"What's the meaning of this now?" asked the rye. "How in the world did you get here?"
And the poppy looked at the bell-flower and asked:
"How did you get here?"
And the thistle looked at the burdock and asked:
"How on earth did you get here?"
They were all equally surprised and it was some time before they had done explaining. But the rye was the angriest and, when she had heard all about Trust and the hare and the wind, she was quite furious:
"Thank goodness that the farmer shot the hare in the autumn," said she. "Trust, luckily, is dead too, the old scamp! So I have no further quarrel with them. But how dare the wind carry the seed of the weeds on to the farmer's land!"
"Softly, softly, you green Rye!" said the wind, who had been lying behind the hedge and had heard all this. "I ask no one's leave, but do as I please; and now I'm going to make you bow before me."
Then he blew over the young rye so that the thin stalks swayed to and fro:
"You see," he said, "the farmer looks after his rye, for that is his business. But the rain and the sun and I interest ourselves in all of you alike, without distinction of persons. To us the poor weeds are quite as attractive as the rich corn."
Now the farmer came out to look at his rye and, when he saw the weeds that stood in the fields, he was vexed and scratched his head and began to scold in his turn:
"That's that dirty Wind," he said to Jens and Ole, who stood beside him with their hands in the pockets of their new trousers.
But the wind dashed up and blew off the hats of all three of them and trundled them ever so far away. The farmer and his boys ran after them, but the wind was the quicker. At last, he rolled the hats into the pond; and the farmer and his boys had to stand ever so long and fish for them before they got them out.
"Peewit! Peewit!" cried the lapwing, as he flew over the bog in the wood. "Dame Spring is coming! I can feel it in my legs and wings."
When the new grass, which lay below in the earth, heard this, it at once began to sprout and peeped out gaily from between the old yellow straw. For the grass is always in an immense hurry.
Now the anemones in among the trees had also heard the lapwing's cry, but refused on any account to appear above the earth:
"You mustn't believe the lapwing," they whispered to one another. "He's a flighty customer and not to be trusted. He always comes too early and starts calling at once. No, we will wait quietly till the starling and the swallow come. They are sensible, sober people, who are not to be taken in and who know what they are about."
And the starlings came.
They perched on a twig outside their summer villa and looked about them:
"Too early, as usual," said Mr. Starling. "Not a green leaf and not a fly, except an old tough one of last year, not worth opening one's beak for."
Mrs. Starling said nothing, but looked none too cheerful either.
"If we had only remained in our snug winter-quarters beyond the mountains!" said Mr. Starling. He was angry because his wife did not answer, for he was so cold that he thought a little discussion might do him good. "But it's your fault, just as last year. You're always in such a terrible hurry to come out to the country."
"If I'm in a hurry, I know the reason why," said Mrs. Starling. "And it would be a shame for you if you didn't know too, for they are your eggs just as much as mine."
"Heaven forbid!" replied Mr. Starling, indignantly. "When have I denied my family? Perhaps you expect me, over and above, to sing to you in the cold?"
"Yes, that I do!" said Mrs. Starling, in the tone which he could not resist.
He at once began to whistle as best he could. But, when Mrs. Starling had heard the first notes, she flapped her wings and pecked at him with her beak:
"Will you be quiet at once!" she screamed, angrily. "It sounds so dismal that it makes one feel quite melancholy. You'd better see to it that the anemones come up. I think it's high time. And, besides, one always feels warmer when there are others shivering too."
Now, as soon as the anemones had heard the starling's first whistle, they carefully stuck their heads out of the ground. But they were still so tightly tucked up in their green wraps that one could hardly see them. They looked like green buds that might turn into anything.
"It's too early," they whispered. "It's a shame for the starling to call us. There's no one left in the world that one can trust."
Then the swallow came:
"Tsee! Tsee!"he whistled and darted through the air on his long, pointed wings.
"Out with you, you silly flowers! Can't you see that Dame Spring has come?"
But the anemones had become careful. They just pushed their green wraps a little to one side and peeped out:
"One swallow does not make a summer," they said. "Where is your wife? You have only come to see if it's possible to live here and now you're trying to take us in. But we are not so stupid as all that. We know that, once we catch cold, we're done for."
"You're a pack of poltroons," said the swallow and sat down on the weathercock on the ranger's roof and looked out over the landscape.
But the anemones stood and waited and were very cold. One or two of them, who could not control their impatience, cast off their wraps in the sun. The cold at night killed them; and the story of their pitiful death went from flower to flower and aroused great consternation.
Then Dame Spring came, one delightfully mild and still night.
No one knows what she looks like, for no one has ever seen her. But all long for her and thank her and bless her. She goes through the wood and touches the flowers and the trees and they bud at once. She goes through the stables and unfastens the cattle and lets them out into the fields. She goes straight into men's hearts and gladdens them. She makes it difficult for the best-behaved boy to sit still on his bench at school and occasions a terrible lot of mistakes in the exercise-books.
But she does not do this all at once. She attends to her business night after night and comes direct to those who long for her most.
So it happened that, on the very night when she arrived, she went straight to the anemones, who stood in their green wraps and could no longer curb their impatience.
And one, two, three! There they stood in newly-ironed white frocks and looked so fresh and pretty that the starlings sang their finest songs for sheer joy at the sight of them.
"Oh, how lovely it is here!" said the anemones. "How warm the sun is! And how the birds are singing! It is a thousand times better than last year."
But they say this every year, so it doesn't count.
Now there were many others who went quite off their heads when they saw that the anemones were out. There was a schoolboy who wanted to have his summer holidays right away; and then there was the beech, who was highly offended:
"Aren't you coming to me soon, Dame Spring?" he said. "I am a much more important person than those silly anemones and really I can no longer control my buds."
"Coming, coming!" replied Dame Spring. "But you must give me a little time."
She went on through the wood. And, at every step, more anemones appeared. They stood in thick bevies around the roots of the beech and modestly bowed their round heads to the ground.
"Look up freely," said Dame Spring, "and rejoice in Heaven's bright sun. Your lives are but short, so you must enjoy them while they last."
The anemones did as she told them. They stretched themselves and spread their white petals to every side and drank as much sunshine as they could. They pushed their heads against one another and twined their stalks together and laughed and were wonderfully happy.
"Now I can wait no longer," said the beech and burst into leaf.
Leaf after leaf crept out of its green covering and spread out and fluttered in the wind. The whole green crown arched itself like a mighty roof above the earth.
"Good heavens, is it evening so soon?" asked the anemones, who thought that it had turned quite dark.
"No, this is death," said Dame Spring. "Now you're over. It's the same with you as with the best in this world. All must bud, blossom and die."
"Die?" cried some of the small anemones. "Must we die so soon?"
And some of the large anemones turned quite red in the face with anger and arrogance:
"We know all about it!" they said. "It's the beech that's killing us. He steals the sunshine for his own leaves and grudges us a single ray. He's a nasty, wicked thing."
They stood and scolded and wept for some days. Then Dame Spring came for the last time through the wood. She still had the oaks and some other querulous old fellows to visit:
"Lie down nicely to sleep now in the ground," she said to the anemones. "It's no use kicking against the pricks. Next year, I will come again and wake you to new life."
And some of the anemones did as she told them. But others continued to stick their heads in the air and grew up so ugly and lanky that they were horrid to look at:
"Fie, for shame!" they cried to the beech-leaves. "It's you that are killing us."
But the beech shook his long boughs, so that the brown husks fell to the ground:
"Wait till autumn, you little blockheads," he said and laughed. "Then you'll just see."
The anemones could not understand what he meant. But, when they had stretched themselves as far as they could, they cracked in two and withered.
Summer was past and the farmer had carted his corn home from the field.
The wood was still green, but darker; and, in many places, yellow and red leaves appeared among the green ones. The sun was tired after his hot work during the summer and went to bed early.
At night, winter stole through the trees to see if his time would soon come. When he found a flower, he kissed her politely and said:
"Well, well, are you there still? I am glad to see you. Stay where you are. I am a harmless old man and wouldn't hurt a fly."
But the flower shuddered at his kiss and the bright dew-drops hanging from her petals froze to ice at the same moment.
Winter went oftener and oftener through the wood. He breathed upon the leaves, till they turned yellow, or upon the ground, till even the anemones, who lay below in the earth, waiting for Dame Spring to come again as she had promised, could feel his breath and shuddered right down to their roots:
"Oh dear, how cold it is!" they said to one another. "How ever shall we last through the winter? We are sure to die before it is over."
"Now my time has come," said winter. "Now I need no longer steal round like a thief in the night. From to-morrow, I shall look every one straight in the face and bite his nose and make his eyes run with tears."
At night, the storm broke loose.
"Let me see you make a clean sweep of things," said winter.
And the storm obeyed his orders. He tore howling through the wood and shook the branches till they creaked and broke. Any that were at all decayed fell down and those that held on had to twist and turn to every side.
"Away with all that finery!" howled the storm and tore off the leaves. "This is no time to dress yourselves up. Soon there will be snow on the branches: that's another story."
All the leaves fell terrified to the ground, but the storm did not let them lie in peace. He took them round the waist and waltzed with them over the field, high up in the air and into the wood again, swept them together into great heaps and scattered them once more to every side, just as the fit seized him.
Not until the morning did the storm grow weary and go down.
"Now you can have peace for this time," he said. "I am going down till we have our spring-cleaning. Then we can have another dance, if there are any of you left by then."
And the leaves went to rest and lay like a thick carpet over the whole earth.
The anemones felt that it had grown delightfully warm:
"I wonder if Dame Spring can have come yet?" they asked one another.
"I haven't my buds ready!" cried one of them.
"No more have I! No more have I!" exclaimed the others in chorus.
But one of them took courage and just peeped out above the ground.
"Good-morning!" cried the withered beech-leaves. "It's rather too early, young lady: if only you don't come to any harm!"
"Isn't that Dame Spring?" asked the anemone.
"Not just yet," replied the beech-leaves. "It's we, the green leaves you were so angry with in the summer. Now we have lost our brightness and have not much left to make a show of. We have enjoyed our youth and had our fling, you know. And now we are lying here and protecting all the little flowers in the ground against the winter."
"And meanwhile I am standing and freezing in my bare branches," said the beech, crossly.
The anemones talked about it down in the earth and thought it very nice:
"Those dear beech-leaves!" they said.
"Mind you remember it next summer, when I come into leaf," said the beech.
"We will, we will!" whispered the anemones.
For that sort of thing is promised, but the promise is never kept.
The WOOD and the HEATH
There was once a beautiful wood, filled with thousands of slender trunks and with singing and whispering in her dark tree-tops.
She was surrounded by field and meadow; and there the farmer had built his house. And field and meadow were good and green; and the farmer was hard-working and grateful for the crops which he brought home. But the wood stood like a lady of the manor, high above them all.
In the winter-time the fields lay flat and miserable, the meadow was merely one great lake with ice upon it and the farmer sat huddled in the chimney-corner; but the wood just stood straight and placid with her bare branches and let the weather storm and snow as it pleased. In the spring, both meadow and field turned green and the farmer came out and began to plough and sow. But the wood burst forth into so great a splendour that no one could hope to describe it: there were flowers at her feet and sunshine in her green tree-tops; the song of the birds echoed in even the smallest bush; and perfume and bright colours and gaiety reigned here and there and everywhere.
Now it happened, one summer's day, while the wood stood waving her branches, that she set eyes upon a funny brown thing which was spreading itself over the hills towards the west and which she had never seen before:
"What sort of fellow are you?" asked the wood.
"I am the heath," said the brown thing.
"I don't know you," said the wood, "and I don't like you: you are so ugly and black, you don't look like the field or the meadow or anything that I know. Can you bud into leaf? Can you blossom? Can you sing?"
"Indeed I can," said the heath. "In August, when your leaves begin to look dark and tired, my flowers will come out. Then I am purple, purple from end to end, and more beautiful than anything you have ever seen."
"You're a braggart!" said the wood; and the conversation dropped.
Next year, the heath had crept a little way down the hill, towards the wood. The wood saw this, but said nothing. She thought it beneath her dignity to talk to such an ugly fellow; but, in her heart of hearts, she was afraid. Then she made herself greener and prettier and looked as if there were nothing the matter.
But, every year, the heath came nearer. He had now covered all the hills and lay just outside the fence of the wood.
"Be off!" said the wood. "You annoy me. Take care you don't touch my fence!"
"I'm coming over your fence," said the heath. "I'm coming into you, to eat you up and destroy you."
Then the wood laughed till all her leaves quivered:
"So that's what you mean to do, is it?" she said. "If only you can manage it! I'm afraid that you will find me too big a mouthful. I daresay you think I'm a bit of a field or meadow, which one can walk over in a couple of strides. But I'm the most powerful and important person in the neighbourhood, you may as well know. I shall soon sing my song to you; then perhaps you will change your ways of thinking."
Then the wood began to sing. All the birds sang; and the flowers raised their heads and sang too. The smallest leaf hummed with the rest, the fox stopped in the middle of eating a fat chicken and beat time with his brush, the wind blew through the branches and played an organ accompaniment to the song of the wood:
"Merrier meeting was never yet Than the festal wood discloses, When wood-ruff nestles by violet In a cluster of sweet wild roses.
"Small birds in the brake fly up and down Nor ever a bird flies single And the woodman twines for his lass a crown Where berries and beech commingle.
"Roe, fox and hare hold revel all, Thro' flowerage the wee worm glances; There great and small a-dancing fall And the sun up in Heaven dances."
"What do you say to that?" asked the wood.
The heath said nothing. But, next year, he came over the fence.
"Are you mad?" screamed the wood. "Why, I forbade you to cross the fence!"
"You are not my mistress," said the heath. "I am doing as I said I would."
Then the wood called the red fox and shook her branches so that a quantity of beech-mast fell upon him and remained hanging in his skin:
"Run across to the heath, Foxie, and scatter the beech-mast out there!" said the wood.
"Right you are!" said the fox and jogged away.
And the hare did the same and the marten and the mouse. And the crow lent a hand, for old acquaintance' sake, and the wind took hold and blew and shook the branches till the mast flew far out into the heath.
"That's it!" said the wood. "Now let's see what comes of that."
"Yes, let us!" said the heath.
A certain time passed and the wood grew green and withered and the heath spread more and more and they did not talk to each other. But, one fine spring day, tiny little new-born beeches and oaks peeped up from the ground round about in the heather.
"What do you say now?" asked the wood, triumphantly. "My trees shall grow year after year, till they become tall and strong. Then they shall close their tops over you: no sun shall shine, no rain shall fall upon you; and you shall die, as a punishment for your presumption."
But the heath shook his black twigs earnestly:
"You don't know me," he said. "I am stronger than you think. Your trees will never turn green in me. I have bound the earth under me as firm as iron and your roots can't go through it. Just wait till next year! Then the little fellows you are so pleased with will all be dead."
"You're lying," said the wood.
But she was frightened.
Next year, it happened as the heath had said. The little oaks and beeches died as one tree. And now a terrible time came for the wood. The heath spread more and more; on every side there was heather instead of violets and anemones. None of the young trees grew up, the bushes withered, the old trees began to die in their tops, and it was a general calamity.
"It's no longer at all pleasant in the wood," said the nightingale. "I think I shall build somewhere else."
"Why, there's hardly a decent tree left to live in!" said the crow.
"The ground has become so hard that it's no longer possible to dig one's self a proper hole and burrow," said the fox.
The wood was at her wits' end. The beech stretched his branches to the sky in an appeal for help and the oak wrung his in silent despair.
"Sing your song once more!" said the heath.
"I have forgotten it," replied the wood, gloomily. "And my flowers are withered and my birds have flown away."
"Then I will sing," said the heath.
And he sang:
"A goodly song round the moorland goes When the sun in the east leaps clearer; And like blood or fire the heather glows As to autumn the woods draw nearer.
"All day on the moor will the cotton-grass Weave its white, long bands together; And softly the snake and the adder pass Through the stems of the tufted heather.
"On swinging tussock the lapwing leaps, Lark's note above plover's swelling, As the crook-backed cotter in silence creeps From his lonely moorland dwelling."
Gradually, as the years passed, things looked worse and worse for the wood. The heath spread farther and farther, until it reached the other end of the wood. The great trees died and toppled down as soon as the storm took a fair hold of them: then they lay and rotted and the heather grew over them. There were now only half a score of the oldest and strongest trees left; but they were altogether hollow and had quite thin tops.
"My time is over, I must die," said the wood.
"Well, I told you so beforehand," replied the heath.
But then the men and women began to grow very frightened at the way the heather was using the wood:
"Where am I to get timber for my workshop?" cried the joiner.
"Where am I to get sticks to put under my pot?" screamed the goodwife.
"Where, oh where, are we to get fuel in the winter?" sighed the old man.
"Where am I to stroll with my sweetheart in the spring?" asked the young one.
Then, when they had looked at the poor old trees for a bit, to see if there was anything to be done with them, they took their spades and mattocks and ran up the hills to where the heath began.
"You may as well save yourselves the trouble," said the heath. "I am not to be dug into."
"Alas, no!" sighed the wood; but she was so weak now that no one could hear what she said.
But they did not mind about that. They hewed and hewed right down through the hard shell. Then they carted earth into the holes and manured it; and then they planted some small trees. They tended them and put their faith in them and screened them against the east wind as well as they could.
And, year after year, the small trees grew. They stood like light, green spots in the middle of the black heather; and, when this had gone on for some time, a little bird came and built a nest in one of them.
"Hurrah!" shouted the men. "Now we've got a wood once more."
"No one can hold his own against men," said the heath. "The thing can't be helped. So we'll move on."
But of the old wood there still remained one tree, who had only one green twig in his top. Here a little bird settled and told of the new wood that was growing up on the hill yonder.
"Thank Heaven!" said the old wood. "What one can't do one's self one must leave to the children. If only they're good for something! They look so thin!"
"I daresay you were thin yourself once," said the bird.
The old wood said nothing to this, for at that very moment she was finished; and so, of course, my story is finished too.
Somewhere in the wood, quite close to one another, lived a little company of good friends.
There was the sheep's-scabious, who looked as if she had something on her head, but had not, and the bell-flower, who was so blue and modest. There was the maiden-pink, meeker and redder and gentler than any, and a few blades of grass, who were nice and green, but poor and quite grateful if one as much as looked at them. Then there was some moss, which grew on the old stump of a tree and kept to itself, and there was the hazel-bush, who was the finest of them all, both because he was so big and, especially, because the linnet had built his nest in him.
The friends never had a word.
They all minded their own business and did not stand in one another's way. In the evening, when the day's work was done, they listened to the linnet's song. Or else there would be a creaking in the hazel-bush's branches; and that was quite as uncanny as a regular ghost-story. Or else the blades of grass would just whisper softly and nonsensically; but that also is nice to listen to sometimes when you are tired and have nothing on your conscience.
If anything joyful happened to any one of the friends, they all rejoiced. When the maiden-pink and the bell-flower budded, the hazel-bush offered his congratulations, the linnet struck his longest trill and the blades of grass appointed a deputation and bowed respectfully to the ground and each shed a dewy tear of emotion. When the little linnets crept out of the egg, all the friends were as happy as if they themselves had had children.
From out of the wood came the whistling and singing of many birds, but this did not concern the friends. Sometimes a roe would come bounding or a fox sneaking along; and once a frightened hare hid under the hazel-bush, while the guns banged all around and the dogs gave tongue. They would talk about an event like this for days together. But then they lapsed into quietude again; and time wore on to summer.
Then, one morning, the maiden-pink felt strangely unwell.
Her stalks and leaves were slack and she had a regular pain in her roots. Her flowers were so queer and loose, she thought.
When she complained of not being well, the sheep's-scabious and the bell-flower said that it was just the same with them. So did the blades of grass, but that did not count, for they always agreed with any one they were talking to. The moss said nothing, but that did not signify either, for nobody asked him.
"We want rain," said the hazel-bush. "There's nothing else the matter. It doesn't affect me yet, but I suppose it will. You are so short and slender; that's why you feel it first."
The blades of grass nodded and thought that this was remarkably well said on the part of the hazel-bush. The others hung their heads. The linnet sang as best he could to cheer the sick friends.
But sick they were and sick they remained; and it grew worse every day.
"I think I'm dying," said the maiden-pink.
The blades of grass observed, most politely, that they were already half-dead. The hazel-bush was not feeling well either and the linnet thought the air so heavy that he was not at all inclined to sing.
And, while they were talking about all this, towards the evening, they heard the same complaint in the whispering that came from the great wood, in the bell of the stag and the bay of the fox and the croak of the frog and the squeak of the mouse in her hole. The ranger and the farmer went past and talked about it; they looked up at the bright sky and shook their heads:
"We shall have no rain to-morrow either," said the ranger. "My small trees are dying."
"And my corn is being blighted," said the farmer.
Next morning, the friends became seriously alarmed when they looked at one another.
They were hardly recognizable, so ill did they appear, with yellow, hanging leaves and faded flowers and dry roots. Only the moss looked as usual.
"Don't you feel anything?" asked the hazel-bush.
"Yes, I do," said the moss. "But it doesn't show in me. I might lie here and be dead for a whole month and all the time look as if I were alive and well. I can't help it."
"I shall go up and look for a cloud," said the linnet.
And he went up in the air, so high that he was quite lost to the others, and he came back and said that there was a cloud far away in the west.
"Ask him to come," said the bell-flower, in a faint voice.
And the linnet flew up again and came back presently with the sad answer that the cloud could not:
"He would like to," said the linnet. "He is tired of hanging up there with all that rain. But he has to wait till the wind comes for him."
"Good-bye," said the maiden-pink. "And thank you for the pleasant time we have had together. I can hold out no longer."
And then she died. All the friends looked at one another in dismay:
"We must get hold of the wind," said the hazel-bush, who had more life left in him than the others. "Else it will be all up with every one of us."
Next morning early, the wind came stealing along. He came quite slowly, for he too was tired of the intolerable dry heat; but he had to go his rounds for all that.
"Dear Wind," said the sheep's-scabious. "Bring us a little cloud, or we shall all be dead."
"There is no cloud," said the wind.
"That's not true, Wind," said the linnet. "There's a beautiful grey cloud far away in the west."
"Re-ally?" said the wind. "Ah ... I happen to be the east wind just now, so I can't help you."
"Turn round, dear Wind, and bring us the cloud," asked the bell-flower, civilly. "You can blow wherever you please and we shall be grateful to you as long as we live."
"You will earn the thanks of the whole community," said the hazel-bush.
"The whole community," whispered the blades of grass.
"I daresay," said the wind. "But I am not what you take me for. You believe that I am my own master, because I come shifting and shifting about and sometimes blow gently and sometimes hard and am sometimes mild and sometimes keen. But I am merely a dog that comes when his master calls."
"Who is your master then?" asked the linnet. "I will go to him, even if he lives at the end of the earth."
"Ah ... if that were enough!" said the wind. "My master is the sun. I run my race at his behest. When he shines really strong anywhere, than I go up with the warm air and fetch cold air from somewhere else and fly with it along the earth. Whether it be east or west does not concern me."
"I don't understand it," said the linnet.
"I don't understand it either," said the wind. "But I do it!"
Then he went down. And the friends stood and hung their heads and were at their wits' end:
"There is nothing for it but to die," said the sheep's-scabious.
"If I have lived through the winter," said the hazel-bush, "I suppose I can stand this. But it's very hard."
And the bell-flower and the sheep's-scabious, who had never lived through the winter, wondered if it could really be worse than this. And the linnet dreamt of the south, where he spent the winter; and the blades of grass had quite thrown up the game.
"Can't your branches reach up to the sun?" asked the sheep's-scabious of the hazel-bush.
"Can't you fly up to the sun?" asked the bell-flower of the linnet.
But that they could not do; and the days passed and the wretchedness increased. It was quite silent in the wood. Not a bird chirped, the fox stayed in his hole, the stag lay in the shade and gasped, with his tongue hanging out of his mouth, and the trees stood with drooping branches, as though they were at a funeral.
Then the bell-flower rang all her bells, as if to ring in death over the wood. It sounded quite still and weak and nevertheless rose high in the air like a prayer:
"My blue bells chime for the rain to fall In dusty and desolate places, Where buds that should shine and be fragrant all Are pining with pallid faces."
It is not easy to know who heard it; and none of the friends said a word. But, at that moment, they all plainly heard some one speak and then they all knew that it was the sun, whom the hazel-bush could not reach with his branches and whom the linnet could not fly to, but who had heard the bell-flower's plaints:
"I shine as I must and not as I please; and I cannot help you. I am bound to go my course round another sun, who is a thousand times larger and better than I. I cannot swerve a foot's breadth from my road; I cannot send down a single ray according to my own wishes."
"I don't understand it," said the hazel-bush.
"I don't understand it either," said the sun. "But I do it."
"And I understand that it is all up with a poor sheep's-scabious," said the sheep's-scabious and died then and there.
Then night came and all thought that it would be their last.
But, suddenly, the bell-flower raised her aching head and listened.
She thought she heard a sound as when a drop falls ... now came another ... it smacked down upon a leaf ... and another ... and another....
They all woke up, while the rain poured in torrents.
The poor blades of grass stood up, the unhappy moss took fresh courage. The linnet began to sing, though it was a dark night. The hazel-bush shook with delight, until he nearly shook the linnet's young out of the nest.
Everything round about in the wood revived. The night was full of happiness. The ranger and the farmer rose from their beds and met in the rain and shook each other by the hand with glad eyes.
It rained the whole night and the day after and the next night and one day more. Sometimes it rained gently and sometimes hard. The ground drank all the water with a thirsty mouth and the roots sucked it greedily out of the ground and leaves and flowers unfolded and stood erect and blithe on slender stalks.
Then came the third day, with sunshine and a blue sky and life and merriment in the wood.
"Well," said the wind and came darting along as though he had never been tired in his life, "do you see, I brought you the rain?"
"Well," said the cloud, who drifted high above, in a light, white summer suit, "did you see how I came with the rain?"
"Well," said the sun and laughed, rounder and warmer than ever, "so you got what you asked me for!"
The friends looked at one another in surprise. But, a little way off, sat the red fox, with his ugly, clever face:
"That's the sort of people they are," he said. "When you ask them for something, they're not at home. But they never forget to call for thanks!"
A STORY OF THE HOUSE-MOUSE, THE WOOD-MOUSE, THE FIELD-MOUSE, THE BLACK RAT AND THE BROWN RAT.
The house-mouse went about quietly, minding her business.
She lived in the forester's house that lay just on the skirt of the forest, so that there were woods on one side and fields on the other. She had a comfortable home behind the wainscot in the forester's dining-room, right under the window. And the window looked out on the woods; and then down at the bottom of the wall there was a very tiny hole, which the house-mouse was just able to squeeze through, so that she could slip into the woods and home again whenever she pleased.
In this way, the house-mouse had a very enjoyable time; and she had a good time also with regard to the people she lived with. True, the forester was a grumpy sort of man, who could not hear the word "mouse" mentioned without flying into a rage. But he was a very old man and the house was managed by his daughter. She never forgot the house-mouse; and this came of a meeting that once took place between the two. One morning, you must know, the young lady went to the sideboard to get out the sugar for her father's coffee. And there sat the mouse in the sugar-basin. She had forgotten the time and gone to sleep. And there she was!
Of course, she was terribly frightened; and it was worse still when the girl put out her hand over the sugar-basin, as if to catch her:
"So there you are, Mousie!" she said. "I thought it was you that was after my sugar! Apart from that, you're a nice little thing. But you needn't go shaking so terribly in your little grey shoes, for, I assure you, I have not the least intention of doing you any harm. Perhaps you have little children, who would starve if you didn't come home to them. So I'll let you go. But, on the other hand, it will never do for you to go stealing our sugar. So, when you get down to the floor, run straight to your hole. I don't know where it is, but, when I find out, I will put a piece of sugar on the floor outside it, every evening before I go to bed. And then I will look for the hole through which you got into the sideboard and stop it up; and then we shall be friends."
When she had made this speech, which was much handsomer than the speeches which mice are accustomed to hear from human beings, she put the terrified mouse down on the floor. The mouse at once scudded across the room and disappeared in her hole under the wainscoting.
"So that's where you live," said the forester's daughter. "That's all right. Now you will see I shall remember my promise."
In the evening she put a lump of sugar there and she did so every evening before she went to bed. And, every morning, the mouse had fetched the sugar. And, when, one day, she heard a squeaking behind the wainscot, she guessed that the little mouse had now got children; and, from that day, she put two lumps of sugar for her every evening.
The mouse, therefore, could not complain of the people she lived with and no more she did. Add to this that the only cat that the forester's house contained was an enormous old ginger tom who could no longer either see or hear. He had been there in the forester's wife's day. She was dead now. And, as she had been fond of him, he was allowed to live and eat the bread of charity in the forester's house, though he was no longer of the least use. And, as he could not tolerate other and younger cats, there was no other cat in the place, which of course was a great source of joy to the mouse, who often ran right under the old ginger tomcat's nose, without his noticing her.
One day, the mouse was sitting outside the hole that led to the wood. It was in the month of August and it was warm and pleasant and she sat basking in the sun with the greatest enjoyment, the more so as she had just given birth to seven blind children, which is no joke, as any mother will tell you. And, as she sat there, the wood-mouse came out of her house under the root of the beech.
"Good-afternoon, cousin," said the house-mouse.
"The same to you, cousin," said the wood-mouse.
"A fine sunny day," said the house-mouse.
"The same to you, cousin," said the wood-mouse.
When they had greeted each other in this fashion, they sat and looked at each other for a little while. The house-mouse moved her big ears to and fro; and the wood-mouse did the same, out of courtesy, but her ears were not nearly so big. On the other hand, she had more hairs in her tail than her cousin, so that pretty well made up for the ears. Then the house-mouse said:
"Life is lovely."
"Do you think so, cousin?" said the wood-mouse.
And she looked as though she were of a very different opinion, but too polite to say so outright.
"Yes, I do, cousin," replied the house-mouse. "I have just got my last seven youngsters off my hands. And every evening the young mistress puts a piece of sugar outside my hole for me. And the forester and the cat are both so old that they positively can't see when I run through the room. And yesterday an old lady arrived whose name is Petronella. And she's as frightened of me as though she were a mouse and I a cat. When she sees me, she screams and gathers up her skirts and jumps on a chair, old as she is. This amuses the young lady who gives me the sugar immensely, so I like doing it. And, for the matter of that, I needn't even trouble to come out. This morning, I was sitting in my hole while they were drinking tea. Then my young mistress cried, 'There's the mouse!' and in a jiffy Aunt Petronella was up on the chair, though I wasn't there at all. I tell you, it's great fun."
"I daresay, cousin," said the wood-mouse. "And I'm very glad indeed that you've such a good time."
"And haven't you just as good a time?" asked the house-mouse. "Living in the green wood and hearing the birds sing all day long? No cat and no mouse-traps?"
"Yes, it's all right about the birds," said the wood-mouse. "And about the cats too. But you mustn't think on that account, cousin, that this is a sort of paradise. I hear very little of the birds down where I live; and I may as well admit that I don't bother my head about them. Besides, there are one or two awkward customers among them, such as the crow, for instance, and the rook and the jackdaw, who all belong to the same family. Not to speak of the stork and the buzzard, for whom a wood-mouse is a mere mouthful."
"Yes, I know," said the house-mouse. "Well, we all have our worries. And, at any rate, you don't have the cat. She's the trickiest of the lot."
"Is she?" said the wood-mouse. "Well, you may be right. But we have the fox out here, you know, who is pretty cunning, in addition to the marten and the polecats, who are the blood-thirstiest animals that you can think of. No, taken all round, believe me, it's not so pleasant to be a wood-mouse. And it's very likely that what is your good fortune is just my misfortune!"
"Why, how can that be, cousin?" asked the house-mouse. "I can't understand it and I should be sorry to think so."
"Well, you see, it's not a thing that you can help," said the wood-mouse. "Heaven forbid! You have always been a first-rate cousin; I don't deny it for a moment. But I expect the reason why you have a good time is that you live with an old gentleman like your forester. The natural consequence is a cat and a sweet young daughter who gives you sugar. Perhaps it would not be so pleasant for you if the forester died and a new one came who was younger. His wife might be too fond of her sugar to care to give you any. His children might set traps for you and torture you. And he might have a young cat, who would get her claws into you and eat you."
"You are very likely right," said the house-mouse. "All the more reason why I should value my good fortune while it lasts. But, all the same, I can't understand how my good fortune can be your misfortune."
"Oh, it's not so difficult to understand as all that!" said the wood-mouse. "You see, when a forester is very old, he looks after the wood badly. He is no longer able to shoot and, taken all round, he knows nothing about what goes on out of doors. The result is that there is such an immense number of foxes and martens and polecats and buzzards out here that one of us can hardly stir from her hole without risking her life. Now, if a new and young forester were to come, you can easily understand what a change that would make in things."
"Oh yes!" said the house-mouse. "Now I understand! But tell me, cousin, don't you think the new forester would also go for the mice, if he could? It seems to me I have heard the old one say that the mice are the wood's worst enemies. And it must be the wood-mice he means. For I don't know of any harm that I do to the wood."
The wood-mouse set up her tail and shook her little head sorrowfully:
"Cousin," she said, "you have touched me on my very sorest point."
"I am really sorry, cousin," said the house-mouse. "But it appears to me that it was you who began to talk about it."
"So it was, cousin," said the wood-mouse. "And we don't do any good by holding our tongues. You see, cousin, there is a great deal of wickedness in this world; and we have to put up with it. But it's pretty hard when it comes from one's relations."
"That's true, cousin," said the house-mouse. "Are there really any of your relations who do you any harm?"
"Harm?" said the wood-mouse. "I daresay that those of whom I'm thinking don't think of doing me any harm. But they do so for this reason, that they behave themselves in such a way that we have to suffer for it. And, as far as relationship is concerned, they are your relations as well as mine."
"But who are they, cousin?" asked the house-mouse. "Tell me, quickly. I have no notion of whom you're thinking."
"I'm thinking of the field-mouse," said the wood-mouse, with a deep sigh.
The house-mouse was silent for a moment, out of respect for the other's emotion. And presently the wood-mouse began to speak of her own accord:
"The field-mouse is our cousin, cousin, our own first cousin. There's no denying the fact. But I must confess that I think she does the family no credit. She is preposterously greedy. And her absurd gluttony injures all of us. The tale is that the mice have done it. And so they have. But who thinks of asking which mouse it is that has done it? Is it you? No. You mind your own business indoors, in the house. Of course, you nibble at a ham or a loaf or an old cheese or anything that comes your way. That's only reasonable. One has to live; and goodness knows what might be said of the way in which human beings get their food, if the matter were looked into."
"What you say is an absolute fact," said the house-mouse. "I have often thought, when I have been nibbling at a ham, that, if I was a thief, then the forester, whose ham it was, was neither more nor less than a murderer. Well ... and then they have the cat and the mouse-trap and all the rest of their cunning, so they're all right. A poor mouse has to think very hard and to risk her life pretty well every hour of the day if she is to provide herself with food."
"Just so," said the wood-mouse. "It's not you. Then who is it? Is it I? No, I mind my business as you mind yours. Of course, I take nuts and beech-mast and acorns, when they fall; and I admit that I am a regular whale for fir-cones. That fresh fir-seed is about the nicest thing I know. So I gnaw the cones in two and eat the seeds; and then they are gone when the forester wants them to sow firs with. But that is only reasonable. I must live as well as he and there are quite enough firs in the world. And I won't deny I may eat a bit of root once in a way, in the spring, when the roots are quite fresh. But what then? The forester himself is fond of vegetables, so he really need not grudge me a few."
"Certainly not," said the house-mouse. "You are quite right, cousin. You only do what we all do."
"Thank you for that kind word, cousin," said the wood-mouse. "I think it's only fair. Well, just as he has the cat and the mouse-trap for you, if you become too indiscreet, so he has the fox and the crow and the polecat and the marten and the stork and, above all, the owl for me. You can't imagine what a terribly cunning enemy the owl is. One simply can't hear him flying. One can't see him either, for he only comes at night and his colours are dark. And they all see as well at night as an ordinary body does in broad daylight. And he has all these fellows gratis. The cat and the trap he has to buy. But his forest-police he gets for nothing."
"That's true," said the house-mouse.
"Therefore it's not I either," said the wood-mouse. "It's not you and it's not I. Shall I tell you who it is? It's our cousin, the field-mouse. The mice have done it, the story goes. And who are the mice? It's the field-mouse. But he is not the only one who has to be prosecuted and punished. Any one bearing the name of mouse is mercilessly and ruthlessly struck down. People are so stupid. They can see no difference. And I don't know how to teach them any better. It's too bad!"
"But, cousin," said the house-mouse, "you haven't told me yet what the field-mouse does that the rest of us are blamed for. It must be something shocking to upset you so."
"Indeed, the forester is more upset than I am," said the wood-mouse. "And I don't deny that he has every reason to be. You see, just round the corner is a beautiful, green forest-glade. The deer come out here and graze, early in the morning, and they drink from a brook that runs through the glade. It makes a charming picture. I have seen it myself on many a fine summer morning, when I have come home rejoicing at my good luck in escaping the owl and the other ruffians. Well, the forester is particularly fond of the glade, because he uses it for his horses. He makes hay there. And it's the loveliest forest-hay that you can imagine."
"Yes, I know," said the house-mouse. "I saw him carting hay into the barn last year."
"Yes, but there will be no hay this year," said the wood-mouse. "You see, cousin, some time ago the glade began to wither and turn yellow. It became yellower and yellower every day. The keeper came and told the forester. They were out the other day looking at it. Then they discovered that all the grass-roots were eaten up or gnawed through. They were able to roll up the whole grassy surface like a carpet; and they did so. I was sitting at the edge of the wood myself, looking on. The grass was gone and the hay and everything; and the field-mouse had done it."
"Our cousin must be awfully hungry," said the house-mouse. "Or perhaps he has a big family."
"Both," said the wood-mouse. "Both. He is awfully greedy and he always has the house full of children. Well, that doesn't concern us: it's his affair. But, when those silly men mix us up in it, lump us all together with Cousin Field-Mouse and persecute us and kill us for what he has done, I tell you, cousin, then it does concern us!"
"That's true," said the house-mouse.
They sat on; and neither spoke. It was getting on towards evening; and both of them had to go to work when it grew dark. Summer was almost over, so the wood-mouse had begun to collect her winter-stores. She did not lie torpid like the hedgehog or the bat and she could not fly to Africa like the stork and the swallow, so she had to have her store-room filled, if she did not wish to suffer want. She had already collected a good deal of beech-mast. But the nuts were not ripe yet and, if she took them before they were ripe, they were no good to her.
And the house-mouse also chose night for going to the larder. Even though her young mistress did nothing to her, nevertheless she dared not be over-impudent, but always waited until she was certain that she would not be disturbed.
"Yes," said the wood-mouse, "we must start toiling for our daily bread again. At any rate, you are better off than I, cousin, for the present, as you don't have the winter to think about. You're snug indoors, close to the forester's larder."
"I am," said the house-mouse. "And there is almost more in the larder in the winter than in the summer."
"Yes, yes," said the wood-mouse. "Well, good-bye, cousin: if you meet the field-mouse, be sure to tell him what I said. I always stand by my word. And, if you can contrive some means of letting the forester know that there's a difference between mice and mice, so much the better. You are nearer to him than we are."
"Wait a little longer, cousin," said the house-mouse. "After all, it's not dark enough yet for you to work; and I never go to the larder before my young lady has cleared away after supper. I've been thinking of what you were saying about the field-mouse and most of all of what you said about relations doing harm. For, you see, properly speaking, it's just the same indoors."
"You don't say so!" said the wood-mouse. "I should never have thought that the field-mouse had the impudence to come in to you. I must hear more about that. Then it's in the garden that he is?"
"No," said the house-mouse. "It's not the field-mouse at all. I don't know anything about him. I have never even set eyes on him, that I know of. But, as we know, we have another big cousin, called the rat."
"I have heard a little about him," said the wood-mouse. "But I have never seen him. Is he of the same kind as the field-mouse?"
"He is much worse," said the house-mouse. "To begin with, he is so awfully big. I should say he is as big as five fat mice put together. He is quite black, with a long, scaly tail and small ears. He has horrid teeth and a long tongue. And he is greedier than I know how to tell you. He plays just the same part in the house that the field-mouse does among your people. And what happens to you happens to me: I often get blamed for his mean tricks. Just think, one day last year, he bit the odd man in the nose as he lay sleeping one afternoon in the hayloft. He took quite a little bit of flesh, so that the man had to go to the doctor and walk about with a bandage for many days."
"That's horrid," said the wood-mouse. "And it's quite unlike a mouse's nature. We are not beasts of prey, that I do know. Do you really believe he's our cousin?"
"He is indeed," said the house-mouse. "I know it; and there's no mistaking it either, when you see him. He is the perfect image of a mouse, though he is clumsier. But he is a disgrace to the family; and that's a fact. And fancy what happened. I was just outside the larder: I have a little waiting-hole there, where I sit and wait when I come too early and when my young lady is still in the kitchen. And I was sitting there on the evening it happened; I had been sitting there some time, for it looked as though my young lady was never going. I must tell you she was waiting for the odd man, who had ridden off to the doctor with his nose. He was to have his supper when he came home. He arrived at last and, while he sat there eating his food and talking to the young lady about what had happened, she said that those rats were most disgusting animals and ought to be exterminated in every possible way. 'Yes,' she said. 'I can't abide them for the life of me. And then they are so hideous to look at. They look quite wicked. But I must intercede for the dear little mice. I love them. I have a tiny one, whom I know well and am ever so fond of. I caught her one day in the sugar-basin, the little thief!'
"'And didn't you kill her, miss?' asked the man.
"'Why, no!' she said. 'I never thought of such a thing! I let her run away to her hole and now, every evening, I put a lump of sugar outside the hole for her. And, every morning, when I come to the dining-room, it's gone. But you mustn't tell father, Jens.' Jens promised that he would not. But he went on to say that mice and rats were one and the same kind of vermin all together and ought to be exterminated. Then the forester came in and agreed with Jens; and nothing that his daughter said to the contrary was of any use. The forester said that he would see and get a regular rat-catcher out here, who would lay poison for the lot of us. And all this is surely not my fault, but is due to that disgusting rat, who bit Jens in the nose. It is really no joke having a reprobate like that in the family, disgracing one's good name."
"No," said the wood-mouse, "that's what I say. And how are we to inform the human beings of their mistake? I know no way of obtaining speech with them. Well, good-bye, cousin, and au revoir."
"Good-bye, cousin, and au revoir to you," said the house-mouse.
Then the one went out into the wood, to forage for the winter, and the other into her young lady's larder.
Some time after, a great, big packing-case of groceries arrived at the forester's house from Copenhagen. Here ought to be enough to last all through the winter, the forester thought. And he belonged to the old school, who laid in their stores once a year at a fixed time and no other, and he had done so from the first year when he and his wife came to live in the forester's house.
Now the packing-case was so big that the young lady and the odd man were at their wits' end to know what to do with it. It could not go into the house, for there was no door wide enough to admit it. It could not remain out in the yard either, for the young lady could not unpack it that day, as she happened to be very busy bottling plums. And, of course, she had to be present herself: there was no question about that. And it was beginning to look like rain. The forester said that it would certainly rain that night. He could feel it in his left shoulder, which was a barometer that never went wrong.
"Can't we tumble it into the barn?" said the odd man. "It can stay there as long as need be, without hurting."
So they tumbled it into the barn. And there it stood, in a corner. It remained there for five days. But, on the very first night, while the rain came pouring down, as the forester's left shoulder had foretold, a shocking thing happened.
Suddenly, then and there, a queer sound began to come from the end of the packing-case that was nearest to the corner of the barn. It was a sort of gnawing and creaking, as though there were an animal inside. And it was soon proved that that was what it was. For, when the gnawing had lasted some time, a great, fat, brown rat came out of the case.
The moment she appeared, a quantity of sugar came pouring over her. The rat did not so much as touch the sugar. She had had enough of that inside the case. She began at once to gnaw a hole in the floor, at a place where the boards were rather rotten, so that it was an easy job. The hole was soon ready and there was plenty of room for a family of rats under the boards. The rat immediately began to collect straw and took it down with her.
When she had finished her work, she stopped and looked the house-mouse straight in the face.
"Who in the name of wonder are you?" asked the house-mouse. "You have mousy ways and, if you were black, I should say you were a rat."
"I am a rat," said the other. "Rats were black in the old days. The fashion now is to be brown. Black rats are quite out of date and are of no use to-day."
"Oh, really!" said the house-mouse, circumspectly. "Well, I live out here in the country, and know nothing of what goes on in the great world beyond. Allow me to introduce myself. I am the house-mouse."
"You needn't tell me that," said the rat. "I have seen many of your sort at Copenhagen. But what are you doing out here on the threshing-floor? I thought you kept to the kitchen and the larder."
"So I do, as a rule," said the house-mouse. "But I am free to go where I please. And I can come through the kitchen-drain without getting wet. For it's raining terribly, let me tell you."
"What of that?" said the rat. "Are you afraid of a little water? The more the better. I can swim like a fish, you know. I once swam across the harbour at Copenhagen; and, as a matter of fact, I don't feel well unless I have a little swim every day. I hope there's a decent gutter here?"
"Ugh, yes, a horrid broad one!" said the mouse. "But I always go round it. I don't set foot in the kitchen-drain either, except when it's dry. To-day, I came to get a bit out of the new case of groceries. I heard my young lady say that it had arrived. And generally there is a bit here and there outside to pick up."
"Certainly it has arrived," said the rat. "I ought to know, seeing that I came with it."
"Did you come with the case?" cried the house-mouse, in surprise.
"I did," said the rat. "I was down at the bottom when they began to pack it. It was half-dark, so they couldn't see me; and, of course, I did not make the slightest sound and did not dare to move, or else they would have discovered me and killed me. So gradually they packed everything on the top of me: sugar and coffee and tea and cinnamon and chocolate and starch and all sorts of groceries, until the case was full up. Then on with the lid and away with us to the station."
"That must have been a nice journey," said the house-mouse, licking her lips.
"It was," said the rat. "In a way. The fare was good enough and ready to hand, as you can see, and no one to share it with and no one to disturb you. But the tiresome side of the business was that I had just been married and was soon to have my babies. So I was particularly frightened lest they should arrive during the journey. However, it went pretty well and we escaped all right, as you see, because the case was not unpacked at once. Well, even if it had been, I daresay I should have managed to jump past them. But it's better as it is. I have fixed up a nice home for myself here, under the floor of the barn, and the youngsters may come as soon as they like. Would you care to see where I live?"
"Thank you," said the mouse. "I should prefer first to see a little of that delicious sugar running about. What a lot of it there is!"
"Eat away," said the rat. "There's plenty of it. I'll stand treat. But I may as well tell you that later on, when I am properly settled, you and I had better keep to our own parts. I mean, of course, it might happen that I should pop across to the larder, when I feel inclined and have occasion to. But I strongly advise you not to come here. And you must be particularly careful to avoid me when I'm hungry. I can't answer for what might happen if I met you."
"Well, you would never eat me!" said the mouse, sitting and licking the sugar. "Goodness me, how delicious this is!"
"Of course, I should eat you," replied the rat. "Up at Copenhagen, one day, we ate a kitten."
The mouse was so frightened that she stopped licking altogether.
"Yes, certainly," said the rat. "It was quite simple; and not one of us had the stomach-ache. That fear of the cats is very much overdone. They can do nothing, so long as you eat them while they are small."
The house-mouse stared at her in dismay:
"Cousin," she said, "you're terrible. I'm afraid of you."
"That's very sensible of you," said the rat. "And you mustn't call me cousin. I have never troubled about distant connections; and it would only make it unpleasant if I were to eat you one day. But, for the present, I have had my fill, as I said; so you run no risk."
The house-mouse then visited the rat in her new home, which she thought ever so nice, though a little too large from a mouse's point of view. After that, she said good-bye and went back to her own place. But, during the next few days, she came across to the barn every night and had her share of the good things in the packing-case. The rat gnawed the hole bigger, so that more came rushing out, always on the side turned towards the corner, where no one could suspect it. The floor overflowed with dainties; and they ate away like anything. On the fourth day, the rat had her children, seven fine little ones.
"They look pretty enough to be mice," said the house-mouse.
"Heaven forbid!" said the rat. "If they don't become proper rats soon, I will eat them without hesitation."
That night, the house-mouse took a large piece of cinnamon across with her; for she had heard her young lady say that the case must be opened shortly, so she was able to calculate that the fun would soon be over.
"Aren't you afraid of being discovered?" she asked the rat.
"A rat is never afraid," replied the rat. "If she were afraid, my good girl, she would not be a rat."
"It must be strange to feel like that," said the house-mouse. "A house-mouse is always afraid. If she were not afraid, I expect she would not be a mouse."
"Very likely," said the rat. "But you had better go now. And remember our arrangement that, when the case is gone, it's all over with friendship and relationship and the rest of it."
"All right," said the mouse. "I shall make a point of keeping away. But then you must always remember that it was you who bit the hole in the case and stood treat with all this. If you hadn't come, I should only have licked a bit on the outside, as usual."
"You're a fool!" said the rat. "Good-bye."
The next day—it was ten o'clock in the morning: they remembered it many years after at the forester's—the young lady and the odd man came across to the barn to unpack the case. The man rolled it across the threshing-floor; and, as soon as it was outside, they saw what had happened. Everything rolled out helter-skelter and higgledy-piggledy: coffee, tea, cinnamon, spices, sugar-candy, all without end and all mixed up together and spoilt. There was not a bag but had a hole in it.
They thought, at first, that it was the grocer's fault for packing the things badly; and the young lady was so angry with him that he would have been very much hurt if he had heard all the things that she said. But then they discovered the hole in one of the corners and soon saw that some one had been there and wrought havoc.
"There must have been rats here," said the forester's daughter. "There's no question about it: there have been rats here."
"There are no rats left in the place," said the man. "We killed the last a fortnight ago. And all their holes are stopped with broken glass; and we laid poison among their tracks; and every bit of poison is eaten up; so you can be easy in your mind, miss, about the rats. They are done with. But some one has been here, that is sure enough. And I am certain it's that artful mouse whom you spoil by giving her sugar every evening."
"Never!" said the young lady. "My little mouse could not possibly be such an ungrateful wretch as that."
The odd man stuck to his opinion and she stuck to hers. The forester came and, of course, sided with the man. They were all three angry and most of all the forester. For a new case had to be written for and he would have to pay for it. And so he resolved that, this time, the rat-catcher should be sent for in earnest. The odd man suggested a new cat, but that the forester would not hear about, so long as the old one lived.
In the meantime, they rescued what they could and the young lady carried the things into the larder, right past the nose of the mouse, who was sitting in her hole:
"They are speaking harm of you, my dear little Mouse," she said. "And now there's a horrid rat-catcher coming, who will try to hurt you, if he can. But I'm sure it was not you who did it and I will see if I can help you."
As she spoke, she saw a piece of cinnamon which the mouse had left lying outside her hole. She took it up and examined it and, as they had not a scrap of cinnamon in the house, she knew at once that the mouse had been at the case after all. She was so much upset that she cried. For she felt that life was not worth living if she could not even trust her own dear little mouse to whom she had been so kind:
"For shame, for shame!" she cried. "See how deceitful you are. But you shall have no more sugar from me, you can be sure of that."
But the mouse sat in her hole and cried also. First because of the sugar which she was not to get any longer. Next because of the rat-catcher who was to come. And then because of the kind young lady, who was so unjust to her. For, though she had taken the cinnamon, it was not she who had gnawed a hole in the packing-case. And it was too much to expect of an ordinary, plain little mouse that she should say no when a rat invited her to such a feast. But she couldn't talk to her young lady and explain it to her; and so, of course, she would never get any more sugar in future.
Over in the barn, the rat lay snug and warm in her nest. Her young ones grew from day to day. By the time that they had been a month in the world, they were big, greedy rats who did credit to their mamma and scooted about in every direction.
"You were right, miss, there are rats here," said the odd man. "But they are brown ones, who are much worse than the black ones that were here before. I am half-inclined to believe that they came in the packing-case from Copenhagen. I have never been there, but my cousin, who is in service in the town, tells me that there are an awful lot of them."
"It's quite possible," said the forester's daughter. "But I know that my little mouse had something to do with it; so I don't defend her any longer and I don't give her any sugar either."
"That's right," said the odd man. "For rats and mice are one and the same thing; and they are noxious vermin, the whole lot of them. If we let them get the upper hand of us, they would soon eat us out of house and home."
"The rat-catcher is coming on Thursday," said the forester. "Jens must drive to the station to fetch him. And the young man from the School of Forestry, who is to be my assistant, is coming by the same train. I am too old now and can't look after the wood as I ought to."
More time passed and it was winter.
All the birds that ever went away had gone. The leaves had fallen from the trees; it had frozen and it had snowed. The wood had been quite white and beautiful and then again sloppy and wretched to look at, for that's what winter is in Denmark. The forester seldom went out into the wood since his assistant had arrived. He generally sat in his warm room, in his old arm-chair, making up his accounts and thinking of the old days when he was young and active and never bothered whether it was warm or cold. He was also very fond of talking about that time. And, although he had talked about it more than once or twice before, they forgave him, because he was so old, and listened to him patiently.
Jens attended to his work, which was not very heavy in the winter. The forester's daughter spent her time between the kitchen and the larder. The rat-catcher had been and gone, after doing his business and receiving his pay. Forty black rats had been drawn from every hole and corner in the barn and threshing-floor, but only two brown ones—and they were quite young still—and no mice. But, as soon as the rat-catcher had gone, the old tom-cat died of sheer old age and laziness. He was buried in the garden with great pomp and ceremony. But, even before he was committed to the grave, Jens brought a young cat over from the keeper's; and there was every reason to hope that she was of a different sort from the old one.
The forester, it was true, said that she was the very image of what the old one was when she was young. And that too may have been right enough, for one can't judge youth by old age. This much, in any case, was certain, that she went hunting. The odd man had said that she must have her morning milk and nothing more before she caught a mouse or a rat. And so it stood. Whenever she showed herself for the first time, after her morning milk, she was asked:
"Where is your mouse or your rat?"
And gradually she grew so used to this that, as soon as she was asked, she ran off and fetched the mouse or the rat, which she had been careful not to eat before. Then, as a reward, she received a scrap of bacon, or something else that was left over from breakfast. But, on days when she had no mouse or rat to show, then she received no bacon either. That was as sure as March in Lent.
The young lady no longer interested herself in the matter, but left it all to the odd man. Whenever she caught sight of the hole in the dining-room wainscot, she sighed and said:
"You naughty, naughty Mouse, to abuse my trust in you so shamefully! I was good to you and gave you sugar every day; and you stole the cinnamon. Now I have been good to you again and taken away the poison which the rat-catcher put outside your hole. What advantage do you propose to take of me this time? But you can, if you like. I don't trouble about you now. I can't help you if the new cat gets hold of you some day: she is quite a different sort of cat from the old one and she will catch you yet, you'll see. It's your own fault."
When she talked like that, as she often did, it was hard for the little mouse to sit inside the wainscot and listen and not to be able to defend herself. She would so much have liked to tell her young lady that she was not quite so bad as she thought. She would so much have liked to have her little lumps of sugar again. For times were shocking, since the rat-catcher had been. She hardly dared eat a thing, for fear lest there should be a hidden poison in it. And she could hardly go anywhere, because of the new cat.
But she could not talk to the young lady. Nor did she dare venture across the barn. She would have liked to talk to her cousin from Copenhagen, but, one day when she went through the kitchen-drain, the new cat was sitting at the other end and was within an ace of eating her. So she had to be content with poor fare and a bad conscience.
Then, one morning, the house-mouse went out through the hole to the wood. It was at the time when the cat got her morning milk, so she thought there was a chance of peace and no danger. She ran a good way off over the snow, right to the foot of the big beech, where she knew that Cousin Wood-Mouse had her nest.
Then she squeaked three times in a particular manner which only mice understand and which means that they would like to talk to the individual concerned. And, when she had waited some time, sure enough the wood-mouse appeared:
"Good-morning, cousin," said the wood-mouse. "To what do I owe the honour of this visit? It is ages since I saw you last."
"Good-morning, cousin, and the same to you," said the house-mouse. "One doesn't go out for one's pleasure at this time of year."
"No, indeed, cousin," said the wood-mouse. "I always stay indoors, except just to take a mouthful of fresh air and throw out the shells. Look, here is my dust-heap."
Quite a little pile of nut-and acorn-shells lay outside the mouse-hole. The house-mouse looked at it and sighed:
"What a lot you've eaten already!" she said. "And I daresay you have a great deal more down there in your store-room."
"No, that I haven't!" said the wood-mouse. "I shall be glad if I can get through the rest of the winter on half-rations. If my own child were suffering want, I could not give it so much as a nut. Times are awfully bad."
"So they are," said the house-mouse. "My case is the same as yours. You need not fear, however, that I have come to beg. I have only come to have a chat with you. Can't we go into your place for a little while?"
The wood-mouse reflected a bit. She very much objected to having the other down and letting her see all the beautiful food that lay stored up below. So she shook her head with decision:
"Not so early in the morning, cousin," she said. "In an hour or two you will be welcome, if you dare go out then and risk meeting the cat. But the rooms haven't been done yet. I know how neat and particular you house-mice are, so I should be ashamed to show you my home before it's quite clean and tidy. I should prefer you to wait until the winter's over, when I have had my spring-cleaning."
"Oh, very well!" said the house-mouse. "Then we'll stay here, though it's horribly cold sitting on one's bare tail in the snow. As I said, I only wanted to talk to you a bit. It's about the family. I don't know if you have heard that a cousin of ours has arrived from Copenhagen?"
"No, I haven't," said the wood-mouse. "What's he called? Is he a smart fellow?"
"She's called the brown rat. It's a she," replied the house-mouse. "And she really was very smart at first. She came in the packing-case in which we get our groceries every year from the shop in Copenhagen. It is a great big case, full of the most delicious things you can think of. She had only found her way into it by mistake and so travelled across with it."
"That's what you may call travelling first-class," said the wood-mouse, laughing.
"One may indeed," said the house-mouse. "I should have no objection to travelling round the world in a packing-case like that. However, she was a young bride expecting her babies every day. She therefore at once made herself a home in the barn; and the children arrived four days after."
"Oh, yes!" said the wood-mouse. "There are always plenty of children and there are always more and more coming."
"That is so," said the house-mouse. "But now hear how things went. At first, Cousin Rat was extremely amiable. She treated me to sugar and cinnamon and flour and sugar-candy and so forth during the whole of the four days. You must know that she had gnawed herself out of the case, which stood in the barn waiting to be unpacked. Well, I accepted her invitation and ate away. Wouldn't you have done the same?"
"Certainly," said the wood-mouse. "One must never offend people by declining a kind offer. And when it happens to be a cousin ... and the goods are hers...."
"Well, they weren't exactly," said the house-mouse. "The case really belonged to the forester."
"According to that, nothing is ours," said the wood-mouse. "I work it out differently. I say that the mast and nuts out here are mine. And the larder in the forester's house is yours. And, in the same way, the case in which the rat arrived was hers. But go on and tell me how things went."
"Things went very badly," said the house-mouse. "For four days, we lived on the fat of the land. But, on the fifth, the young mistress and the man started unpacking."
"Oh!" said the wood-mouse. "Then the fun was over, I expect?"
"It was, cousin," said the house-mouse. "But that would have been all. Nothing lasts for ever in this world: not even a chest of groceries from Copenhagen, though it was the biggest I ever saw and simply bursting with good things. But, when they discovered that some one had been at it, they were angry; and we all got blamed for it, you see."
"And it was the rat who did it," said the wood-mouse. "That was really hard on you."
"So it was," said the house-mouse. "They would not believe it was the rats, because they had killed so many of them after the rats had bitten Jens' nose. And so it must be the mice: that went without saying. To judge by what I have heard them talk about since, the young mistress stood up for me as long as she could, but the forester and his man both said that, with mice and rats, it was six of one and half-a-dozen of the other."
"Yes, that's the worst of it," said the wood-mouse. "It's just as with me and the field-mouse. We have to suffer for our relations' misdeeds. Well ... and didn't your mistress find out how things stood?"
"She did not," said the wood-mouse. "Taken all round, things went about as badly as they could with me. You see, I had heard them say that the case was to be unpacked. And then there was some nice cinnamon, which I am so fond of. So, on the last night, I resolved to drag a piece over to my place, so as to have a bit to spare. I did so and managed to get it through the drain all right. But then it was so big that I had a difficulty in dragging it any farther. So I nibbled it into two pieces. One of these I got right down into my hole and the other just up to the hole. But then the door slammed and I was frightened and dropped the cinnamon and ran away."
"Well, you fetched it afterwards, I suppose?" asked the wood-mouse. "You said it was lying outside the hole."
"So it was," said the house-mouse. "But now I'll tell you how badly things went. When I got down into the hole, I fell asleep. I don't know how it is, but cinnamon always makes me so beautifully sleepy. And then I have the most wonderful dreams about bacon and the very nicest things I can think of. So I fell asleep and slept and slept and dreamt beautifully. When I awoke at last, it was broad daylight, as I saw the moment I put my nose outside the hole. The cinnamon was there all right. But the mistress was in the room, so I dared not take it. And, when she went out into the kitchen, she left the door open, a thing she never does as a rule. And, all the time, she was walking up and down. And then they began to unpack the case and she put the things away in the cupboard and the sideboard. And then she suddenly stopped in front of my hole, where the cinnamon was, you know, and then, of course, I was found out. She was very much distressed at my deceit, as she called it, and said that she had done with me and would never give me any more sugar. And, since that day, I have not had a single lump. It's a terrible loss to me."
"So it is," said the wood-mouse. "But what can you do? You can't explain the thing to her, you know."
"No," said the house-mouse. "I can't do that. And now the rat-catcher has been and a new cat has come, who is a regular demon at her business. It's a perfect miracle that I have escaped so far. I half wish I were dead. The good days in the forester's house are over; and they won't come back either. It's hard, when one was looking forward to having a fairly comfortable time in one's old age."
"Oh, you needn't think it's much better out here!" said the wood-mouse. "There's a new young forester come; and he's a terror!"
"I know," said the house-mouse. "He came down with the rat-catcher. Jens fetched them at the station."
"But the rat-catcher went back again," said the wood-mouse. "The young forester stayed here and is still here; and I don't expect he will ever go. He intends to grapple seriously with the mouse-plague, as he calls it, meaning the field-mouse. The mast and acorns are being gathered earlier than usual, so that we may starve to death. He wants to let cats loose in the woods, I heard him say. And owls are to be imported, as if there were not enough of them before! And foxes and martens and buzzards and polecats and ermines are to be preserved for five years. It will be a fine police-force."
"Yes," said the house-mouse, "there are bad times in store for all our family."
They sat for a while and idled, each wrapped in her sad reflections. The house-mouse felt horribly cold, because of her bare tail, and the wood-mouse wished her cousin would go away, so that she might run down to her warm nest.
"Tell me," said the wood-mouse. "How is our cousin from Copenhagen doing over in the barn? Haven't you talked to her?"
"No, I haven't," said the house-mouse. "She was particularly friendly when we had the packing-case: indeed, she even asked me down to see her rooms. But she warned me not to come over there otherwise. She said that I might run the risk of her eating me. She and some other brown rats once ate a kitten, she said. And I could see by the look on her face that it was true."
"Oh dear, oh dear!" said the wood-mouse. "But perhaps the rat-catcher or the new cat has caught her?"
"No," said the house-mouse. "She escaped; and so did most of her children. And they have multiplied in such a way that you simply can't turn for rats, Jens says."
"Then, you'll see, they will forget you all right," said the wood-mouse, "if only you are careful and discreet."
"Jens will forget me, perhaps," said the house-mouse, sadly. "But the mistress will never forget me, because she believes I deceived her. And the new cat has set eyes on my hole and she is on the look-out. Some day, sooner or later, I shall be eaten up."
"Yes, it's awfully sad," said the wood-mouse. "But what can one do...? Hullo, who's coming now?"
The house-mouse turned round and looked in the same direction as the wood-mouse. A black animal came running over the snow.
"I positively believe it is our cousin the black rat," said the house-mouse. "I didn't think there were any of them left. Yes, there's no doubt about it, it's the black rat."
"Good afternoon, cousin," said the wood-mouse and backed down into her hole until only her nose peeped out. "Welcome to the country. This is the first time, so far as I know, that I have had the pleasure of seeing you out here. You don't care much for nature, I believe."
"Give me food! Give me food!" screamed the black rat.
"I'm awfully sorry that you are hungry," said the wood-mouse. "Unfortunately I have just eaten my last nut. As you see, here's the shell. The house-mouse had been downstairs calling on me and can bear witness that there's not a bite or a sup to be found in my place."
She winked at the house-mouse to confirm the truth of her fib. But the house-mouse could not take her eyes off the black rat, who had lain down in the snow and was moaning piteously:
"You're catching cold, cousin," she said kindly. "You had better go back to the barn again. It's warmer there."
"I really don't care what becomes of me," said the rat. "To tell you the truth, it's all the same to me whether I die in one way or another. You say I ought to go back to the barn. That's where I've come from. There's no existing there for those loathsome rats from Copenhagen. They call themselves rats, but I don't believe that they are rats at all. I am sure they're a sort of fish by the way they swim. And the way they eat! And the way they multiply! They have children once a week, I do believe. It's disgusting."
"It certainly is," said the wood-mouse. "Cousin House-Mouse and I were just sitting and talking about it, cousin. But what's to be done, cousin? I am hard pressed by the field-mouse and get the blame for all his villainy. Some time ago, the house-mouse had to put up with harm for your sake, because you bit the odd man in the nose or else ate and drank things. Now one has come who is stronger than you; and so it's your turn. Besides, it seems to me that you are big enough to send the rat home to where she came from."
"Big enough?" said the rat. "Big enough? That great brown brute is bigger than I am! And then there are so many of them! I am the last of my race. When I am dead, there will be no more black rats in this part of the country. And now I am going to die."
"Stop a bit! Cousin!" said the house-mouse. "Let us talk it over first!... Perhaps we can hit upon something or other!..."
But it was too late. The black rat stretched out her four legs and was dead and gone.
"Lord!" said the wood-mouse. "To think that she should go and die like that before our eyes! If you fall to the cat now and I to the owl and if the young forester destroys the field-mouse, then there won't be a single member of all our big family left."
"Yes, there will be: I'm here," said a deep, gruff voice close by.
"Gracious!" said the house-mouse and jumped right into the air. "There's the brown rat!"
And there he was. The brown rat stood and mumbled with his snout and sniffed at the dead black cousin, while keeping an eye upon the wood-mouse, who retreated a little farther still into her hole.
"Good-afternoon, cousin," said the wood-mouse. "Welcome to the country. I hope your outing will agree with you better than our black cousin's did with her. For she fell down and died where she lay."
"Cousin me no cousins!" said the brown rat. "It's awful the way you people out here in the country brag about relationship. What's become of the house-mouse?"
"She's run home," said the wood-mouse. "I believe she was afraid of you, which surprises me, for you look so good and kind."
"Thank you," said the brown rat. "I always appreciate a friendly word. I'm as hungry as the dickens. Have you something or other you can treat me to? I don't care what: I eat anything."