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“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.
By the second half of the 19th century, an author could no longer hide behind the generic “A Lady”. Instead, Charlotte Maria Tucker (1821–1893) went with “A.L.O.E.” for “A Lady of England”. The Rambles of a Rat from 1857 was one of her earliest books for children.
Although the narrator is a rat, the story has much more to do with human morality, with the main messages being “Be kind to the poor” and “Russians are human”. (Even without that 1857 date, internal evidence says pretty clearly that the book must have been written around the time of the Crimean war.) It is no surprise that the author later shifted toward religious writing; from 1875 to the end of her life she was a missionary in India.
There aren’t many of them: just the frontispiece and title page, along with assorted decorative vignettes. And it can’t be denied that the pictured “rats” look an awful lot like ferrets. So it may be just as well that the illustrator isn’t named, and I couldn’t find a signature or monogram.
If it’s any consolation, the engraver’s name, “M. Jackson”, is clearly visible on the title page. That might or might not be painter-engraver-journalist Mason Jackson (1819–1903).
As the author’s Preface says, the book is much more realistic than you might think. Well, allowing for the fact that rats can’t talk. As she tells it, all her accounts of rat behavior are based on fact—except for the shipwreck chapter, which she admits she made up—giving us some lovely examples of ratty altruism. And she knows that rats can swim! On the other hand, she doesn’t seem to have noticed that rats come in two sexes; from beginning to end of the book, you will never meet or even hear mention of a female rat.
While most of the characters have prosaic names—Ratto the narrator, Shabby, Oddity, Furry, Bright-eyes—there are some splendid exceptions, notably Whiskerandos the Norway rat, and Dwishtswatshiksky (Wisky for short), a Russian rat.
In the 1850s, rats were still known as Mus rattus (black rat) and Mus norvegicus (brown rat). Although genus Rattus was proposed way back in 1803, it didn’t become standardized until the 20th century. In Chapter VII we meet some of the narrator’s relatives:
This ebook is based on the 1864 T. Nelson edition.
Typographical errors are shown in the text with and are listed again at the end of each chapter. The word “invisible” means that the letter or punctuation mark is absent, but there is an appropriately sized empty space. The inconsistent handling of nested quotes, with either single ‘ ’ or double “ ” quotation marks for the inner quote, is unchanged. Where two closing quotation marks might be expected, only one was printed.
RAMBLES OF A RAT.
A. L. O. E.
T. NELSON AND SONS, LONDON, EDINBURGH, AND NEW YORK.
A. L. O. E.,
Author of “The Giant-killer,” “Pride and his Prisoners,”
T. NELSON AND SONS, PATERNOSTER ROW;
EDINBURGH; AND NEW YORK.
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 vi 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.
an interesting article on the subject which appeared in the “Quarterly Review.”
[The untitled and anonymous article appeared in Quarterly Review Vol. 101 no. 201 (January 1857), pages 123-141, citing three books published between 1836 and 1854. If Rambles was first published in 1857, our author must have grabbed for her pen the moment she finished reading.]
|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|
|VIII.||How I heard of Old Neighbours||51|
|IX.||How we found a Feast||59|
|X.||The want of a Dentist||67|
|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|
|viii 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|
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 10 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, 11 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 12 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 14 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!”
somewhere in the neighbourhood of Poplar, and close to the River Thames
[If this sounds familiar, it may be because Poplar, in the East End, is the setting of the series Call the Midwife—where, come to think of it, the occasional rat does make an appearance. But not as an object of sympathy.]
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 16 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 17 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 18 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 19 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!”20
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 21 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 22 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 23 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.”24
“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.”25
“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!”26
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 27 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 28 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 29 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 30 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.31
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 32 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 Thermopylæ.”
“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.”33
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.34
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!” 35 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 —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!” 36 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 37 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.
“No; he spoke to me; he spoke so kind-like. He told me that I was about a sin—a great sin.
[It may be what the author intended, or there may be missing words such as “about to commit a great sin”.]
right into a Ragged School
[Compulsory education in Britain did not become law until 1880, and even then it was only spottily enforced. In the meantime there were Ragged Schools.]
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 39 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 40 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 41 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?”42
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.
* I am not aware whether the Zoological Gardens at present contain specimens of the curious rats described in the following chapter.
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 43 with eagerness to a small barred division, from whence a feeble squeak proceeded.
“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 44 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 45 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.46
“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. 47 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 48 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 Linnæus 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 49 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.”50
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!51
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, 52 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; 53 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. 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 54 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 55 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 56 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 57 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!”
* The Reformatory in Great Smith Street,
“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.58
“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
“It would be more practicable for you,” observed the gentleman, smiling as he rose from his seat, “to support those which are built already.”*
* 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.
“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 59 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!”
“I looked at his meagre form clothed in rags
open quote missing
[Footnote] The Reformatory in Great Smith Street, Westminster.
final . missing or invisible
How I should like to build one myself!”
close quote missing
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 60 had no fancy. We set out on our journey homewards.
We again chose the underland route, lest we should meet with dogs and cats in 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!”61
“Well, my friends,” replied Whiskerandos, “notwithstanding the darkness I have no doubt but that your bright eyes have 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. 62 “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.63
“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, 64 “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 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 65 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 66 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 67 stories of midnight alarms the valiant husband and his devoted spouse would amuse their family in the morning.
Pages 60-61 must have been stuck together at some point, resulting in some damage along the top:
The reconstructions are all pretty safe:
We therefore set out
dogs and cats in the streets
my good friends
notwithstanding the darkness
observed that I have
This time he did not even attempt to nibble at the hard polished crockery,
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. 68 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 69 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 70 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 71 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 72 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.73
“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!”74
“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, 75 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 76 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.77
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 78 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.79
“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!”
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 80 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 81 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 82 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?”83
“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?”84
“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 85 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, hyænas, 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—)”86
“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.”
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 87 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 88 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 89 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. 90 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 91 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:92
“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 93 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 94 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 different book; he called it “History of the French Revolution”
[An episode in Alcott’s Eight Cousins involves “a fat volume entitled ’History of the French Revolution’”. Looking it up, I found Carlyle’s 1837 work with that title, in not just one fat volume but three.]
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.”95
“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!96
“’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 97 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.
I was so terribly afraid of being caught by the sailors, that I confined myself more than usual to the cabin, keeping close to the hole that I had made, that I might always be ready for a start should the blue eyes ever happen to rest upon me; but those books, those famous books, happily gave them other occupation.
“Papa,” said Neddy to his father one day, “I should rather have gone to some other place than St. Petersburg, I feel such a dislike to the Russians.”
“Why should you dislike them,” said the captain.
“Oh! because they were our enemies so 98 long, and killed so many of our fine fellows!”
“They were but obeying the orders of their czar—doing what they believed to be their duty.”
“But they were horribly cruel, papa.”
“It would both be ungenerous and unjust to charge upon a whole nation the crimes of a few individuals. It is singular that one of the most striking examples of mercy to a foe of which I have ever heard, was shown by a Russian. The story is given as a fact, and I have pleasure in relating it, not only from its own touching interest, but from the hope that it may teach my son what our conduct should be towards those who, though our foes, are our fellow-creatures still.
“In the time of the first Napoleon, the French invaded Russia, from whence they were obliged to retreat, suffering the most fearful hardships, not only from the usual privations of war, but those caused by famine and the fearful cold of that northern clime. Thousands and thousands of brave troops perished in this fatal retreat. The splendid army which had marched into Russia so numerous and strong, melted away 99 like a snow-ball! The fierce Cossacks hovered around the lessening bands, cutting off the weary stragglers who, unable to keep up with the rest, sank down upon the snow to die!
“At this fearful time two poor French officers, separated from their comrades, helpless and exhausted, sought refuge at the house of a lady, beseeching her to preserve them from the terrible death with which they were threatened, either from cold and hunger, or the swords of their enemies. The lady was a Russian,—the officers were her foes,—she had probably suffered from the devastating march of the French army,—but she had the heart of a woman. She dared not conceal the officers in her own house for fear of her servants and the rage of her countrymen, who would probably have not only slain the fugitives, but have wreaked their vengeance also upon her for seeking to protect their enemies. The Russian lady hid them in a wood, at some little distance from her dwelling, and thither every night, braving both the danger of discovery and the peril of being attacked by wolves, did this noble-hearted woman go alone, to bear food and necessaries to the suffering Frenchmen.”100
“Oh! papa, just fancy hurrying along the snow, with the sharp winter’s wind cutting like a knife,—and then perhaps to hear a distant howl, showing that a wolf was on one’s track! Oh! I should not have fancied those night expeditions!”
“It would have been noble,” resumed the captain, “to have ventured thus for a friend,—the Russian lady did so for her enemies.”
“And were the French officers saved at last?”
“Yes; by freely giving her money as she had freely risked her safety, after a while the lady contrived the escape of the fugitives beyond the frontier. When a considerable time had elapsed, a present of a piece of plate, which she received from France, showed that the officers were not ungrateful to their preserver.”
“She was a generous enemy, papa, and a noble woman. But are not the common people in Russia very ignorant and bad?”
“Very ignorant I believe they are, but it would be harsh and wrong to call them very bad. They are cheerful and good-tempered, and even when intoxicated they do not show 101 the ferocity which disgraces a drunkard in England.”
“But are they not dreadful thieves?”
“They are said to be very skilful in cheating, and singularly dexterous in picking pockets. But here again it would be unjust to brand a whole nation with a disgraceful stigma.* I have another true story for you, Neddy, and this time it shall be of a poor Russian, a messenger, or as they call him, an Isdavoi.
* The materials for my little sketch of Russian manners, &c., have been chiefly drawn from the translation of a work by the German traveller Kohl.
“An English lady living at St. Petersburg gave five hundred rubles* in charge to an Isdavoi to deliver to her daughter, who dwelt at some distance. On the following day the Russian returned, kissed the lady’s hand after the fashion of his country, and said, ‘Pardon me, I am guilty. I cannot tell how it has happened, but I have lost your money, and cannot find it again. Deal with me as you please.’”
* A Russian piece of money.
“The poor fellow,” continued the captain, “probably expected a severe flogging, or dismissal from his office, but the lady had no 102 inclination to punish him with such rigour. Unwilling to ruin the Isdavoi, she made no mention of his offence, considered the money as gone for ever, and after a while lost sight of the messenger entirely. After six years had elapsed he came to her one day with a joyful face, laden with six hundred rubles, which he brought in the place of those which had been intrusted to his care. On inquiry it was found that this honest Russian had for those six years been denying himself every little pleasure, and by resolute economy had saved up his wages until he had collected about half of the sum required. He had then married a wife whose feelings of honour appeared to have been as delicate as his own, for not only her dower of one hundred rubles was added to his hard-earned savings, but her little valuables had been sold to make up the full amount of the money that had been lost!”
“Oh, papa! what honest people! But did the English woman take all their money!”
“No entreaties on her part could induce the poor Isdavoi to take back the rubles to save up which had been for so long the object of his life. The lady, however, generously 103 placed the money in a public bank to accumulate for the benefit of his children.”
“Bravo!” exclaimed Neddy, clapping his hands; “that was just how a lady should behave; and as for the poor Isda—what do you call him?—he was a fine fellow, and quite worthy to have been an Englishman!”
[Footnote] The materials for my little sketch of Russian manners, &c., have been chiefly drawn from the translation of a work by the German traveller Kohl.
[You interest me strangely. The work is probably Russia and the Russians, in 1842 by Johann Georg Kohl.]
“Cronstadt! Cronstadt!” I heard the shout from the deck one evening when the sun was going down, and his red disk seemed resting on the heaving waters, while to the east the strong fortifications stood clearly defined against the sky, bathed in his glowing light. Being quite alone in the cabin, for every human being was on deck, I was taking my survey of the place from the open port-hole before me.
It was a very gay scene upon which I looked. Not even on the Thames, our own river, have I seen a greater variety of craft. Steam-boats, and sailing-boats, schooners, cutters, brigs and gondolas,—paddled along 104 the water, or spread snowy wings to the breeze. I gazed upon them, and upon the formidable batteries, bristling with guns, which defend the “water-gate of St. Petersburg” as Cronstadt has been called, till the shadows of night fell around, and I could without risk of observation, join Whiskerandos in the hold.
He was in company with another rat, of rather a foreign appearance.
“My friend Dwishtswatshiksky here,” said he, “tells me that we shall soon arrive at the capital of Russia.”
“I am very glad to hear it!” cried I; “I long to be again on shore. If we had any means of landing here, I should not care if I stopped short of St. Petersburg.” I had not forgotten the pies.
“You would doubtless, little brother, from natural association, like to visit Rat Island,” said the stranger with the unpronounceable name.
“Rat Island!” exclaimed Whiskerandos and I at the same moment.
“That fortified island opposite to Cronstadt, lying across the bay upon which the place stands, and giving to its waters the appearance 105 of a lake, was called Ratusare, or Rat’s Island in the days of old.”
“Not the only Rat’s Island in the world,” observed Whiskerandos; “we have one off the coast of Devon.”
“And doubtless it still bears that name,” said the Russian rat, with a graceful wave of his whiskers. “But things, alas! were altered here when the warriors of Peter the Great drove the Swedes from this island in 1703. The vanquished left behind them nothing but a great kettle, which in default of other trophy the Russians reared in triumph on a pole; so the name of the place has been changed since that time, and Rat Island is called Kettle Island.”
“It is fortunate for us, sir rat,” said I, (I did not venture to attempt to call him by his name,) “it is fortunate for us that before landing in a strange country, we have met with a friend so intelligent and well-informed as you appear to be.”
He made me so many polite assurances of the gratification which he felt in making my acquaintance, the pleasure which it would give him to conduct us to the house in which he usually quartered in the city, and the pride 106 which he would feel in showing us everything which he could hope would interest us, that we blunt English rats felt almost abashed at his excessive courtesy. He only followed the manners of his country, where the poorest labourer is quite overwhelming in his politeness.
Dwishtswatshiksky (we soon shortened his name to Wisky) was as good as his word. We kept close while the passengers landed at a magnificent quay at St. Petersburg; while the rapid tread of feet, loud voices, shouts and hurried movements, were heard above, not a rat ventured forth from his hiding-place. Alas! with every precaution, when we mustered before landing, our numbers were sadly diminished, though of rat pies we had heard no more. In darkness we a second time made a suspension bridge of the rope which bound the vessel to the shore, and with delight I found myself again upon land, a free denizen of earth, no longer cooped up in the narrow, dangerous prison of a vessel.
Wisky led the way, closely followed by Whiskerandos. They moved on so fast that I was in danger of losing sight of my guides, so apt 107 was I to linger on my way to look at the wonders around me. It is a beautiful city, St. Petersburg; at least so it seemed to me in the moonlight. With its streets of palaces, its lively green roofs, sky-blue cupolas dotted with stars, gilt spires, columns, statues, and obelisks, it is a place not soon to be forgotten. If I might venture to suggest a fault, it is that all looks too perfectly new. Antiquity gives added interest to beauty,—at least such is the opinion of a rat. That which looks as if it had risen but yesterday, appears as though it might fall to-morrow.
“Would you believe it,” said Wisky, “a great part of this splendid city is built upon piles! The foundation alone of yonder great church cost a million of rubles! There is a constant fight going on here between water and the efforts of man. To look at the fine buildings around us, you would say that man had secured the victory. He has thrown over the river a variety of bridges, stone, suspension, and pontoon, that can be taken to pieces at pleasure, to connect the numerous islands together, and has raised the most stately edifices on a trembling bog! But the water is not 108 conquered after all! I have known houses burst asunder from the foundations giving way. I have seen a palace separated from the very steps that led up to its door. And in spring, when the snow melts which has been collecting for months, the horses can scarcely flounder along through the rivers of mud in the streets!”
“Does the water ever rise very high?” inquired Whiskerandos. This was no idle question on his part; he made it as a practical rat, who knew what it was to live in a cellar, and had no desire to be drowned.
“Ah, my dear brother!” replied the Russian rat, “many stories are still told of the fearful inundation which happened in 1824. Impelled by a furious west wind, the waters then rose to a fearful height, streamed through the streets, floated the carriages, made boats of the carts, nay, lifted some wooden houses right from the ground, and sent them floating about, with all their inhabitants in them, like so many men-of-war! Horses were drowned, and so, alas! were rats in terrible numbers. The trees in the squares were crowded with men, clinging to them like bees when they cluster! 109 It is said that thousands of poor human beings perished, and that the inundation cost the city more than a hundred millions of rubles!”
“Well, St. Petersburg is a splendid place!” cried I; “but after all, the merry banks of the Thames, and dear dingy old London for me!”
Under the guidance of Wisky we took up our abode in a Russian house. House did I call it!—if ever there was a palace this was one. We established ourselves in the kitchen; a warm, comfortable place we found it, where we had much opportunity for observation, both of the denizens of the place and their various occupations.
“It seems to me, Wisky,” said I, on the night following that of our arrival, “that there is no end to the number of servants that pass in and out of this dwelling! Who is that fellow in the blue cloth caftan, fastened under his left arm with three silver buttons, and girded round the waist with a coloured silk 110 scarf? His fine bushy beard seems to match the fur with which his high four-cornered cap is trimmed.”
“That is the Tartar coachman,” replied Wisky; “a dashing fellow is he, and a bold driver through the crowded streets of the city. The pretty youths yonder are the postilions. Young and small they must be, to suit the taste of a Russian noble. The worse for them, poor boys, as they are less able to endure the bitter cold of a winter’s night, when, if they drop asleep on their horses, they are never likely to awake any more!”
“And are their masters actually cruel enough,” I exclaimed, “to expose them to such suffering and risk?”
“My much esteemed brother,” replied the Russian rat, “doubtless your clear mind has already come to the conclusion that selfishness is inherent in the human race. A young noble is at a ball; must he quit its bright enchantments, and the society of the fair whom he admires, because a bearded coachman is freezing without? A beauteous lady, wrapped in ermine and velvet, is weeping in the theatre over the woes of some imaginary heroine; would you 111 have her dry her tearful eyes, and leave the scene of touching interest and elegant excitement, because icicles are hanging from the locks of her little postilion, and his head is gradually sinking on his breast, as the fatal sleep steals over him? Selfish!—yes, all human beings are selfish!”
“There are exceptions to that rule,” thought I, for I remembered the stories which I had heard in the cabin; and I also recollected the conduct of their narrator, Captain Blake, towards the starving little thief in London.
“I have been trying,” said Whiskerandos, “to count the servants in this house; but no sooner do I think that my task is done, than in comes some new one, speaking some different language, wearing some different costume, and puts all my calculations to fault.”
“It would puzzle even one possessing the talents of my brother to count the number of the servants here,” replied Wisky. “Why, even I, who, before my visit to England, spent months amongst the household, can scarcely number them now. To begin with the inmates of a higher rank, who never appear in the kitchen, there are the French governess and 112 the German tutor, to polish up the minds of the children, and the family physician to look after their health. Then there are the superintendent of accounts, the secretary, the dworezki—he who has charge of the whole establishment, the valets of the lord, the valets of the lady, the overseer of the children, the footmen, the buffetshik or butler, the table-decker, the head groom, the coachman and postilions of the lord, the coachman and postilions of the lady,—”
“What!” cried Whiskerandos, “are their carriages so small that they will not hold two, or are the grandees afraid of quarrelling, that husband and wife cannot travel together!”
“Surely, Sir Wisky,” exclaimed I, “you must have come to the end of your list!”
“Pardon me, little brother, not yet. There are the attendants on the boys and on the tutor, the porter, the head cook and the under cook, the baker, brewer, the waiting-maids and wardrobe-keeper of the lady, the waiting-maid who attends the French governess, the nurses that take care of the children, and the nurses that once took care of the children, the 113 kapell-meister or head musician, and all the men of his band!”
“Well!” cried I, much amused, “at any rate a Russian noble must be well served. If he calls for his shoes, I suppose that half-a-dozen servants start off in a race to fetch them, and knock their heads together in their eagerness to get them!”
A valet at this moment entered the kitchen, where, secure in our hiding-place, we were watching all that passed.
“Where’s Ivan?” said he, “where’s Ivan?” The coachman, who was playing at draughts with the head groom, looked up for an instant, then silently made his move.
“My lady’s a-fainting, and my lord’s calling for water! Where’s Ivan, I say? ’tis his business to fetch it.”
“There’s Ivan,” said the cook, pointing contemptuously to a sandy-haired figure fast asleep under the table.
“Get up, ye lazy fellow!” exclaimed the valet; “my lady’s fainting, my lord’s calling for water; take a glass of it on a silver salver directly.”
Ivan got up slowly, yawned, stretched himself, 114 rubbed his eyes; then, taking a tumbler off the dresser, he leisurely filled it with water.
“And where am I to get the silver salver?” said he.
“That’s in keeping of Matwei the buffetshik,” observed the table-decker.
“And where is Matwei to be found?”
“Here you, Vatka,” pursued the valet, turning to another attendant, who was busy over his basin of kwas, “go you to Matwei and tell him that we want a silver salver on which to carry a tumbler, for my lady’s fainting up stairs, and my lord is calling for water.”
A loud ring from above was heard, as if to enforce the order. “Sei tshas! sei tshas!—directly, directly!” called out Vatka; but he nevertheless finished his kwas, and wiped his mouth before he went to Matwei the butler to procure the silver salver on which Ivan the footman would carry the tumbler of water which Paul the valet had been ordered to bring.
Before all was ready another messenger came to tell Ilia the bearded coachman to put to the horses, for the lady was ready for her drive. It was evident that she had managed to recover from her fainting fit without the aid 115 of the glass of water,—a happy thing for one who had the misfortune to keep fifty or sixty servants.
Wisky laughed at my look of surprise. “I believe that one pair of hands,” said he, “often serve better than a dozen. The Russian proverb says that ‘directly’ means to-morrow morning, and ‘this minute’ this day week.”
With quiet night came our and when the kitchen was deserted by the crowds of servants, Whiskerandos, Wisky, and I, crept softly out of our hole, provided with pretty sharp appetites for our meal.
“I am curious to taste that liquor which you call kwas,” said I; “Vatka seemed to relish it exceedingly.”
“Relish it, brother! I should think so!” exclaimed Wisky. “Kwas is to a Russian what water is to a fish; rich or poor could hardly bear existence without it.”
“Not bad at all,” said I, dipping my whiskers carefully into a bowl that had been set aside by the cook.
“Mind you don’t tumble in, old fellow!” cried Whiskerandos, “and be drowned in kwas 116 as I have heard that a duke once was drowned in wine.”
“And what may this kwas be made of?” inquired I, after another approving sip.
“I ought to know, little brother,” replied Wisky, “for many and many a time have I seen it brewed. A pailful of water is poured into an earthen jar, into which are shaken two pounds of barley-meal, half a pound of salt, and a pound and a half of honey. The whole is then placed in an oven with a moderate fire, and constantly stirred. It is left for a time to settle, and in the morning the clear liquor is poured off. In a week it is in the highest perfection.”
“I wonder that kwas is not made in England,” observed I; “but honey is not so plentiful there.”
“Sugar would make a good substitute, I should think,” said Wisky; “the beverage would not then be an expensive one. But here is our beloved Whiskerandos busy with his shtshee, the dish of all dishes in this country, that which nothing, I believe, could ever drive from the table or the heart of a Russian. When in a foreign land, it is said, it 117 is not the remembrance of native hills or plains, or the tender delights of home, that draws tears into an exile’s eyes, but the loss of his beloved shtshee, the favourite dish of his childhood.”
“Leave a little for me!” I cried eagerly to Whiskerandos, who had nearly finished, by dint of steady perseverance, a portion which had been left in a plate. “Why,” I added, as I tasted the liquid, “this seems to me simply cabbage soup!”
“Whatever my brother may think of it,” observed Wisky, dipping his whiskers into the nearly empty plate, “he is now tasting that which forms the principal article of food of forty millions of human beings! Better live without bread than without shtshee.”
“And the ingredients?” said I, for I always delighted to pick up any scrap of information interesting to a rat.
“There are almost as many ways of making shtshee as of cooking potatoes. I have seen six or seven cabbages chopped up small, half a pound of butter, a handful of salt, and two pounds of minced mutton added, the whole mixed up with a can or two of kwas. But it is now time, brothers, for us to sally forth. 118 I must do the honours of this our city, and show my illustrious guests whatever I may deem worthy of their observation.”
With quiet night came our feasting-time,
“What a nation of painters Russia must be!” exclaimed I, as we quietly moved through the silent streets. Every shop had a picture before it, expressive of the occupation of its owner. Here was a tempting board covered with representations of every loaf and roll that a painter’s fancy could devise; there a tallow-chandler did his best to make candles appear picturesque. Even from the second and third floors hung portraits of fiddles, and flutes, boots, shoes, caps, bonnets, and bears’ grease, and on one board a sad likeness of a rat in a trap made us quicken our steps as we passed it.
We moved through a deserted market. Here whole lanes are devoted to the sale of a single kind of article. There is the stocking row, the shoe row, the hat row, at which it appeared 119 that a whole nation might have provided covering for head and for feet.
“I wish, dear brother,” said Wisky, “that your visit had been in the season of winter. I could then have led you to a market which strangers must indeed have surveyed with surprise. You would then have seen beasts, fishes, and fowls, all frozen so hard that the hatchet is required to divide them. You would have passed through rows of dead sheep standing upon their feet, motionless oxen that seemed ready to low, whole flocks of white hares appearing actually in motion, reindeer and elks on whose mighty horns the pigeons fearlessly perch!”
“The cold must then be fearful in winter,” said I.
“Oh! the houses are kept so warm with stoves that there but little suffering is known. But woe to the men who loiter in the streets when they are paved with ice and glistening with snow! The passengers run for their lives, with the sharp wind rushing after them, as a cat after a mouse! Men cover even their faces with fur; but should an unlucky nose peep out from the warm shelter, the bitter 120 frost often bites it on a sudden. “Father—father! thy nose!” thus will one stranger salute another as he passes; and if not speedily rubbed with snow, the nose of the poor passenger is lost! Men’s very eyes are sometimes frozen up, and they have no resource but to beg admission at the first door to which they can grope, to unthaw their glued lashes at a stove!”
“All this is very curious,” observed I, “but still I have little desire to witness it. The long winter must be dreary indeed!”
“The Russians are lively fellows,” observed Wisky, “and instead of grumbling at dark skies and piercing blasts, they make merry where others would murmur. When winter must perforce be their companion, they oblige the grim old giant to add to their amusements. You should see the gay sledges as they dash at full speed over the frozen surface of the River Neva! and the ice-mountains which the people raise, and down which they glide swift as lightning, laughing, shouting, and singing! I have seen snow piled up to the very roof of a house; and down its steep slope, merely seated on a mat, a large merry party glide 121 gaily to the ground. But,” he cried, suddenly interrupting himself, “have a care where you tread, my brother, or you will be down into that ice-pit! Never was there such a place as St. Petersburg for these,—no large house is deemed complete without one. If Russians cannot be without abundance of ice in winter, they show that they will not be without it during their brief hot summer,—the quantities consumed could scarcely be believed!”
Whiskerandos, who had been lingering behind us, in a tempting quarter of the market, now scampered up and joined us. We were passing at the time a large building, and I could not avoid looking up in wonder at its strange columns. Of these there were no fewer than a hundred, and the capital of each was formed by three cannon, with their round open mouths yawning down into the street.
“This,” said our guide, following the direction of my eyes, “is the Spass Preobrashenskoi Sabor; a church greatly adorned with the spoils of nations vanquished by Russia.”
“Well,” said Whiskerandos, who in the course of his adventurous life had both seen cannon and learnt their “perhaps those 122 big instruments of war are just as well up there, where they are seen, and not heard or felt. Man is the only creature, I fancy, who, not content with what powers of destruction nature has given him, cuts down trees from the forest, digs iron from the mine, sets the furnace glowing, and the engine working, to fashion means of killing his brothers in a wholesale manner.”
“Yonder,” said Wisky, pointing with his nose, “are the father of the Russian fleet and the grandmother of the houses of St. Petersburg.”
“Let’s see them by all means!” I exclaimed; “I have viewed plenty of Russian ships and Russian houses, and I have a lively curiosity to see the father and the grandmother of so famous a family!”
Wisky rapidly led the way to a hut, into which with little difficulty we entered, for locks and bars do not keep out rats, nor surly porters refuse them admission.
“Is this the father of the Russian fleet!” exclaimed Whiskerandos rather contemptuously, running, audacious rat that he was, along the edge of a boat about thirty feet long. “Is 123 Russia a child, that she should amuse herself with a toy, and keep a big boat under a roof where there is no water to float it, as if it were some delicate jewel!”
“On no jewel in the Emperor’s crown,” replied Wisky, “would a Russian look with the same interest as on that poor boat. Peter the Great helped to fashion it himself! He found his country without a navy, and he gave her one; he laboured himself as a common ship-wright: and now, as a mighty oak springs from a single acorn, in that one boat his people view with reverence “The father of the Russian fleet.”
“And where is the grandmother of the houses?” inquired I.
“That is hard by,” replied Wisky. “It is nothing but a small wooden cottage which Peter built for himself by the Neva, before a single street stretched across the dreary bog upon which he founded this city of palaces!”
And so we rambled on, light-hearted rats that we were, picking up scraps here and there, and exchanging observations, till a faint blush in the eastern sky warned us that it was time to go home. Before we reached the house 124 already criers were abroad in the streets, screaming, “Boots from Casan!”—“Pictures from Moscow!”—“Flowers, fine flowers!” as they wandered on, carrying their wares on their heads. Fierce-looking fellows, with long shaggy hair and beards, wrapped up in skins were passing about, exchanging good-natured greetings, strangely in contrast with their appearance. “Good-day, brother! how goes it? what is your pleasure? how can I serve you?” Smiling, bowing, baring their rough heads to each other, these poor Russians appeared the very pictures of politeness shrouded in sheepskin. But remembering that even amongst the most civilized nations of the world, rats are considered as quite beyond the pale of courtesy, and that the most good-natured Musjik in this city would have thought nothing of hitting one of us over with his shoe, we thought it better to retreat while our skins were whole, and regain our comfortable quarters in the kitchen.
Whiskerandos, who in the course of his adventurous life had both seen cannon and learnt their use,
text has . (full stop) for , (comma) after “use”
It was my intention, as well as that of Whiskerandos, after hearing of the cheerfulness of a Russian winter, and the comfort preserved in the houses, to remain to witness the ice-mountains, the frozen Neva, and, above all, the wonderful market which Wisky had described to us on that night.
Our intentions, however, were frustrated, and our projects of amusement defeated by an incident which suddenly altered the whole course of our affairs.
Whiskerandos, who was of a very bold and independent disposition, cared not to place himself constantly under the guidance of his Russian companion. He made forays by himself into the streets, moon or no moon, it was all one to him. He brought us back accounts of many singular adventures,—how he had been seen by a dog, chased by a cat, and nearly run over by a drosky, the name given to the vehicles which in St. Petersburg take the place of our London cabs.126
“Have a care, brother, have a care! Even the brave may dare too much, and the fortunate venture once too often!” with such exclamations as these our courteous Russian rat would listen to the tales of such hair-breadth escapes.
The effect of his words upon me was to render me cautious,—timid perhaps you will call it. The only motives which usually roused me to encounter danger, were hunger, or overpowering curiosity. I liked to see all, hear all, and know all, and picked up scraps of general information with the same relish that I would have picked up scraps of cheese.
Once Whiskerandos came home in high spirits. He had made such a discovery, found such treasures,—been in the very place where of all others a rat might rejoice in boundless content.
Directly behind the Exchange he had found a large open space, fenced round with iron railing, which, while keeping out man, offered everywhere a door of welcome to rats. Here, protected by nothing but tarpaulin, was collected a quantity of goods, both those which had been imported into Russia, and those with 127 which she paid back from her own productions the contributions of the world.
“Oh, the mountains of tallow which I saw there!” exclaimed Whiskerandos, executing a somerset in the air, in the excess of his admiration and delight.
“There may well be mountains, brother,” observed Wisky, “since, besides the quantities which she uses herself, Russia is said to export every year about two hundred and fifty millions of pounds of tallow, of which above one half is shipped from St.
“Two hundred and fifty millions!” I exclaimed, almost breathless with amazement, “why, surely that is enough to light up the whole world, and feast every rat that is in it! I would give anything to see the place where such glorious mountains are to be
“Trust yourself with me to-morrow night, and I will guide you to the place,” said Whiskerandos.
Now commenced a conflict in my mind, caution pulling me one way, curiosity the other, while a discussion took place between my comrades, Wisky backing caution, Whiskerandos 128 curiosity,—and the English rat won the day.
So that night off we two scampered together, and without accident or adventure reached the space at the back of the Exchange. Truly I was in a world of wonders! I actually revelled in everything that can charm the palate or the nose of a rat! Here was the division for Russian imports,—various and curious were they. There were chests of tea from China, coffee from Arabia, sugar from the West Indies, and English cotton goods, bales on bales piled up to a marvellous height. There was a quantity of tobacco, heaps of cheese, spices of all sorts and kinds. Now we came upon the odour of cinnamon or cloves; then the strong perfume of musk betrayed an importation from India.
No wonder that the hours passed unheeded while we lingered in this wonderful place! We passed on to the portion of the area devoted to Russian exports, and here we were, if possible, still more delighted! All the articles which Bright-eyes had mentioned as coming from Russia were here; we were bewildered amongst heaps of furs, piles of 129 leather, barrels of tallow, and prodigious quantities of corn! Morn was breaking, indeed, but we could not tear ourselves away, till the sounds of life, and the signs of motion around us, alarmed me with the idea that it was too late to retreat.
“Let’s bury ourselves in this corn-sack,” cried I, “we can sleep here very well during the day, and recommence our explorations after dark.”
Whiskerandos acceded to my proposition. Quiet we kept, very quiet. Noisier the world seemed to grow, till at length voices were heard so alarmingly near, that I crouched closer to my companion in terror!
Then—oh! the horrible sensation which I experienced,—never shall I forget it! I felt that our sack was roughly pushed by some one, then suddenly lifted on high!
“We are lost!” I gasped to Whiskerandos. Then another sort of motion succeeded, accompanied by a heavy rumbling sound, like that of the rolling wheel of a truck. Every hair of mine quivered with fear!
“Whiskerandos! oh, Whiskerandos! if they should be carrying us to a mill!—if we should 130 be ground into powder between two great stones!”
“Be quiet and never despair,” was the answer of the bold-hearted rat.
I believe that that terrible journey did not last long, but to me the time appeared an age! Every turn of the grating wheel beneath me sent a pang of anguish through my frame! At last the truck, if such it were, stopped; in a few minutes the sack was again rudely moved, carried aloft, and then tumbled, with its living contents, down—down—we could not tell where!
What a shock it gave me, that tumble! I lay for some seconds quite stunned. My first impulse, when I recovered a little, was bitterly to bewail my condition, and to reproach him who had brought me into it.
“Oh that I had been content with my kwas and my shtshee! Oh that I had never left the kitchen! that I had never ventured forth with a reckless companion, who would, I believe, play at hide and seek with a cat, or nibble at the pocket of a rat-catcher!”
My tone was, I knew, both peevish and provoking; and many a brown rat, in the 131 position of my companion, would have stopped my doleful squeaking at once by giving me something to squeak for. But Whiskerandos, whatever were his faults, was above that mean one of quarrelling with those who found them out, or attempting to screen and defend them.
“Ratto, I am sorry that I have led you into trouble,” said he. “I wish that I could suffer alone for my self-will and imprudence. But since no regrets can recall the past, let us not make our miseries greater by reproaches and dissension between those who may soon die, as they have lived, together.”
His mildness quite overcame any feeling of bitterness in my heart; and hope revived as some time elapsed without fresh cause for alarm occurring.
“I wonder where we are!” exclaimed I, shaking myself into a more easy position.
“I fancy that I hear the creaking of a windlass!” cried Whiskerandos.
“And the flapping of canvass!” added I. “And I smell tar.”
“A strong odour of tar! Depend upon it, we are down in the hold of a ship!”132
“Ha! that’s the ripple of water! she moves,—she moves!”
We were again afloat on the waters!
of which above one half is shipped from St. Petersburg.”
close quote missing
I would give anything to see the place where such glorious mountains are to be found!”
text has ? for !
“Farewell St. Petersburg, stately city! with thy flat green roofs, and star-spangled domes! Farewell merry-hearted, sandy-haired Russians, bearded Tartars, gay Circassians,—never may we behold you again! Farewell kwas and shtshee, and all the luxuries for too brief a time enjoyed! Where are we going now,—where!”
Such were the complaints which I was wont to pour out during the long tedious voyage which succeeded. Whiskerandos never grumbled, it was not in his nature; he quietly fed on his corn without uttering one melancholy word: but I suspected that he, like myself, associated sailors with rat pies; and to hear any one approach the hold, drove me almost wild with terror.
That was a horrible voyage! A fearful 133 tempest came on before the vessel reached the place of her destination, whatever that might be. The winds whistled and raged, and the ship reeled and plunged like a restive horse; and again and again torrents of salt water came sweeping down into the hold! Then, as the furious storm continued, the very seams of the ship seemed to open like pores, to let in the sea, which was knocking and raging without for admittance, till at length the hold became like a ditch, which we rats could not cross but by swimming!
Then the pumps were set to work—I could hear the men toiling at them day and night; yet the water gained on them notwithstanding their efforts. There were tremendous noises on deck; I fancied once or twice that I could distinguish human cries; and what with the constant splashing of the water as the vessel rolled heavily from side to side, and the bumping and thumping of some casks that had got loose, and were smashing against one another, and the shouting, and the roaring of wind and waves, there was enough to stun and terrify any creature, be he quadruped or biped!134
Such of the corn as remained in our sack was becoming so soft from salt water that it had acquired the consistence of a pudding. But we had now no heart even to eat!
We had so often heard the captain’s voice raised to give loud orders, that we had ceased to pay any particular attention to them, little dreaming that any would concern us further than as they regarded the safety of the vessel. But at length the result of an order to lighten the ship was speedily felt in the hold! Our sack (for we still made it our hiding-place) was suddenly lifted with others; and before we had time even to guess what was intended, splash we went into the sea!
Ugh! how the water bubbled in our ears! What frantic efforts we made to free ourselves from the sack! Nor were those efforts without success, for we had long ago gnawed the string which fastened its mouth: it opened with the motion of the waves, and corn, rats and all, floated upon the surface of the raging billows!
Down in two seconds went the corn, swallowed up by the sea; still we struggled, drowning rats that we were, to save ourselves 135 by desperate swimming. Of course our strength must soon have been exhausted, and the mighty green waves must have swept us to destruction, had not a barrel, thrown out from the ship, been happily floating near us!
Whiskerandos saw this little island of hope. As for me, I was too much frightened and confused to look around me; but I instinctively followed where he led, and soon found myself, shivering, shaking, dripping with wet, and looking as wretched as a rat can look, on the floating barrel beside my friend!
How we shook our glistening sides, and shuddered and gazed disconsolately round us on the wide waste of waters, lashed into long streaks of angry foam! Alas! there was no land in sight; but then the white mist rested on the horizon, which shut out the distant view.
“If we are not drowned we shall be starved!” exclaimed I, very piteously, to Whiskerandos. Alas! our barrel was empty.
Oh! the misery endured that day, and the terrible night which succeeded! We had no resource but to gnaw at the tasteless wood. We were surrounded with water, yet perishing 136 with thirst! pinched by hunger, without hope of relief! Better to have been drowned at once; better to have fallen by the paw of a mouser, or to have been caught like my brothers in a trap, than to be dying thus by inches on a barrel, tossed in the midst of the sea!
But with the gray morning hope dawned! We perceived that our little island had drifted near to some shore. The waves were now much more quiet, and leapt on the beach with a pleasant murmur, and strove to roll on, each farther than the other, like children merrily racing together.
“Could we not swim to the shore?” said Whiskerandos.
But I recoiled from the dangerous attempt. “No, no; some wave will roll the barrel on the beach,” I replied; “no more struggling in the water for me!”
And the waves, bearing the barrel on their green backs, seemed often ready to land it safely on shore, but each time changed their minds, and kept it bobbing up and down, while they retired back with a grating noise over the pebbles, as if mocking our distress and impatience.137
“We are farther off now than we were ten minutes ago,” said Whiskerandos. “Perhaps the tide is on the turn. Pluck up a brave heart, and let’s dash in like rats!” and he plunged fearlessly into the water.
But for the sharp spur of hunger, I fear that I should have left him to make the bold attempt alone; but, famished as I was, I resolved to swim for my life. With a sudden effort I sprang into the waves; and so, following in the wake of my companion, I struggled in safety to the shore!
Oh! the delight of feeling dry ground again!—of standing once more on the firm, solid earth! Never, never again, I firmly resolved, would I venture in any vessel, or trust my life to the mercy of the billows that had so nearly accomplished our destruction.
We made a hasty breakfast off a star-fish that we found stranded on the beach; but this rather increased our painful thirst, and to find 138 some means of quenching it we hurried inland at the utmost speed which our weakened powers could command. We had not run far before we came to a large house.
“There is sure to be a supply of water here,” said Whiskerandos. “Let us explore the place.”
“I fancy that I hear a dripping!” I cried eagerly, as we approached the door of the back-yard.
The door was indeed closed, and sharp bits of broken bottles, on the top both of it and the brick wall, rendered it impossible to climb over them; but I—my wit quickened by my painful thirst—discovered in a moment that, at the bottom of the door, part of the wood had been broken away, either by time or perhaps the teeth of our brethren, leaving an opening just large enough for a rat easily to creep through.
I was not one to venture on an unexplored region, so I looked anxiously through into the yard.
At the opposite side of it there was—oh, joyful sight!—a pump, from which drop by drop fell, with a most inviting sound, into a trough below. And yet, faint with thirst as 139 I was, the place had an aspect which alarmed me, and made me fear to venture across the yard. Not far from the pump, and between it and us, was an open green door, which led into a garden or pleasure-ground, and though I could see nothing to alarm me, my quick ear distinguished suspicious sounds in that direction.
“In with you!” exclaimed Whiskerandos, impatiently. “Don’t keep me here, dying with thirst at the hole.”
I drew back with a gesture of caution. “Whiskerandos,” said I, “I don’t like the green door open yonder. If any one came through it into the yard and cut off our retreat!”
“Nothing dare, nothing win!” he exclaimed; “I am thirsty and I must have water:” and, hurrying through the little opening which I have mentioned, he was soon eagerly drinking at the trough.
Hesitating, doubting, I was about to follow him, and already my nose was through the hole, when a sight, at the remembrance of which I shudder still, made me withdraw it instanter. Through the fatal green door near 140 the pump, a young man, with his hands in his pockets and his cap cocked on one side, followed by several dogs, leisurely sauntered into the yard.
I saw in an instant that for Whiskerandos escape was impossible. He had the whole length of the yard to cross; his foes were far nearer to him than me. His only chance was that of not being perceived; but this in broad daylight, with the noses of three or four dogs not two yards from him, was a miserable chance indeed. The dogs instantly found him out, and were at him in a moment. My unhappy companion darted behind the trough, quick as a flash of lightning. I felt assured that he would there bravely defend himself to the last; but what could one poor rat do, albeit the boldest of his race, against such terrible odds!
“Ha! a rat!” exclaimed the young man, looking quite amused and pleased—barbarian that he was!—at the prospect of seeing a poor defenceless creature torn to pieces before him. “Ha! Carlo, give it him!—shake him by the ear!” The young man actually laughed aloud with delight!
I could not see Whiskerandos, for the trough 141 was between us: I fancied his look of fierce despair as he faced the foes from whom he could not flee, and from whom he could expect no pity. He had evidently got into some corner, from which the dogs could not easily dislodge him; for they stood yelping and barking, showing their white teeth, with their greedy eyes all turned to one point.
So the human savage came to their aid. Having taken up a stick which happened to be lying on the ground near, while the dogs retired a step to allow their master to give his ungenerous assistance, he pushed the stick behind the trough, and by its means dragged poor Whiskerandos from his last place of refuge!
“Ha! the fellow’s dead! I must have killed him with the stick!” cried the young man; and stooping down he lifted up the poor rat by the tail, and held him aloft to examine him more closely, while the dogs leapt and barked around, eager to tear their victim limb from limb!
“He’s been in the wars—lost his ears!” laughed the young man, still holding the stiffened body on high by the tail. “I’m sorry 142 I poked him with the stick; he’d have given us some sport with the dogs!” Did ever such a heartless monster walk on two feet before!
“Oh! Whiskerandos! Whiskerandos!” thought I, as, almost rooted to the spot with horror, I stood gazing on the pitiful sight. “I am glad that you are dead! oh, I am glad that you are dead! bravest, noblest of rats, they can torture you no more!”
The dogs showed by their impatient movements that they considered that their master took a great deal too much time in his survey of a lifeless rat. I suspect that he only did so to tease and tantalize them, for suddenly raising Whiskerandos still higher, to give more force to his fling, he cried, “Now Carlo—Rover—Cæsar—who’s first!” and swung the body away towards the door behind which I stood a trembling, shuddering spectator!
But lo and behold! no sooner did the seemingly dead rat touch the ground, than he found life, strength, and speed in a moment! The dogs were after him like the wind, but the very force of the fling had given him a good start, and he was through the opening under the door, knocking me over as he pushed 143 past, almost before I could recall my scattered senses sufficiently to understand that he was actually alive! I have some remembrance of the young man’s exclamation of amazement as the dead rat found his feet and disappeared,—his shout, and the yells of the disappointed dogs,—but I recollect no more, for I heard no more. Whiskerandos and I had a fair start, and we made the best of it, and scampered off as rats scamper for their lives. Well for us that that door was locked!—well for us that there were broken bits of bottles on the top! well for us that the hole was too small for the passage of any thing larger than a rat!
I do not think that we were pursued: perhaps the unlocking of the door took our foe too much time, perhaps he did not think it worth while to hunt down such ignoble game, or perhaps he considered (but this I much doubt) that the cleverness which a rat had shown in making so extraordinary an escape, entitled him to a little indulgence. But we ran as though a whole pack of hounds were behind us; we never paused to take breath or look behind us, till we had buried ourselves in a corn-field.144
“And are you really unhurt?” I exclaimed, when we stopped at last, panting and exhausted.
“Unhurt? yes!—only bruised by the fling,—it was well that the yard was not paved with stones.”
“And you were really alive and had your senses while that savage was holding you up with your head hanging down! Why, you looked as like a dead rat as ever I saw one!”
“I was wide awake all the time,” said Whiskerandos, “but I knew that it was my only chance to feign death. This has been a narrow escape, Ratto; I was never so near being torn to pieces before, not even in my fight with the ferret!”
“I’ll never go near a house in daylight again!” exclaimed I, still trembling with excitement and terror. Whiskerandos appeared to feel the effects of the fright less than I did, though his danger had been so much greater.
“It is your thirst that makes you so nervous,” said he; “you have not yet recovered from our voyage on the barrel. There seems to be a wet ditch around this field; come and moisten your nose in the water.”145
The relief was certainly great, and as I drank the cool liquid, I felt my spirits revive.
“I wonder where we are now!” said I.
“I have no doubt on the subject,—we are in old England again! The look of the house, the hedges, the fields, that young fellow—”
“Oh! don’t speak of him!” I exclaimed, “cruel, barbarous monster that he is!”
“You are too hard on him,” said Whiskerandos, in his own frank, good-humoured manner. “He may be no worse than the rest of his species, who think that there is no harm in being cruel to a rat. I suspect that even your blue-eyed friend would shout with joy to see a cat worry a mouse!”
“I don’t believe it!” I replied indignantly; “a generous and noble heart can never take pleasure in seeing pain inflicted on a poor defenceless creature!”
“Ah, but—” Whiskerandos commenced, but our conversation was suddenly interrupted by a little squeak from the hedge close behind us.
“I think that I know that voice!” exclaimed I, and I had hardly uttered the sentence ere from the thick covert sprang the well-remembered form of Bright-eyes!
Ha! Carlo, give it him!
[We are in the mid-19th century, when “Carlo” was the Generic Dog Name. Earlier it was “Ball”; later it would be “Fido”.]
What a rubbing of noses ensued! after all my travels and perils it was such joy to see again the face of a friend! I had so much also to relate, (I have ever been a loquacious rat,) that I almost lost breath in my long narration. I wound up my account with a description of the last adventure of Whiskerandos, who was now, in my eyes, ten times more a hero than before.
“And now that I have told you my news,” said I, “let’s hear a little of yours. In the first place, where is old Oddity?”
Bright-eyes hung down his head, and drooped his long tail in a touching and melancholy manner. Such conduct in so lively a rat showed me at once that my last surviving brother was dead!
“How did it happen?” was all that I could say.
“Not a week after our arrival in these parts, he was caught in a hay-rick by a farmer!” faltered Bright-eyes. “I saw him seized by 147 the neck, I heard his despairing cry; I could not stay to see the poor fellow killed, and I was afraid of sharing his fate, so I made off as fast as I could.”
“Poor Oddity!” sighed I very mournfully, “never was there an uglier nor a better-hearted rat! Ah! what pleasure I vainly promised to myself in relating to you all my adventures! I have been across the deep waters, encountered various perils, now in danger of being cooked in a pie, now shivering on a barrel in the ocean, and yet here am I safe and sound after all; while you, remaining quietly in England, have ignominiously perished in a hay-rick!”
Whiskerandos, who, being a brown rat, could not be expected to feel the same regret as myself, now turned towards Bright-eyes, and asked him how far we were from London—“For I long to be back in my old quarters,” said he.
“A fortnight’s journey for a rat, should he travel by land,” replied Bright-eyes: “we came down very comfortably in a river boat, which carried us to within five miles of this spot.”
“I have had enough of water for some time,” said Whiskerandos; “and now that the fields are full of ripe corn, and the gardens of fruit, 148 nothing so pleasant as a journey by land! What say you, friend Ratto?” inquired he.
“I have no mind for a long journey either by land or by sea,” replied I in a melancholy tone; “I’ll keep company with you for a day or two, Whiskerandos, but I would rather not return now to London. I will settle quietly for a time in the country near the spot where poor Oddity died!”
“And you?” said Whiskerandos, turning to Bright-eyes.
The lively rat shook his ears with all his natural vivacity. “Pardon me,” he cried, “but I’m of opinion,—heroes like Sir Whiskerandos are the very worst travelling companions in the world! How Ratto has escaped with his life I cannot imagine, but I shall certainly not try the experiment of following your fortunes for an hour! I’ve no fancy to be baked in a pie, or starved on a barrel, crushed by a drosky, or worried by a dog, drowned in a sack, or suspended by my tail! No, no, valiant Whiskerandos, I’m quite content to admire your courage at a distance, but I don’t want to share your exploits, and would rather have my ears than your fame!”149
And off skipped the merry little rat, before we could say a word to stay him.
Whiskerandos and I, being weary enough with the adventures through which we had passed, slept for the greater part of that day in the field, and wandered about during the night in a not vain search for food.
The next day was remarkably hot. It was the season of harvest, and we felt the necessity of keeping quietly concealed, as many men, and women also, were busily engaged in the fields. The heat, however, produced thirst, and no water was near in which we could quench it.
“I say, Ratto,” observed Whiskerandos, “do you see yonder object, near that sheaf, that glitters so brightly in the sun?”
“It is a can,” replied I, “doubtless belonging to one of the reapers.”
“I should not wonder if there were a hunch of bread and cheese beside it,” said Whiskerandos.
“I should not be surprised if there were.”
Whiskerandos remained for a minute in silence, then said, “I want to compare English beer with Russian kwas.”150
“You are not going into the field!” I cried in alarm.
“I am going,—why, there is nothing to fear; there is not a reaper near, and if there were, he would need to be a sharp fellow who could catch a rat in an open field!”
So the daring fellow went on his way, and I, after peeping cautiously on this side and that, to make sure that no human being could see us in the stubble, hurried after my companion, being to the full as curious as himself to make acquaintance with the contents of the can.
There was a bundle of something beside it, tied up in a large red handkerchief, something of a very inviting odour. But scarcely had Whiskerandos, who was foremost, touched the reaper’s dinner with the end of his whiskers, when something jumped up suddenly from behind the bundle, and the voice of a rat fiercely exclaimed,—“Keep off, or I’ll bite you!”
Whiskerandos looked surprised at the unexpected defiance, but my feelings of amazement can scarcely be conceived when I recognised, (could it be!) the dumpy form, blunt head, and piebald skin of my lost brother Oddity!151
I rushed forward with a squeak of delight! No doubt, though less eager and excited in his manner, Oddity also was greatly pleased at meeting with his brother again. He looked, however, suspiciously from the handkerchief to Whiskerandos, and again desired him to “keep off,” with a resolution of which I had never dreamed the piebald rat capable.
“What is in that bundle, that you guard it so carefully?” said I, after we had rubbed noses again and again, with every expression of affection.
“The property of my master,” replied my brother.
“Master!” exclaimed both Whiskerandos and I in amazement, “who ever heard of the master of a rat! Since when have you taken upon yourself the office of a watch-dog, to guard what belongs to our enemy, man?”
“Since man first showed mercy to one of the race of Mus, since he spared a defenceless rat when in his power. I know you, Whiskerandos, I know you,” continued Oddity, the hairs bristling up on his back, as my companion, either in jest or earnest, took the corner of the handkerchief between his sharp teeth: 152 “you are reckoned a hero amongst rats, but I too can fight in defence of what is confided to my charge; you have killed a ferret, and you may kill me, but while I have a tooth in my jaw, or a drop of blood in my body, you shall not touch a crumb belonging to my master!”
Whiskerandos would have been more than a match for three Odditys, for the piebald one had neither his strength, nor agility, nor experience in fighting; but the strong rat seemed at this juncture to have no inclination to give battle to the weak one. I hope that it will be considered no sign of cowardice on his part, that he quietly dropped the corner of the handkerchief, and never even attempted to examine the contents of the can.
Of course I was all curiosity to know every particular of my brother’s deliverance. In his own quiet, homely way, he told me his simple tale, keeping, however, all the time, a watchful eye upon the bundle beside him, while Whiskerandos acted the part of a sentinel to give me timely warning if any human being should approach so near as to endanger our safety. I will tell the story of Oddity as nearly as I can in his own I only wish that I could describe 153 the expression of his bluff, honest face, at various parts of his narration.
I’m of Oddity’s opinion
text unchanged: error for Ratto’s ?
I will tell the story of Oddity as nearly as I can in his own words,
text has , for .
“I was caught one evening in a hay-rick. A swift-footed creature like you, Whiskerandos, might perhaps have escaped, but I was never remarkable for agility or speed. I felt a strong hand grasping me by the back of my neck, and I gave myself up for lost.
“‘Well, here’s an odd creature,—a piebald rat! I take it that’s quite a curiosity!’ cried the farmer who held me in his grasp. I expected that he would dash me against the wall the next moment, and then set his heel upon my poor body!
“‘I wonder whether Mary ever saw the like of it before,’ he continued, examining me with attention; ‘I’ll put it in the empty wire-cage, and try if I cannot tame it for her.’
“Here was a reprieve, and a most unexpected one. No one who has not believed himself to be just on the point of being smashed, can tell 154 how glad I was when I was set loose from the farmer’s gripe, though only to find myself in a cage!
“But soon the longing for liberty came. I attempted to gnaw through the wires, but they resisted my utmost efforts. The farmer watched me, spoke to me, gave me food—treated me like a creature that could feel. That man has a gentle and kindly heart! At length I grew accustomed to my master, and to see him approach my prison with food was the only pleasure of my life. He ventured his finger between the bars, and I never attempted to bite it. He released me at last from my cage, and gave me a far warmer, snugger home—in the pocket of his own great-coat!”
At this point in the story Whiskerandos and I uttered expressions of amazement.
“Wherever he went,” continued Oddity, “I went too. He taught me many things altogether new to a rat. It is our nature to take what we can get,—he taught me to see food and not to touch it! He never suffered me to feel hungry: he conversed with me as though I were a little companion, and never one blow did I receive from his hand, or one kick 155 from his heel! It was not in the nature of a quadruped to be insensible to kindness like this!”
“And yet you owed it all to your piebald coat!” exclaimed I. “Never was beauty such an advantage to a four-footed beast as ugliness has been to you!”
“I found,” pursued Oddity very quietly, “that Will Grange, my master, was going to London, to be married to the young woman whom he had spoken of as Mary. We travelled to the city together, I snugly sleeping, coiled up in his pocket.”
“And were you given to the lady?” said Whiskerandos.
“I was placed before her on a table, in a quiet little back-parlour, in which she and my master sat together. She admired my appearance.”
“No, no!” interrupted I, “that’s impossible, I can believe anything but that!”
“Well, then, she wished to gratify my master by appearing to do so. She praised me, and fed me from her hand, and said that such a rat she never had seen in her life. Then I crept under my master’s chair, and 156 there very quietly remained, while he and his Mary talked over future plans together.
“He told her of the various things that he had bought to make his home more comfortable for his wife. How he had planted the garden himself with all her favourite flowers, and twined honeysuckle over his porch. Then he took her hand within his own, and in a lower and softer voice asked her if she were happy.
“‘Very happy,’ she replied, looking on the ground, while her cheek grew like a cloud at sunrise; ‘only I cannot help feeling sorry,’—her voice trembled a little as she spoke,—‘sorry to leave father, and home, and the dear children in the ragged school whom I have taught so long!’ I fancy,” continued my brother, “that something like a dewdrop glistened on her lashes.
“‘Well, Mary,’ said the farmer heartily, ‘father will come and see us; and as for your old home, why, you get a new one in exchange, and fair exchange is no robbery, you know. Then for your ragged children, why, I’m wanting an active, steady boy on my farm, and though I’ve no great fancy for your pale-faced Londoners, yet if you know any 157 really good one, we’ll take him down with us into Kent.’
“You should have seen how much pleased the young teacher looked! She knew one, she said, a poor motherless boy,—she would be so glad to give him a helping hand. He was one of the best boys in the school,—she would trust him in a room full of gold!
“So it was agreed between them that she should speak to the lad, and tell him to call in the evening.
“In the evening he accordingly came. I had again taken my place under the farmer’s chair, and was just falling into a doze, when I was roused by a gentle knock at the door. Mary’s cheerful ‘Come in!’ was followed by the entrance of,—whom do you think?”
“Bob and Billy!” I exclaimed at a venture.
“Yes, Bob and Billy!” repeated Oddity, with a look of great glee; “I had never thought to have seen them again! And they were so changed, I should scarcely have known them. Bob, in particular, looked so much taller, and stronger, and oh! so much happier than he had done last year! He was no more the wretched, joyless, hopeless creature, cowering 158 in rags, one that even rats might look on with pity; he had a bright, fearless eye, and hopeful smile; and if ever a face expressed gratitude and affection, it was his when he looked on his gentle young teacher!
“‘I beg pardon for bringing Billy,’ said he, modestly but frankly, ‘I was afraid to let him go home quite alone.’
“The farmer spoke in his kindly manner to the boy. He offered him a place on his farm, and Bob’s eyes sparkled, and his cheek flushed with pleasure. It was but for a minute; the brightness and the glow faded away as he glanced down at his little lame brother. I saw that Billy was squeezing his hand,—that squeeze served all the purpose of words.
“‘Thank ’ee, sir,’ said the boy, glancing first at the farmer, then at his teacher, ‘but I think as how—I should rather—leastways I had better stay and earn my bread here in Lunnon.’
“‘And how do you earn it?’ inquired the
“‘Please, sir, I clean boots,’* answered the boy; ‘I am one of the yellow brigade.’
* In the course of a single year no less than two thousand nine hundred and eighty-one pounds were honestly earned in this manner by 132 boys connected with ragged schools!159
“There was such a look of cheerful independence on the little fellow’s face, that no one could have glanced at him and doubted that his bread was honestly earned.
“‘And would you rather stay here and rub in blacking,’ said the farmer, ‘than be out in the open fields? Yours is an odd taste, I take it! Would you not rather come with us?’
“‘Oh, sir!’ said Bob, uneasily, shifting from one foot to the other, while Billy was squeezing his hand harder than ever, and looking half ready to cry, as he pressed closer to his side; ‘you see I could not leave him behind,—poor lame Billy, he’s no one to care for him but me.’
“‘That’s it, is it!’ cried the farmer, clapping his knee. ‘Well, Mary, what say you? could we take the two with us do you think? If they’ve always been together, poor fellows, ’twould be a pity to part them now!’
“Bob’s only answer was a look of pleasure and gratitude, but little Billy almost burst into tears of delight as he exclaimed, ‘Oh, yes! please, sir, take me too!—take me too! I’ll do anything,—I’ll work,—I’ll make baskets for your fruit.’160
“‘And coops for my poultry, hey? We’ll find some way of making you useful.’ And he turned to Mary with that smile which I think that all human beings wear when they are doing some act of kindness.
“I was so much pleased,” continued Oddity, “at this conclusion to the affair, that I ran out from my place beneath the chair. Billy uttered a cry of surprise:
“‘There—look! if that an’t my own pretty spotted rat!’”
Here I rather rudely interrupted my piebald brother. “Pretty! did he call you pretty? well, well, I shall be obliged to think you so myself, I suppose. Spared by a man, petted by a woman, admired by a child,—and all for your beauty,—Oddity’s beauty!” I could not help laughing outright at the thought.
“My ugliness has at least done me no harm,” he replied, with a meekness which made me more ashamed of my rudeness than if he had fired up at my ridicule.
“And so you live all together here?” said Whiskerandos; “this farmer, his wife, the two boys, and you?”
“Yes, and we are as happy as the day is long.”161
“Humph!” said Whiskerandos; “I should prefer my wild freedom; but it is different, I suppose, with man. And as for you, Oddity, you were never like other rats; you were always intended for a watch-dog. And you really guard that can and parcel for hours, and resist the temptation to nibble?”
“I am trusted,” was the simple reply.
“Now, Oddity,” said I, “I should much like to see you in your new home, surrounded by all your human companions.”
“Yonder is my master’s house,” answered Oddity, pointing across the field with his nose. “You have but to clamber up to the window in the evening, and peep through the clustering roses, and you will see us all there together.”
“I’ll have a peep,” said Whiskerandos, “and then off to old London again!”
“You must take nothing from my master’s house,” cried Oddity.
“Not a potato paring!” laughed our valiant companion.
“And now I would advise you to be off,” said my brother; “here’s my master coming for his dinner.”
Away we scampered at full speed, my 162 comrade and I; for well we knew what was certain to be our fate if caught even by the kind-hearted farmer. We were only rats after all.
how glad I was when I was set loose from the farmer’s terrible gripe
text has terribe
[The archaic spelling “gripe” is unchanged.]
“‘And how do you earn it?’ inquired the farmer.
text has farmer.’ with superfluous (single) close quote
Away we scampered at full speed, my light-footed comrade and I
hyphen invisible at page break
That night, when the round harvest moon was throwing her soft light on the earth, we climbed up the rose-tree by the window, and, quietly pushing aside the fragrant flowers, peeped in upon such a scene as rarely meets the eye of a rat.
There was a neat little kitchen, with a sanded floor and white-washed walls, so clean, so perfectly clean, that not even the sharp eyes of the race of Mus could have detected a speck upon them. Rows of plates lined the shelves on the wall, pans burnished till they shone like silver, a framed sampler hung over the mantelpiece, and a large clock merrily ticked behind the door. Near the wide hearth there was a table, on which a substantial supper was spread on a cloth white as new-fallen snow.163
Round this table were seated the farmer, his wife, and our two old friends, Bob and Billy, in their clean smock-frocks, with country roses on their once sickly and sunken cheeks. One might have read Will Grange’s character in his kind, honest face; and his wife looked like a morning in May, all sweetness, brightness, and beauty,—such beauty as is not merely skin-deep.
The farmer tapped gaily on the table, and at the signal, Oddity, whom I had not at first perceived, clambered up to his knee, and from thence jumped on the cloth, to be fed from his master’s hand. He made his round of the party,—every one had something to give him; and I heard the merry voice of Billy as he patted his favourite’s snub nose,—“He’s a pretty little fellow! now, an’t he? I wonder what’s become of the old blind rat that he used to lead about in the shed?”
“Whiskerandos,” said I, pensively, to my companion, “I could almost wish myself in Oddity’s place!”
“So do not I,” he replied quickly, as he turned from the window. “One rat in ten millions may be petted and trusted, and show 164 himself worthy of the trust; but our race was never intended by nature to hold the position of lap-dogs or cats.”
“And are we always to be hated by the lords of creation, never to be useful to man?”
“We are useful to man,” said my companion.
“Ah! in those places where he bakes us in pies, or makes hats or glove-thumbs of our poor skins. But in London—”
“When you join me in London I will show you, friend Ratto, how, by acting the part of a scavenger, and clearing away that which, if left, would poison the air, the race of Mus does good service to man.”
“Little man thanks us for it!” cried I.
“Well, Bob,” said the farmer, as he leant back in his chair, and watched, with an air of amusement, his piebald favourite nibbling at a nut, “is it true what my good wife here tells me, that the post this morning actually brought a letter for you?”
“From Master Neddy,” exclaimed Bob, with sparkling eyes.
“He’s come back from Russy, and so has his father, and they’re so glad to be in old 165 England again,” cried Billy, as in old times the most ready to speak. “The letter was sent first to the school,—the dear old school!—for they warn’t to know that missus was married, and we so snug down here in the country. Oh! won’t they be pleased to hear it? And is it not good in them, after all their travels, not to forget poor boys like us? Do you know, there was money in the letter?” he added, lowering his voice.
“Ah! Captain Blake did you some good turn, did he not?” said the farmer to Bob.
“He saved me from—” the boy coloured and paused,—
“From want, I suppose,” said Grange, ending his sentence for him, and stroking back Oddity’s sleek ears.
“From worse,” said Bob, looking down.
“Not from death?”
“Worse than that,” murmured the boy.
“Eh?” said the farmer, in surprise.
“But for him what should I have been now! Oh sir!” cried Bob, suddenly raising his eyes, “I’ve often thought I should have told you this before,—before you took me in here,—me and my brother too,—and treated us so 166 kindly, and trusted us and all. You should have known what I was before that day when Captain Blake—bless him for it!—first took me into a ragged school.”
“My business is with what you are, not what you were,” said the farmer, kindly; but Bob did not seem to hear the interruption, for he continued, in an agitated voice, the tears rising into and then overflowing his eyes:—“He found me a poor, ignorant, miserable creature, not knowing so much as that it was a sin to take what was not my own. He found me with no comfort and no hope, going on the broad way which leads to the prison and the gallows; and worse,—worse beyond,—I know that now. He found me a wretched thief, and he did not hate me, despise me, despair of me: he gave me a chance, he gave me a friend! Blessings on him!—he saved me from ruin!”
Here let me drop the curtain, here let me close my tale. These are feelings, these are scenes, into which higher beings alone can enter; they are too solemn for a story like mine.
And here I and my companions divide;—I 167 to luxuriate for awhile in the plenty with which rich autumn crowns the fields around; my bold comrade to return to the city, and there, in new adventures, to display a sagacity and courage which even the lords of the creation would admire if belonging to any race but ours; Oddity, in the happy home of his kind master, remains to share the board and the hearth,—an instance that even a rat can show fidelity to man, where man can show mercy to a rat!
Perhaps the human race would despise us less proudly, and persecute us less severely,—perhaps even boys would take less pleasure in torturing, worrying, and hunting us down,—if our characters and instincts were better known. Who can say that some truth may not be learned, some lesson of kindliness gained, even from a narration simple as mine,—the history of
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My notes are copyright, as are all under-the-hood elements.
If in doubt, ask.