Wild Wood, in fact’, said the Badger, his voice bitter.
‘Yes, but that’s what I am trying to explain to you all, if you would only listen!’
The Toad got up and paced the kitchen, waving his arms. ‘There’s going to be a new wood to replace it, and it’s going to be just the same as the old one! In fact,’ the Toad continued expansively, ‘it will be heaps better’
‘How can it be?’ Said the Mole indignantly. ‘How can it be, when the Wild Wood is huge and ancient, and all the trees are old, and all the creatures have lived here for generations, and…and…’. The Mole ran out of breath and words, and could only gesture towards the Badger, who stood unmoving in front of the fire. ‘Oh how could you, Toad, how could you?
The Toad grimaced. ‘I understand, old fellows. It’s a shock. But you can’t have change without things changing.’
‘Change!’ muttered the Badger half under his breath.
‘And we are quite determined to make sure nothing is damaged by the railway’.
‘We?’ said the Mole sharply, who’s “we”?’
‘The River Bank’, said the Toad simply.
‘The River Bank? But I thought that had gone broke’, said the Rat: ‘surely it hasn’t been started up again?’
‘Well, not exactly. It is quite different now: it’s a woodland bank. Instead of dealing in money, it does deals in trees.’
‘What kind of deals?’
‘Well you see, that’s the clever bit. The bank brings together people who need to plant new woods with people who have land to plant them on. And they do the deal! It’s so simple! The Toad beamed, his eyes alight with excitement.
‘And what makes you think the new wood can replace the old?’
‘Ah, that’s a bit clever, I admit’ said the Toad proudly. ‘The weasels have invented a system for calculating the value of any piece of woodland, and comparing it with the new one. And if it’s not as good, we simply make the new one bigger.’
‘How much bigger?’
‘Well that depends. It’s very technical. I confess I don’t fully understand it myself. But I assure you it’s all taken care of in the calculations. The whole idea is that there is no net loss. In fact there should be gains overall’
‘So where is this new wood to be?’ Said the Rat, suspiciously.
‘Ah—well—actually it’s in the meadows at Toad Hall’, said the Toad, uncomfortably.
‘But the Wild Wood is on sand, and the meadows are clay: the new wood will be quite different,’ said the Mole, looking appalled. ‘And it will take centuries before the trees get big—where is everybody to go in the meantime? And what about the creatures that live in the meadows, where are they to go?’ He waved his hands helplessly. ‘Toad, this will be an utter disaster’.
‘Oh, you fellows are hopeless’, said the Toad. ‘You have to move with the times’. You can’t let some old wood stand in the way of progress!’
The Badger uttered something under his breath that sounded like ‘some old wood!’ Under his breath, and turned and stared hard at the Toad. He spoke slowly and coldly. ‘Are you telling us that you are involved in some kind of organisation that considers it legitimate to destroy the Wild Wood, and then pay you to plant trees on the meadows at Toad Hall instead?’
‘Um—yes’ said the Toad, simply. ‘It’s a good wheeze isn’t it?’ Do you want to come in on it you fellows? He giggled feebly and looked from one to the other appealingly. ‘I say, you fellows, are you very upset? I am so sorry!’
This is a monstrous suggestion!’ said the Badger. ‘What you are proposing runs against the interest of everyone who loves the riverbank or the Wild Wood and the lands around’. The Toad shrank back from his grim face.
‘Toad, you are incorrigible’, said the Badger severely. ‘You have disregarded all bounds of decency and common sense. You have set aside what little your old father managed to teach you about woods and the creatures that live in them.’
He drew a long breath, and said in a tight voice, ‘but I promised your father I would not let you ruin yourself, and I will honour my promise. You will come with me into the kitchen now, and there I will explain about the Wild Wood, why it is unique and irreplaceable, and why no plantation of new trees around Toad Hall could ever be an adequate substitute; and why, if your friends must build their wretched railway, they need to take it somewhere else, where they don’t have to destroy the countryside. And when I have finished, we’ll see whether you come out of that room thinking the same way about this as you do now.’
He took Toad firmly by the arm, led him into the kitchen, and closed the door behind them.
‘That’s no good!” said the Rat contemptuously. ‘Talking to Toad will never achieve anything. He’ll say anything. But will he change his ways? Never!’
After half an hour the door opened, and the Badger reappeared, leading a limp and dejected Toad. His skin hung baggily about him, and his cheeks were furrowed by the tears called forth by the Badger’s eloquence.
‘Sit down there, Toad, said the Badger kindly, pointing to a chair. ‘My friends,’ he went on, “I am pleased to inform you that Toad has seen the error of his ways. He is sorry for his misguided conduct, and he has undertaken to have nothing further to do with woodland banks or high speed railways, or schemes to move woods around. I have his solemn promise to that effect.”
“That is very good news,” said the Mole gravely.
“Very good news indeed,” observed the Rat dubiously, ‘if only—if only—‘
He was looking very hard at Toad as he said this, and could not help thinking he perceived something vaguely resembling a twinkle in that animal’s sorrowful eye.