I T was a nice, fine afternoon, and Tommy Smith was just going out for a little walk. He thought he would take his little terrier dog with him, so he called, "Pincher! Pincher!" But Pincher was not there, so he had to go without him. He was very sorry for this, for when he had got a little way from the house, what should run across the road but a rat, which sat down just inside the hedge and looked at him. "What a pity," he said out loud. "It's no use my trying to catch him alone, for he's sure to get away; but if Pincher had been with me, we would have hunted him down together."
"Then you would have done very wrong," said the rat, as he peeped at little Tommy Smith through the hedge. "You are a naughty boy yourself, and you teach Pincher to be a naughty dog."
"What!" said Tommy Smith; "then can you talk as well as the frog and toad?"
"Of course I can," the rat answered; "and I think if I were to talk to you for a little while as they did, you would not wish to hurt me any more either. I am sure I am just as clever as a frog or a toad."
"Can you change your skin like them?" said Tommy Smith.
"My skin never wants changing," said the rat; "but there are many other things I can do which are quite as clever as that."
"Well, do some of them," said Tommy Smith.
"I will," said the rat, "but not now. I can do things much better at night, and I prefer being indoors. To-night, when everybody is in bed and asleep, and the house is quiet, I will come to your room and wake you up. We can talk without being disturbed then, and I will soon teach you what a clever animal I am."
"I wonder what you will have to tell me," said Tommy Smith. "But say what you will, I believe that rats were only made to be killed."
The rat looked very angry. "They have as much right to be alive as little boys have," he said. "But good-bye for the present," and he scampered away.
Tommy Smith walked on, and when he had gone some little way, he saw a number of rooks walking about a field. There was a haystack in the field, and he thought that perhaps if he were to get behind it and wait there for a little while, some of the rooks would come near enough for him to throw a stone at them. So he put several stones in his pocket, and then, with one in his hand, he began to walk towards the haystack. When he got there he sat down behind it, and peeped cautiously round the corner. Yes, the rooks were still there, and some of them were coming nearer. "Oh," thought Tommy Smith (but I think he must have thought it aloud), I have only to wait a little while, and then, perhaps, I shall be able to kill one."
"For shame!" said a voice close to him.
Tommy Smith looked all about, but he saw no one. "Who was that?" he said.
"Oh, fie!" said the voice. "What? kill a poor rook? What a wicked, wicked thing to do!"
Tommy Smith thought that there must be someone on the other side of the haystack, so he went there to see; but he found no one. Then he walked all round it, but nobody was there. But the rooks had seen him as he went round the haystack, and they all flew away. Then the same voice (it was rather a hoarse one) said, "Ah! now they are gone; so you will not be able to kill any of them."
"Who are you?" said Tommy Smith. "I hear you, but I cannot see anybody;" and, indeed, he began to feel rather frightened.
"If I show myself, will you promise not to hurt me?" said the hoarse voice.
"Yes, I will," said Tommy Smith.
"Very well, then. Throw away that stone you have in your hand, and the ones in your pocket as well."
Tommy Smith did this, and then, what should he see, standing on the very top of the haystack, but a large black rook. "Why, where were you?" he said. "I did not see you there when I looked."
"No," the rook said; "I hid myself under a little loose hay, for I did not want a stone thrown at me. I saw you coming, and I knew very well what you wanted to do, so I thought I would wait till you came, and then give you a good talking to. And, indeed, a naughty boy like you, who wants to kill rooks, ought to be scolded."
"I don't see why it is so naughty," answered Tommy Smith; "I have always thrown stones at the rooks, and nobody has ever told me not to."
"That is just why I have come to tell you how wrong it is," said the rook. "Would you like anybody to throw stones at you?"
Tommy Smith had to confess that he would not like that at all.
"Then, do you not know," the rook went on, looking very grave, "that you ought to do the same to other people that you would like other people to do to you? Have not your father and mother taught you that?"
"Oh yes, they have," said Tommy Smith; "but I don't think they meant animals."
"They ought to have meant them," said the rook, "whether they did or not, for animals have feelings as well as human beings. If you are kind to them, they are happy; but if you are unkind to them and hurt them, then they are unhappy. An animal, you know, is a living being like yourself, and surely it is better to make any living being happy than to make it unhappy."
Tommy Smith looked rather ashamed when he heard this, and did not quite know what to say. He thought the rook spoke as if he were preaching a sermon, and then he remembered having heard some old country people talk of "Parson Rook." Still, what he said seemed to be sensible, and all he could say, at last, as an answer was, "Oh, it's all very well, but you know you rooks do a great deal of harm."
"That shows how little you know about us," answered the rook. "We do not do harm, but good; and if the farmers knew how much good we did them, they would think us their best friends."
"Why, what good do you do them?" said Tommy Smith. "I always thought that you ate their corn."
"Perhaps we may eat a little of it," the rook said; "that is only fair, for if it were not for us, the farmer would have very little corn or anything else. I am sure, at least, that he would have scarcely any potatoes."
"Oh! but why wouldn't he?" said Tommy Smith.
"I will explain it to you," said the rook. "So now listen, because you are going to learn something. There is an insect which you must often have seen, for it is very common in the spring-time. It is about the size of a very large humble-bee, and it has wings too, but you would not think it had at first, for they are hidden under a pair of smooth, brown covers, which are called shards. In the daytime it sits upon a tree or a bush, or sometimes you may see it crawling along a dusty road. But in the evening it begins to fly about with a humming noise. This insect is called the cockchafer. The mother cockchafer lays her eggs in the ground, and, after a few weeks, there comes out of each egg something which you would not think was a cockchafer at all, because it is so different. It has a yellow head and a long white body, which is bent at the end in the shape of a hook. On the front part of its body it has three pairs of legs, like a caterpillar's only they are very small; but behind, it has no legs at all. It has a very strong pair of jaws, and with these it cuts through the roots of the grass and corn and wheat under which it lies, for these are the things on which it feeds. There is hardly anything which the farmer plants, and would like to see grow, that this grub or caterpillar (for that is what it is) does not eat and destroy; but what it likes best of all is the potato.
"The cockchafer-grub lies in the ground for four years before it turns into a real cockchafer, and all this time it keeps growing larger and larger; and, of course, the larger it grows, the more it eats and the more harm it does. Now if there were no one to kill this great, greedy thing, I don't know what the farmers would do, for all their crops would be spoilt. But we rooks kill them, and eat them too, for they are very nice, and we like them very much. We eat them for breakfast, and dinner, and supper, so you can think what a lot of them we eat in the day. When you see us walking about over the fields, we are looking for these great white things, and, whenever we give a dig into the ground with our beaks, you may be almost sure that we have either found one of them or something else which does harm too. When the fields are ploughed, a great many grubs and worms are turned up by the ploughshare, and then you may see us following the plough, and walking along in the furrow it has made, so as to pick up all we can get. So think what a lot of good we must do, and remember that the boy who kills a rook is doing harm to somebody's corn, or wheat, or potatoes."
"I do not want to do that," said Tommy Smith.
"Of course not," said the rook; "so you must not throw stones at us any more."
"I won't, then," said Tommy Smith. "But why do the farmers shoot you, if you do them so much good?"
"You may well ask," the rook answered. "They ought to be ashamed of themselves. I will tell you something about that. Once upon a time some farmers thought they would kill us all because we stole their corn; so they all went out together with their guns, and whenever they saw any of us, they fired at us and killed us, until, at last, there was not a rook left in the whole country; for all those that had not been shot had flown away. The farmers were so glad, for they thought that next year they would have a much better harvest. But they were quite wrong, for, instead of having a better harvest, they had hardly any harvest at all. The slugs and the caterpillars, and, above all, the great, hungry cockchafer-grubs, had eaten almost everything up; for, you see, there were no hungry rooks to eat them. The little corn we used to take from the farmers they could very well have spared, but now, without us, they found that they had lost much more than they could spare. Then the farmers saw how foolish they had been, and they were very sorry, and did all they could to get the rooks to come back again; and when they did come back, they took care not to shoot them any more."
Tommy Smith was very interested in this story which the rook told him, and he was just going to ask where it all happened, and whether it was near where he lived or a long way away, when the rook said, "Well, I must be flapping" (just as an old gentleman might say, "Well, I must be jogging"); "there is a meeting this afternoon which I ought to attend."
"A meeting!" Tommy Smith said, feeling quite surprised.
"Certainly," replied the rook. "Why not? I belong to a civilised community, so, of course, there are meetings. I should be sorry not to go to some of them."
It seemed very funny to Tommy Smith that birds should have meetings as well as men. "But, perhaps," he thought, "it is not quite the same kind of thing." Only he didn't like to say this, in case the rook should be offended, so he only asked, "What sort of a meeting is it that you are going to, Mr. Rook?"
"A very important one," the rook answered. "It is a meeting to try someone who is accused of having done something wrong."
"Why, then, it is a trial," said Tommy Smith. "But do rooks have trials?"
"Of course," said the rook. "Have I not just said that we are a civilised community? We are not wild birds. Amongst civilised people, when someone is accused of doing wrong, he is tried for it, is he not?"
"Oh yes!" said Tommy Smith. "If he is a man, he is."
"If he is a man, men try him," said the rook; "but if he is a rook, rooks do."
"But what do you do if you find him guilty?" said Tommy Smith.
"Why, we punish him, to be sure," said the rook; "and if he has been very wicked, we peck him to death."
"Oh, but that is very cruel," said Tommy Smith. He forgot that he had seen innocent rooks shot without thinking it cruel at all.
"Not more cruel than hanging a man," the rook answered. "Do you think it is?" and Tommy Smith couldn't say that he did. He thought he would very much like to see this trial that the rook was going to. "Oh, Mr. Rook," he said, "do let me go with you." But the rook said, "Oh no! that would never do. No men are allowed at our trials. There are no rooks at yours, you know."
"No," said Tommy Smith; "but that is because—"
"Never mind why it is," interrupted the rook; "no doubt there is some good reason, and we have our reasons too. We could not try a rook properly if we thought a man was watching us. It would make us nervous. Sometimes (but not very often) a man has watched us without our knowing it, and then he has told everybody about our wonderful trials. But people have not believed him; and other men, who sit at home and see very little, and only believe what they see, have written to say it was all nonsense. But now, when they tell you it is all nonsense, you will not believe them, because a rook himself has told you it is all true."
"Oh yes, and I believe it," said Tommy Smith. "But do tell me what the rook you are going to try has done."
"I cannot tell you that till we have tried him," said the rook, "for perhaps it may not be true after all. As yet, I do not even know what he is accused of. Perhaps it is of stealing the sticks from another rook's nest to make his own with. Perhaps it is of something even worse than that. But this you may be sure of, that if we do peck him to death, it will be because he has behaved himself in a manner totally unworthy of a rook. Now I really must go, or I shall be late. Good-bye,—and, let me see, I think you promised never to throw stones at rooks again."
"Oh no!" said Tommy Smith, "I promise not to."
"Or to shoot us when you grow up," said the rook, just turning his head round as he was preparing to fly.
"Oh no! indeed, I won't," said Tommy Smith; and the rook flew away with a loud caw of pleasure.