E have had a week of almost unbroken rain, and the water is standing over the swampy meadow. It is a dreary stretch,—this wet, sedgy land in the cold twilight,—drearier than any part of the woods or the upland pastures. They are empty; but the meadow is flat and wet, it is naked and all unsheltered. And a November night is falling.
The darkness deepens. A raw wind is rising. At nine o'clock the moon swings round and full to the crest of the ridge, and pours softly over. I button my heavy ulster close, and in my rubber boots go down to the stream and follow it out to the middle of the meadow, where it meets the main ditch. There is a sharp turn here toward the swamp; and here at the bend, behind a clump of black alders, I sit quietly down and wait.
I have come out to the bend to watch the muskrats building; for that small mound up the ditch is not an old haycock, but a half-finished muskrat house.
As I wait, the moon climbs higher over the woods. The water on the meadow shivers in the light. The wind bites through my heavy coat and drives me back, but not before I have seen one, two, three little creatures scaling the walls of the house with loads of mud-and-reed mortar. I am driven back by the cold, but not before I know that here in the desolate meadow is being rounded off a lodge, thick-walled and warm, and proof against the longest, bitterest of winters.
This is near the end of November. My fire-wood is in the cellar; I am about ready to put on the double-windows and the storm-doors. The muskrats are even now putting on theirs, for their house is all but finished. Winter is at hand: but we are prepared, the muskrats and I.
Throughout the summer the muskrats had no house, only their tunnels into the sides of the ditch, their roadways out into the grass, and their beds under the tussocks or among the roots of the old stumps. All those months the water was low in the ditch, and the beds among the tussocks were safe and dry enough.
Now the November rains have filled river and ditch, flooded the tunnels, and crept up into the beds under the tussocks. Even a muskrat will creep out of his bed when cold, wet water creeps in. What shall he do for shelter? He knows. And long before the rains begin, he picks out the place for a house. He does not want to leave his meadow, therefore the only thing to do is to build,—move from under the tussock out upon the top of the tussock; and here, in its deep, wiry grass, make a new bed high and dry above the rising water; and close this new bed in with walls that circle and dome, and defy the very winter.
Such a house will require a great deal of work to build. Why should not two or three muskrats combine—make the house big enough to hold them all, save labor and warmth, too, and, withal, live sociably together? So they left, each one his single bed, and, joining efforts, started, about the middle of October, to build this winter house.
Slowly, night after night, the domed walls have been rising, although for several nights at a time I could see no apparent progress with the work. The builders were in no hurry. The cold was far off. But it is coming; and to-night it feels near and keen. And to-night there is no loafing about the lodge.
When this house is done, when the last hod of mud plaster has been laid on,—then the rains may descend and the floods come, but it will not fall. It is built upon a tussock; and a tussock—did you ever try to pull up a tussock?
Winter may descend, and boys and foxes may come—and they will come, but not before the walls are frozen. Then, let them come. The house will stand. It is boy-proof, almost; it is entirely rain-, cold-, and fox-proof. I have often seen where the fox has gone round and round the house in the snow, and where, at places, he has attempted to dig into the frozen mortar. But it was a foot thick, as hard as flint, and utterly impossible for his pick and shovel.
I said the floods, as well as the fox, may come. So they may, ordinarily; but along in March, when one comes as a freshet and rises to the dome of the house, then it fills the bed-chamber to the ceiling and drowns the dwellers out. I remember a freshet once in the end of February that flooded Lupton's Pond and drove the muskrats of the whole pond village to their ridgepoles, to the bushes, and to whatever wreckage the waters brought along.
"The best-laid schemes o' mice and men
Gang aft agley."
—and of muskrats, too.
But not very often do the muskrats' plans go thus agley. For muskrats and wood mice and birds and bees, and even the very trees of the forest, have a kind of natural foresight. They all look ahead, at the approach of autumn, and begin to provide against the coming cold. Yet, weather-wise as a muskrat may be, still he cannot know all that may happen; he cannot be ready for everything. And so, if now and then, he should prove foresight to be vain, he only shows that his plans and our plans, his life and our lives, are very much alike.
Usually, however, the muskrat's plans work out as he would have them. His foresight proves to be equal to all that the winter can bring. On the coldest winter days I shall look out over the bleak white waste to where his house shows, a tiny mound in the snow, and think of him safe and warm inside, as safe and warm as I am, in my house, here on the hilltop.
Indeed, I think the muskrat will be the warmer; for my big house here on Mullein Hill is sometimes cold. And the wind! If only I could drive the winter wind away from the corners of the house! But the house down in the meadow has no corners. It has walls, mud walls, so thick and round that the shrieking wind sweeps past unheard by the dwellers within; and all unheeded the cold creeps over and over the low thatch, to crawl back and stiffen upon the meadow.
The doors of this meadow house swing wide open throughout the winter; for they are in the bottom of the house, beneath the water, where only the muskrat can enter. Just outside the doors, down under the water and the roof of ice that covers all the flooded meadow, are fresh calamus roots, and iris and arum—food in abundance, no matter how long the winter lasts.
No, the winter has not yet come; but it is coming, for the muskrats are building. Let it come. Let the cold crawl stiff and gray across the meadow. Let the whirling snow curl like smoke about the pointed top of the little tepee down by the meadow ditch. Let the north wind do its worst. For what care the dwellers in that thick-walled lodge beneath the snow? Down under the water their doors are open; their roadways up the ditches as free as in the summer; and the stems of the sedges just as juicy and pink and tender.
The muskrats are building. The buds are leaving. Winter is coming. I must get out my own storm-windows and double-doors; for even now a fire is blazing cheerily on my wide, warm hearth.