"WEE TIM'ROUS BEASTIES"
"WEE TIM'ROUS BEASTIES"
STUDIES OF ANIMAL LIFE AND CHARACTER
BY DOUGLAS ENGLISH
FELLOW OF THE ROYAL PHOTOGRAPHIC SOCIETY OF GREAT BRITAIN AUTHOR OF "PHOTOGRAPHY FOR NATURALISTS"
WITH ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY ILLUSTRATIONS FROM HIS PHOTOGRAPHS OF LIVING CREATURES
LONDON S. H. BOUSFIELD & CO., LTD 12, PORTUGAL STREET, W.C.
TO MY DEAR CHILDREN BRYAN AND WINNIE
For permission to include in this volume "The Awakening of the Dormouse," "The Purple Emperor," "The Harvest Mouse," and "The Trivial Fortunes of Molge," I have to thank the Editor of the Girl's Realm, and for "The Story of a Field Vole," and "The Passing of the Black Rat," I am indebted to the courtesy of the Editor of Pearson's Magazine.
HAWLEY, DARTFORD, September, 1903.
MUS RIDICULUS 1
THE STORY OF A FIELD VOLE 28
THE APOLOGY OF THE HOUSE SPARROW 48
THE AWAKENING OF THE DORMOUSE 66
THE PURPLE EMPEROR 88
THE HARVEST MOUSE 118
THE TRIVIAL FORTUNES OF MOLGE 142
THE PASSING OF THE BLACK RAT 171
THE FOX'S TRICKS ARE MANY; ONE IS ENOUGH FOR THE URCHIN 192
"WEE TIM'ROUS BEASTIES"
Mus ridiculus! The taunt had been flung at him by a stout field-vole, and, by reason of its novelty as well as of its intrinsic impertinence, had sunk deep into his memory. He had felt at the time that "Wee sleekit, cowrin', tim'rous beastie" was but a poor rejoinder. But he knew no Latin and chose what was next in obscurity. Besides, he was a young mouse then, and breathless with excitement.
The scene rose vividly before him—the moon shining grimly overhead, and the mouse-folk stealing from the half-threshed stack across two fields into the farmstead.
Since that night he had never entered a wheat-stack, for fear of the leaving of it. For there are some things which, from a mouse standpoint, will not bear repetition.
There had been a grey, slanting ghost-swish above, and his brother had vanished skywards from within an inch of his side. He had turned to stone before two ice-cold eyes, and realized the honest yard of snake behind them. A stoat had passed him with its mouth too full to snap—and all within two fields.
Mus ridiculus! The vole was not so far wrong after all, for could anything, whose intelligence was otherwise than laughable, be in his present plight? In front of him were three horizontal wires, above him were nine more, on either side an upright wooden wall, behind him a slanting one, whose lower extremity nipped his tail. On the floor lay innumerable crumbs of evil-smelling cheese.
When the door of the trap had clicked behind him, he had naturally been startled. His fright, however, was due not so much to his surroundings—he was used to close quarters—as to the forcible restriction of his tail. Still, the cheese was within easy reach, and he had determined to enjoy it. Indeed, he ate his full. Now, cheese on an empty mouse stomach acts as an intoxicant. He had fallen into a drowsy slumber, crouched in a back corner of the trap, and so he slept for an hour.
His awakening was gradual, but rude. It was due to a steadily increasing discomfort in his tail. It was not the first time, however, that he had realized that a long, tapering tail has its disadvantages as well as its uses. As a controllable balancing-pole, there is probably nothing to equal it. As a parachute, it serves its purpose in a precipitate leap. As a decoy, it frequently disturbs the enemy's aim. But, when once it is firmly jammed, it is liable to congestion, and this is what awoke the mouse.
At first he was inclined to treat the matter lightly. He had been caught by the tail often enough, after all. He tried the normal methods of release. Swinging round on his haunches, he caught the offending member between his two fore-paws, so as to ease it out by gentle side-shifts. Then he brought his tongue into play as a lubricant. Then he simply pulled. By this time he was fairly awake and could feel.
It was unfortunate that a door banged above him, for, mouse-like, he leapt forward with all his leaping strength. The leap freed him, but at a price, and the price was his tail, or, rather, all that made a tail worth having. For the first half-inch it proceeded soundly enough, a series of neat, over-lapping, down-covered scale-rings, then, for the next two-and-three-quarter inches it presented all the naked hideousness of an X-ray photograph. It was not so much the pain he minded as the indignity, and he surveyed himself with gloomy disgust. There was, however, just a grain of consolation. With an imprisoned tail, escape was impossible. Now that he was free to move, there was surely a chance of squeezing through those bars. He must take heart and gird himself for the struggle. No mouse, however, if he can help it, enters upon a serious undertaking ungroomed. So he sat back on his hind legs and commenced an elaborate toilet. First he licked his tiny hands and worked them like lightning across and down his face. This he continued for a full minute, until his whiskers bristled like tiny needles, without a speck of dust throughout their length. Then he combed the matted fur of his waistcoat with his teeth, and smoothed and polished it until every hair was a gleaming strand of silk. Finally he turned his attention to his back and sides, twisting his body cat-fashion to reach the remoter portions of himself.
Once, in the middle of his operations, he stopped with a jerk and sat up motionless, save for a tremulous quiver of his muzzle. There was certainly something moving close at hand. Long before the faint vibration had reached his ears, his whiskers had caught it and flashed their danger-signal to his brain. It was only a cockroach, however. As it came in sight, he snapped at it viciously through the bars, and squeaked at its precipitate flight. Not that he grudged it the cheese crumbs, but his nerves were on edge, and it had frightened him.
Body, head, and feet alike, were sleek and resplendent before he caught a glimpse of his disreputable tail. He was dubious as to whether polishing would have any beneficial effect on its appearance; but the stump, at any rate, must be healed, and to do this he set to work with nature's remedy. Taking the stripped portion in his fore-paws—for, to his astonishment, he found that he could not move it otherwise—he pulled it gently between his hind legs up to his mouth. It parted like a pack-thread. Somehow he felt indifferent. A rigid, lifeless tail was little use, after all. He was bound to lose it sooner or later, and he was too old to care what the other mice might think. Besides, as the father of a hundred and fifty, he was surely entitled to set the fashion. He licked the stump until it felt easy, shook himself once or twice, gave his whiskers a final polish, and prepared to walk out.
He felt sleek enough to squeeze through anything—confident, too, though just a trifle thirsty. It must have been the cheese, for the hot taste still lingered in his mouth, and he loathed the sight of the remaining fragments. He flicked them into a corner and carefully surveyed his position. The bars stretched at even intervals, above and in front. He tried each one separately and found that, with one exception, they were fixed and immovable. The exception was number three from the front above him. It was easily distinguishable from the others, for a curved wire swung free from its centre. When he gripped his fore-paws round it, he felt it twist in its sockets. Why did that curved wire rattle about when he touched it? Those from which he had stolen so many dainty morsels in the past had seemed fixtures. Perhaps he had gone too recklessly to work this time. He had certainly been extremely hungry. Anyhow, the bar from which it hung was loose—he would work that clear of the wood in no time, and so gain freedom.
He raised himself on his hind legs and commenced gnawing vigorously at the socket-hole. The position was a terribly strained one, and time after time his teeth slipped and met with a scrunching jar upon the metal.
Then he leaped up and swung head downwards, gripping the bars with all four feet. In this position he could at least nip the cross-piece, and worry it with his teeth. Every muscle of his small body was strained to the utmost. The bar rattled in its sockets, slipped round once or twice, bent the merest trifle, and—jammed immovable as the others. He felt that he was wasting his strength, and dropped sullenly to the floor. He had never been so thirsty in his life; yet, true to his instincts, he started to wash his face and smooth his draggled fur afresh.
This time it was a harder task, for his mouth was parched and tender, and his fingers ached with exertion. Still, he managed to put his whiskers into proper trim, and pulled himself together, with every sense alert for the air-current which should betray some outlet.
He explored every cranny of his prison, slowly and calmly at first, then with increasing anxiety and speed. By using all his strength, he raised the door a tail's-breadth. For fully an hour he struggled at this chance of exit. Five times he forced his nose under the sharp wood edge, and sobbed as it snapped back, mocking at his failing strength.
It was not until he was sick with weariness, and mad with thirst, that he lost his head. Then he flung himself recklessly in every direction, bruising his poor body against the unyielding bars, desperate, grimy, pitiable.
Nature intervened at length, and lulled him into a semi-conscious, dream-bound indifference.
* * * * *
There was something to be said for the stack-life, after all. All good stacks come to an end, but, while they last, it is honey for the mouse-folk. Picture to yourself the basement of a wheat-stack, occupied by a flourishing mouse colony—five hundred tiny souls, super-abundance of food, and no thought for the morrow. The companions of his youth stole into his dream with all the vividness of early impressions. The long-tailed wood-mouse—a handsome fellow this, with great black liquid eyes, and weasel colouring; the harvest-mouse, that Liliputian rustic to whose deft fingers all good mouse-nests are indiscriminately assigned; the freaks, white, black, and nondescript; and, finally, the great brown rats.
In the presence of the latter he had always felt nervous, but he had recognized their usefulness. Had he not seen four of them combine and rout a weasel? In the midst of plenty they were harmless enough, at least they had never molested him. Moreover, they were the main tunnel builders, and it was refreshing for a mouse, who had wormed his way through two yards of powdery corn-husks, to find a run where he could stretch his limbs and scamper.
And what wild scampers those were! For free, unimpeded, safe racing, there is nothing to touch the rat tunnels of a wheat-stack.
He was a fortnight old when he first ventured out into the unknown. He remembered but little of his earliest sensations, only the vague comfort of nestling with six companions under his mother's soft fur, and the vague discomfort caused by her occasional absence. But that first journey was unforgetable. The maze of winding burrows, the myriad eyes peering at him through the darkness, the ceaseless patter of tiny feet, before, behind, and on all sides, the great brown rat sniffing dubiously as it passed, the jostling, the chattering, the squeaking. He had been a proud mouse when he had returned, and told his faint-hearted brothers what the great world outside was really like.
* * * * *
It was a bluebottle that roused him. It floundered heavily against the bars, crawled through, and brushed across his nose. No! he was not dead yet, but the bluebottle soon would be. He leaped at it, and, to his amazement, fell short and missed. Yesterday, he had cleared a flight of stairs with one light-hearted bound, and left a bewildered kitten at the top. He sank back heart-broken, and the bluebottle circled solemnly overhead, buzzing, buzzing, buzzing.
* * * * *
Buz-z-z-z! whir-r-r! He was back in the wheat-stack once more, listening to the dull humming of ten thousand bluebottles. From without came the sound of heavy tramping feet, whirring wheels, rough, human voices. The wheaten mass rocked and vibrated above his head: half the runs were choked, and he, with twenty more of his kind, sat cowering in a corner of the foundations. Nearer and nearer came the voices, for the thrashing had commenced at sunrise, and now, as evening approached, three-parts of the stack were gone. Only once had he ventured to the edge of his shelter and looked out. A pair of grinning jaws crashed against the outlet, and snapped within a hair's-breadth of his nose. It was his first sight of a terrier, and he realized that to break cover was certain death.
Death, indeed, was very busy outside. Every minute a dog's yelp, the shout of its master, and the dull thud of a bludgeon, told plainly enough the tale of some unhappy rodent's dash for freedom.
And so the sun went down blood-red.
It was midnight, however, before the remnant gathered themselves together, and agreed on flight. The trek was headed by an old brown rat. Of the dozen that survived it, he was the only mouse.
* * * * *
Better, after all, to have never finished the journey, and, yet, why should he complain? He had lived longer than most, and had had his supreme moments.
* * * * *
"'The mouse behind the mouldering wainscot shriek'd.'"
He had been dozing behind the wainscot in the dining-room, and the squeak of irritation had been due to a passing spider. The apt quotation reached him through the panel.
"Squeaked, surely?" The correction came in a soft, woman's voice.
"No, shrieked; I am certain of it."
"Squeaked, I think; a mouse doesn't shriek."
"Ah, but this mouse had a poetic licence."
"Look it up."
The book was taken from within two inches of where he sat.
"'Shrieked' it is."
It amused him vastly, for he had never shrieked in his life.
"Do you like mice?" It was the first voice speaking again.
"Hate them—smelly little things."
"Do you remember that thing of Suckling's?—
"'Her feet beneath her petticoat, Like little mice, ran in and out, As if they feared the light.'
"Pretty, rather, I think."
"Oh, I don't know—your feet, I suppose."
He felt disappointed. Surely it was the feet that profited by the comparison. Still, he knew that the whole conversation would amuse his wife, and rushed off to tell her before he should forget it.
He had been rather anxious about her of late. Only the previous evening he had peeped from behind the bookcase and seen her backed into a corner, and defying six feet of solid humanity with brandished paws. Behaviour of this kind was courageous, but unmouselike, and would assuredly get her into difficulties.
He found her in the midst of tiny wisps of paper, thread, and wool, that had been her chief concern for three days past.
"Did you ever shriek?" he cried.
"No," she replied; "but I shall do if you can't be less clumsy."
He looked at her in amazement. Then the truth burst upon him. He was the father of seven, and was awkwardly seated upon three of them.
* * * * *
She had been a good wife to him, this first. He had three especial favourites, the first, the third, and the sixth, but it was unquestionably the first that he had been the most proud of. She was a veritable queen among mice, and he had fought five suitors to win her. The madness of it! He had gone from basement to ceiling, challenging all and sundry who ventured to dispute his claim. But she was worth it. All he knew of house-life he had learnt from her. It was she who showed him the way to rob a trap. First she would sit upon the spring-door and satisfy herself that it was not lightly set, then with flattened body she would steal beneath it, and push, instead of pull, the bait.
Under her guidance he learnt every nook and corner of the rambling house, the swiftest ways from garret to cellar, the entrances and exits of the runs, their sudden drops and windings, and all the thousand intricacies of architecture that make life under one roof possible for both mice and men.
He learnt, moreover, from her that fighting the cat was merely a game of patience, and that even the human male has a warm corner in his heart for the mouse that is bold enough to approach him.
And yet she fell a victim to the cat herself. It was out of pure bravado that she crossed its tail to prove that a cat with its eye on a mouse-hole has no eye for anything else.
He, too, had been in the cat's clutches once. It was hardly to his discredit. He had been with his wife at the time, had heard the sneaking footfall, and was in the act of pushing her into shelter when he felt himself pinned down.
The moment the cat's paw touched him he had relaxed every muscle and feigned death. The ruse succeeded. The cat loosened her hold, and he had a two-yard run before he was pinned afresh.
Then he was flung into the air and caught like a ball, dashed aside and caught again, and swung, and twirled, and shaken, until he was too dazed to move a limb, and lay, a yard away from his tormentor, staring stupidly into her eyes. Yet he had received no mortal hurt.
He owed his rescue to a human hand, and the hand smoothed his poor draggled coat, and pushed him inside his hole, while the cat complacently purred. For two long hours he lay just within the entrance, exhausted, but unattainable, and for two long hours the cat sat waiting for his reappearance. Whenever he raised his head their eyes met.
* * * * *
Their eyes were meeting now. Consciousness returned to him for a few seconds, and in those few seconds his blood turned to water, even as before. She sat on the window-ledge outside. Her muzzle was pressed against the glass, and he could trace the snarling curl of the lips, which just revealed her teeth. He cowered back as far as possible. Sooner or later she would find her way inside—and then?
* * * * *
He had only once been actually caught, but he was very near it in the corn-bin. Now, a house-mouse has no right whatever in the corn-bin, and yet it was a point of honour with the house-mice that they should visit their stable relations at least once a week. It was the love of excitement, more than the love of corn, which impelled them.
Crossing the yard was always risky work, whether one skirted the shadowy side of the wall, or made a bold dash in the open. Then the simplest way into the storeroom was through a hole in the corner of the window-sill, and to reach this meant a clamber along a half-inch ledge, with the certainty of falling into the water-tank if one missed one's hold. Finally, the stable itself was the training-ground for the household kittens.
It was not a kitten, however, but a dog that so nearly terminated his career. There must have been thirty or forty mice in the corn-bin at the time. The lid was suddenly flung open, their eyes were dazzled by the blaze of an upheld lantern, and, before they could realize their position, a terrier was amongst them, dealing out scientific murder. Fortunately, he, with one companion, had been where the corn was highest, and a frantic scramble had landed them over the edge of the bin and down behind it. But, from where he lay, he could hear plainly enough what was happening. The mice were leaping in every direction against the polished sides of the bin, missing their footing and falling back into the terrier's mouth. His final recollection was of five and twenty small corpses laid out in a neat row upon the stable floor. Perhaps half a dozen of his companions had escaped by burrowing in the corn.
* * * * *
He awoke with a start this time, for the trap had suddenly turned up on end. The door was standing open, but a shadow hung across it, and the mouse felt the shadow—and shrieked.
THE STORY OF A FIELD VOLE
His earliest recollections were somewhat confused, nor is this to be wondered at, for he was one of eight, and in the same hole lived another family of seven, fifteen tiny creatures in all, of the same age and outwardly indistinguishable.
Under such circumstances it is difficult to retain one's individuality, let alone one's impressions. Moreover some little time had elapsed before he really saw his companions. Not that he was long actually blind,—that is the prerogative of the carnivora, but his career commenced some feet below the surface of the earth, at the termination of a long winding burrow, and a full fortnight had elapsed before he eluded his mother's vigilance, and, after a clumsy scrambling ascent, beheld for the first time the tall green grasses which shrouded the entrance, and the blue of the sky peeping down irregularly between them.
His first sensation was one of extreme cold, for his fur was at this time little better than down; Nature's brilliant colouring only dazzled and frightened him; his tender skin shrank from contact with the sharp-edged herbage, and, after a short blundering excursion, he was glad to scuttle down below once more.
His next effort was more successful. His fur had thickened, and, like all good voles, he had the sense to defer his exit until the evening. Still, even when he had reached the mature age of three weeks, the murky, warm atmosphere below ground proved more seductive than any other, and he spent the greater portion of his existence there, sleeping, nest-making, or fighting with a companion over food.
The making and re-making of the nest was learnt on kindergarten principles. At first he was employed in softening slender grass filaments, by dragging them through his teeth; then he learnt to intertwine them, and sat in the middle of an ever-growing sphere of delicate network; finally, like his mother, he tackled large, stiff grass stems, biting them into short lengths, and splitting them, or letting them split themselves, lengthways. By the time he was a month old, he was an expert nest-builder, and, given the material, could build a complete nest for two inside the hour.
On the score of meat and drink he had no anxieties. A marshy meadow had been selected by his forbears for colonization. The burrow terminated outwardly on the bank of a half-dried watercourse, and, within its recesses, was all manner of vegetable store—seeds, bulbs, leaves, clover, and herbs in fascinating variety and profusion. Nor was there any lack of greener food. Bog-grass surrounded the burrow, and the most succulent portion of bog-grass is the most easily attained.
He soon learned to reach up on his hind legs and gnaw the standing plant. The management of a dry and slippery corn-ear at first presented some difficulty, but, as his muscles strengthened, he found himself able to sit up on his haunches and hold it squirrel-fashion in his fore-paws, nibbling, to begin with, at the pointed end, which is the best way into most things. Once, as the family were grubbing together, a nut turned up at the back of the pile. After a desperate conflict, he secured it, but, the tough shell was too much for him. It takes a red vole's training to reduce a nut.
So the weeks passed on, and he grew thicker and sturdier and more furry. He was never graceful, like his cousin the red vole, for his face was blunted, his eyes small, and his tail ridiculously insignificant. Nor could he cover the ground with the easy swinging jump that makes one suspect relationship between the red vole and the wood-mouse. Still for a common, vulgar, agrarian vole, he was passable enough, and could hold his own, tooth and nail, with his nest-fellows.
He was five weeks old before he commenced to go out foraging on his own account. He never ventured far, but contented himself with timorous excursions along the banks of the watercourse, crouching amid the undergrowth, and ready, at the first scent of danger, to glide with flattened body back to cover. Sometimes he accompanied his mother on her visits to distant portions of the colony, but the old vole more often left her octet behind, and then he would lie huddled up with his companions, waiting for the squelching sound of her footsteps, as she returned across the mud, and quarrelling in anticipation of what she would bring.
Now and again a different sound would reach the hollow—the dragging tail swish of the water-vole, or the fussy scramble of some belated moorhen. These he soon learned to distinguish from the stealthy, broken, hanging footfall of the beast of prey. When that was heard, both he and his companions would crouch together in the darkest corner of the burrow and hold their breath.
Once such a sound stopped abruptly and close at hand; a faint foetid odour permeated from without, and he felt instinctively that the enemy was at the gate. The danger passed, but that night the old vole failed to return.
The night following the same sound came, and ceased. This time, however, the silence was succeeded by a fierce scratching, and he soon realized that the entrance to the nest was blocked, and that something, bigger and stronger than he yet knew of, was working its way nearer and nearer. There was a clatter of falling stones and earth, and the "something" was whirling in their midst. Wild confusion followed. The whole interior of the nest seemed occupied by a swift-circling, curling, sinuous form.
Small as he was, and crouching as only a vole can crouch, there was no escape from contact with it. Three times the hot loathsome breath hissed over him, as he lay flattened to the ground. Then, as the lithe body swept round, he was flung aside, and, by a lucky chance, found himself opposite the outlet. In an agony of terror he scrambled up the shaft, and concealed himself in an adjoining grass-tuft. He was sick, and dizzy, and bruised all over.
Scarcely had he recovered sufficient coolness to look about him, when the object of his terror emerged with dripping jaws, and he was enabled, for the first time, to form an opinion of the arch-enemy of vole-kind.
To avoid the bird of prey, a vole need only remain below the surface; to avoid the little gentleman in black, he need only rise above it; but from the grim pursuit of the weasel, bent on meal or murder, there is no escape.
Terror-stricken as he was, he could hardly help admiring the easy supple swagger of the creature's movements. She held her broad browed head erect, the bristles pointed like needles from her blood-streaked muzzle, grit and pluck could be traced in her every movement, and, in her eyes, universal defiance.
Down the dark watercourse she went, twisting her lithe chestnut body S-wise in and out of the coarse grass-clumps. A frog leaped before her. In a flash she had flung herself upon it, her white teeth clicked together in its brain, and she sauntered slowly out of sight, bearing her latest victim in her mouth. It was hideous. To eat vegetables was natural enough, but to eat living, quivering flesh! A sickening faintness crept over him, and it was full an hour before he could leave his shelter.
Very cautiously he retraced his steps to the familiar entrance, and stopped to listen. A flood of moonlight burst through the clouds, and his trembling shadow danced ink-black before him. He was a clear mark for every kind of foe, yet he still paused irresolute. It was too horribly silent below. A clumsy whirring beetle alighted at his feet and stumbled heavily down the hole. Another followed. He turned and fled, blindly, recklessly, anywhere to escape that exhaling reek of murder.
Away from the watercourse the grasses grew shorter and more slender. It was easy, but risky going. Small pyramids of soil dotted the ground in different directions, some massed together almost in circles, others at wider intervals. At the edge of one of them he stopped and commenced idly burrowing with his fore feet. For a few inches the light, crumbling earth yielded easily to his efforts. Then the floor seemed to subside beneath him, and he found a shelter ready made. Two narrow rough-hewn tunnels led from beneath the centre of the heap. He rested for a few minutes, then started to explore one of them.
It could hardly be described as a burrow, for, at intervals, it was half choked with earth-falls, and he had to work his way through them. In direction it was fairly straight. After a few yards progress he found its termination. It opened on a larger tunnel running at right angles to itself.
The sides of this latter were smooth and polished, smoother even than those of the approach to the old home. It was wide enough for two voles to run abreast in. The straggling grass-roots which hung overhead proved it of trifling depth. Indeed, the roof was very thin, in places hardly solid. Through these the moonlight seemed to filter down, forming dull bluish patches on the floor.
From the main road passages branched out at intervals. He turned into one of them. The sides were rough and crumbling, and it came abruptly to an end. He soon retraced his steps, but paused when he had regained the meeting of the ways. Something was approaching along the main tunnel. He took the wisest course, and crouched within the shelter of the side gallery. A crimson pointed snout, a huge paddling foot, and a dark shapeless mass passed in quick succession before his eyes, and vanished in the darkness.
As it swept by, the foot caught the crumbling edge of his retreat, covering him with a shower of light mould. For the second time he experienced the sickening, paralyzing agony of fear. This was succeeded by an irresistible impulse to break cover. He sprang into the main shaft once more, determined to take advantage of the first outlet. A shadowy blue glimmer shone before him, and he quickened his pace towards it. Suddenly the light was extinguished, the walls of the tunnel seemed to cave in around him, in front of him he heard a dull, choking gasp, and he found his nose in contact with a warm, palpitating velvet body.
This time his nerve failed him completely, and he lay absolutely motionless, conscious, with only a dull indifference, that death stared him in the face. But death seemed slow in coming, and, as he lay, his indifference changed to a fierce longing, first for a speedy end of it all, then for life at any price. Slowly and with difficulty he lifted his head; the dark mass lay silent alongside of him, and the faint movements had ceased. He could trace the creature's hind foot, it was rigid and cold. Then the truth burst upon him. He had nothing to fear—the owner of the foot was dead.
Still, he could scarcely move his limbs, for the soil lay thick and heavy around him. After a prolonged effort he disengaged his fore feet, and started to scratch himself free. On one side of him lay the dead body; he worked vigorously along it. He was checked, however, by an obstacle beyond his strength. The body was enclosed by a tight-fitting ring, and on this he could make no impression.
Fastening his tiny fingers in the fur on one side, and scraping with his free fore-paw on the other, he forced his way upwards. The soil grew lighter above him, and in a few minutes he had reached the upper air, and lay panting on the surface.
He then tried to pick up his position. The mole-run had brought him some two hundred yards, nearly to the edge of the marshland. Across the boundary rose a small plantation. Here he determined to seek shelter. He had but fifty yards to go, and started to glide stealthily from tuft to tuft.
On all sides the ground was alive with tiny insects. The larger kinds seemed mostly to be sleeping. He ran full tilt against a drowsy butterfly, sweeping its close-folded wings through half a circle, as he passed. They sprang back with a jerk, but the insect itself remained motionless. Grasshoppers clung to every other grass-stem; their eyes were dead and staring. Here and there he saw a spider gripping its support and waiting for the sunrise.
Once he found himself confronted by a bloated toad. The amphibian surveyed him solemnly, but never moved. A low hiss whistled through the grass. He crouched in terror while four feet of grass-snake undulated by. A shrewmouse broke cover in front of him, followed by its mate. The air resounded with shrill defiant squeaks as the two bunchy velvet balls rolled over one another out of sight.
So he worked his way along towards the boundary; pausing at intervals to gnaw at the growing plant-stems, or to sit on his haunches and nibble some fallen seed which took his fancy.
It was close to the plantation that a familiar movement in the grass seemed to betray the presence of a near relation. Hastening towards it he found himself confronted by a total stranger. Vole-like this latter undoubtedly was, yet he was no ordinary vole. Delicate chestnut fur, brilliant white feet, a whitish waistcoat, and a paste-coloured two-inch tail proclaimed the red vole at once.
In size there was little to choose between them, and they sat gazing at each other for some moments stolid and undismayed. Yet, despite the equality of fighting weight, he felt himself somehow the inferior creature. His thoughts ran on the old legend of the field-vole who mated with a wood-mouse of high degree, and whose descendants to this day bear the marks of their noble origin. So, when the stranger turned and leapt lightly into the undergrowth that fringed the wood, he humbly tried to follow.
That was no easy matter, for, where the other jumped, he could only scramble, and on the flat he felt himself hopelessly outclassed. Still, once beyond the outskirts of the wood, the tangled thickets gave way to something less luxuriant, and he could sight his leader more frequently. All at once he checked himself, and, with a sudden access of natural caution, flattened himself to earth. He had blundered into the red-vole community.
Five small active forms were gliding hither and thither among the fallen leaves. They were too busy to notice him, and were evidently working with some method, for, at intervals, one or the other would make his way slowly to a definite spot, and then return light-footed to his task. He edged a little closer to observe them. Then the meaning of it flashed upon him. They were nut-hunting.
Sometimes the nut was carried in their mouths, sometimes rolled along the ground, sometimes wedged between the chin and fore-paws, but, when they reached their goal, it seemed to vanish.
Of this there could be but one solution. The nuts were being taken to a burrow-entrance. Curiosity overcame him, and, seizing a quiet moment, he slipped down the burrow. It plunged abruptly for about a foot, passed under a curving root, squeezed between some small root branches, and terminated in a double compartment. Three nuts hit him from behind as he descended.
To his left lay the nest, a mass of feathery grass and mosses. He slipped into it, and, as he cleared the shaft entrance, the three nuts followed with a rush. He lay there quiet until his eyes had become accustomed to the semi-darkness.
Then he perceived that he was not alone. The right-hand portion of the hollow held a lady tenant. She had her back to him, and was busily employed in the storeroom. He could just distinguish that the farthest recess held a great pile of nuts, and that her business was to collect the nuts as they toppled down the shoot, and stack them in as small a space as possible.
Suddenly she paused, and he saw her sniff suspiciously, she swung round, and he was discovered. He had barely time to back into a corner, before she was upon him, and at the first nip, he knew that he had met a better vole. Over they rolled, scratching, biting, tearing. Her sharp, chisel teeth met in his ear and tore the half of it away. The blood blinded him, but he stuck grimly to his task.
Physically he was at an immense disadvantage. His clumsy movements availed but little against the fierce agility of the red vole. Time after time he snapped at her and missed; for, even as he aimed, she could swing her lithe body round and leap upon him from behind. Nor, when they grappled, could he retain his hold on her. Against the leverage of those powerful hind legs he could do nothing.
His cause, moreover, was a bad one. Was he not the intruder? and when was ever mercy accorded to such among four-footed things? His strength was fast failing when he fled, hotly pursued, up to the open once more. He only exchanged one foe for four. Lacerated, faint, and bleeding, he crouched, waiting for their attack. It was a short and savage one. An owl hooted above, the red voles rushed to cover, but he remained behind.
He had only really felt one bite. A pair of razor teeth had nipped his spine, and—he had hardly noticed a dozen other wounds. He was terribly thirsty, and struggled to reach a dewdrop which hung above his head, but his hind legs were paralyzed and powerless. Gradually his eyelids drooped, and he sank slowly over on one side. It was growing very dark and very cold.
THE APOLOGY OF THE HOUSE SPARROW
(NOTE.—It would not be morally profitable to describe how I learnt Sparrowese. The language of the sparrow is the language of the gutter. I have Englishized it throughout.)
"I was the odd egg, for one thing," said the sparrow. He was speaking with his mouth full, as usual.
"What on earth do you mean by that?" I replied.
He laughed offensively. "Do you know anything about sparrows?" he sneered.
I confessed I did not know much.
"I never knew any one write about them who did," he went on. "What was I saying when you interrupted me?"
"You said you were the odd egg," I replied. "What is an odd egg?"
"Do you know what a clutch is?" His intonation was insolence itself.
"A clutch," said I, "is, I believe, a sitting of eggs destined to be simultaneously hatched."
"Perhaps you may have noticed," said he, "that in our family"—his every feather bristled with importance, and the white bars on his wings were beautifully displayed—"we do not confine ourselves to a single monotonous pattern of egg."
"A string of variegated sparrows' eggs was one of my earliest treasures," said I.
"Well, then, if you know that much, and don't know what the odd egg is, you must be a fool," said he.
It is hard to be insulted by a sparrow, and, as it is, I have toned down the expression, but I preserved a meek silence.
"Any one," he went on, with bland condescension, "who has seen a few clutches of sparrows' eggs, and has not noticed that there is an odd egg in each clutch, must be an uncommonly poor observer."
"It is not in the books," I ventured to protest.
"Books!" he screamed, "books! What do the people who write books know about sparrows? And yet, do you know that there has been more ink spilt over sparrows than over any other bird? that laws innumerable have been passed concerning sparrows? that associations have been formed to exterminate sparrows? that—that—that——"
The excitement was too much for him; he had been keeping time with his tail to this declamatory crescendo. With the last effort he cocked it a shade too high, lost his balance, and landed, considerably ruffled, some four feet beneath his own reserved and particular twig. His eye was on me, and I felt it too serious a matter for laughter. He made what was evidently intended for a dignified ascent, choosing, with minute exactness, the steps he had originally employed on my approach. It was a full minute before he broke the silence, and for that full minute I had to preserve my gravity.
"Have you any clutches by you?" he said at last.
I had, and fetched them.
"Now," said he, "look at that one, four dark and one light; look at this, four light and one dark; and at this, six light mottled, and one among them with a few black spots."
I had to admit that it seemed true.
"True," said he, "of course it's true. Didn't I tell you that I was the odd egg myself?"
"Well, one of you had to be the odd egg, I suppose?"
"Wrong again," said he. "What you don't seem to realize is, that the odd egg is nearly always addled; in my case it wasn't."
"Then, in your case," said I, "there was one more mouth to feed than your parents expected. How did they take it?"
"Mother kept it quiet as long as she could," said he.
"Father didn't find out for a day or two, and when he did, he pushed one of my brothers over the side of the nest—he did holler for his life!"
The little beast was actually chuckling at the recollection.
"He hung head downwards by one leg, and wouldn't let go till father dug his beak into him."
"Brutal," I murmured.
"Brutal! not a bit of it. You can't feed more than a certain number of nestlings; besides which, there wouldn't be room in the nest. As it was, I fell out before I could fly."
"What happened then?"
"Why, the old folks came and fed me, and helped me back again the shortest way up the bark. Brutal, wasn't it? A martin wouldn't do that."
"Which reminds me," said I, "that you were not born in a martin's-nest. Are trees the fashionable quarter just now?"
"They've come in more since thatched roofs went out," said the sparrow. "It's tree or martins'-nests nowadays."
"You do really drive away the martins, I suppose?"
"Yes," he sniggered; "poor, dear little martins! Look here," said he, and his voice changed from a snigger to vicious earnest. "We sparrows are just about sick of being accused of bullying martins. White of Selborne started it, but he didn't know what it would lead to. Would you like to know the truth of the matter?"
It was one of the things I did want to hear, and I nodded assent.
"The disappearance of martins is a loss really of national importance," he began, in a sickly whine. "It is a shame to see how the pretty house martins are decreasing in this country at the hand of the sparrows," he continued. "He drives away our migratory and pre-eminently useful insect-eating birds, even turning out the eggs of the owners and using the locality for its own nest."
He was obviously quoting from the pro-martin authorities, and I stopped him.
"I have heard all that before," said I.
"There's a fair amount of it about, pages and pages," said he; "there's one story, for instance, of twenty or thirty martins blocking up the bold, bad sparrow inside the nest, which the said bold, bad sparrow had usurped. What do you think of that?"
"I think it is untrue," I promptly replied.
"It is untrue," said he; "but it isn't far away from truth, for all that. Many a dead sparrow has been found in a martin's-nest, and many a time the entrance was too small for a sparrow to have got out of; but, still, it wouldn't take a healthy sparrow long to break up a martin's-nest."
"What has happened then?" said I.
"Why, of course, the sparrow was dying when it got in. One part of white arsenic to fifteen parts of corn-meal is the usual recipe. It is illegal, as you doubtless know, but it has the advantage of acting slowly. Of course, if we saw a friend of ours writhing about in the feeding-ground, we should give that feeding-ground a wide berth."
"I see," said I; "but what about the entrance being plastered up?"
"It is never quite plastered up," said he; "and even if it was, a healthy, able-bodied sparrow could knock the whole thing to pieces with two pecks. No; when there are any disputes as to proprietorship between sparrows and martins, the martins have a trick of waiting till the sparrow is out, and then narrowing down the entrance so that the sparrow will have a job to get in decent nest material. When a live sparrow is in possession, he very soon lets callers know it. The martins, in these cases, miss their usual greeting, and probably conclude that the sparrow is away, whereas he is really dead inside. That's just about the whole truth of the matter."
"But why on earth," I protested, "can't you build a proper nest for yourself?"
"I don't know why it is," said he, "but the mere thought of a martin makes a sparrow feel bad inside. Why does a dog naturally go for a cat? One thing is quite certain, however. We both fancy human dwellings, and, if we left the martins altogether alone, they would have all the best places in no time. Now, that wouldn't be fair at all. I appeal to you as a fellow Briton. We are British born and bred. We stay with you all the year round. The martin only comes to look you up in the fine weather. Then he puts on his showy foreign manners, and you say, 'How charming! so different to those dirty, vulgar sparrows!' but, as soon as the weather breaks, off he goes. Now, a hard winter is no fun for the sparrows. We are glad of any shelter we can get, and the martins' deserted nests come in very handy. Not only do we use them, but we keep them from falling to pieces, line them with feathers, and make them into snug winter quarters. Back comes the martin in the spring. 'Dear me!' he says, 'most gratifying, I am sure. So kind of you to act as caretaker. Why, I declare, the old place looks better than when I left. Of course, you won't mind my coming in at once. I've got to make my family arrangements for the season.' 'Not quite,' says the sparrow. 'If it hadn't been for me, this nest would have been down in the last gale. I've put money into this nest, and you can jolly well go and build another. You ought to have stayed to look after it, if you wanted it again.'"
"That is all very well," said I; "but it seems to me that there ought to be room for both of you."
"Well, there isn't," said he, "and Nature has worked it out that there shan't be, and if you write a thousand letters to the Field, you won't alter that."
"Suppose the martins got the pull over the sparrows, do you think it would be better for things in general?"
"You mean better for yourself," said the sparrow, sharply.
On reflection, I came to the conclusion that that was just what I did mean.
"I don't believe an increase of insect-eating birds would do you much good," he went on. "Suppose, for instance, the ichneumon flies were decimated, what a time it would be for the caterpillars! How would some of your plants get on if there weren't enough insects to fertilize them?"
I felt it was time to shift my ground. "Let us get back to your early history," said I. "What was the nest like?"
"It was in a hole of a tree-stump," said he. "A silly sort of place, I think, not ten feet from the ground. Now I always build as high as I can—just underneath the rooks'-nests, in fact. You're safe from boys; they don't shoot your nest to bits for fear of shooting the rooks'-nests too; and there's abundance of insect food on the spot. The nest itself was mostly feathery stuff, though I remember a piece of pink paper, which used to tickle me. I suppose the colour of it took the old birds' fancy. Of course the nest was distinct from the casing. That was the usual straw. I think it is the casing of sparrows'-nests that you humans object to as untidy."
"We chiefly object to the portion which stops up the water-pipes," said I. "What did you have to eat?"
"Insects, I expect, to start with. At least, that is what I always give my youngsters; then, as my gizzard strengthened, small, hard seeds; then bigger ones; finally, corn itself. That is my favourite diet at the present time. Three parts of what I eat is corn, the rest is insects, seeds, and scraps."
"You can get corn all the year round?"
"Oh! easily enough. In the fields, when it is growing; round the wheat-stacks later, or among the poultry—people don't shoot into the middle of the poultry—anywhere, in fact."
"And you really like corn better than anything?"
"There is nothing quite so nice in the world," said the sparrow, "as fresh, young corn in the ear, which you can just squeeze the juice out of and then drop."
"And are you aware of the amount of damage which you do to the poor, struggling farmer?" said I, assuming a judicial severity which I was far from feeling.
The flippancy was infectious.
"A recent estimate places it at L770,094 per annum," said the sparrow. "Just think of that!"
"In this country alone," said I. "You seem to forget America, Australia, South Africa, and all the other places to which you have been unhappily introduced as an insecticide."
"You seem to forget," he retorted, "that it was you yourselves who made the introduction. You tried to improve on the natural balance which was ordained for this string of countries, and a pretty mess you have made of it. Now you want to crown your folly of introducing the sparrow where Nature said it was not wanted, by exterminating it where Nature says it is wanted—and that's here."
"I don't think any one has suggested that you should be exterminated," said I.
"'To lessen their numbers in our country, every possible means must be had recourse to.' There's a pretty piece of grammar for you."
He was obviously quoting again.
"You couldn't exterminate me if you tried, and, therefore, you very properly don't suggest it. I have been called the Avian Rat, and I am the Avian Rat. You can no more get rid of me than you can of my four-footed counterpart. It would be a bad day for you if you could."
"But you must admit that both you and the rat are increasing in numbers, and, therefore, in destructiveness. What is to be the end of it?"
"The end of it will be that you will preserve our enemies instead of shooting them at sight."
"Hawks, owls, weasels, and so on."
"But hawks would never come near the towns?"
"We aren't in town the whole year round. Even the cockneyest of sparrows has his month or two in the cornfields. I don't mind telling you that one of the reasons we have for clinging to human habitations is that we are thus sure of sanctuary. Our natural enemies will always be welcomed with a gun. They know that, too, and keep away. Make it an offence to kill a bird or beast of prey, and you will see a difference in the rats and sparrows."
"What about the pheasants?" said I.
"There would be fewer pheasants," said the sparrow; "and, if you only knew it, they would taste better, if there were."
"Sparrow," said I, "to speak disrespectfully of the battue places you at once outside the pale. You are an Avian Rat. You do consume an inordinate quantity of corn. Since history began you have been an impudent parasite on man. As a hieroglyphic character you signified the enemy. Choleric old gentlemen have been roused to frenzy over your misdeeds. You have been shot at, trapped, poisoned, netted. Like the chafers, you have been excommunicated. You have been made into a yearly tribute, by the thousand. Laws have been enacted to compass your destruction, letters have been written to the Field, and yet—and yet—an inscrutable Providence has decreed that you shall survive, increase, and multiply. What good do you do?"
"Have you ever heard me sing?" said the sparrow.
"Sing!" I cried; "that sempiternal twitter, that intolerable chirrup that destroys the best and latest hours of sleep! Do you call that singing?"
"What bird would you prefer?" he blandly inquired.
I considered for a moment. The grim possibility of ten thousand nightingales yodelling in chorus, of ten thousand skylarks, or of ten thousand cuckoos, determined my answer.
"I cannot think of one," said I. "But this is no merit on your part, it is merely a qualification of evil."
"I thought you would acknowledge that," said the sparrow. "But, seriously, you ask me what good I do, and I will tell you. That my infant food consisted entirely of insects and caterpillars you already know. Turn the statistician to work who has so cunningly reduced my corn-depredations to pounds, shillings, and pence, and he will assuredly find that the insects devoured by the infant sparrow population in a year will amount to hundreds of millions. These, mind you, are insects large enough to be brought to us in our parent's beaks.
"But what of the insect eggs devoured by us in winter, when most of your pretty insect-eating birds have flown to where the insect is commoner, fatter, and fuller-flavoured? It is we stay-at-home British birds that really keep the insects down. I know that insect eggs do not appear in our poor dissected gizzards. How should they? How would you recognize their remains, O sapient sparrow-shooters? But they are there, for all that. Those blessed with eyes can see us hunting for them in the fallen leaves, among the garbage, in the crannies of the very pavement.
"What, again, of weed seeds in general, and knotgrass in particular? Avian Rat, indeed! rather Avian Scavenger, who draws his hard-earned pay in corn. Can you grudge him a few paltry millions? Would you exterminate him because in your blindness you only note the debit side? There is a Power behind the sparrow. It is Nature herself, and against Her fixed resolve nothing avails."
He had worked himself into an incoherent frenzy; but, even as he relapsed from this fierce air of consequence to his vulgarian self, I felt ashamed.
THE AWAKENING OF THE DORMOUSE
He lay face downwards—two tiny fists tight-clenched against his cheeks, his feet curled up to meet them, his tail swung gracefully across his eyes.
Nine weeks had he lain thus, self-entombed. Within the hollow of the old hazel-stump he had fashioned a rough sphere of honeysuckle bark; within this, again, a nest of feathery grass stems. He had put the roof on last of all.
A winter sunbeam pierced the screen of woodbine, and, for a moment, shed the warmth of springtime on the nest. His whiskers gave a feeble flicker in response. Next day the treacherous radiance lingered. He unclenched one fist, and wound four tiny fingers round a grass-stem. On the fourth day he half-opened his eyes (even half-opened they were beautiful), and sat up, dazed and blinking. The sunbeam had reached his heart.
Yet it was a full hour before he was conscious that he lived. At first he felt nothing but a dull quickening throb within his body. His feet and hands were ice-cold, and he swayed from side to side, feeling for his strength. Then came the pricking of ten thousand tiny needles in his limbs. His heart beat as though it would burst its prison. His whole frame quivered. His bristles stood stiff-pointed from their roots. As the heart-throb slowed, his muscles slackened and obeyed his will, but yet he felt that something was amiss. Before him danced a yellow quivering haze, his feet were heavy and awkward, his chest ached as he breathed, and he was cold, oh, so cold! It was no easy matter to reach the nest-top. He climbed mechanically upwards, digging his toes into the meshwork of the sides, and sobbing from sheer weakness as he climbed.
He made a small parting in the roof, and peeped out. It was only for a moment, for he fell back stunned and blinded by the glare. Still, in that moment, he had caught a glimpse of an unfamiliar world, leafless, lifeless, silent, miserable. He tucked his nose between his four paws, swung his tail across his eyes, and waited patiently for the darkness. With the darkness came the cold. It stole upon him gently, quelled the heart-throb, reclenched the tiny fists, and lulled him to forget.
* * * * *
It was better the next time. The old hazel was making coquettish efforts to renew its youth. It had hung its last remaining shoot with dancing catkins. Here and there lurked a crimson bud, ready to catch the floating pollen. On the sloping banks below were splotches of violet and primrose, and, over all, hung the green shimmer of spring.
To the dormouse's eyes the glare was, for the first few moments, as painful as before, but this time it was tempered with moisture. Great rain-drops swung on the swaying grass-stems and twinkled with a thousand prismatic colours. The slow drip of the woods resounded in his ears.
As his hearing sharpened, the old familiar sounds returned, the chirping of the titmice, the starling's discord, the sniggering of the robin, the squirrel's bullying cough. How he had hated the squirrel—a midget incarnation of mischief, whose whole life was spent in practical joking. How often had he heard that hateful cough shot into his ear, as My Lady Shadowtail whisked past him, a sinuous brown flash curling round the tree trunk! How often had he promptly dropped his hard-earned nut in consequence, only to see it seized by a field-mouse! How often had he swung at the end of a tapering twig, while the squirrel feinted at him with all four paws!
He looked up, and caught the squirrel's eye.
"What, awake?" she shouted. "It's not quite time for good little dormice. You wait till it's dark, and see how cool it is. Why, even with my tail (and she bent it into a figure of eight to show its amplitude) it is hard enough to keep warm."
The dormouse had felt it coming, and had discreetly retired. As it was, the better part of the roof caved in, the result of slight mistiming on the part of the squirrel.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," said the dormouse.
He was addressing vacancy, for the squirrel had in the mean time completed the circuit of three tree-tops. She was back again, however, in time to catch the next remark.
"Have you any nuts?" said the dormouse. "I feel most horribly hungry, and this light is very trying to my eyes. It will have to be darker before I can hunt for any myself."
"You'll be asleep two hours before it's dark," said the squirrel, "and I haven't any nuts, or rather, I haven't the least idea where I put them. Didn't you make a store?"
"Only a small one—seeds, I think," said the dormouse. "I was very drowsy when I made it, and I daren't hope that it is in good order."
"Where is it?" said the squirrel.
"The second hazel on the left," said the dormouse; "the third hollow from the top."
The second hazel on the left was twenty yards away. Before the dormouse had finished speaking the squirrel had started, and the boughs by which she reached it were still quivering as she returned.
"There's your store."
The dormouse looked up, and gave a dolorous squeal of disappointment. A straggling nosegay was being thrust through the roof, and he realized at once that the seeds had sprouted.
"Why didn't you nibble the ends off?" said the squirrel. "You can't expect seeds to be seeds for ever. Oh, it's your first hibernation, is it? Well, you'll know better next time. Here's a nut for you." She had held it concealed in her palm, and produced it like a conjuror.
"She's not such a bad sort, after all," thought the dormouse, as he proceeded to examine the nut.
It was a hard nut, and would take some getting through. He sat back on his haunches, grasped it in his eight little fingers, gave it a twirl or two, and commenced gnawing three strokes a second. He gnawed for two minutes without a break.
It was harder than any other nut he remembered. He had never been more than a minute getting through one; sometimes they had obligingly split in half before he had fairly started. He tried another part, and worked even more vigorously than before.
Assuredly it was the very hardest nut in all the world. Twenty minutes' hard work produced a small round hole, ten minutes more enlarged it so that he could thrust his lips inside. Then he sucked vigorously to secure the kernel, and secured instead a mouthful of black dust.
Of course the squirrel had known it all along. It did not need the guffaw he heard above to tell him that. This time he did not even protest. His spirit was broken. He was cold and tired and hungry. He merely huddled in a corner, still grasping the nut, and breathing in queer short gasps.
"Never mind, dormouse," shouted the squirrel, "you will know a bad egg next time. Try this."
For five seconds there was a faint rasping sound, then a sharp crack, and the rustle of two half-nutshells through the leaves. One of them struck the side of the hazel-stump and bounded off like an elastic ball. Before the dormouse had collected his wits, a fine kernel was thrust through the nest and the squirrel had once more regained her bough.
"Eat it," she shrieked; "eat it before the sun goes down. It's going now."
And it was. Before a quarter of the kernel was accounted for, the western sky had turned to lurid orange; before the half was gone, the chill struck him. The nut dropped from his nerveless hands, his limbs tightened, his ears sank into his skin, his eyelids drooped, and he was asleep once more.
* * * * *
The primroses had long yielded pride of place to the daffodils; these in turn had paled before the marsh marigolds, but the most glorious yellow in the picture was the Sulphur Butterfly. He zigzagged lightly down the hedgerow, catching the sunshine at every turn, and the marigolds drooped their heads at the sight of him. Close to the nest he dropped on a briar-leaf, like a floating petal. He was more than colour now—he was form. For a full minute he poised there motionless, the most exquisitely graceful, the most exquisitely coloured of all our butterflies, and, for a full minute, the dormouse watched him.
Next came a quivering, amber-tinted flight, resolved at rest into a delicate medley of green and white and saffron. It was the orange-tip, and the dormouse rejoiced, for the orange-tip meant spring. Such dainty frailty could never stand the winter.
To tell of all he heard and saw that day would fill a book. At first, as he peered through the crevices, he only grasped the more vivid tints—the azure of the hyacinth, the roseblush of the almond, the crimson glow of the clover, the purple of the foxglove. Then, as his senses quickened, the whole glorious colour-scale, from ashbud to whitethorn, stood revealed.
From heaven above came the skylark's defiant challenge; from earth beneath the fussy scream of the blackbird; on all sides the tweetings, twitterings, chirrupings, chirrings and pipings of petulant finches, and, in tender modulation to the avian chorus, the deep-throated, innumerable, drowsy hum of insects. Colour and sound, love and war, it was spring indeed.
For the dormouse, one tiny penetrating note dominated all. He knew that the singer of that note was four-footed. Have you ever heard a cricket's serenade? It was something like that. Have you ever heard a tree-creeper talking to itself? It was something like that also. He looked down and saw, as he expected, a round fur ball rolling in and out the grass-stems. At times the ball sat up and sniffed. He knew the puny fists and tapering snout at once. It was the shrewmouse. "Shrewmouse!" he cried, "is it time?" But the shrewmouse had crouched to dodge the shadow of a passing bird, and he saw him no more. However, he had seen enough. He stretched his hands and feet as though he would rack them from their sockets. Like Tennyson's rabbit, he fondled his harmless face in the most elaborate of toilets, then he took one nibble at the remnant of the squirrel's nut, and dropped off to sleep till the twilight.
It is time to describe him.
"Figure somewhat stout," says the book, "a single pair of pre-molars in each jaw, first toe of the fore-foot rudimentary, tail cylindrical," etc. The dormouse was anything but stout—six months' fasting, save for half a nut, had effectually restrained any tendency that way. No doubt in other respects he was in fair accordance with museum pattern, but he differed in one essential particular—he was alive.
His colour? When he had first retired to rest he had closely resembled a young red vole, buff grey all over save for his white waistcoat and the hair-parting along his back and down the ridges of his limbs. This was a delicate auburn. During his sleep the auburn had overspread his back, softened into cream colour on his sides, and thence into a pure white front. Ages ago his ancestors had been white all over; now, amid changed surroundings, the white only lingered where it was least conspicuous.
His eyes? Nor pen nor camera can present them. Imagine a black pearl imprisoning a diamond; imagine a dewdrop trembling on polished jet; add to these beauties life, and you will have the dormouse eye.
His tail? Distichous, say the books. Feathers are mostly distichous, hair-partings are distichous, the moustache is distichous. So is the dormouse tail; but the hairs along it do more than merely part. They curl, upwards from the root, downwards to the point, and form a plume.
The plume is a natural parachute, not so obvious, perhaps, as in the squirrel's case, but, weight for weight, of equal service.
His feet? Ten toes behind and eight before, sharp-pointed toes that grip the slenderest twig, and catch the slightest foothold in the bark.
His ears? Small, say the books. Not small, but rather hidden in the deep surrounding fur.
Had you seen the dormouse at the moment of his final awakening, you might have recognized him from this description. A few minutes later and the grey, flitting shadow might easily have baffled you. For, as he reached the surface of his nest, the sun went down.
Before him, at last, lay the twilight world he loved. Nature had ceased her noise and commenced her melody. From the brook below came the dull plash of the rising trout; now and then one could catch a stealthy rustle in the herbage—the beetles were abroad, ay and the mice and the beasts of prey; a hare paced by with easy lilting stride; his gentle footfall hardly stirred the dust. In the distance sounded the cry of a lost soul. It was the barn owl starting on her rounds. The dormouse cowered back until she passed—white—gleaming, swift and silent as a moth.
There was no discordant note. Wood, meadow, and hedgerow were bathed in liquid blue. The very tree trunks stood out as indigo against the sky. Daisy and marigold, hyacinth and clover were attuned to the same soothing minor chord. The work-a-day world was at rest, but the sleep-a-day world was holding high revel.
Before he was halfway down the stump he had caught the glint of twenty pairs of eyes. The voles and wood-mice had waited, like himself, until the owl had passed. Before each tuft of grass now stood its latest tenant. From beneath the root of a neighbouring hazel came a stealthy procession of five bank voles. Each, as it gained the entrance, performed its normal round. First it sniffed for weasel, then it sat up and washed its face, then it sniffed again, finally it stole off, foraging among the grass-stems. He saw his friend the shrewmouse scuffling with its mate; he saw the wood-mice nut-grubbing; he saw the night reunion of the stump-tailed voles; but the first of his own kind that he saw was mother.
He had swung himself to the top of a broken twig, and, as he looked down, perceived her climbing stiffly up towards him. Mother had aged since the autumn, but, when she drew closer, he knew her well enough; it was the same soft fur that he had nestled in last year.
Together they went out into the night. Once more he felt the magic pulse of life within him, and ran to the top of the hedge and down again twenty times for the mere joy of running. Head upwards he flew, head downwards, backwards, forwards, sideways. Sometimes he paused for a moment, lightly balanced on a branch end, then swung himself to the next friendly projection. Sometimes there was no pause. In one easy unbroken course he travelled to the end, cleared the intervening gap, and landed on the neighbouring branch below. He never missed, he never stumbled; for he was tumbler and wire-walker and saltimbanque in one.
And mother? Mother had lost some of her spring, but she had developed judiciousness, and a fine eye for country. It was this latter which, to her son's amazement, usually kept her two bushes ahead. It was this which made him miss her as the day broke.
He had been to the very topmost pinnacle of a thorn-bush; halfway down he had leapt four feet on to a neighbouring hazel; he had looked back in self-congratulation at the abyss, and, when he had turned again, she had disappeared.
He waited for her as long as he dared, and then crept back subdued and lonely to his nest. Next evening perhaps he would see her again. But the next evening passed, and the next, and the next, and he never saw her again until the end.
Some other time I will tell you how he passed that summer, how he fought for and won a wife, how they built a nest together and made a store together, of the four little dormice, and of the sad fate that befel two of them. Here I can only tell the last scene.
It was late autumn. His wife had already felt the coming of winter, and retired to her six months' sleep. He himself had sealed her in.
He had taught the two small dormice how to build their nests (honeysuckle fibre and dead leaf), and pointed out the necessity of getting into them before Christmas. He had rebuilt his own nest in the same old hollow, for he knew that he could not hold out much longer.
With every light breeze that crept down the hedgerow now came the rustle of the falling leaf. Each night he had seemed less inclined to wake, and this night he seemed less inclined than ever.
The sun had scarcely set before he felt chilled and uncomfortable. To warm himself he did three minutes' gymnastics. The end of them found him perched on the same old broken twig, and, when he looked down, even as before, mother was climbing painfully up to him.
It needed but a glance to see that she would not outlive the winter. Had she made a nest? No, she had not troubled. The hole she was in last year would do. Perhaps she would take his nest, he could easily build another. Most certainly she would not. He could help her to put some leaves into hers to-morrow. But that night came the first frost.
THE PURPLE EMPEROR
Down by the brookside the Sallow drooped her sunburnt leaves despondently. Things were at their dullest.
Three months ago she had been a tree of importance. Her dark, slender branches had formed a fashionable rendez-vous. Each evening she had seen her golden catkins studded with opals—the eyes of soft, furry, blundering moths. Each day the bees had thronged to pay court to her.
Then came Palm Sunday. Her catkins were stripped from her, worn for a few hours in yokels' hats, and flung aside. The moths came no more; the bees forsook her for the bluebells.
But the kingfishers cared nothing for her appearance. They nested, as usual, deep in the bank below, in a hollow formed by her roots.
The kingfishers were always in a hurry, and their colours were fussy and discordant. They flashed up and down the brook like a pair of demented fireworks. The whole bank reeked with the discarded meals of their progeny.
By the time the nestlings were fledged, the sallow wore its summer mantle, a down-lined cloak of green.
The interesting event had been a diversion. Now there seemed nothing to look forward to.
On the one side lay the meadow-land, stretching in unbroken monotony to the sky-line; on the other, the brook; beyond its wooded bank, more meadow-land.
The brook was not what it had been. Its waters were being drawn away to thirsty London, and herein lay the sallow's chief vexation.
This year her upper boughs had never flowered. Summer arrived, and she had hoped against hope. They had never even put forth leaves.
To be prematurely bald is disheartening. This baldness was so premature as to be serious. It was the first warning of decay.
* * * * *
The Empress Mother came sailing over the hill, high in the sky as befitted her. Behind her, in the far distance, lay the white-ribbed downs, and, along their ridge, there stretched against the sky a thin, shadowy, broken line. It was the great oak wood, the dominion she had abandoned.
The Empress Mother was looking for a black sallow. Sallows there were in plenty in and about the great wood, but she wanted one all to herself; one fit for an imperial nursery. So she came with unerring instinct to the brook.
The air hung motionless in the grip of a midsummer noon. As she floated earthwards in stately majesty, the sunlight flung its radiance round her, and her broad, white ribbon gleamed on its velvet ground like molten silver.
The sallow humbly drooped her leaves as one who receives royalty.
For an hour the Empress Mother was busy. The leaves that she honoured were chosen with the nicest discrimination, and she honoured more than a dozen. Each, as she left it, bore on its upper surface a small, green-yellow, shiny, translucent cone, rounded at the top, flat at the base, and ribbed along its sides.
For the rest of the day the sallow held her head high.
* * * * *
There were fourteen eggs in all. Six reached maturity, but we are only concerned with one of them. Outwardly he was much like the others. A day's exposure softened the yellow of his shell to olive. Save at the base he matched his leaf surroundings to a nicety. The base was suffused with a faint blush of purple. As the days passed the purple darkened to black, and shifted upwards, leaving the parts beneath it pale and colourless. It seemed to struggle towards the sun. On the eighteenth day the shell parted at the summit, and the little Emperor was hatched.
His youthful Majesty was mostly dark brown head. Such body as he could boast of was tapering and greenish. But his head caught the eye. It was well-nigh as large as the egg from which he came. Until he had fed he seemed indifferent to his changed surroundings.
The first thing that he ate was his minute discarded shell, and, from this slender meal, resulted disproportionate energy. He started forthwith on his travels, outwards towards the light as far as he could go. On the leaf point he built himself a pigmy throne of silk; and this was his citadel for a week. He only left it to feed, nibbling the leaf edge jerkily on either side of him. At the week's end he lost his appetite. His body was now of a decided green—green with the finest powdering of yellow. About his waist the yellow fused into a crescent. Nine of him would have measured an inch.
On the eighth day he ceased feeding altogether. He sat with his hind-quarters anchored to his throne, his head and fore legs raised from off the leaf, rigid and immovable. For three days he grew yellower and yellower. Then his skin split down his back, and he successfully accomplished his first moult. In his short span he passed through many changes, but never one more quaint than this.
During his abstinence he had grown two horns. They branched straight out before him, bristling with short spines, a full third of his length.
He moulted once again before the winter, but this was merely a growing moult. Until October he never left his leaf point. Then Nature herself warned him to seek shelter. The weather was breaking. Rain he did not mind, but wind was different. Suppose his leaf was torn from its socket and hurled a hundred yards into the field?
Leaves were falling all round him, and it was time to take up his winter quarters. He spent a day or two in reaching them, yet they were not far off—merely the junction of his own particular branch to the parent stem. There, in the shelter of the fork, he spun himself a silken blanket, and in it he slept peacefully till April.
Peacefully through everything, and in spite of everything. Rain beat in drenching floods against the sallow, hailstorms lashed her branches, snow enshrouded her, hoar-frost bespangled her,—the little Emperor was quite unmoved. As the bark weathered from ebony to rusty olive, chameleon-like, he changed with it. This was the only outward sign he gave of life.
* * * * *
The catkins bloomed once more, and once more were rudely gathered. With the bursting of the leaf the little Emperor crept from his blanket. He found the world much as he had left it. Only the leaves were covered with soft down, smaller, and easier to bite. He was by now a full half inch in length, big enough to roam at large, and hungry enough to eat the tree. He started on the first leaf he came to, and, in five minutes, had gnawed a neat crescent out of it. There was method in his gnawing. He fixed his claspers firmly to the stalk, then stretched his head as far as he could reach, and nibbled the leaf edge backwards. When his feet reached his claspers, he commenced afresh.
Before the winter he had only fed at night; now he fed from sunrise to sunset, and at night as well. He fattened steadily, and in proportion, growing more slug-like every day. His horns but emphasized the likeness. He carried them well forward, and, at his rare sleeping intervals, they lay flat against the leaf. Thus with his swollen waist he seemed to fall away both ends. Three times he outgrew his coat. Each time he had eaten till it stretched to bursting point. Each time the process of disrobing was the same.
He dragged his slow bulk to some thick mass of leaves, selected the innermost of them, and spun a web of silk upon its surface. From this he hung himself head downwards. His weight helped him, and, in due course, the old skin split along his back, and he emerged resplendent in a fresh, untarnished, elastic livery.
Each moult was marked by some embellishment. Rusty olive gave place to pale sap green, this in turn to the green of the young willow-leaf, and this again to the green of lush grass. Nor was the change in body colour all. His sides in time were decked with slanting stripes of yellow. A V-shaped orange girdle marked his waist. Its buckle was a tiny splotch of crimson. His horns were tipped with russet brown, and head and tail alike were faintly tinged with blue.
Yet, for all his rainbow tints, Nature had decreed that he should live invisible. To this end she had coloured him to match his food plant. The lines of yellow on his sides broke the monotony of green, as veins break the monotony of a leaf. The blue about him was sister to the blue of summer that played amid the foliage with quivering transparent lights and shadows.
Nor did the cunning harmony end here. In form as well as tint he cheated observation. His outline, as he lay at rest, formed the most perfect outline of a twisted leaf.
Birds passed him by unnoticed. Once, and once only, the ichneumon marked him down.
It was after his fifth and final moult. He was just a shade too light for nature, and the ichneumon has a pretty sense of colour. She buzzed viciously through the foliage, and settled for a moment on his back. She had reckoned without her host. His skin was indeed dangerously bright, but it was sensitive in proportion.
Before she could establish herself, a vicious back-sweep of his horns dislodged her.
Again and again she returned to the attack. Could she but pierce the skin, her paralyzing venom would quickly do its work. Then the murderous task would be easy. Eggs would be laid deep in the wound; grubs would hatch from them, and batten luxuriously on their unwilling host, sapping his strength, but cunningly avoiding his vitals, until they were full-fed. As they turned to pupae he would die, and from caterpillar, or may be chrysalis, there would then issue, in place of gorgeous butterfly, a host of dingy hymenoptera. So would the race of ichneumons be preserved.
The little Emperor was fat and well-liking—an ideal creche for young ichneumons; but the little Emperor was very wide-awake.
The fly could find no foothold on him. He flung his armed head backwards to his tail. He pawed the air with six fore feet. He shook himself in paroxysms of fury. The fly cared little for the latter, but the horns were hard and formidable. They covered his whole body with their sweep, and struck with lightning speed.
At sundown she withdrew discomfited; the little Emperor's horns had served him well.
His life was uneventful after this. When he had reached a length of two inches, his growth ceased. He fed less ravenously and less frequently. Three parts of his time he spent in contemplation of a special leaf. It was hard to tell wherein lay the fascination. He had spun a silken carpet on it. At rare intervals he tore himself away and snatched a hurried meal, but he infallibly returned to its friendly shelter. He rested on its mid-rib, facing the foot-stalk. His body was strongly arched and so compressed that the ridges of its crowded segments recalled the pile of velvet. His head and fore feet scarcely touched the surface. So he made ready for the second change.
For this even the favourite leaf was discarded. He roamed about the tree for days, seeking one that would suit his purpose. At last he found one, hidden in a thick-set cluster. It hung free, but he secured it in such fashion to its stem that a stiff breeze could hardly shake it. He stretched silken ropes from its edges and passed them completely round the foot-stalk. Then, on its under surface, he spun a little boss of silk, gripped it with his hind-claspers, and swung with easy confidence head downwards. For three days he hung thus motionless, yet within him there was a lively motion.
From the time he left the egg his life had been a dual one. The eye saw nothing but the outward mask, the caterpillar-form. Within this living vehicle that moved and spun and fed, lived the true butterfly—life within life, being within being.
The caterpillar mask had done its work, and having done its work, must die. Yet one can hardly call such dissolution death. As it hung suspended, all the marvellous mechanism which had formed a moving, eating, spinning, sentient being, was absorbed into the chrysalis it covered. Merely the outer empty shell remained.
On the fourth day this shell split cleanly at the tail, and, from the opening, the hind part of the chrysalis emerged. It jerked from side to side, to all appearance aimlessly. Yet there was method in its madness. A side-swing forced it deep into the boss of silk, and, in a moment, the hooks that studded its extremity were fast entangled. The chrysalis had its point d'appui.
Again the old skin cracked, this time behind the neck. The chrysalis head was free. On it were two short, flattened, pointed horns. A jerky movement of the shoulders followed—first expansion, then contraction. At each expansion the old skin slipped a trifle upwards. Turn by turn the segments of the body did their work, until it lay in gathered folds about the tail, just as the pushed-off stocking lies about the ankle.
But even so, the task was not completed. The skin must be got rid of. Its dull white mass, with dangling skeleton horns, was too conspicuous. Nature had armed the chrysalis with the needful tools, a grip attachment and a set of tiny sharp-edged hooks. The skin was fast entangled in the boss of silk. The chrysalis secured an independent foothold (using as stepping-stone the skin itself), spun itself from side to side, and cut the threads that bound it. It jerked lightly from leaf to leaf, until it reached the ground. The second change was accomplished.
Outwardly the chrysalis was nothing but an extra leaf. Colour and form combined their skilful mimicry. Its colour was the green of the sallow; its form, the form of the sallow-leaf.
For fifteen days it hung unchanged and motionless. On the sixteenth change was obviously impending. The upper segments had lengthened, the lower segments had darkened. On the twentieth day came the last great change of all.
It was a normal July day. Thunder was over the Downs. Now and again great rain-drops struck the sallow. They were few and far between, however. The thunder was content to grumble on the hills, leaving the valley to the sunshine. For all the midday heat the air was laden with moisture. This was at once both good and bad for the little Emperor, good because it made the bursting of his cerement easy, bad because it made the drying of his wings slow.
Still he had no choice in the matter; his time had come, and he must make the best of it.
Barely a minute passed between the first yielding of the shell and his complete emergence. He issued head foremost, groping with bewildered legs for something to cling to. He struck the only thing within his reach, the chrysalis case itself. To this he clung with desperation, and he had need to. As yet he had no means of flight.
There is no room for wing expanse inside a chrysalis. Material for wings was lying ready on his shoulders, it was moisture laden, packed in crumpled folds, and lifeless.
* * * * *
The thunder passed away seawards, drawing the valley moisture in its train. From eastward came a gentle drying breeze. It crept from leaf to leaf with its soft-whispered message until it reached the leaf that most had need of it.
The little Emperor trembled with excitement. His wings were coming into being. One by one, like petals of an opening flower, the clinging folds relaxed and told their secret. One by one the branching nervures hardened.
By sundown the great change of all was over. The Emperor, no longer little, was fit to mount his throne. Westward, as if in sympathy, the sky was flooded with imperial purple.
* * * * *
He chose the loftiest branch of the loftiest oak in the forest. Before him stretched an acre of clearing, thronged with his subjects. Every class was represented, or rather every class but one. Ages ago the Swallow tail disputed sovereignty with the Purple Emperor. Fortune declared against him, and he retreated, like some Hereward, to the fens. There to this day he holds a third-rate court.
It was a brilliant gathering that greeted the Emperor. Every colour, every form was there. Whites and brimstones, silver-studded fritillaries, peacocks, red admirals, and painted ladies, walls and ringlets, hairstreaks, blues, and skippers, even the little Duke of Burgundy, even the white and admirable Sibylla.
Happy midsummer children! They flashed their dainty tints from leaf to leaf, from flower to flower, their life one long-drawn revel in the sunshine.
From his high throne the Emperor watched and envied. He was tiring of lonely grandeur. Now and again he soared a hundred feet into the air, then with his wings full spread and motionless, sailed slowly back on to the summit of the oak.
Never was flight more exquisite. As he rose, one caught the glint of the imperial purple; as he descended, its full glory was revealed. Nowhere in nature is the pure radiant effulgence of that purple surpassed. It is the purple of the rainbow itself.
Once, and once only, did he deign to touch the ground. Deep in the hollow behind the clearing, where the footpaths crossed each other, a shallow muddied pool had formed. In it the Emperor saw, from on high, his own reflection. Perhaps it was mere vanity that drew him closer; perhaps the fancy that he saw a rival; perhaps, but this is not likely, thirst. Close to the margin lay a rough-edged clumsy flint. On this he settled, and, Narcissus like, feasted his eyes on his own beauty. He nearly met Narcissus' fate. It was the flint that saved him. He felt the shadow, almost before it reached him, but even so he rose too late. For half a minute he, the Purple Emperor, was prisoner in a boy's straw hat. Had the hat covered the flint completely, he must assuredly have graced a cabinet. Fortunately for him the flint was just an inch too wide. The hat lay slant-wise across it, leaving a narrow crescent outlet on each side.
An old collector would have doffed his coat to cover hat and flint alike, would have sat beside them patiently till nightfall, would have done anything to make certain of his prize. But this collector was only a boy. With youthful recklessness he raised the brim a hair's-breadth off the flint, and, in a moment, the Emperor was fifty feet above him.
It had been a near thing. Higher he soared, and higher, exulting in his freedom, and, as he soared, he sighted the Princess. She sat on an oak pinnacle outlined against the sky. Who was she? Whence had she come? On her wings was the broad white ribbon of butterfly royalty.
The Emperor alighted within a foot of her. For the first time in his life he felt humble. As he opened his wings to show their beauty, she turned her back on him; as he closed them again, she sought another tree. But the Emperor was not so easily baffled. He followed in hot haste, and once more settled on a neighbouring leaf. The Princess drooped her upper wings, as if she was asleep. But she was not. The Emperor crept along the leaves a little closer.
It was the strangest courtship imaginable, for it was all on one side. From tree to tree they went, the Emperor flashing his purple in the sunshine, the Princess, to all appearance, unconscious of her suitor's presence. Yet he tried every allurement he could think of. He circled round her, changing from purple to violet, from violet to velvet black. He soared above her skywards until he was a mere speck in the blue. He showed her the broad ribbon that he also wore. He even uncurled his slender saffron proboscis, and toasted his divinity in the sap of the oak-leaf.
What made her change her mind at the eleventh tree? What had he said to her? I cannot tell you, but I can tell you this. From that tree they rose together, circling round each other. Higher they went and higher, until the oakwood shrunk to a copse beneath them; higher and higher, until the sea was their horizon; higher and higher, until they passed from sight.
THE HARVEST MOUSE
Once upon a time, and not so very long ago either, the Harvest Mouse was the smallest of British beasties, absolutely the very smallest. Even the museum men, who look through microscopes, had to admit that.
Then a Liliputian shrewmouse turned up. He was found stretched dead in the middle of the path, and the time, as any book that deals with shrewmice would tell you, was the autumn. He was so small that, had he not died in the path, he would assuredly not have been found at all.
Now, because of his smallness, and because he was found dead in the autumn (from which you may assume that he was full-grown), he was sent to the museum men; and the museum men examined his teeth, and rubbed their hands with glee, for they found that his upper incisors were abnormal.
So they had his poor little body stuffed, and propped him up with wire in the way they thought he looked nicest, and wrote a brand new ticket for him—SOREX MINUTUS. The lesser shrew. The smallest British quadruped.
Thus was one unique distinction stolen from the harvest mouse. But to this day the harvest mouse shrugs his furry shoulders and says, that there are plenty of dwarfs with abnormal teeth in his own family, if the museum men want them.
He can afford to be superior, for he has yet another unique distinction left, and that is not likely to be taken from him.
Of all the four-footed creatures in Great Britain and Ireland, he, and he only, has a prehensile tail. The middle of it he can bend through half a circle, the last half-inch he can wrap completely round a cornstalk. It is pale chestnut above, and pasty white below. Taken all round, it is the most marvellous tail in the United Kingdom.
A mass of whipcord muscle, it can be made rigid, or flexible, at will. He can sit back with his hind feet resting on one stalk, hitch his tail round another, and lean his full weight against it. His full weight is one-sixth of an ounce. Were the G.P.O. more friendly to naturalists, a score of him could travel for a penny; but, even so, his tail is trivial in proportion.
He is so proud of it that he cleans it continually. Other mice clean their tails at odd times—only when they really seem to need it. The harvest mouse cleans his tail as a matter of regular toilet routine, and he does his toilet fifteen times a day. First his whiskers, then his head and ears, then his body, and finally his tail. He pulls it forward between his hind legs and combs it with his teeth. It is quite worth it.
* * * * *
The harvest mouse sat on the top of a cornstalk and nibbled his supper. His first summer had been most successful. So much had been crowded into it that he could only dimly remember the oat-stack in which he was born. Even the hedgerow seemed difficult to recall. He had lived in that two months, next door to the wood-mouse, and from him he may have learnt something of the art of nest-building. Then he had wandered abroad. The field, on the left of the hedgerow as you walk westward, was, when he entered it, tinged with uncertain green,—a sand-stained green like that of shallow sea. Yet there was cover enough for him. In a week's time, the sprouting corn had got the mastery, shrouding with its exquisite mantle the humble mother soil it seemed ashamed of; then, as if it had imprisoned the sunbeams, it turned to golden yellow, and now, wearying of conquest, had borrowed the copper radiance of a dying day.
It was with the first budding and ripening of the young corn that the harvest mouse tasted the true joy of living. In the hedgerow it had been mere existence; for there had been no real scope for his tail. The grasping portion of it could only encircle the tiniest twigs. Here, Nature herself seemed to have been at pains to suit him. Whichever way he looked, there stretched before him long yellow avenues of pygmy trees. Had they been passed through a gauge, they could not have better suited his proportions. He could whip his tail round any one of them. As he travelled from ear to ear, there was always something handy to grip on to. To reach the top of a cornstalk from the ground took him just two seconds and a half. He ran up it, he did not condescend to climb. Once among the ears, he travelled with little jumps, sometimes waiting for the wind to sway the corn, and help him, sometimes boldly leaping from the summit, and trusting confidently to his tiny hands and feet to pull him up a foot or so below. Even if he blundered to earth he had nothing to fear, for, of all the denizens of the cornfield, he alone could thread the avenues in perfect silence.
The stoat heralded his coming by a stealthy swish that could be heard full twenty yards away. Many a foolish bewildered vole he caught, but never a harvest mouse.
The rat's approach was a blundering four-footed crescendo, clear to mouse-ears as is the ringing of a horse's hoofs to man. Little else appeared at all. Now and again came a foolish hen-faced pheasant, strayed from its nursery, and screaming for its keeper. One was shot as it crossed the path in front of him, but we must not say anything about that. Now and again a corn-crake, moving in silence, bowed to the ground, but betrayed by its loquacity. Now and again a trembling glass-eyed rabbit. To each and every footstep he had one invariable response. He ran up the nearest cornstalk, as high as he could go, and watched the author of it pass beneath him. He was rarely sighted. Once a weasel leapt at him. The weasel is a pretty jumper, but this time a tendril of convolvulus upset his aim. Before he reached the ground again the mouse was five and twenty feet away, playing with his tail.