E-text prepared by Louise Hope
At the time this book was written, rats were classified as Mus rattus and Mus norvegicus. The genus Rattus did not become standardized until the 20th century. Notes on the animals in Chapter VII are at the end of the e-text, along with the Errata.
THE RAMBLES OF A RAT.
THE RAMBLES OF A RAT.
A. L. O. E.
T. Nelson and Sons, London, Edinburgh, and New York.
THE RAMBLES OF A RAT
A. L. O. E.,
Author of "The Giant-killer," "Pride and his Prisoners," &c. &c.
London: T. Nelson and Sons, Paternoster Row; Edinburgh; and New York. 1864.
Let not my readers suppose that in writing THE RAMBLES OF A RAT I have simply been blowing bubbles of fancy for their amusement, to divert them during an idle hour. Like the hollow glass balls which children delight in, my bubbles of fancy have something solid within them,— facts are enclosed in my fiction. I have indeed made rats talk, feel, and reflect, as those little creatures certainly never did; but the courage, presence of mind, fidelity, and kindness, which I have attributed to my heroes, have been shown by real rats. Such adventures as I have described have actually happened to them, unless they be those recorded in the 19th chapter, for which I have no authority. For my anecdotes of this much-despised race I am principally indebted to an interesting article on the subject which appeared in the "Quarterly Review."
I would suggest to my readers how wide and delightful a field of knowledge natural history must open to all, when there is so much to interest and admire even in those animals which we usually regard with contempt and disgust. The examination of the wondrous works of nature is a study elevating as well as delightful; for the more deeply we search into the wonders around us, the more clearly we discover the wisdom which is displayed even in the lowest forms of creation!
A. L. O. E.
I. The Family of Rats 9 II. A Clap-trap Discovery 15 III. Poorer than Rats 19 IV. How I made a Friend 26 V. How Bob met with an Adventure 33 VI. How I visited the Zoological Gardens 38 VII. Finding Relations 43 VIII. How I heard of Old Neighbours 51 IX. How we found a Feast 59 X. The want of a Dentist 67 XI. A Removal 74 XII. A New Road to Fame 79 XIII. How I set out on my Voyage 86 XIV. A Terrible Word 94 XV. First View of St. Petersburg 103 XVI. A Russian Kitchen 109 XVII. A Ramble over St. Petersburg 118 XVIII. How we were Transported 125 XIX. A Storm and its Consequences 132 XX. Catch him—Dead or Alive! 137 XXI. A new kind of Watch-dog 146 XXII. The Farmer and his Bride 153 XXIII. A Peep through the Roses 163
THE RAMBLES OF A RAT.
THE FAMILY OF RATS.
My very earliest recollection is of running about in a shed adjoining a large warehouse, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Poplar, and close to the River Thames, which thereabouts is certainly no silver stream.
A merry life we led of it in that shed, my seven brothers and I! It was a sort of palace of rubbish, a mansion of odds and ends, where rats might frolic and gambol, and play at hide-and-seek, to their hearts' content. We had nibbled a nice little way into the warehouse above mentioned; and there, every night, we feasted at our ease, growing as sleek and plump as any rats in the United Kingdom.
We were of an ancient race of British rats, my seven brothers and I. It is said that our ancestors came over with the Conqueror, William; and we are not a little proud of our Norman descent. Our smaller forms, sleek black coats, long tails, and fine large ears, make us altogether distinct from the Norwegian brown rat, on which we look with— I was going to say with contempt, but I rather think that it is quite another feeling, and one to which neither rats nor men generally like to plead guilty. I know that we do not usually choose to keep company with them; but whether it be because their forms are coarser, their manners less refined, and their pedigree not so long, or whether it be because they sometimes have a fancy to nibble off the ears of their neighbours, or, when their appetite is uncommonly sharp, make a meal of their Norman cousins, we need not particularly inquire.
I said that I and my seven brothers were black rats; but I ought to make one exception. The youngest of the family was piebald— a curious peculiarity, which I never noticed in any other of our race. Yes, he was piebald; and not only had he this misfortune, but he was the clumsiest and most ill-shaped rat that ever nibbled a candle-end! Now, this was no fault of his, and certainly was no reason why he should have been despised by his more fortunate brothers. Man, of course, as a superior creature, would only look with kindness and pity upon a companion so unhappy as to have personal defects. He would never ridicule a condition which might have been his own, nor find a subject for merriment in that which to another was a cause of annoyance; but we were only inconsiderate young rats, and there was no end to our jokes on our piebald comrade. "Oddity," "Guinea-pig," "Old Spotty," and "Frightful"— such were the names which we gave him. The first was that by which he was best known, and the only one to which he chose to answer. But he was a good-humoured fellow, poor Oddity, and bore our rudeness with patience and temper. He pursued the plan which I would recommend to all rats in his position: he joined the mirth which his own appearance raised; and when we made merry at the awkward manner in which he waddled after his more light-footed companions, he never took it amiss, nor retired into a corner of the shed to sulk, amidst rope-ends and bits of rusty iron.
I have said that we had merry nights in the warehouse. Often has the moon looked in through the dull, many-paned windows, lighting our revels; though we cared little for light, our delicate feelers almost supplying the place of eyes. But one night above all nights I remember!
There had been a great deal of moving about in the warehouse during the day, running of trucks, and rolling of casks. Brisk, the liveliest of my brothers, had sat watching in a hole from noon until dusk, and now hurried through our little passage into the shed, where we were all nestling behind some old canvass. He brought us news of a coming feast.
"A ship has arrived from India," said he, "and we'll have a glance at the cargo. They've been busy stowing it away next door. There's rice—"
The brotherhood of rats whisked their tails for joy!
There was a universal squeak of approbation.
"That's nothing but a blue dye obtained from a plant," observed Furry, an old, blind rat, who in his days had travelled far, and seen much of the world, and had reflected upon what he had viewed far more than is common with a rat. Indeed, he passed amongst us for a philosopher, and I had learnt not a little from his experience; for he delighted in talking over his travels, and but for a little testiness of temper, would have been a very agreeable companion. He very frequently joined our party; indeed, his infirmities obliged him to do so, as he could not have lived without assistance. But I must now return to Brisk, and his catalogue of the cargo.
"The juice of the white poppy," said our aged friend, who had a taste for general information. "I've seen it produce strange effects when eaten in large quantities by men."
"What effects?" said I. I was a very inquisitive rat, and especially curious about all that related to the large creatures upon two legs, called Man, whom I believed to be as much wiser as they are stronger than the race of Mus, to which I belong.
"Why, opium makes men first wild and bold, so that they will rush into danger or run into folly, quarrel with their friends and fight their foes, laugh and dance, and be merry they know not why. Then they grow sleepy, and though their lives might depend on it, not a step would they stir. Then, when they awake from their unnatural sleep, their bodies are cold, their heads heavy; they feel sick, and faint, and sad! And if this should happen day after day, at last the strong grows weak and the healthy ill, the flesh goes from the bones and the life from the eyes, and the whole man becomes like some old, empty hulk, whose timbers will hardly hold together! And all this from eating opium!"
"Ugh!" exclaimed Brisk; "leave opium to man; it is a great deal too bad for rats!"
A CLAP-TRAP DISCOVERY.
With eager haste we scrambled into the warehouse, Furry, as usual, remaining behind on account of his infirmities. We were almost too impatient to wait till the men within should have finished their work, till the doors should be shut and locked, and the place left in quiet for us.
I soon found out what was to me a singular curiosity— a tooth; I felt certain that it was a tooth; but it was twice as long as any rat, counting from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail! I could not help wondering in my mind to what huge animal it could ever have belonged.
"Isn't that called ivory?" said Oddity, as he waddled past me.
I felt inexpressible pleasure in gnawing and nibbling at the huge tusk, and polishing my sharp teeth upon it. "How I should like to see the enormous rat that could have carried such a tusk!" I exclaimed. "Oh! how I should delight in travelling and seeing the world!"
"You've something to see worth the seeing, without travelling far!" cried Brisk. "Such a fragrance of cheese as there is yonder! Why, Ratto, its delicious scent reaches us even here!"
I was so busy with my tusk and my reflections, that I scarcely looked up; but Oddity turned his eyes eagerly towards the spot.
"Now, I propose that we have a race to the place!" cried Brisk; "and he who gets first shall have his pick of the feast! Leave Ratto to his old bone! Here are seven of us: now for it; once, twice, thrice, and away!"
Off they scampered helter-skelter, all my seven brothers, awkward heavy Oddity, as usual, in the rear. He had often been laughed at for his slowness, but this time it was well for him that he was slow! On rushed the six foremost, almost together, scrambling one over another in their haste; they disappeared into what looked like a dark hole, and then— alas! alas! what a terrible squeaking!
Poor unhappy brothers! all caught in a trap! All at the mercy of their cruel enemy, man! I ran to the spot in a terrible fright. Nothing of my six companions could I see; but Oddity, with a very disconsolate look, was staring at the drop of the trap. His had been a very narrow escape,— it had grazed his ugly nose as it fell!
This is a very melancholy part of my story, and I will hasten over it as fast as I can. In vain the poor captive rats tried to gnaw their way to freedom from within, while Oddity and I nibbled from without. There was something which defied even our sharp little teeth, and all our efforts were in vain. My poor brothers could not touch the fatal feast which had lured them to their ruin! They passed a miserable night, and were every one carried off in a bag to be worried by dogs in the morning!
"Cruel, wicked man!" I exclaimed, as with my piebald companion I sought my old shelter behind the canvass in our shed. My exclamation was overheard by old Furry.
"Cruel, wicked man!" he repeated, but in a different tone from mine; "well, I think that even when setting a trap to catch inexperienced rats, man may have something to say for himself. I have often noticed the big creatures at work, and much they labour, and hard they toil, and we can't expect them to be willing to take so much trouble to collect dainties just to feast us! Those who live on the property of others, like rats, have no right to expect civil treatment!"
"Are there any creatures that lay traps for man?" said I, in the bitterness of my spirit almost hoping that there might be.
"As well as I can understand," replied Furry, "man himself lays traps for man. I have seen several of these traps. They are large, and generally built of brick, with a board and gilt letters in front. They are baited with a certain drink, which has effects something like opium, which destroys slowly but surely those who give themselves up recklessly to its enjoyment."
"Well," cried Oddity, "having once seen what comes of running into a trap, I, for one, shall be always on my guard against them, and am never likely to be caught in that way. I suppose that it is the same with man. When he sees that one or two of his companions are lost by the big man-trap, he takes good care never to go near it himself."
"Not a whit!" exclaimed Furry, with a scornful whisk of his tail. "They like the bait, though they know its effects quite well. They walk with open eyes into the great man-trap, they hasten merrily into the great man-trap, when the gas-lights are flaring, and the spirits flowing, and the sound of laughter and jesting is heard within! They know that they are going the straight, direct way to be worried by sickness, poverty, and shame, (what these are I never heard clearly explained, but I have gathered that they are great enemies of man, who are always waiting at the door of the great man-trap,) and yet they go gaily to their ruin!"
"So this is your account of the wise creature man!" I exclaimed; "he is a great deal more foolish than any rat!"
POORER THAN RATS.
We had not our shed always to ourselves. One cold evening in autumn, when there was a sharp east wind, and a drizzling rain, two human creatures came into the place and cowered down in a corner of our shed. I call them human creatures, for they certainly were not men; they were so different from the tall powerful fellows whom I had occasionally seen at their work in the warehouse. These were much smaller, and so thin that their bones seemed almost ready to break through the skin. Their hair hung in long loose masses about their ears. They had nothing on their feet to protect them from the stones, and one of them had a hurt upon his heel, which looked red and inflamed.
I found that these were young human beings, neglected and uncared for, as young rats would not have been. We were at first afraid of them, and only peered out curiously upon them from our holes and hiding-places; but when, gathering courage, we ventured to come forward, we seemed to frighten them as much as they had frightened us.
"Look there— there, Bob!" screamed the younger child, clinging more closely to his brother.
"Them bees rats," said the other one more quietly. His poor thin little face looked as if the life and spirit had been so starved out of it, that he could not be much astonished at anything.
"I don't like staying here, Bob, amongst the rats!" cried the terrified little one, attempting to pull his brother towards the entrance by the sleeve of his jacket. The wretched rag gave way even under his weak pull, and another rent was added to the many by which the cold crept in through the poor boy's tattered dress. "I won't stay here; let us go, let us go!"
"We've no-wheres to go to," replied Bob, in the same dull, lifeless tone. "Never you mind the rats, Billy, them won't hurt you," he added.
Hurt him! not we! If ever I felt pity it was for those ragged little urchins. We were well-fed, but they were hungry; Nature had given us sleek warm coats, but they trembled with cold. It was very clear that it was much harder to them to support life than if they had been rats. I wondered if in this great city there were many such helpless children, and if there were none to care for them!
"I say, Ratto," observed Oddity, licking his soft coat till the beautiful polish upon it made one almost forget its ugly colour, "'tis a pity that these children are so dirty; but may be they are not so particular about such matters as we rats."
In time a sort of acquaintance grew up between me and the ragged boys. We ceased to fear each other, and I would venture almost close to Billy's thin little hand when he had a crust of bread to eat, for he always broke off a little bit for me. The poor little fellow was crippled and lame, so he rarely left the shed. Bob often went out in the morning, and returned when it was growing dark, sometimes with food, and sometimes without it; but whenever he had anything to eat, he always shared it with his little lame brother. I see them now, crouched close up together for the sake of warmth. Sometimes Billy cried from hunger and cold, and his tears made long lines down his grimy face. Bob never cried, he suffered quite quietly; he patted his little brother's shaggy head, and spoke kindly to him, in his dull, cheerless way. I felt more sorry for him than for Billy.
The little one was the more talkative of the two. Perhaps he was more lively in his nature; or perhaps, from having been a shorter time in a world of sorrow, he had not learned its sad lessons so well. I certainly never heard him laugh but once, and then it was when Oddity, who was more shy than I, ventured for the first time since Billy's coming to cross the shed.
"Oh! look— look, Bob! what a funny rat! what a beauty rat!" he cried, clapping his bony hands together with childish glee.
It was comical to see the expression on Oddity's blunt face on hearing this unexpected compliment, perhaps the first that he had ever received in his life. It was enough to have turned the head of a less sober rat; but he, honest fellow, only lifted up his snub nose with a sort of bull-dog look, which seemed to say, "Well, there's no accounting for taste."
"Bob," said little Billy one evening, with more animation than usual, "I'se been a-watching the rats, and I saw— only think what I saw!"
"Eh, what did ye see?" replied Bob, drowsily, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. He looked very hungry and tired.
"I was a-watching for the fat spotted one which ran across yesterday, when out came creeping, creeping, two others" —the child with his fingers on the floor suited his action to his words,— "and one had some white on its back; it looked old and weak; and Bob, I saw as how it was blind."
"A blind rat!" cried Bob; "'twould soon starve, I take it."
"But there was the other rat at its side, with such shining eyes, and such a sharp little nose!" I plead guilty to vanity; I could not hear such a description of myself with Oddity's sober composure. "And the old blind rat had a little bit of stick in its mouth, just as the blind man in the lane has a stick in his hand, and the pretty black rat took the other end in his teeth, and so pulled the old un on his way."
"I'se never heard of rats doing that afore," said Bob.
"That's not all that I saw about 'em," continued Billy. "Out comes the funny spotted rat from its hole; so I keeps very quiet, not to frighten it away. And it pattered up to the place where I put the little crumbs; and what do you think as it did?"
"Ate them," was Bob's quiet reply.
"No, but it didn't though!" cried Billy, triumphantly; "it pushed them towards the old blind rat. Neither the black un nor the spotted un ate up one crumb; they left 'em all for the poor blind rat! Now wasn't them famous little fellows!"
"So rats help one another," said Bob. He did not speak more; but as he leant back his head, and looked straight up at the roof of the shed, (there was a great hole in it which the stars shone through, and now and then a big drop of water from the top came plash, plash, on the muddy floor below,) he looked up, I say, and I wonder whether he was thinking the same thing as I was at that moment: "Rats help one another; do none but human beings leave their fellow-creatures to perish!"
HOW I MADE A FRIEND.
I always ate my supper in the warehouse, but I need hardly say that Oddity and I carefully avoided the spot where the tragedy of our six brothers had occurred. We were by no means the only rats who found a living in the place at the expense of our enemy, man. There were a good many of the species of the large brown Norwegian rat; but as I have mentioned before, we usually kept out of their way, from a tender regard for our own ears.
There was one brown rat, however, whose fame had spread, not only in his own tribe, but in ours. For quickness of wit, readiness in danger, strength of teeth, and courage in using them, I have never yet met with his equal. Whiskerandos was a hero of a rat. Was it not he who in single combat had met and conquered a young ferret! an exploit in itself quite sufficient to establish his fame as a warrior. They had been opposed to each other in a room lighted by a single window. Whiskerandos, whose intelligence at once showed him the importance of position, took his station beneath this window, so that the light was in his enemy's eyes, and compelled him to fight at disadvantage. For two long hours the battle lasted, but at length the ferret lay dead upon the floor!
Several scars upon the neck of Whiskerandos bore witness to this terrible encounter, and many others in which he had been engaged. He had lost one ear, and the other had been grievously curtailed of its proportions, so that altogether he had paid for fame at the price of beauty; but he was strong and bold as ever, and his appearance one night in our warehouse created quite a sensation in the community of rats.
There was one brown rat, in particular, that seemed to wait upon him, and pay him court, as though, having no merit of his own, Shabby fancied that he could borrow a little from a distinguished companion. I have often seen this in life, (I am now an old and experienced rat,) I have seen a mean race following and flattering their superiors, ready to lick the dust from their feet, not from real admiration or attachment, but, like a mistletoe upon a forest tree, because they had no proper footing of their own, and liked to be raised on the credit of another. It is easier to them to fawn than to work, to flatter the great than to follow their example.
I own that I was afraid of Whiskerandos, and yet he passed without touching me, quite above the meanness of hurting a creature merely because it was weaker than himself. But Shabby gave such a savage snap at my ear that I retreated squeaking into a corner. I almost think that I should have returned the bite, had not his formidable companion been so near; and it was probably this circumstance which gave the mean rat courage thus to attack me without provocation. From what I have heard of boys tormenting cats, mice, birds, anything that they can easily master, while they pay proper respect to bulldogs and mastiffs, I have an idea that there are some Shabbys to be found even amongst "the lords of creation."
I was busy at my supper, when, chancing to look towards the fatal hole in which my six brothers had been caught, I saw Whiskerandos and his follower merrily advancing towards it, doubtless attracted, as the former victims had been, by a very enticing scent.
I do not know how man would have behaved in my position. These certainly were no friends of mine; but then they were rats; they were of the race of Mus. I could not see them perish without warning them of their danger.
"Stop! stop!" squeaked I, keeping, however, at a respectful distance; "you are running right into a trap!"
Whiskerandos turned sharp round and faced me. I retreated back several steps.
"Bite him,— fight him,— shake him by the neck!" cried Shabby; "he knows there is a dainty feast there, and he would keep it all for his ugly black rats!" Shabby was a great fighter with words; those of his character usually are; nor was he in the least particular, when he gave his bad names, that they were in the least suitable and appropriate, or he would never have applied the term "ugly" to us.
"You'll pay for your dainty feast if you go one foot farther!" I exclaimed; feeling, I confess it, very angry.
"Who's afraid!" cried the boaster, flinging up his hind legs with a saucy flourish as he scampered on. Clap! he was caught in the trap!
Poor rat! had he possessed the courage and skill of Whiskerandos himself, they would have availed him nothing. His miserable squeaking was louder than that of all my six brothers put together. He would not take advice, and he found the consequences. He thought himself wiser than his neighbours, and only discovered his mistake when it had led him to destruction. Had he only listened to the counsels of a little black rat!
Whiskerandos remained for some moments quite still, looking towards the dismal prison of his companion. He knew too well that it was impossible to rescue him now. Then, with such bounds as few rats but himself could make, he sprang to where I was standing.
"Rat!" he exclaimed, "you have saved my life, and I shall never forget the obligation. Though you are black and I am brown, no difference between us shall ever be regarded. Let us be friends to the end of our days!"
"Agreed!" I cried; "let's rub noses upon it!" and noses we accordingly rubbed.
He never flinched from his word, that bold Whiskerandos. I never feared him from that hour; no, not even when I knew that he was hungry, and had tasted no food from morning till night; I knew that no extremity would ever induce him to eat up his friend; and many a ramble have we had together, and through many strange paths has he led me. I ventured even into the haunts of the brown rats, for his presence was a sufficient protection. None would have dared to attack me while he was beside me,— I should hardly have been afraid of a cat!
I had naturally a fancy for roving, and a great desire to know more of the world; and what better guide could I have had than the heroic Whiskerandos? He had not, however, been so great a traveller as Furry,— he had never yet crossed the water; but he and I determined, on some favourable opportunity, to take our passage in a ship, and explore some foreign region together.
There was but one subject on which Whiskerandos and I were ever in danger of quarrelling. I had made up my mind— and Furry, who was a very learned rat, was quite of the same opinion— that the ancestors of the brown rats came over from Hanover to England with George I. We liked to call them Hanover rats, but this gave great offence to the race, as it made their antiquity so much less than that which we claimed for ourselves.
"You affirm," Whiskerandos would exclaim, "that you came over from Normandy in 1066, and we from Hanover in 1714, and that nothing was ever heard of us before that time. I affirm that it is a calumny, a base calumny! We came from Persia, from the land of the East; an army of us swam across the Volga, driven by an earthquake from our own country. Depend upon it, we were known there in ancient times, and went over Xerxes' great bridge of boats, and nibbled at his tent-ropes and gnawed his cheese while he fought with the Greeks at Thermopylae."
"After all," thought I— I did not say it aloud, for the great weakness of Whiskerandos was his pride of birth, his anxiety to be thought of an ancient family— "the great matter is not whether our ancestors do honour to us, but whether by our conduct we do not disgrace our ancestors."
HOW BOB MET WITH AN ADVENTURE.
I was often puzzled by the conduct of Bob; that was to be expected, seeing that I was a young and ignorant rat, quite inexperienced in the doings of man. Once or twice Bob had brought to the shed things which he could not eat and did not wear. I could neither imagine where he had got them, what he intended to do with them, nor what possible use he could make of them. He seemed inclined to hide them; and once, when he was showing to Billy a red handkerchief covered with white spots (though the weather was bitterly cold, he never attempted to tie it round his neck), the little boy looked up gravely into his face and said, "Oh, Bob, arn't you afeard?"
"What am I to do; we can't starve, Billy." He looked so wan and so woe-begone, as he bent over the little lame child, that it seemed to me that never was a creature so wretched as that desolate boy. The next morning he took away the handkerchief, and in the evening he brought home bread.
Once when he returned, the snow was fast falling, drifting through the roof, and in at the door, till Billy could scarcely find a clear spot on which to rest his languid little frame. He was always on the look-out for his brother, as soon as the sky began to darken. Well might he watch on that day, for he had not broken his fast since the evening before; and his lips were blue with hunger and cold, and he was lonely, very lonely, in the shed.
Presently Bob came hastily in; we had not heard his step on the soft snow. The flakes were resting on his rags and whitening his hair, as he threw himself down by his brother.
"Oh! Billy!" he exclaimed, and burst into tears.
"What have you got?" cried the little one joyfully. "A big loaf!" and he tore it asunder in his eager haste, and ate like a famished creature.
"And see this!" said Bob; and he wrapped round the shivering child a warm cloak which he had carried on his arm.
Billy opened his eyes with an expression of astonishment, which brightened into joy as he felt the unwonted warmth. "Oh! Bob!" he exclaimed, with his mouth full of bread; "where did you get this? Did you steal it?"
"No; and I'll never steal no more; never, never!" and the boy sank his head down upon his chest, and sobbed. I had never seen him shed a tear till that day.
"Tell me all about it, tell me!" cried Billy, almost frightened by his brother's unwonted emotion; but it was a little time before Bob made reply.
"I followed he— a fine, tall gemman. I had my fingers in his pocket, and he clapped his hand on 'em, and catched me!"
"Oh!" exclaimed Billy, with eyes and mouth wide open, in alarm. "And did he not call the beaks, and have you up?"
"No; he spoke to me; he spoke so kind-like. He told me that I was about a sin— a great sin. Nobody never spoke so to me afore!" Again the boy's feelings seemed ready to burst forth. "And he took me to a baker's, and got me this; and to a shop, and bought me that; and says he, "Has no one taught you to know right from wrong?" And says I, "Nobody never taught me nothing!" Then he takes me a good way round, down a little lane, right into a Ragged School."
"What's that?" inquired Billy curiously.
"A place where a great many poor boys were together in a big room, where there were wooden benches, and pictures and other things hung on the walls. I should never have dared to go in; but that good gemman took me, and led me right up to a man who was standing with a row of little chaps afore him. And the gemman put his hand on my shoulder, and spoke for me, and said a many things that I can't remember; but one thing I remember quite well: "You come here every evening," says he, "and you'll be taught your duty, and how to do it. I am leaving London soon; but I will be back in a few weeks, and I'll come and ask the master how you have been behaving; and if I find that you've been trying to become a better boy, I will not lose sight of you, my friend."
"Did the gemman say all that?" exclaimed Billy.
"And a great deal more. Such beautiful talking! And to see how gentle and kind he looked, as if he didn't think me such a bad un after all!"
"Did you tell him of me?" asked Billy anxiously.
"Yes; I told him that I had one little brother, and he was lame; and that mother was dead and father in jail, and that we had no one to care for us, and that we were often hungry, and always cold; and he looked quite sorry to hear it."
"Did he though?" cried Billy, much surprised. "And will you go to the Ragged School, Bobby?"
"Won't I!" cried the boy, with a little more energy than I had seen in him before; "why, if I don't, I won't see that good gemman again!"
"And won't you take me with you too?" said little Billy.
HOW I VISITED THE ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS.
That night I set out with Whiskerandos on more extended travels than any which I had yet attempted. Oddity might have accompanied us, but he preferred, as he said, home comforts and a nibble in the warehouse. I knew that he would look after old Furry, whose infirmities were sadly increasing upon him, so that I had no fear of the blind rat being neglected.
I suspected that more than one reason induced my pie-bald brother to decline the tour. He had struck up an acquaintance with Bright-eyes, a lively little rat, and probably found his society more agreeable than that of Whiskerandos, of whom he always stood somewhat in awe. I shall not pause on the description of our underland journey through the wondrous labyrinth of passages which, like a net-work, spreads in every direction under the foundations of London. I saw more rats in these gloomy lanes than I had ever imagined existed in the world. I should have been afraid to have passed them, so fierce they looked, so ready to attack an intruder, had not Whiskerandos been at my side. He neither provoked contests, nor feared them— neither gave offence willingly, nor took it readily— but had withal so resolute an air, that few would have been disposed to have quarrelled with him. I was heartily glad, however, when again we emerged into the light of day; and I was full of astonishment at the sight of green grass and trees, such as I had never beheld before.
"Ah!" said Whiskerandos, smiling at my delight, "you should see this grass in the fresh spring, and those black bare trees when the bright young leaves are upon them. The branches of yonder row seem dropping their blossoms of gold; and how sweet is the scent of the hawthorn! But I would not have you pass through that iron paling to examine more closely the beauties of the garden; the square would be a charming place, no doubt, if it were not haunted by cats."
I had never seen a cat in my life, but I started instinctively at the name. "Take me anywhere," I exclaimed, "take me anywhere that you will, so that I never come in sight of one of those terrible creatures!"
"I am going," said Whiskerandos, "to take you where there are cats so huge that one could take a man's head in her mouth, or strike him dead by a blow of her paw!"
"Oh, for my shed! Oh, for my quiet hole! for Furry, and Oddity, and my peaceable companions!" thought I. "What folly it was to venture into the world with such a guide as this desperado, Whiskerandos!"
I suppose that the bold rat read my thoughts in my frightened face, for he hastened to reassure my mind. "The big cats," said he, "some with long flowing manes, some spotted, some striped black and yellow, have no power to harm us. They are kept in barred cages by man, and spend their lives in wearisome captivity, denied even the solace of amusing themselves by catching a mouse for supper."
It was the dawn of a winter's morning, when with my comrade I merrily made my way across the park. The grass was whitened with hoar-frost, which also glittered on the leafless boughs of the rows of trees which lined the long straight avenue. We entered the gardens without paying toll, or in any way obtruding ourselves on the notice of man.
"See here!" exclaimed Whiskerandos, half pettishly, as we passed a pond with a curious wire-fence all round it. "What a dainty breakfast we should make of some of the delicate young water-fowl, but for the extraordinary care which has been taken to shut us out! We can look in, to be sure, and see our prey, but the ducks do not even flutter, or move a wing, so secure are they that we cannot reach them!"
The season being winter, we were unable to see many animals from tropical climes, whose health would have suffered from exposure to cold. I however regretted this but little. The white bear was shaking his shaggy coat, the wolf pacing uneasily up and down his den, birds pluming their feathers in the dull red light, while the monkeys' ceaseless jabber sounded from the walls of their prison.
"Whiskerandos," said I to my guide, "I care little for making acquaintance with cats, whether they be little or big; but if any foreigners of the race of Mus be kept here, might I request you to introduce me to them?"
Whiskerandos pointed with his nose towards a building. "You will find relations there," he said, "some of the forty-six classes of our race, known by the family likeness in their teeth.* For me, I'm going to pay a visit to the monkeys' house; I'm sure there to find some provision, always a matter of importance to a rat. The door is shut, but I'll not trouble the keeper to open it for me!" So saying, with wonderful agility he began to climb the building, and soon vanished through a hole in the roof.
Food was to me a subject of at least as great importance as to Whiskerandos. Even my curiosity had to wait attendance on my appetite. I was fortunate, however, in discovering half a bun, which had probably been dropped by some child; and cheered and refreshed I proceeded to the building in which I was to make my affectionate search for distant relations. I carefully examined the walls, till I discovered a hole, probably made by some rat of the place, and through this I entered the house, and proceeded at once with eagerness to a small barred division, from whence a feeble squeak proceeded.
[* I am not aware whether the Zoological Gardens at present contain specimens of the curious rats described in the following chapter.]
"Well, this is at length such weather as a creature may live and breathe in! I've been half stifled all the autumn with the heat, but now the fresh keen air seems like a breeze from my own dear Lapland!"
"Lapland! oh! there is nothing like Lapland," said a very dolorous voice in reply. I lifted up my eyes to get a glimpse of the speaker.
Within the cage were two beautiful little Lemmings, (I learnt their name afterwards as well as those of other inhabitants of the place.) They were not much more than half my size, had pointed heads, very short tails, and whiskers uncommonly long. Their coats were black and tawny, but yellowish-white beneath. I heard subsequently that their race inhabit Siberia, Norway, and other cold climes, moving in large bodies like locusts, and like locusts eating up every thing green. But this pair, as was evident from their conversation, had been natives of a country called Lapland.
"Oh for a sight of the icy lakes, the snow-covered plains and the reindeer moving lightly over them; while the rosy Aurora Borealis throws its bright streamers across the sky!"
"And the strange little huts," rejoined the other, "made of briers, bark, felt, and reindeer skins, where, when we peeped under the curtains which made the door, we saw the tiny people, in their sheepskin doublets, sitting on their heels round the fire! I don't wonder that the Lapps love their land; I don't wonder that when long exiled from it, they die of intense longing to return. That will be my fate, oh! that will be mine!"
"Allow an English rat, gentle strangers," said I, "to offer a little word of comfort. I grieve that you feel your captivity so much, that you so deeply mourn your absence from your dear native land. But is it not better to meet misfortune with courage, and bear it with patience? You are yet left the society of each other, you can yet talk over old days together, while the white bear growls in his prison alone, and the lofty camel has no companion near him."
I was interrupted by some animal near dashing itself passionately against the bars of its cage, and, turning round, I beheld a very savage rat, which bore the name of the German Hamster. His head was thick, blunt, and garnished with plenty of whiskers; he had big eyes, and large, open, rounded ears. His back and head were of a reddish-brown colour, his cheeks red, his feet white, and he had three odd white spots on each side of his chest. But the funniest thing which I noticed about him, (I was always an observant rat,) was that he had a claw on his forefeet in addition to four toes, which I had never before seen in the tribes of Mus.
"'Tis easy to talk of comfort!" he exclaimed angrily, "when a rat has freedom and everything else that he cares for! But here— why I have not even the comfort of going to sleep after the fashion of my country!"
"Not going to sleep!" I repeated in some surprise, thinking to myself that so peevish a creature must certainly be best in his sleep.
"No; who can sleep on bare boards, or a poor sprinkling of straw!" he exclaimed, striking contemptuously the floor of his cage. "I who used to burrow deep in the earth, and enjoy a long nap all during the winter, shut up in my snug little home, I know what comfort is! There is nothing like lying some feet under the earth, as quiet as if one were dead, and know that there is a good magazine collected of grain, beans, and pease, to feast on when one awakes in the spring."
"But at any rate here you are well fed," I suggested.
The words, however kindly intended, had only the effect of increasing the Hamster's passion to a shocking extent. To my amazement and horror he blew out his cheeks till the size of his head and neck exceeded that of his body. He raised himself on his hind legs, and but for the bars of his cage I believe that he would really have flown at me.
"Well fed!" he exclaimed, as soon as he could speak; "I should like to know what you call being well fed! Since I have come to this hateful country, not once have I had an opportunity of filling my cheeks with grain. Man, stingy man, thinks it enough to give me a wretched pittance from day to day,— to me who have had a hundred pounds of corn packed up in my own deep hole,— to me whose delight it was to carry three ounces weight of it at once in these bags with which Nature has provided my face!"
"Most curious and convenient bags they are," said I, willing to appease him by a civil word, though I thought that thus puffed out with air, they anything but added to the beauty of his appearance.
"They were the cause of my being taken," cried the fierce Hamster, whose savage complaints had quite silenced the gentler murmurs of the pretty little Lemmings, and had done more perhaps to make them submissive to their lot than anything which I could have said.
"How were your pouches the cause of your being taken?" inquired I.
"I can fight savagely— I will fly even at dogs," replied the Hamster (no one could have looked at him and have doubted it,) "but I cannot bite when my cheeks are stuffed full of grain, which was the case when a German peasant seized me; I had no time to empty them, not a moment, or wouldn't I have bitten him! oh, would not I have bitten him!"
I felt so much disgusted at the words and manner of this most ferocious of rats, that I was glad to turn away from his cage; reflecting to myself how hideous and how hateful any creature is rendered by violent passion.
A perfume, rather more powerful than agreeable, drew my attention towards a division occupied by a Musk-Rat, a native of Canada. I saw within it a creature of the size of a small rabbit, quiet and staid in his demeanour, who welcomed me with a grave courtesy strangely in contrast to the rudeness of the Hamster.
"May I venture to look upon you as belonging to the race of Mus?" I inquired, looking doubtingly at his large size, soft fur, and long flat tail.
"Well," he replied, good-humouredly, "some naturalists, and I believe the great Linnaeus amongst them, class me with the Castor or Beaver race, and dignify me with a very long and learned-sounding name, Zibethicus. But I am quite content, for my part, to own my relationship to the race of Mus, and to be known by the simple name Musk-Rat, which they give me on the lakes of Canada."
"I am delighted," said I, with a wave of my whiskers, "at this opportunity of paying my respects to so dignified a relation."
"Ah!" replied Zibethicus, "I only wish that I could have received you in my own house upon the Lake Huron. If you could but have seen the pretty round dwelling raised by myself and my companions— the neat dome-shaped roof which covered it, formed of herbs and reeds cemented with clay. So prettily it was stuccoed within! A great deal of trouble it cost us, to be sure, but I often think there's no pleasure without trouble; and there's nothing in my captivity which I miss so much as the power to labour and build."
"May I ask," said I, "whether you be of the same family with the Musk Cavy, which I have heard of as inhabiting Ceylon and other places in the East?"
"I believe not," answered my courteous companion, "but we doubtless belong to the same race, however our habits and appearance may differ."
Our pleasant conversation was here unfortunately interrupted by the keeper's opening the door. I had barely time to hide myself under some straw, resolving not to show myself again till darkness should render it safe for me to creep out.
Soon various visitors arrived, and I was vastly amused by watching the different varieties of the human species, of which there must be nearly as many as of the race of Mus. For the first time in my life I saw ladies all bedizened in velvets and silks, and the furry spoils of many an unfortunate ermine or sable. I saw gentlemen too, and I confess that a creeping uncomfortable feeling came over me when I looked at the hats which they had on their heads, the fine black gloss was so exceedingly like that of the coat which I wore. I have since learnt that my conjecture was but too close to the fact— that numberless hapless rats are slaughtered in France on account of their fatal beauty; and that man not only manufactures their fur into hats, but uses their soft and delicate skins to make the thumbs of his best gloves. Alas, for the race of Mus!
HOW I HEARD OF OLD NEIGHBOURS.
In the afternoon a gentleman entered the building, whose noble and commanding appearance struck me. After a short examination of the captives in their cages, he sat down to rest himself nearly opposite the place where I was hidden.
He was almost directly joined by a bright-haired boy, in whose cheeks health was glowing, and whose blue eyes sparkled with intelligence and enjoyment.
"Papa— please— I want more money to buy buns for the animals!"
"My dear boy," replied the gentleman, in an expostulating tone, "you have had a whole dozen already; I do not think it right to spend more on pampering well-fed animals, when so many of our fellow-creatures are suffering from hunger."
"Oh, papa! do you think there are many?"
"I believe that in this city of London alone there are thousands,— yes, tens of thousands, who know not, when they rise in the morning, where they shall find a morsel of food during the day. I did not tell you what happened to me when I was in the city, Neddy."
"Do tell me now," cried the boy, seating himself by his father, "while we rest a little quietly here."
"I was walking along a narrow gloomy lane on my way to the shipping-office, when suddenly I felt a hand at my pocket. Mine was instantly down upon it, and I captured a little thief who appeared to be about your own age."
"The little rogue!" exclaimed Neddy, indignantly. "And what did you do with him, papa? Did you give him over to the police, or thrash him soundly with your stick?"
"I grieved to see one so young already plunging into crime."
"Yes, that is the worst of it," said Neddy. "If he is so bad as a boy, what will he be when he is a man! He will be sure to end on the gallows! I hope you punished him well, papa."
I pricked up my ears on hearing this conversation; I could not help connecting it with what Bob had told his lame little brother; I therefore listened with peculiar interest. Not that, as a rat, I could understand the word crime, or know why human beings feel it wrong to seize anything that they want and can get. It was evident to me that they are governed by laws and principles quite incomprehensible to my race. For as man has no scruple in taking from rats their lives and their skins, so rats, on the other hand, have no manner of scruple in taking all they require from man.
But to return to the gentleman and his son.
"No, Neddy, I did not punish the child," replied the former gravely. "I looked at his meagre form clothed in rags, his wasted countenance prematurely old in its expression of sorrow and care, his hollow eyes, his sunken cheeks,— and I thought of you, my son!" the gentleman added, with a sigh.
"Well," said Neddy, "I hope there's a precious deal of difference between me and a beggarly thief!"
"What has made that difference?" said the gentleman, laying his hand on the shoulder of his beautiful boy. "I questioned that unhappy child. I found him ignorant of the first principles of virtue. His mother is dead, his father in jail; if he has learnt anything from those around him it is only a knowledge of vice. Pinched by hunger, homeless, friendless, ignorant even that he has a soul, it would be a miracle indeed if he followed the straight path of which he has not so much as heard! What can we expect him to be but a thief,— what would you have been in his place?"
Neddy looked thoughtful and was silent. Then raising his blue eyes to his father's face he said, "And what did you do to the boy?"
"I first tried to relieve a little his pressing bodily wants; to take from him, at least for one day, the temptation to commit a theft. But I knew that the temptation would recur again, and as long as he continued in blind ignorance, there could be small hope that he would even wish to resist it. I remembered that my watchmaker had given me the direction of a Ragged School at which his daughter taught; spending her time and energies as so many do now, in this noblest labour of love. This school was not very far off, and I resolved to take this opportunity of paying it a long-intended visit. I took the poor little fellow with me, and spoke to the superintendent, who readily agreed to receive him. He will there learn some way to earn his bread honestly; he will be taught to know right from wrong; he will hear, perhaps for the first time, the voice of kindness; and he may yet live to be respectable, useful, and happy."
"Oh! papa, do you think that after once being a thief he is ever likely to turn out good for anything!"
"The experiment has been tried over and over again, Neddy, and many times it has been mercifully attended with success. The idle have become industrious, the thieves honest, the vicious been reclaimed, the lost found and saved! I will tell you a striking occurrence which really took place in a reformatory for thieves. Not one of the inmates there but had broken the laws of his country, and committed the crime of theft. But mercy was giving them a chance to redeem the characters which they had lost, and they were learning various trades, by which to support themselves in honest independence. A subscription, as you may remember, was raised at the time of the war with Russia, to help the widows and orphans of our gallant soldiers. From the Sovereign on her throne, to the labourer in the field, from rich and poor, high and low, contributions to the Patriotic Fund poured in.
"The thieves in the reformatory heard of the subscription; they longed to aid it, but what could they do? they had no money, they owed their very bread to charity, for they had not yet acquired sufficient skill in the trades which they were learning, to pay even their necessary expenses."
"They could not give what they had not got, papa, if they wished to be generous ever so much."
"Where there is a will there is a way, Neddy. These poor fellows were so anxious to help the widow and the orphan, that they asked and obtained leave to go a whole day without food, that the money so saved upon them might be paid into the Patriotic Fund."
"And did they really starve a whole day?— have neither breakfast, nor dinner, nor supper,— and all go hungry to bed?"
"They did, Neddy, all the thieves in that reformatory* did; and I doubt if amongst the hundreds of thousands of subscriptions to the Patriotic Fund, any showed so much real generosity and self-denial as the contribution of the reformed thieves!"
"Oh! there was hope for such men indeed!" exclaimed Neddy, the moisture rising into his eyes. "There must have been good in them, papa, and I should not wonder if some of them turned out really fine fellows."
"I have no doubt of it," said his father with a smile.
"And that poor boy— yes, I hope that he may amend. Shall we hear anything more of him, papa?"
"You know that we go out of town to-morrow. On my return I shall make inquiries regarding him at the Ragged School, and if I find that he is improving under the instruction which he will receive, I shall try to do something for him."
"May I go with you?" said Neddy eagerly, "I should like to visit the school."
"I think that I shall take you with me," replied his father.
"What a glorious thing it is," exclaimed the boy after a pause, "to raise ragged schools and reformatories, to give the poor, the ignorant, and the wicked, a chance of becoming honest and happy! How I should like to build one myself!"
"It would be more practicable for you," observed the gentleman, smiling as he rose from his seat, "to support those which are built already."**
"But, papa, I can do so little!"
"Every little helps, my son; the vast ocean is made up of drops. You may do something yourself, and try to interest others in the cause of the desolate poor. Were all the children of the middle classes in England to give each but one penny a-week, no wretched boy need wander about desolate in London, to perish both here and hereafter because no one cared for his soul!"
[* The Reformatory in Great Smith Street, Westminster.]
[** The office of the "Ragged School Union" is at 1 Exeter Hall, London. By this admirable society twenty-two thousand poor children have received instruction during the past year, while five hundred of the most destitute have been provided with homes in refuges and reformatories. To show the habits of prudence inculcated in the schools, it is only necessary to state that in the same year ragged scholars placed in saving-banks a sum of no less than three thousand four hundred and thirty-nine pounds! Seventy of those who now teach in the schools, were once ragged scholars themselves, thus imparting to others the benefits which they had received when poor ignorant children.
But the funds of the society are by no means sufficient for the work before it, though many of its teachers are unpaid, seeking no reward upon earth. There are numbers of ragged children in London, as desolate as those whom I have described, who have never known the blessing of a ragged school, and who, if they implored the shelter of a refuge, must implore in vain, for they would find no room.]
HOW WE FOUND A FEAST.
I remained in the Zoological Gardens for a few weeks, improving my acquaintance with the mild Zibethicus and the gentle Lemmings. As for the German Hamster, he became so drowsy as the weather grew colder, that it became evident that he could sleep day and night upon boards, though he never fell into the perfectly torpid, almost dead state that he would have done, could he have been humoured by being buried alive.
I should willingly have remained longer in the gardens, but the keepers were taking such stringent measures to get rid of rats, that we thought it better to remove on our own four feet while we could, instead of being carried in a bag, a kind of conveyance for which we had no fancy. We therefore set out on our journey homewards.
We again chose the underland route, lest we should meet with dogs and cats in the streets, or be crushed beneath rolling wheels. We had not gone far, however, when Whiskerandos suddenly stopped.
"I feel hungry," said he.
"So do I," rejoined I.
"We must find our way into one of the houses," observed the bold rat; "let's turn down this passage, it doubtless leads to some kitchen."
Down the passage we accordingly turned, Whiskerandos, as usual, going first; but we were met, almost at the entrance, by two savage brown rats, who did not seem disposed to allow us to pass.
"Pray, does this passage lead to a kitchen?" said Whiskerandos, not appearing to notice their sharp teeth and gleaming eyes.
"Yes," replied one; "but the passage, and the house, and the kitchen, belong to us, and we let no one share in our rights."
"Any one who attempts to pass," cried the other, very fiercely, "has to pay us toll with his ears!"
"Well, my good friends," replied Whiskerandos, "notwithstanding the darkness I have no doubt but that your bright eyes have observed that I have paid that toll already, and that is a kind of toll which no one is expected to pay twice." The brown rats looked at the warrior with keen, wondering gaze, while Whiskerandos calmly continued, "I lost my ears in single combat with a ferret; he who exacted the toll lost his life in exchange, and I feel somehow persuaded that you will rather politely guide me into your house and share with me whatever I get there, than try the experiment whether a rat can fight as well without ears as he once did with them."
This little speech had a most wonderful effect in subduing all unfriendly and inhospitable feelings on the part of the brown rats towards the valiant Whiskerandos. They, however, looked very suspiciously at me, and I fancied that I heard one whisper to the other, "There's a black rat— an intruder— an enemy— we must tear him in pieces!"
I felt uncommonly uncomfortable, and much inclined to turn round and scamper for my life; but Whiskerandos soon ended the difficulty. "Let me introduce to you my friend Ratto," said he, "my very particular friend, who goes where I go, shares what I find, and whose safety I value as my own."
Nothing more was said about tearing me in pieces, so we all proceeded amicably on our way, till the brown rats led us through a small hole, and we found ourselves in a large, airy kitchen.
The place was perfectly quiet; the loud ticking of the clock was the only sound heard, the swing of its pendulum the only motion seen, except that a few black beetles were creeping on the sanded floor. The fire, which must have been a very large one, had almost burnt out; but a few red embers still were glowing, and served to light us on our way, though, as I have mentioned before, light seems unnecessary to rats.
We peeped about, under the dresser, on the shelves, and snuffed at the locked door of the larder, but nothing could we discover fit for food. A jar on a shelf looked tempting enough, but being made, cover and all, of crockery ware, it defied even our sharp little teeth.
"I've made a discovery!" exclaimed I at last, and at my shout the three other rats came eagerly running towards the place where I stood rejoicing by a flask of oil.
"I've seen that flask a dozen times," exclaimed one of the Brownies, in a tone of angry disappointment; "I have longed to taste its contents, but how is a rat to get at them?"
Here was a puzzler indeed. But Whiskerandos was ever ready at expedients. With neat dexterity he extracted the stopper; but here the difficulty did not end, for the neck of the bottle was too narrow by far to admit the head of a rat; and the position of the flask, in a wooden box, rendered it impossible to alter its position so as to pour out its contents.
"Mighty little use that flask is to us!" exclaimed one of the Brownies, impatiently.
But my clever rat was not easily discouraged In a moment he had dipped in his long tail, and then whisking it out again, scattered around a fragrant shower of oil!
There was no end to the praises and commendations which Whiskerandos received for this simple device. He took little notice of them, however, and only playfully observed, "It is Ratto who should have thought of this, since nature has furnished black rats with two hundred and fifty distinct rings in their tails, while brown ones have only two hundred."
"Ah, Whiskerandos!" exclaimed I, "this oil is a nice relish to be sure, but my appetite craves something solid;" and I looked piteously up at the jar. The other rats looked up piteously also.
"Let us see what we can do!" cried my spirited companion; and he clambered for the second time up on the shelf on which stood the tantalizing jar. This time he did not even attempt to nibble at the hard polished crockery, he wasted not his energies in any such fruitless endeavour; but, putting his mighty strength to the task, he pushed the whole jar nearer and nearer to the edge of the shelf, then over it, till at length it fell with a tremendous crash which made every one of us leap up high into the air with amazement!
We might have leapt for joy also, for from the broken crockery what a feast of delicious dried fruits rolled forth! With what glee we set to our supper, while Whiskerandos sprang from his shelf, too eager to partake of the tempting repast to take the slower method of climbing. I must confess that of all pleasures upon earth there is none to a rat like eating; if such be the case with any of the lords of creation, why I can only say that they must be content to be reckoned like rats.
We were in the midst of our feast, our mouths full, and our whiskers merrily wagging, when we were startled by a faint noise at the kitchen door. A stealthy sound, as of human feet moving slowly and cautiously along; a timid hand laid softly on the handle of the door; and then a whispering murmur of voices. We pricked up our ears and stopped eating.
"I am sure that the noise came from the kitchen;— listen!" said a timorous voice. So those without listened, and so did we within, when the clock suddenly striking One, made us all start, and so frightened the Brownies, that off they scampered into their hole. Whiskerandos and I retreated some steps, and then remained in an attitude of attention, while again the whispering began.
"Would it not be safer to call in a policeman?"
"No, no,— my blunderbuss is loaded, and the villains cannot escape. You are nervous— go back, Eliza."
"Dearest— I'll never leave you to meet the danger alone!"
The handle creaked as it was slowly turned round, and Whiskerandos exclaiming, "We'd better be off!" followed the example of the Brownies. Strong curiosity made me linger for a moment, as the door was opened inch by inch, and I had a glimpse of what to this day I cannot remember without laughing. One of the lords of the creation slowly advanced through it, robed in a long red dressing-gown, a candle in one hand, a loaded blunderbuss in the other, and with a most ludicrous expression on his pallid face, as though he were making up his mind to kill somebody, but was a little afraid that somebody might kill him instead! His wife, looking ghastly in her curl-papers with her eyes and mouth wide open in fright, was trying to pull him back, and was evidently terrified to glance round the kitchen, lest some midnight robber should meet her gaze. Away I scudded, my sides shaking with mirth, leaving the broken jar and the scattered fruits to tell their own tale, and wondering with what stories of midnight alarms the valiant husband and his devoted spouse would amuse their family in the morning.
THE WANT OF A DENTIST.
I was glad to see Oddity's kind ugly face again in our native shed. How much I had to tell him! how much older I now felt than one who had never wandered a hundred yards from his home! Who knows not the pleasure of returning even after a brief absence, full of information, eager to impart it, and sure of a ready and attentive listener? I talked over my adventures to my brother, till any patience but his would have been exhausted; but he was the most patient of rats, quite willing to have all his adventures second-hand, without the slightest wish to become a hero, but ready, without a particle of envy, to admire the exploits of others.
"And how is old Furry?" I asked, when at length I came to the end of my narration. Furry had now taken up his quarters in the warehouse, but sometimes visited our shed.
Oddity looked very grave. "You know," replied he, "that poor Furry had the misfortune some time ago to lose one of his upper front teeth."
"I know it; he struck it out when gnawing at the hoop of a barrel. But I do not see that the misfortune is great; old Furry has other teeth left."
"That is his misfortune," added Oddity.
"How?— what do you mean?— what does he complain of,— losing his teeth or keeping them?"
"Both," said Oddity. I should have thought him joking, but Oddity was never guilty of a joke in his life. "You see," he continued, observing my look of surprise, "that gnawing is necessary to us rats, to keep down the quick growth of our teeth. If they are not constantly rubbing one against another, they soon get a great deal too long for our mouths. As poor old Furry's upper tooth is gone, of course the one just under it is now out of work, and having nothing else to do, is growing at such a pace, that it is actually forming a circle in his mouth!"
"You don't say so!" I exclaimed "I have often noticed the strange length of that tooth, but I had no notion of the extent of the evil."
"It has much increased since you left us," sighed Oddity, "and where it will end I really don't know. The poor fellow is blind, he had no pleasure but in nibbling and chatting, and now his dreadful long tooth is actually locking his jaw."
"Shall I go to see him?" said I.
"Do as you please," replied Oddity. "There is little pleasure in seeing him now, poor fellow."
And so I found when I went. Poor old Furry's misfortune had by no means sweetened his temper. He was ready to bite any one who approached him, only biting was now out of the question. He could hardly manage to swallow a little meal which Oddity had procured, and certainly took it without a sign of gratitude. One would have thought, by his manner towards the piebald rat, that it was he who had knocked out the unlucky front tooth, instead of having kindly attended to Furry's wants for so long, and borne with his temper, which was harder. But Oddity was, without a doubt, the most patient and steady of rats. While Bright-eyes, full of fun, made many a joke at the expense of the blind, crabbed old rat, who had been so fond of talking, and now could scarcely utter a squeak— of eating, and now could not nibble a nut,— Oddity never thought the sufferings of another the subject for a smile, or the peevishness and infirmities of age any theme for the ridicule of the young. He had been often laughed at himself; that was perhaps the reason why he never gave the same pain to others.
I was really glad to escape back to my shed from the atmosphere of a peevish temper. I was accompanied to it by Oddity.
"And now, dear old rat," said I, when we were alone, "how go on our little ragged friends? What has become of Bob and Billy?"
"They still live, or rather starve, in the old shed," said he; "but now they go out each day together. I expect them here every minute."
"So then they are as poor as ever?" inquired I.
"I have heard something of occasional treats of warm soup at the school, but I don't think that they get anything certain. I suppose that now and then, when some good folk sit down to a comfortable meal, beside a roaring fire, they just happen to remember that seventy or eighty half-famished children are gathered together in a street near, and send them a welcome supply. But both Bob and Billy have hope now, if they have nothing else; they expect soon to be able to do something for themselves, and to be helped on by the kind friends whom they have found at the school."
"Has Bob brought home any more red handkerchiefs with white spots?" inquired I.
"Not a rag of one," answered my companion; "but he brings back something which puzzles my brain— something white, with black marks upon it. He and little Billy sit poring over it by the hour. They don't eat it, they don't smell it, they don't wear it: I can't make out that it is of any use to them at all; and yet they seem as much pleased, as they study it together, as if it were a piece of Dutch cheese!"
"What are these odd things scattered about the shed?" said I; "I don't remember seeing them before."
"Ah! I forgot to say the little one is beginning to make baskets, and neat fingers he has about it: it seems quite a pleasure to the child. The very talk of the boys is growing different now; the elder—"
He stopped at the sound of a distant cough, which became more distressing every minute, till our two poor boys entered the shed, and Bob sank wearily down on the floor.
"Oh! that cough, how it shakes you!" cried Billy.
"Never mind, 'twill be over soon," gasped his brother.
I was so much surprised at the change in the boys' appearance, that at first I could hardly believe my eyes. They both looked much whiter than I had seen them before; their hair was cut closer, and brushed to one side, instead of hanging right over their eyes. Neither of the brothers was in rags; the old worn clothes indeed were still there, but neatly patched and mended; some one had given Bob a pair of old shoes, but it was Billy who wore the warm cloak.
"His brother always makes him wear it," whispered Oddity, "except at night, and then it covers them both."
"Now you must have it, Bob; isn't it comfy?" said the lame child, pressing the cloak round his brother, whose violent cough for the moment prevented his reply, and brought a bright colour to his cheek, which I never had seen there before. "I'll creep very close to you, Bobby, and then we'll both have it, you know. There! are you better now?" he said, softly, laying his thin cheek against that of his brother.
"I don't think I'll ever get better here." The boy shivered and closed his eyes as he spoke.
"Oh, Bob! Bob!" cried the child, in accents of fear, "you're not a-going to be ill like mother; you're not a-going to— die, and leave me!"
There was something very gentle in the tone, and sweet in the uplift eye, of the poor destitute boy, as he replied, "I can't say if I'm a-going to die, Billy; but don't you mind what Miss Mary told us about dying? I used to be afeared when I thought on it, but now— I think I could die and be happy!"
"But you must not— you shall not go and leave me! Oh! what should I do without you?" cried Billy, bursting into tears.
A manly voice was heard on the outside, speaking to a porter who was passing at the moment.
"Can you tell me, pray, whether two boys of the name of Parton live near this place? From the direction which was given me, I think that we must be near their dwelling."
"Parton?— well," began the porter, in a doubtful voice; but little Billy was up in a moment: "Yes, here they are! here's where we live!" shouted he, and the next minute the shed was entered by the gentleman and his son whom I had seen at the Zoological Gardens.
The father almost started as he glanced round the miserable place, and the look of pity on his face deepened into one of pain, while Neddy appeared even more shocked. He had, I suspect, known little of poverty, but by hearsay; and the bare, terrible reality took him by surprise.
Bob had risen from the heap of dirty rubbish which served him for a bed. His thin cheek glowed with a bright flush of pleasure as he recognised his benefactor.
"Is it possible that you live here?— sleep here?" exclaimed the gentleman; "exposed in this wretched shed, without a fire, to all the severity of winter?"
Bob attempted to speak, but was stopped by his cough. Billy, who was at all times more talkative and ready to reply, answered, "Yes, we lives here, and sleeps here too, when the cold don't keep us awake!"
"And does no one ever come to visit you?"
"No one but the rats!" replied the child.
"The rats!" exclaimed Neddy, with a gesture of horror and disgust, which irritated my vanity not a little. Oddity had none, so he looked tranquil as usual.
"Oh, papa!" cried Neddy, "they must not stay here; this horrible hole is only fit for rats!"
His father was bending over Bob, feeling his wrist, asking him questions regarding his health, with a gentle kindness which goes farther to win confidence and affection than the cold bestowal of the greatest benefits.
"You are not well; you must be cared for, my boy. I think that I could manage to get you into an hospital; you would have every comfort there."
"Please, sir," began Bob, and stopped; he looked at his brother, and then raised his earnest eyes to the face of his new friend, and gathering courage from the kind glance which he met, faltered forth, "Please, sir, would they take Billy too?"
The gentleman shook his head.
"Then— please, sir, I'd a much rather stay here: we han't never been parted, Billy and me."
I saw Neddy eagerly draw his father aside, very near to my hiding-place behind the canvass, so that I could hear some of his words, though they were only spoken in a whisper.
"Could we not get a lodging?— see here!" He pulled something out of his pocket, and spoke still lower; but I caught a sentence here and there: "My Christmas-box, and what aunt gave me, would it be enough?" his voice was very earnest indeed.
I saw something which reminded me of sunshine steal over the father's face as he looked down on his blue-eyed boy. Then he replied in a quiet tone, "Yes, enough to provide one till warmer weather comes. I would myself see that food and needful comforts were not wanting."
"And, papa, I have an old suit of clothes; that poor boy is dying with cold;— just see, his jacket will hardly hold together. Might I give him my old suit, papa?"
I read assent in the gentleman's smile; then, turning to the poor motherless children, he told them that he could not leave them one night longer in that miserable place; that he would take them at once to the dwelling of an honest widow whom he knew, who would watch over the sick, and take care of the young, for she herself had once been a mother.
Poor Bob, weakened and exhausted by poor living, looked bewildered at the words, as though he scarcely understood them, but was ready, without question or hesitation, to go wherever his benefactor should guide him. One only doubt seemed to linger on his mind. "Shall I," said he, in a hesitating tone, "shall I still be able to go to my school?— 'cause I shouldn't like to be a-leaving it now!"
"Assuredly you shall attend it, my boy, as soon as your health will permit. I have no means of permanently assisting you; my stay in England is but short; I can only give you help for a time. But at the school you will learn to help yourself, and soon, I hope, be independent of any human aid. I should do you an injury, and not a kindness, were I to teach you to rest on others for those means of living which a brave and honest boy desires to earn for himself. Now let us go on to the comfortable lodging which I mentioned."
Billy uttered an exclamation of childish delight, as though the word had called up before his mind's eye a warm hearth, a blazing fire, and smoking viands on a table beside him.
They all now quitted the place, Neddy appearing if possible more happy than the delighted little child. But Billy was the last to leave the shed, in which he had passed so many days of suffering and want. He lingered for a moment at the door, and looked back with a pensive expression.
"You never wish to see that place again, I am sure?" cried Neddy.
"No, not the place; but— but I should ha' just liked a last peep of the pretty spotted rat who used to lead the old blind un by the stick!"
A NEW ROAD TO FAME.
It may have been but my fancy,— it probably was so,— but it seemed to me that Oddity felt a good deal the departure of his little human friend. I thought that he missed the lame child who had taken such pleasure in watching him, and who had found beauties even in his ungainly figure and piebald skin. It certainly was not that he needed the crumbs which the half-starved little Billy had stinted himself to throw to him; but I suppose that it is possible even for rats to grow attached to such as show them confidence and kindness. I often rallied poor Oddity upon his melancholy after the boys had been taken away. Bright-eyes told him that he ought to have been a cat, to sit purring on a mat before the fire, and lick the hand of some old maiden lady, who would feed him with porridge and milk. I said that he should be kept in a gentleman's house, with a bell round his neck, as rats sometimes are in Germany, to frighten their brethren away.
Oddity took all our taunts very quietly, nibbled his dinner in the warehouse, but spent most of his time in the shed; where, as he snuffed along the ground, and fumbled amongst the chipping and the straw, we used to say that he was searching for little lame Billy, whom he never would see any more.
Winter at length passed away. Down the roof of the shed, and through the hole in it, ran little streams of water from the melted snow. The west wind blew softly, bending the columns of smoke from the tall chimneys on shore, and the black funnels of the steamers that went snorting and puffing down the river.
On one of the first mild days we found poor old Furry dead in the warehouse. Life had long been a burden to him, which his unhappy temper rendered yet more galling.
I have heard that the rats of Newfoundland bury their comrades when they die, laying the bodies neatly one beside another, head and heels placed alternately together. I do not know whether this be true: it is not the custom of rats in England. We therefore left old Furry where he lay, close behind a barrel of salt meat, where he was discovered the next day by one of the men of the warehouse.
Now, if there be one thing which men usually think more worthless lumber than another, it is the body of a dead rat. Our skins are not in England collected and valued as they are in France; the only thought is usually how to get rid of the unpleasant presence of the dead creature. And yet, strange to say, the porter did not throw away the body of poor old Furry: he carried it off to his master. I was very curious indeed to know its fate; and, after many fruitless inquiries, at length I discovered it.
The tooth which had been Furry's torment in life, was destined to make him famous after death. Learned men— I know not how many— examined the head of the rat, looked, wondered, consulted together; and the end of the matter was, that it was placed as a great curiosity in some building which is called a museum. There, amidst fine vases and ancient weapons, old manuscripts and precious stones, and noble busts of the wise and great, is the head of poor old Furry preserved, with the mouth wide open, to display the extraordinary tooth! Fame is a strange thing, after all. I believe that our friend the rat was not the first, nor will be the last, to pay a heavy price for the bubble!
Early in spring, one sunny morn, I received a visit from my old comrade Whiskerandos. He was full of life and spirits.
"Ratto," cried he, "I have often heard you say that you and I should visit foreign countries together; we've a capital opportunity now. A vessel is to weigh anchor to-morrow. I have been talking to a ship-rat of my acquaintance, who intends to sail in her, as he has done so before. He says that she is a capital old vessel, full of first-rate accommodation for rats; that Captain Blake keeps a very good table; that there is never any scarcity of pickings; and, in short, I am off for St. Petersburg, and mean to embark to-night: just say that you will go with me."
"I'm your rat!" I exclaimed, highly delighted. "Would there be room for Oddity too?"
"I daresay that there is plenty of room; but— well, well, Oddity's an excellent old fellow in spite of his ugly skin; and I'll take care that nobody insults him."
Off I scampered to Oddity, half out of breath with excitement; and giving him the news which I had just received, I begged him to accompany Whiskerandos and myself on a pleasure excursion to Russia.
The piebald one bluntly declined.
"Now this is nonsense, Oddity," cried I; "you must not stay moping here any longer, pining after a child, and watching for his return, when he is never likely to come back."
"I know he will not come back!" sighed Oddity.
"Then why don't you come and shake off this silly gloom? To tell you the plain truth, Oddity, your mind really requires opening, and there is nothing like travelling for that. You are, I am afraid, not a well-informed quadruped. I insist upon your embarking with us to-night, and we'll make a rat of you, my good fellow!"
Oddity shook his head.
"What! you are resolved not to travel?"
"Not by water," was his short reply.
"He is going into the country with me," cried Bright-eyes, springing with a few light bounds to my side. "We're going to my birth-place, near the sea-side. We will feast amongst the young corn there; and when the pea-blossom has faded, and the ripe pods hang temptingly down, we'll climb up the stalks and shell them, and banquet on the sweet green seeds! We'll revel in the strawberry beds, and try which peach is the ripest! Oh! merry lives lead the rats in a kitchen-garden, beneath the bright sun of summer!"
"I've half a mind to go with you myself," said I, charmed with the rural description. But I remembered my engagement with Whiskerandos, and repressed the rising longing to feast upon English fruits, whose names sounded so tempting.
"Then farewell, Oddity," cried I; "I fear I shall never meet you again."
"I'll come back to the old shed in winter," said he.
"But I— ah! where shall I be then? How do I know, once crossing the sea, whether I shall ever be able to return?" I had not the faintest idea where Russia might be, or what sort of a place I should find it; whether its rats are black, brown, or white, fierce as the Hamster, or gentle as Zibethicus. A feeling of misgiving came suddenly over me; one fear above all others depressed my heart, and unconsciously I uttered it aloud: "I wonder whether in Russia rats find plenty to eat!"
The snub face of Oddity grew very grave at a question which he could not answer, and whose importance he felt. But light-hearted Bright-eyes quickly relieved our apprehensions.
"If we are to judge of what is in Russia by what comes from it," he cried, "I should say that you have little to fear. I examined the cargo of a Russian ship once, and never did I see a finer collection of everything that could charm a rat. I say nothing of the furs,— skins of all kinds of creatures, sables, black and white foxes, ermines, lynxes, hyaenas, bears, panthers, wolves, martens, white hares—"
"Stop, stop!" I exclaimed, "we do not want any furs beyond those with which nature has adorned us."
"There was copper, iron, talc, (a mineral resembling glass—)"
"We don't care about them; no rat ever lived upon minerals."
"Linen, flax, hemp, feathers—"
"If there is nothing more nutritious to be had in Russia, why I'd rather stay at home," cried I, with a little vexation.
"What do you say, then, to oil, both linseed and train-oil? to delicious honey, corn without end, soap, isinglass, and, to crown the whole, hogsheads upon hogsheads of— tallow!"
"Enough, enough!" I exclaimed with delight, "Russia is the country for me."
HOW I SET OUT ON MY VOYAGE.
When the passengers of the Nautilus went on board, the bright sun was glittering on the water, the whole river was full of life, covered with vessels of all kinds,— the light boat, the lugger, the steamer, with her gaily-coloured paddle-boxes and long dark stream of smoke; the heavy coal-barge, scarcely moving at all, sunk down almost to a level with the water: and there were sounds of all sorts, both from the vessels and the shore— puffing of steam, dipping of oars, creaking of rigging, ringing of bells, shouts and calls, and the sailors' musical "yo, heave, yo!"
But when we went on board a few hours before, all was comparatively quiet, though the great pulse of life in London never quite ceases to be heard, even in the middle of the night. When we crept down to the edge of the shore, the yellow lamps were gleaming around, and the quiet stars twinkling above, and the young moon was looking down at her own image dimly reflected in the river.
"Where is our vessel?" whispered I to Whiskerandos.
"Yonder; don't you see her black hull?"
"But how are we to get to her?" said I. nervously; "I have no great mind to swim."
"Do you mark that dark line that cuts the sky? That is the rope which fastens her to shore. We will make our way easily along that."
I had a tolerably intimate acquaintance with ropes, and the feat was not a difficult one for a rat; and yet— shall I confess it?— my heart quaked a little as I followed my leader across this trembling suspension bridge. I was, however, always unwilling to show fear in the presence of Whiskerandos, so I concealed even the relief which I felt when I reached the vessel without a ducking.
It was indeed a delightful home for rats, and many of my race had thought so, for the number of us on board certainly trebled that of the sailors. The majority of our brethren in the vessel were ship rats, whose appearance so much resembled my own that terms of friendship were at once established between us. The brown rats kept together in quite a separate part of the ship,— a wise precaution to avoid the quarrels and fights which must otherwise have constantly ensued. I consequently saw less of Whiskerandos during the voyage than I otherwise should have done.
I managed to establish myself, audacious rat that I was, in Captain Blake's own cabin. I knew that it was a spot of danger,— that much skill and caution would be required to avoid detection; but I employed myself industriously in enlarging a small hole, till I had secured for myself a passage for escape in case I should be discovered, and also the means of free communication with the other parts of the ship.
I need not describe the cabin more than by saying that it appeared to be a very snug little place. It held both a swinging-cot and a hammock; and I examined with great curiosity these and other articles of furniture, as this was the first opportunity which I had had of observing how man makes himself comfortable. Assuredly his wants are not so few nor his requirements so simple as ours.
Early in the day the captain came on board with his son, and after he had given sundry orders on deck, they both descended to the cabin. Imagine my surprise when, on their entrance, I recognised my old acquaintance of the Zoological Gardens, the blue-eyed boy and his father! I instinctively looked, though in vain, to see if they were followed by Billy and Bob.
Soon afterwards the anchor was weighed, and the vessel began to move. It was to me a strange and new sensation. I had never before experienced any motion but that of my own little feet.
Towards evening the motion grew stronger. The vessel heaved up and down, rocked to and fro; the creaking sounds above grew louder, and were mingled with a constant splashing noise. Neddy, who had been very merry and active all day, now on deck, now in the cabin, asking questions, and examining everything upon which he could lay his hands, appeared now quite heavy and dull. He complained of headache, and lay down in his hammock. I thought that the boy was ill. However, he was lively as ever in the morning.
Our sea life was rather a same one, after the first excitement of starting was over. Neddy spent some hours every day in the cabin, poring over things which I found were called books. I could not at first comprehend why, when his eyes were fixed on the pages which to me seemed exactly alike, he should sometimes look grave, sometimes merry, and sometimes laugh outright, as though some one were talking with him out of the book. When, however, his father read aloud to the boy, or he read aloud to his father, I could imagine why they were amused, though I never could find out by what means the book could make itself heard. I have often snuffed round the volumes, and even touched them with my whiskers, but they seemed to me dead as clay. It must be some wonderful talent, possessed only by man, which enables him to hear any voice from them.
There was one large volume in particular, which Captain Blake called "Shakespeare," from which he sometimes read extracts to his son. I heard him say once that this very Shakespeare had been dead for more than two hundred years. Is it not marvellous that his thoughts, preserved in leaves of paper in some manner inexplicable to a rat, should survive himself so long,— that he should make others both laugh and weep when he himself laughs and weeps no more?
As may be supposed, I took no great interest in the reading until my ear was caught one evening by an allusion to my own race in Shakespeare, "Rats, and mice, and such small deer." We had then a place in the wondrous volume; this made me all attention, and more than once that attention was rewarded by hearing of the race of Mus. One mention both surprised and puzzled me. The rhyme still rests on my memory:
"But in a sieve I'll thither sail, And like a rat without a tail, I'll do— I'll do— I'll do!"
The do, of course, represents nibble, nibble, nibble; but the rat without a tail is of some species of which I had never before heard, and have certainly never met with.
When Neddy read to his father, it was from a different book; he called it "History of the French Revolution." It might have been a history of my race, for it seemed to be all about rats: democ-rats and aristoc-rats; "doubtless," thought I, "tribes peculiar to France." Most savage fellows the first seemed to have been— to our race what tigers are to cats, still more powerful, bloody, and destructive. I, like others who jump at conclusions, and do not understand half of what they hear, had made a ridiculous mistake. My vanity had led me to over-estimate the importance of my family; but a conversation between Neddy and his father undeceived me, and made me a sadder and a wiser rat.
Neddy.— "Well, papa, I fancy that we shall have a great deal to see at St. Petersburg— palaces, churches, gardens, all sorts of sights! But what I most want to see is the czar himself, the great autoc-rat of all the Russias."
I gave such a start at this, that I dreaded for a moment that I had betrayed my hiding-place. Here was another rat, and one so singular and so great, that he was thought more worthy to be seen than all St. Petersburg besides! I really felt my whole frame swelling with pride; every hair in my whiskers quivered!
"Is he really so powerful, papa, as people say that he is?"
"Very powerful indeed, my boy."
"And he's despotic, is he not? He has no Parliament?"
"No Parliament!" I repeated to myself; "well, that's no great matter in a country so abounding with other good things! But what a rat of rats this must be, to be so spoken of and thought of by the lords of creation!"
"It must be a fine thing to be an autoc-rat, papa, and have no law but one's own will!"
"It is a giddy elevation, Neddy, which no truly wise man, conscious of human infirmity, would ever covet to attain."
"Wise man! human infirmity!" exclaimed I. These few words, like a touch to a bubble, had burst my high-blown ideas of family dignity. It was a man, then, one of human race, who chose to add rat to his name; and these democ-rats and aristoc-rats in France— why, they must be men too, nothing but men, after all!
A TERRIBLE WORD.
When I met my old friend Whiskerandos, it was usually at night, as moving about by day was dangerous; for who ever showed mercy to a rat, or even thought of inquiring whether he possessed qualities which might render him deserving of it?
"How do you like your quarters?" said Whiskerandos to me one starry night, when all was still upon deck, and, save one sailor on the watch, all of humankind were sleeping.
"They please me well enough," I replied.
"For my part," said Whiskerandos, "I shall be heartily glad when our voyage is over; and I am half vexed that I ever led you to make it."
"Why so? We do not fare ill; we have plenty to eat." As I have mentioned before, this is ever the first consideration with a rat.
"The sailors don't starve," said Whiskerandos more slowly; "yet they think of adding another dish to their mess."
"Glad to hear it," said I; "you know that I am curious about dishes, and should like to have my whiskers in a new one."
"Oh! but they won't be contented with your whiskers!" cried my friend, with a funny, forced laugh.
"What do you mean?" said I quickly.
"Well, I heard Jack and Tom, two of the sailors, talking together to-day down in the hold; and there was one word of their conversation which, I own, struck me like the paw of a cat. That word was—"
"What was it?" cried I nervously; for if a hero like Whiskerandos felt anything approaching to fear, I might be expected to be half-dead with fright.
He drooped his head for a moment, and uttered one word— "rat-pies!"
I started as though I had seen a tabby pounce down from the rigging!
"'Tis impossible!" I faintly exclaimed; "human beings never, never eat rats!"
"Oh! I beg your pardon!" replied Whiskerandos, regaining his usual brisk manner; "don't you remember old Furry telling us that his reason for quitting China was, that he was afraid of being dished up for the dinner of some mighty mandarin, whose hair hung in a long tail behind him? Amongst the lowest classes in France, and the gypsies in England, we poor rats are known as an article of food; and I have heard that in the islands of the South Seas we were held in so much esteem, that 'sweet as a rat' passed as a proverb."
"I don't like such compliments!" exclaimed I, beginning to tremble all over.
"Come, Ratto, you must pluck up a little courage, and show yourself worthy of the race of Mus! There is never any use in meeting misfortune half way. To be caught, killed, and put into a pie, is, I grant it, a serious evil; to be always afraid of being so is another. The first we may or we may not escape; but the second— which is perhaps the worse of the two— lies in some degree within the power of our own will. We need not make ourselves wretched before the time, about some event which never may happen."
Good philosophy this, I believe, but not a little difficult to act upon. When I have seen the younger members of that race which proudly styles itself "lords of creation," trembling, shrinking, nay— I shame to say it— even crying, at fear of some possible evil, a little disappointment perhaps, or a little pain, I have thought of Whiskerandos and the pies, and fancied that reasoning mortals might learn something even from a rat.