Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Edmund Selous

The Rat

"The rat is a king. Tommy Smith has a peep

At his palace: but is he awake or asleep?"

"I SEE you," said the rat, as Tommy Smith passed through the yard of his father's house. "I see you, but it is not the right time yet. Wait till to-night."

So all that day Tommy Smith kept thinking of what the rat had promised; and when his bedtime came, instead of wanting to stay up longer, as he usually did, he was quite pleased to go, and went upstairs without making any fuss. "Now," thought he, as he made himself nice and snug in bed, "I shall keep awake till the rat comes. I am not at all sleepy. I can see the branch of the cedar tree by the window shaking in the wind, and I can hear the clock ticking on the staircase. 'Tick, tick—tick, tick,'—I wonder if it gets tired of saying that all day long, and all night long, too, without ever once stopping,—unless they don't wind it up. 'Tick, tick—tick, tick.' If I keep on counting it, I shan't go to sleep. 'Tick, tick—tick, tick—tick, tick—tick—squeak?' "


[Illustration]

"I shall keep awake till the rat comes."

What was that?" said Tommy Smith, as he sat up in bed. "That wasn't the clock;" and then, all at once, the old clock on the stairs struck one. "One? Then it must be wrong. When I got into bed it was only—"

"It is quite right," said a squeaky little voice close to Tommy Smith's ear. "I don't know what time it was when you got into bed, but you have been asleep for a good many hours; and now it is one in the morning, which is what I  call a nice, comfortable time."

"I suppose you are the rat," said Tommy Smith, rubbing his eyes.

"Yes, I am," the same voice answered. "But it is too dark for you to see me here. Get up, and put on some of your clothes, and then we will come down to the kitchen. The fire is not quite out, and you can put a few more sticks on it. Then you will be able to see me as well as I can see you now, and we can talk together comfortably."

"But can you see in the dark?" said Tommy Smith, whilst he sat on the bed and began to put on his stockings.

"Oh, yes," the rat answered; "just as well as I can in the light."

"I wish I could," said Tommy Smith, "for I can't see you  at all."

"Of course not," said the rat. "So, you see, it has not taken a very  long time to find out something which I can do, but you can't. Well, you are ready now, so come along. You will be able to follow me, for I will pat the floor just in front of you with my tail,—and that is another thing which you couldn't do, even if you were to try for a very long time."

"Because I  haven't got a tail," said Tommy Smith.

"That is one reason," the rat answered; "but you can't be sure you could do it even if you had one. It might be too short, you know. Now, come along." Pat, pat, pat. "Do you hear?"


[Illustration]

Pat, pat, pat. "Do you hear?"

Tommy Smith heard quite plainly, and he followed the rat through the door, and down the stairs, and right into the kitchen. The fire was still alight, as the rat had said. There were some sticks lying in the fender, and Tommy Smith put some of them on to make it burn up. Then there was a blaze of light, and he could see the rat sitting up on his hind legs, and holding his front paws close to the bars so as to warm them.

"Now," the rat said, "we will begin at once. I promised to show you that I could do some clever things as well as the frog and toad. Do you see that bottle of oil standing there on the dresser?"

"Oh yes, I see it," said Tommy Smith.

"Well," the rat went on, "I should like to taste a little of it. But how do you suppose I am to get at it?"

"Why, by knocking it over," said Tommy Smith at once. "That is the only way that I can see."

"Fie!" said the rat. "That may be your  way of drinking oil, but I  should be ashamed to make such a mess. I  am a rat, and I like to do things in a proper manner."

Tommy Smith felt a little offended at this, and he said, "I never knock a bottle over when I want to get oil or anything else out of it, for I  am a little boy, and have a pair of hands to lift it up with, and pour what is in it out of it. But you have no hands, and you cannot get your head into it, because the neck is too narrow, and your tongue is not long enough to reach down to where the oil is. So I don't see what you can do, unless you knock it over."

"Fie!" said the rat again. "Well, you shall soon see what I can do." And almost as he said this, he was on the dresser, and from there he gave a little jump on to the window-sill, and sat down, with his long tail hanging over the edge of it. Now the neck of the bottle came almost up to the edge of the window-sill, and the rat's tail was as long as the bottle.

"Oh, I see!" cried Tommy Smith.

"You will in a minute," said the rat, and he drew up his tail, and began to feel about with the tip of it till he had got it right inside the mouth of the bottle. Then he let it down again until it was dipped more than an inch deep into the oil at the bottom—for the bottle was not quite half full.

"Oh, how clever!" cried Tommy Smith, clapping his hands.

"I should think so," said the rat, as he drew out his tail, and then, putting the end of it to his mouth, he began to lick off the delicious oil. "You say that I have not a pair of hands," he went on. "That is true, but you see I have a tail, and I make it do just as well."

"So you do," said Tommy Smith; "and I see that you are a very clever animal indeed."

"We are clever in many other ways besides that," said the rat. "Oil, you know, is not the only thing which we care about. We like eggs for breakfast, just as much as you do, and when we find any, we take them to our holes, even if they are a long way off. Now, how do you think we do that?"

"Let me see," said Tommy Smith. "You have no hands and I don't think you could carry an egg in your tail. I think you must push it in front of you with your nose and paws."

"Oh, we can do that, of course," said the rat, "but it takes so long, and, besides, the eggs might get broken. We have better ways than that. Sometimes, if there are a great many of us, we all sit in a row, and pass the eggs along from one to the other in our fore-paws. But we have another way which is cleverer still, and as there is a basket of eggs in that cupboard there, I don't mind showing it you; for, between ourselves, when we do that  trick, we like to have a little boy in the kitchen at nights to look at us. But, first, I must call a friend of mine." The rat then gave rather a loud squeak, and out another rat came running; but Tommy Smith didn't see where it came from.

"What is it?" said the second rat.

"Oh, I want to show little Tommy Smith how we carry eggs about," said the first rat.

"Very well," said the second rat. "Come along." And they both scampered into the cupboard together. (The door of the cupboard was half open. I  think it ought to have been shut.)

Very soon the two rats came out again, but whatever do you think they were doing? Why, one of them was on his back, and the other one was dragging him along the floor by his tail, which he had in his mouth. But what was that white thing which the rat who was being dragged along was holding? Was it an egg? Yes, indeed it was; and he was holding it very tightly with all his four feet, so that it was pressed up against his body, and didn't slip at all.

Tommy Smith could hardly believe his eyes. "Is that how you do it?" he cried. "I see. One rat holds the egg, and the other pulls him along by the tail."

"Of course he does," said the rat. "He pulls him and the egg too."

"Well,"  Tommy Smith said, "of all the clever things I have ever  seen, I think that is the cleverest. But where are you going with it?"

Yes, it was easy to ask, but there was no one to answer him; for both the little rats were gone all of a sudden,—and, what is more, the egg was gone too. "That will be one egg less for breakfast," thought Tommy Smith to himself. "I wonder that I didn't think of that before. Ah, Mr. Rat," he called out, "you may be very clever, but you are a thief, for all that. That egg which you have just taken away belongs to me. I mean it belongs to my father and mother. I call that stealing."

"Oh, do you?" said the rat, for he had come out of his hole again. "Then just let me ask you one question. Who laid that egg?"

"Why, the hen did, of course," answered Tommy Smith.

"Oh, did she?" said the rat. "Then I suppose your father, or someone else, took it away from her, and I  call that  stealing."

"Oh, no," said Tommy Smith; "I don't think it is."

"Don't you?" said the rat. "Well, you had better ask the hen what she  thinks. I feel sure she would agree with me."

Tommy Smith felt certain that the rat was wrong, and that the egg had not been stolen. Still, he thought he had better not ask the hen; and, whilst he was considering what he should say, the rat went on with—"There are other things we rats do which are quite as clever as what you have just seen. But, perhaps, if I were to show them you, you would make some other rude remark about stealing."

"Perhaps I should," Tommy Smith answered; "and, besides, I feel very sleepy, and should like to go upstairs to bed again."

As he said this, he yawned, and looked straight into the fire; but, dear me, what was  happening there? The coals in it seemed to be getting larger and larger, till they looked like the sides of great red mountains, and the spaces between them were like great caves, so deep that Tommy Smith could not see to the bottom of them. In and out of these caves, and all down the sides of the red mountains, hundreds of rats were running, and they all met each other in the centre of—what? Not of the fireplace. Of course not, for they would have been burnt. Nor of the kitchen either. There was no kitchen now. It had all disappeared. It was in the centre of a great hall, or amphitheatre, that Tommy Smith stood now; and when he looked round him, he saw only those great rugged mountains, which seemed to make its walls on every side. He looked up, but he could see nothing. There was neither sun, nor moon, nor stars, yet everything was lit up with a strange light, which seemed to Tommy Smith like the red glow of the fire, though he couldn't see the fire any more. It had gone with the kitchen.

"Where am I?" he cried.

"In the great underground store-cupboard of the rats," said a voice close beside him; and, looking round, he saw the same rat who had come up into his bedroom, and taken him down to the kitchen, and shown him his clever tricks.

Yes, he was the same rat,—but how different he looked! On his head was a yellow crown, which was either of gold, or else  it must have been cut out of a cheese-paring; and in his right fore-paw he held his sceptre, which looked exactly  like a delicate spring-onion. He had a necklace of the finest peas round his neck, from which a lovely green bean hung as a pendant upon his breast, and his tail was twisted into beautiful rings. "I am the king of the rats," he said, "and all the other rats are my subjects. Those great caves which you see in the sides of the mountains are so many passages that lead into all the kitchens of the world. Through them we bring all the good things that we find in the kitchens, and larders, and pantries, and then we feast on them here in our own palace; for a rat's palace is his store-cupboard. See!" And with this the rat king struck his sceptre on the ground, and at once all the rats left off scampering about, and formed themselves into a great many long lines, which stretched from the mouths of all the caves right into the very middle of that wonderful place. There they all sat upright, side by side, waiting to be told what to do. Then the king of the rats waved his sceptre three times round his head, and called out, "Supper." Immediately all kinds of things that are good for rats to eat, such as bits of cheese, scraps of bread or toast, beans, onions, bacon, potatoes, apples, biscuits,—everything of that kind that you can possibly think of (besides some  things that you can't  possibly think of), began to pour out from all the great caves, and to fly like lightning from rat to rat down all the long lines. One rat seized something in his fore-paws and passed it on to another, and that one to the next, so quickly that it made Tommy Smith quite giddy to look at it; and he hardly knew what was happening, till all at once there was an immense heap of provisions piled up in the very centre of the floor. Then the king of the rats climbed up to the top of the heap, and called out, "Take your places," and in a moment all the other rats came scampering up, and sat in a large circle round the great heap of provisions. "Begin!" said the king; and every rat made a leap forward, and fixed his teeth into the first piece of bread, or cheese, or toast, or bacon, that he could get hold of, and there was such  a noise of nibbling, and gnawing, and scratching, and squeaking. Tommy Smith was quite frightened, and put his fingers to his ears.

"What are you doing that for?" said the king of the rats. "Didn't you hear me tell you to begin?"

"But I don't want to begin," said Tommy Smith.

"Why not?" said the king; and all the other rats stopped eating, and said, "Why not?"

"Because I don't like eating in the night," Tommy Smith answered; "and, besides, I can't eat what rats eat."

At this there was a great commotion, and the king of the rats cried out, "Bite him!" in a very loud and shrill voice.


[Illustration]

"Bite him!"

Oh, how fast little Tommy Smith ran! "The caves!" he thought. "They lead to all the kitchens of the world, so one of them must lead to ours." He got to one, but the rats were close behind him. He could see their eyes shining in the dark as he looked back. "Oh dear!" he said; "I shall be caught. It's getting narrower and narrower, and, of course, it must be a rat's hole at the other end. Ah, there! I'm stuck, and I shall be bitten all over." As he said this, he kicked and squeezed as hard as he could, and, to his great surprise, he found that the sides of the rat-hole were quite soft—in fact, they felt very like bedclothes; and the next moment his head was on his own pillow, and the old clock on the staircase struck two.

"Well, good-night," said a squeaky little voice, that he seemed to have heard before. "If you will  go to sleep, I can't help it, but I think the way in which little boys turn night into day is quite dreadful."

The next time Tommy Smith heard the old clock on the stairs, it was striking eight, so, of course, it was broad daylight, and high time to get up. "What a funny dream I have had," he said, as he rubbed his eyes; "or did the rat really come, as he said he would?" Then, after thinking a little, he said to himself, "Rats are certainly very clever animals, and I don't think I'll kill another, even if they do steal a few things. At any rate, I  won't hurt them  until they  hurt me."