IT was one October evening, five years ago. I was sitting on the floor by the window in my room, watching the red and gold and brown dead leaves swept from the trees by every gust of wind, and seeing them take a valse or two in a very madcap fashion round the gravelled sweep before they settled down. There was a knock at the door, and a servant came in to say that some of the schoolchildren were waiting to see me, if I would please to come down. She thought they had something they wished to give me. So I went down to the kitchen, where three little fellows were standing, their caps in their hands, in the twilight. These three nice little hobble-de-hoys were National School boys, so they had given up the scrape and the kick and the grab at their hair —their hereditary way of bowing—and now flourished their hands at their heads, in the salute regulated and enforced by her Majesty's Inspectors of National Schools. When this was over, the tallest boy, who held his cap carefully in his left hand, showed me very shyly that he wanted me to take something out of it. I put my hand in, and felt a soft furry ball. I took it up very gently, and it lay for a moment or two quite still—nothing but a round ball of reddish fur in the palm of my hand. In a few moments a long thin tail, like a rat's, uncurled, and a little creature sat up with a jerk; and then I saw it was a pretty little squirrel, very young, too young to have a bushy tail, but with a coat of pretty brown fur, and beautiful round black eyes, and the prettiest ears with tufts of hair at the ends of them.
He did not seem frightened, but sat up, and looked at us all, and did not try to run away. He never showed wildness from that time, or seemed afraid of people, but became tame directly. I think this was very wonderful, for his father and mother, grandfathers and grandmothers, and all his family, have always led the wildest sorts of lives, scampering about in the tree-tops, chivy-chasing up the boles and along the branches, building new houses out of old magpie nests, and, in short, leading a regular open-air, under-the-sky, scrimmaging, scampering, rollicking sort of life, seeing but little of the big animals in coats and bats and petticoats, and nothing at all of their houses, except a far-away peep sometimes at the chimney-tops through the trees; so I think my little pet must be considered very brave for being frightened at nothing and nobody from the very first.
The boys who brought him told me that some miners had given them the little squirrel to bring to me. They had seen him playing about in a wood, and had run after him, and hunted him from tree to tree. At last, when he sat trembling, weak, and tired, at the end of a branch, one of the men had thrown his cap at him, and knocked him. down, and caught him. It was not very kind; but they had not hurt him, poor little fellow! and had taken great care of him when they had got him. They knew I was fond of all sorts of animals, so they had sent him to me as a present. I gave the little boys something for their trouble ; and after making another National Society's salaam, they said Good-night, and left me with my pet.
I think before I tell the history of my pet squirrel's in-door life, I ought to tell something of what his life must have been before he came to me, what it would always have been but for that miner's cap, and what I trust it is now that he is a wild squirrel again.
His father and mother lived in a wood of dwarf oak trees, on the side of a very steep Welsh hill. If they had cared to look out of the tree-tops at the view (which they didn't), they would have seen a white village at the foot of their hill, and beyond it a pretty low hill, with woods and lawns, and the chimney-tops of .their son's future home; and beyond, a wide and wild morass far miles and miles; beyond all, the blue sea.
But the squirrels thought of nothing but their own trees, and spent their whole time in work and play after their own merry fashion. They really had plenty of work to do ; for all the first part of the summer they had to set about, nest building. Then came the little ones; and nuts are not to be had for nothing, and four little mouths take a great deal of feeding; and it was very very hard work. And they knew that no sooner were the children fit to find a little food for themselves, than they must begin scraping everything together for the winter. For nuts, as I said before, are not to be had for nothing, and, what is worse, they don't last all the year; so they had to be gathered and brought home, and hoarded and poked away, and patted down in holes in the hollow trees.
This nest was a curiosity. It had been a magpie's; but that was two years ago. The squirrels had found it, a good strong nest, in tolerably good repair, well put together with birch twigs. The lining was very shabby and soppy, for it was of sheep's wool and scraps of feathers and the rain of two winters had made a mess of it. But on the whole, the magpie's nest was a lucky find for the squirrels; and it saved them a world of trouble, for they had only to put a roof on, to make it like the nests they make themselves. Squirrels build quite new nests sometimes; but they very often patch up an old one of somebody else's; and when they don't care to build or to patch, and are very idle indeed, they just line a hollow in a tree, soft and warm, with moss and wool, and that does instead.
But I must tell you how they put their roof on. The nest was all woven of strong black twigs, in the wonderful basket-work the birds know how to make, with a hollow inside, lined thickly with wool, every bit of which the magpies) who built it, had pulled out of the sheep's-backs with their own beaks. The magpies had done their best to line the cradle soft and warm for their four black and white children, and they had the star-lit blue sky for their curtains; but the squirrels knew this sort of thing would be the death of their little furry baby squirrels, so they began the roof at once.
They scampered up the trees, and down the trees, biting off twigs which they thought would match those in their own house, and bringing them two or three at a time, sticking out of each side of their mouths, up to the nest. They wove them into basket-work round the edge of the nest, higher and higher, arching it over till they had put a top on the nest; and when it was done, it looked almost as good work as the magpie's work below. They left a doorway on one side, leading into a long passage, only just big enough for one squirrel to go through at a time; and after a little fresh wool lining had been put inside, the nest was done, and the furry babies might come as soon as they pleased.
And here my little squirrel and three little brothers and sisters were born ; and lived -very happily, till that day he went out to play, and got hunted and caught, and turned into a tame squirrel; and had to gambol up crimson curtains instead of leafy oaks, and sleep in a box-nest in the corner of a room, instead. of being swung to sleep in the magpie's old home in the tree-top.
And now I will tell you what sort of a tame squirrel he turned into.
The night he came, as soon as the children had gone I had some warm milk brought, and held a teaspoonful of it to the little fellow, who never stirred from his bolt-upright position, sitting in my hand, with his rat-tail up over his back. When he smelt the milk, he lapped it very fast, like a little cat, and then curled himself into a ball to go to sleep. So I put him in some cotton-wool, into a basket, and early the next morning fed him again with bread and milk.
In a day or two he was so tame that he never seemed happy unless he was nestling in my pocket, or in the sleeves of my gown, where he would lie quite still for an hour or two, and never seemed to care how much I moved about. Very soon he got so fearless that he would run to any one he knew, if they came into a room where he was loose, and run up the dress, hunting in the pockets, which he knew quite well where to find, either in a lady's skirt or a gentle-man's coat. If he found a pocket which he thought comfortable enough for a sleeping-place, he would curl himself round and go to sleep; and bite and scratch like a little tiger, if a hand tried to take him up. But his mistress's hand he always seemed to know; he would only bite very gently, and then lick the fingers with his tiny tongue, like a little dog.
He always came when I called him, if he saw I had any-thing to give him, and often without, preferring a steeple-chase course over chairs and tables to coming along the floor. But his greatest delight was to gambol in the curtains, and upon the cornices of the windows. It was there he took all his treasures—nuts and bits of apple and carrots—to hide. He would come down the curtains, and fetch two or three dozen nuts, one by one in his mouth, and take them up, and hide them along the cornices, each one in a separate place, patting them with his feet before he left them, as if he thought, that, somehow, covered them up.
When he was called, if he was in the curtains, he would run up and down them two or three times, and then turn as if he was coming down, but only hang himself by his hind-claws, stretching out his fore-legs as if be was going to fly, like his cousins over the water; and then he would wait to be picked up and pocketed.
My little squirrel seemed to think that all small boxes, all jars and pots with covers on, were made to be opened; and with his long saw-like teeth he would generally work away till he did open them. He was very much pleased if he found he had worked his way into a pomatum-pot, and would eat a quantity of it in the greediest way.
One unlucky day, in his researches on some bedroom mantelpiece, poor Toots came upon a pill-box, which he took in his paws as usual ;'and hearing a rattling noise inside, no doubt he thought it was the kernel, and he thought he had got hold of one of the most satisfactory-sized nuts a lucky squirrel ever had in his possession. He worked away till he had got the lid off, and ate the pills. Some hours afterwards, the box was found half empty, and poor Toots was found half dead. Feeling ill, no doubt he had gone to bed; and there he lay curled up in his cotton-wool, in his box cage—so ill that he could not stir; and no wonder, for he had taken half a box of compound rhubarb pills.
For three or four weeks he was a wretched little fellow, lying curled up, very weak, and so thin that his backbone seemed nearly through his skin. His red-brown coat got poor and shabby. He looked a very ghost of a squirrel. He would moan if he was touched; and he ate nothing but little bits of bread soaked in milk, and put into his mouth; but he drank a great quantity of water when it was given him. He was too weak now to come for it.
I thought it was all over with Toots, and that he was going to die, like any Christian, of taking physic. But he had no doctor, and he could not get any more medicine; and so he gradually, but slowly, got better. He began to take little convalescent airings up the window-curtains, and to nibble a nut now and then—but all in a very sick, lack-a-daisical fashion. At last, he once more thought of his tail; he began to brush and comb it with his tongue, and wash his face with his wet paws like a cat; so I knew he was much better, and would soon be quite well again. And so he was, and more tame and fearless than ever; and he scampered about the house as much as before; only the pill-boxes were carefully cleared from every dressing-table and mantelpiece where Toots might be expected to appear.
He got out of doors sometimes, and would be seen frisking in the trees, if it was very cold, sitting still for hours on one branch, his back to the wind, and his wide brush well up over his head. His brush was umbrella, roof, and all. Toots had thatched himself with his own grand tail. I am sure he was often .almost starved with cold; and if his pride would have let him acknowledge it, he must have had many longing, lingering wishes for his warm box cage, and all the outs hoarded in the corner of it. But once out, he took a great deal of catching. However, he would have starved in the woods, without any nest to go to, or any nuts to be found, so I always had him hunted or coaxed back; and once at home again, he used to roll himself up in his nest, and pull his cotton-wool blankets up over his head, and chuckle and chatter, as if he thought it rather a snug thing to be a tame squirrel after all. He used to scamper all over the house wherever he liked, up-stairs and down-stairs. He fixed upon a favourite place on one of the dining-room window-cornices; and there he spent a great deal of his time, taking his nuts always up there to eat.
At last, he seemed to think he would give up his cage and live on the cornice altogether. So he set about building a nest up there. For nearly a fortnight he was carrying materials, working so hard that I don't know when he had time to eat his nuts—and far too busy for any more gambols in the curtains. He evidently had a great deal too much on his mind. now for any more of that sort of fun.
I think, when he had determined to build a nest on the cornice, poor little fellow! he must have been in a sad puzzle; for of course his head must have been running on twigs and wool and feathers, and he had not the ghost of a chance of getting any of them. But he was a genius; and if yon know the history of all the geniuses, from Jack the Giant-killer to Napoleon Buonaparte, you will know the wonderful way they always had of making something out of nothing, of having their own way, of never being down-hearted at difficulties, and how everything always came right with them at last.
So it was with Toots. After much planning and contriving in his little head, he overcame the twig and wool difficulty, and with all the originality of genius struck out a way of nest building never heard of before in the annals of squirreldom. And this was it.
At some time or other, in his scrimmages up-stairs and down-stairs, and in my lady's chamber, he had gone to the very top of the house, where, in an attic-room, he had found the rag and rubbish hoard of a very untidy and particularly acquisitive housemaid. Perhaps you have never seen such an omnium-gatherum of rags and scraps and rubbish as that which the squirrel had found, in all your life. The turning out of the cook's kitchen-drawers would be nothing to it. It was this treasure-trove of the housemaid's that the squirrel determined to help himself to. Here it was he had found his building materials; and from that time there never was a happier, and certainly not a busier, little squirrel in the Principality.
For a whole fortnight he worked away at his nest. The nest was to be built at the bottom of the house, and all the materials for it were at the very top; and it was hard work for a little fellow to carry a draggled, dirty housemaid's cap, or the remains of a pocket-handkerchief, or half a stocking, in his mouth down two sets of stairs. He had to jump as well as he could from one step to another all the way, with his mouth full, and often with a yard or more of dirty ribbon or old stocking behind him, getting his feet entangled in it, and sometimes tumbling over and over. But if he dropped his treasures, he always went back and picked them up. He generally got over the difficulties of a long ribbon by packing it rapidly and neatly in folds with his fore-paws into his mouth. He would then set off with a great bunch of it out of his mouth at each side, such an absurd-looking fellow! After all the hard work of getting a bit of his rubbish as far as the door of the dining-room, he would often arrive with his load only to find it shut. The next person who came would find him sitting very still and bolt-upright on the door-mat, his mouth full of ribbons, or rubbish of some kind, waiting patiently for the door to open. The moment it was opened he would rush in, get his treasure across the room as well as he could, and try to take it up the window-curtains. That was generally a great difficulty. He sometimes dropped what he was going to take up two or three times, before he succeeded in getting it up to the top of the cornice.
It was a wide, old-fashioned rosewood and gilt cornice, with a great space behind—and here the nest was built. The old cape and ribbons, and all the odds and ends of rubbish, were woven into a very large, long-shaped nest. There was a small hole left in the side for the squirrel to go in and out; and he lined it with bits of that dining-room door-mat on which he had so often sat waiting. The mat was of some sort of brown towy stuff, and Toots had very hard work to tear enough off with his teeth. At last all was finished; and from that time he never came back to sleep in his cage, but moved up into the cornice altogether, coming down in the day-time to play about, and to fetch his food, which he always took up to his house to eat.
When the spring came, I was not afraid of his dying from cold and hunger, if he got out into the woods; and I never thought of keeping him a prisoner, if he liked to turn wild in the summer; so when the weather was warmer, in March, he was allowed to run out of the house once or twice, the doors being left open, so that be might know how to find his way in again. In a few days, he got quite used to finding his way in and out of the house. He would be out in the trees all day, and come in at night to sleep in his nest. If he found the house-doors shut, he would run up the ivy and roses, which grew up to my bedroom window, and suddenly appear on the dressing-table, chattering and chuckling with delight, if I was there, and rolling over on his back, to be tickled and scratched, like a kitten, and scratching and biting like all the kittens in Christendom put together. But he was always in a hurry to go to bed; and would rush down stairs as soon as the door was opened, and scamper at full speed, sometimes down the banisters, sometimes down the stairs, and into the dining-room, and up the curtains to bed..
When April came he used to be out of doors all day long, and once or twice was out all night; and at last we saw he was building another nest somewhere in the woods. He used to come into the house, and hunt about for bits of stocking-cotton, or cotton-wool, and scamper out of doors again with it in his mouth into the wood. But with all our watching, we never could trace him to his tree.
I suppose it was when this summer nest was finished that he gave up his winter one; for though he came back every day, he always ran away at night. At last, he never came back at all day or night. Several weeks passed, and he never came back. I thought he was killed and murdered, dead and buried, and was very sorry about my pet; when one day, riding under some tall beech trees in a great, wood, two miles from home, a squirrel ran round the bole of a tree, chattering at me. He came low down on the bough over my head, stamped his feet, and chattered. I was almost sure it was my pet.
There were plenty of squirrels in this wood, but not one beside himself in his own wood. So I think he had come all that way, and that he was living in the wood, and was then carried; for one day, in the following autumn, he suddenly appeared again at his own home, running along the lawn, and scampering up the trees. And who do you think was with him? A beautiful Mrs. Squirrel, in a sort of red-gray coat, with a plumy brush tail, white-tipped; and with her four of the prettiest furry baby squirrels, just able to run about by themselves, that ever were seen.
I believe Toots had brought his wife and little ones to see his old haunts. I have no doubt he took them to the nest in the wood, and would have liked to take them to see the nest in the cornice, but I don't think he ever did for hiswife was of course scary, and the children timid—and he too was much wilder. He would not come to me now, though be would let me come close to him, and would carry away nuts if they were left for him on the grass. But the beech trees were full of mast that autumn, so he had plenty to eat. He and his family stayed as long as they lasted; and we often used to see them, six of them at once, at games of romps amongst the trees, or running after each other over the lawn.
When the mast nuts were over, I suppose he took his children all the way back to the great wood where they were born; for after the first cold days of winter came, we never saw them any more. But every now and then, riding under the beech trees in summer evenings, in the great wood, I have heard a chatter over my head, and looking up, have caught sight of a pair of familiar black eyes looking down and a whisk of a very well-known bushy tail, and seen a little fellow, very very like Toots the Tame, scrimmaging round the trunk of the tree, playing a game of Bo-peep at me and my pony.
So I hope he and his wife are very well and very happy; and that they will never want beech trees and nuts and nests, and anything else that makes squirrel happy; and, as the story-books say, that they'll live very happy for ever.