It was just the very exact time for a little boy like Tommy Smith to have been in bed for about five minutes (your mother will know what time it was); so, of course, he had been in bed for about five minutes, and he wasn't asleep yet. It was a beautiful night, the window was open a little at the top, and Tommy Smith was looking through it, right away to where the moon and the stars were shining. All at once a great white bird flitted across the window—so silently!—without making any noise at all. Most birds, you know, make a swishing with their wings, which you can hear when you are close to them (sometimes when a good way off too, like the peewit), but this bird made none at all.
"Oh!" cried Tommy Smith, "whatever was that?" As he said this, the great white bird flew back again, but—just fancy!—instead of passing by the window as it did before; it flew up on to it, and sat with its head inside the room, looking at Tommy Smith. "Oh, who are you?" said Tommy Smith. And yet he knew quite well that it was an owl. No other bird could have such great, round eyes, and such a funny wise-looking face.
The owl sat looking at Tommy Smith for a little while, and then he said in a very wise tone of voice, "Guess who I am."
"I think you are the owl," said Tommy Smith.
"That is right," said the owl. "But what kind of owl do you think I am?"
"Oh," said Tommy Smith, "I suppose you are the owl that says 'Tu whit, tu whoo.' "
"I am not," said the owl very decisively. "I have never said anything so absurd in the whole of my life. Why, what does it mean? Nothing, I should say. It has simply no meaning. What I do say is 'Shrirr-r-r-r,' which is very different, is it not now?"
"Yes," said Tommy Smith, "it is very different, but,"—
"Of course it is," said the owl; "when I say that, I feel that I am making a sensible remark."
Tommy Smith didn't think that "shrirr-r-r-r" was a much more sensible remark that "tu whit, tu whoo," but he thought he had better not say so, as the owl spoke so positively.
"There are a great many different kinds of owls in the world, you know," the barn-owl continued. "Some are very large, as large as an eagle, and others are a good deal smaller than I am. Here, in England, there are three kinds,—the wood-owl, the tawny owl (I can't answer for what they say), and the barn-owl. Now I, thank goodness, am a barn-owl. I must ask you to remember that, because, naturally, I shouldn't like to be mistaken for one of the others."
"Oh, I'm sure I shall remember it," said Tommy Smith, "because"—
"Never mind saying why," said the owl, "it would take too long. Well, and were you surprised to see me?"
"Oh yes, I was a little," said Tommy Smith. "I just looked up, and I saw a great white thing going past the window."
"I suppose I looked white to you," said the owl; "but that is because you are not nocturnal, as I am. But, if you were an owl, like me, you would see that I am not really white. At any rate, there is more of me that isn't white, than that is. My face is white, I know,—these beautiful, soft, silky feathers that make two circles round my fine, dark eyes,—my face-discs they are called (what a pity you can't see them better!), they are white, and very handsome they look. I am very proud of them, for I am the only owl in England that has them. But, after all, my face, though it is beautiful, is only a small part of me. My back, which is much larger, is not white at all, but a light reddish yellow. There, now you get the moonlight on it nicely. Such pretty, delicate colouring. What a pity you are not nocturnal! Then, even my breast is not quite white. It has some very pretty grey tints about it. And yet I am called the 'white owl,' as well as the 'barn-owl,' and often that name is put first in books. It is very annoying. The barn-owl is a good sensible name; for I do know something about barns, and I am very fond of catching the mice that live in them. But why should I be called white, when I have such pretty colours? It is one of my grievances. You know I have a good many grievances."
"Have you?" said Tommy Smith. (He knew what a grievance was; one of those things that ought never to be made out of anything.)
"Yes," said the owl; "and do you know what I do with them?"
"No," said Tommy Smith. He didn't quite understand what the owl meant.
"Well," said the owl—"mind, I'm going to say something very wise now (you know I'm an owl),—I put up with them."
"Oh!" said Tommy Smith.
"Yes," said the owl. "It will take you a very long time to find out what a wise remark that was. You couldn't have made it, you know; I mean, of course, with the proper expression. I couldn't myself once, when I was only a young owl, but now that I am grown up, and have a wife and family to assist me, I can."
"Oh yes," said Tommy Smith. (It was all he could think of to say.)
"You've no idea," the owl went on, "what a time it takes one to make some remarks properly. Now take, for instance, the one, 'It's a sad world!' It seems very easy, but even if you were to repeat it a hundred times a day for the next fortnight, you wouldn't be able to say it in the way it ought to be said—like this," and the owl snapped his beak, and said it again. "That sounds convincing," he remarked; "but as for a little boy saying it in that way,—no, no."
"It is so very difficult," said Tommy Smith.
"Well, it wants help," said the owl; "that's the principal thing. If you were left to yourself, you'd never manage it; but first one person helps you, and then another, until at last—after a good many years, you know—you get into the way of it. It's like shrugging one's shoulders. It takes one half a lifetime to do that—well."
"Does it?" said Tommy Smith.
"Ask your father," said the owl; "only you mustn't expect him to make such a wise answer as I should, because, of course, he isn't an owl like me."
Tommy Smith didn't think the owl had said anything so very wise, but he had used a word twice which he didn't know the meaning of, and so he said, "Please, Mr. Owl, what does being 'nocturnal' mean?"
"To be nocturnal," said the owl, "is to wake up and see at night, and go to bed in the daytime, which is what we owls do."
"Oh yes, I know," said Tommy Smith; "and if an owl ever does come out in the daytime, a lot of little birds fly after him and"—
"Yes," said the owl. "It is very grand, is it not, to be attended in that way? Common birds have to fly about by themselves, but, of course, when one is a great owl, it is natural that people should make a fuss about one."
"But, Mr. Owl," said Tommy Smith (he really couldn't help saying this, though he was afraid the owl might be angry), "don't the little birds fly after you because they don't like you, and"—
"Dear, dear!" said the owl, "what funny notions little boys do get into their heads. Not like me, don't they? That is very ungrateful of them, because I like them very much. Sometimes I like them almost as much as a mouse, you know. But, after all, what does it matter whether they like me or not? The important thing is to have a retinue, all the rest is of no consequence. Why do you suppose"— The owl stopped all of a sudden, as if he had just thought of something, and then he said, "But, perhaps, hearing so many wise things, one after the other, in such a short time, may be bad for you,—too much strain on the brain, you know. What do you think?"
"Oh, I don't think it will do me any harm," said Tommy Smith."
"Very well," said the owl; "in the cool of the night, perhaps, it may not, but I wouldn't answer for it in the daytime, if the sun was at all hot. Well, now do you suppose that if all the people in the world who had retinues were to know what their retinues thought about them, they would be any the happier for it?"
"I don't know," said Tommy Smith.
"Well," said the owl (I really cannot tell you how wise he looked as he said this), "I do."
"But what is a retinue?" asked Tommy Smith.
"Oh dear," said the owl, "I have been forgetting that I am a wise owl, and that you are only a little boy who doesn't know long words. A retinue is an entourage, you know, and"—
"But I don't know what that word means either," said Tommy Smith (and, indeed, he thought it was rather a more difficult one than the other).
"Oh dear," said the owl, "I am forgetting again. Why, when there are a lot of little birds, who fly round you and twitter whenever you come out and show yourself, that is what I call having a retinue or an entourage; and, depend upon it, it is a very grand thing to have. The more birds there are to twitter about you, the grander bird you are. But it doesn't so much matter what they twitter, and as for what they think, you had better know nothing at all about that."
It was all very well for the owl to talk in this very wise way, but Tommy Smith felt sure that the little birds didn't like him at all, and only flew around him to annoy him when he happened to come out in the daytime. And he didn't think it was such a very grand thing to have a retinue like that. "They would peck at him too, I daresay, if they weren't afraid," he said to himself; "and no wonder, if he eats them." But he wasn't quite sure whether the owl did this or not, so he thought he had better ask him before feeling angry with him.
"Do you eat the little birds, Mr. Owl?" he said.
"Not very often," the owl answered. "The fact is, I don't so very much care about them. Only, sometimes, when I want a change of diet, or if they happen to get in my way, I like to try them. They can't complain of that, you know."
"Why not?" said Tommy Smith.
"They haven't time," said the owl. "You see, I catch them asleep, and by the time they wake up, they've been eaten."
"I think it's a great shame," said Tommy Smith; "and I think you're a wicked bird to do it. You ought to be shot for doing such things, and when I am grown up, and have a gun"—
"Wait a bit," said the owl. "Do you know what you would be doing if you were to shoot me? Why, you would be shooting the most useful bird in the whole country. You wouldn't want to do that, I suppose?"
Tommy Smith didn't quite know what to say to this. "Of course, if you really are very useful," he began—
"Well, if you were a farmer," the owl went on, "I don't suppose you would like to have all your corn, and wheat, and hay, and everything eaten up by rats and mice, would you?"
"Oh no," said Tommy Smith.
"That is what would happen, though, if it wasn't for me," said the owl. "You see, I eat the rats and mice. They are my proper food, especially the mice. A full-grown rat is rather large for me—too large to swallow whole, at any rate; and I like to swallow things whole if I can. But the mice and the young rats are just the right size, and you've no idea what a lot of them I eat. I have a very good appetite, I can tell you, and so have my children. Of course, I have to feed them as well as myself, so there is plenty of work for me to do. Every night I fly round the fields and farmyards, and when I see a mouse, or a rat, or a mole, or a shrew-mouse, down I pounce upon it. Now think how many owls there are all over the country, and think what thousands and thousands of rats and mice they must catch every night, and then think what a lot of good they must do. Or, here is another way. Think how many rats and mice there are even now, although there are so many owls to catch them, and think how much harm they do, and think how many more there would be, and how much more harm they would do if there were no owls to catch them. That is a lot of thinking is it not? Well, have you thought of it all?"
"I've tried to," said Tommy Smith.
"It's difficult, isn't it?" said the owl. "It's all very well to say 'think,' but the fact is, you can't think what a useful bird an owl is—and especially a barn-owl. But, perhaps, you don't believe me."
"Oh yes, I do," said Tommy Smith. "I always thought that owls killed rats and mice."
"You can prove it, if you like," said the owl, "and I'll tell you how. I told you that I liked to swallow animals whole, so, of course, everything goes down—fur, bones, feathers (if it does happen to be a bird), and all. But I can't be expected to digest such things as that, so I have to get rid of them in some way or other. Well, what do I do? Why, I bring them all up again in pellets about the size and shape of a potato."
"Oh, but potatoes are of different sizes and shapes," said Tommy Smith.
"I mean a smallish-sized oblong potato," said the owl. "That is what my pellets look like, only they are of a greyish sort of colour. Sometimes they are quite silvery."
"How funny!" said Tommy Smith.
"How pretty, I suppose you mean," said the owl. "Yes, they are pretty. Now, if you look about under the trees in the fields where I have been sitting, you will see these pretty pellets of mine lying on the grass. Pick them up and pull them to pieces, and you will find that they are nothing but the fur, and skulls, and bones of mice, and shrew-mice, and young rats. Sometimes the skull and beak of a bird will be there, and then it will almost always be a sparrow's. Sparrows are a nuisance, you know, because there are too many of them. But, as for mice, there will be three or four of them in every pellet (you can count them by the skulls), and you know what a nuisance they are. Let anyone who is not quite sure whether I am a useful bird or not look at my pellets. Then he'll know, and if he shoots me after that, he must either be very stupid, or very wicked, or both. Well, do you still mean to shoot me when you grow up?"
"Oh no," said Tommy Smith, "I never will, now that I know how useful you are, and what a lot of good you do."
The owl looked very pleased at this, so Tommy Smith thought he would take the opportunity to ask his advice about something which had been puzzling him a good deal. "Please, Mr. Owl," he said, "I promised the rat not to kill him any more. But, if rats and mice do such a lot of harm, oughtn't I to kill them whenever I can?"
"Certainly not," said the owl. "A little boy should be kind to animals, and not trouble his head about anything else. No, no; be kind to animals and leave the rats and mice to me." That was the wise owl's advice to Tommy Smith, and I think it was very good advice.
"Where do you live, Mr. Owl?" (that was the next question that Tommy Smith asked). "I suppose it is in the woods."
"No," the owl answered. "Barn-owls do not live in the woods. The tawny-owls and the wood-owls do. Woods are good enough for them, but we like to have more comfortable surroundings. We don't object to trees, of course. A nice hollow tree is a great comfort, and I, for one, could not do without it. But it must be within a reasonable distance of a village, and the closer it is to a church, the better I like it."
"Do you, Mr. Owl," said Tommy Smith.
"Yes," said the owl. "I don't mind how far I am from a railway station or even a post office, but the church must be near."
"I suppose you like to sit in the tower, Mr. Owl," said Tommy Smith.
"I should think so," said the owl; "the belfry is there, you know, and I am so fond of that. It is so nice to sit in one's belfry and think of one's barns, and farms, and haystacks. And then, when the bells ring, you can't think what fun that is—especially on the first day of January when they ring in the New Year. I get quite excited then, and I give a scream, and throw myself off the old tower, and fly round it, and whoop and shriek until I seem to be one of the mad bells myself. For they are mad then, you know. They go mad once every year—on New Year's day. People come out to listen sometimes. They look up into the air, and say, 'Hark! There they go. It is the New Year now. They are ringing it in.' Then all at once the bells stop ringing, and it is all over; the New Year has been rung in. But what there is new about it is more than I can say, wise as I am. It all seems to go on just the same as before, and sometimes I wonder what all the fuss has been about. I have never been able to see any difference myself between the last minute of the thirty-first of December and the first minute of the first of January. On a cold rainy night especially, they seem very much alike. But, of course, there must be a difference, or the bells wouldn't ring as they do."
"Oh, they ring because it's the new year, Mr. Owl," said Tommy Smith.
"Yes, that's it," said the owl; "but I should never have found it out without them."
Tommy Smith began to think that the owl couldn't be so very wise after all, or surely he would have known the difference between the old year and the new year. He was going to explain it to him thoroughly, but he was getting rather sleepy by this time, and it is difficult to explain things when one is sleepy.
So he didn't, and the owl went on with, "Oh yes, we love churches, we owls do. We have our nests there, you know, and we could not find a safer place to make them in. Anywhere else we might be disturbed and rudely treated, for people are not nearly so polite to us as they ought to be. But we are always safe in a church, for no one would be so wicked as to annoy us there. Besides, a church is a wonderful place to hide in. People pass by it, and come into it, and sit down and go out again, without having any idea that we are there, and have been there all the time. They never think of that."
"What part of the church do you build your nest in, Mr. Owl?" said Tommy Smith.
"Oh, that is in the belfry too," said the owl. "The belfry is my part of the church. I think it must have been built for me, it suits me so well. I am called the belfry-owl sometimes, and that is a very good name for me too. But now don't ask me any more questions, because you are getting sleepy, and I have something to tell you before you go to sleep."
And then the owl told all about the grand meeting that the animals had held in the woods, and all that they had said to each other, and what they had decided to do to try and make Tommy Smith a better boy to animals, and how, at first, they had wanted to hurt him (or even to kill him), because they were so angry with him, until the owl had persuaded them not to. It was all the wise owl's doing. He knew that the best way to make a little boy kind to animals was to teach him something about them; and who could teach him so well as the animals themselves?