Gateway to the Classics: Tommy Smith's Animals by Edmund Selous
Tommy Smith's Animals by  Edmund Selous

Chapter X

The Squirrel

"The pert little squirrel's as brisk as can be;

He calls his house 'Tree-tops' and lives in a tree."

So Tommy Smith went home to his lessons, and when he had finished them, he put on his hat and came out again, and began to walk through the woods to where the mother woodpigeon was waiting for him on her nest. "Tommy Smith! Tommy Smith! Where are you going to, Tommy Smith?" said a voice which he had not heard before. At any rate, he had not heard it talk before. Such a funny little voice it was, something between a cough and a sob, and if it had not said all those words so very  distinctly, it would have sounded like "sug, sug,—sug, sug,—sug, sug, sug, sug, sug." Now I come to think of it, Tommy Smith must have heard it before, for he had often been for walks in the woods. But when a voice which has only said "sug, sug" before, begins to talk and say whole sentences, it is not so easy to recognize it. "Who can that be?" said Tommy Smith; and then he looked all about, but he could see no one. "Who are you?" he called out; "and where are you calling me from?"

"From here, Tommy Smith, from here," answered the voice. "Can't you see me? Why here I am."

"Are you the rabbit?" said Tommy Smith; but he thought directly, "Oh no, it can't be the rabbit, because it comes from a tree, and no rabbit could burrow up a tree."

"The rabbit, indeed!" said the voice. "Oh no, I am not the rabbit. That is  a funny sug, sug, sug, sug-gestion."

"Oh, I know!" cried Tommy Smith. "It is the"—

"Look!" said the voice. And all at once there was a red streak down the trunk of a beech tree and along the ground, and there was a little squirrel sitting at Tommy Smith's feet, with his tail cocked up over his head. "Oh!" cried Tommy Smith,—and before he could say anything else the squirrel said "Look!" again, and there was another red streak, up the trunk of a pine tree this time,—and there he was sitting on a branch of it, with his tail cocked up over his head, just the same as before.

"Oh dear, Mr. Squirrel," said Tommy Smith—the branch was not a very high one, and they could talk to each other comfortably—"how fast you do go!"

"Oh, I like to do things quickly," said the squirrel. "Mine is an active nature during three-parts of the year."

"And what is it during the other part?" asked Tommy Smith.

"Oh, I don't know anything about it then," the squirrel answered.

This puzzled Tommy Smith a little. "Why not?" he said.

"Oh, because I'm asleep," said the squirrel. "One can't know much about oneself when one's asleep, you know; and besides, it doesn't matter."

"But do you go to sleep for such a long time?" said Tommy Smith. "I know that the frogs and the snakes go to sleep all the winter, but I didn't know any regular animal did."

"Why, doesn't the dormouse?" said the squirrel. "He's a much harder sleeper than I am. I suppose you call him  a regular animal."

"Oh yes," said Tommy Smith. He had forgotten the dormouse, and, of course, he was  a regular animal. By a "regular animal," I suppose Tommy Smith meant one that wasn't an insect, or a reptile, or a worm, or something of that sort. Perhaps he couldn't have said exactly what  he meant, but whatever he did mean, you may be sure that it was not very sensible, because all living creatures are animals, and one is just as regular as another, if you look at it in the right way.

"Well," said the squirrel, "I think we are to have a little chat, are we not? It's you that must ask the questions, you know."

"Oh, I should so like to," said Tommy Smith, "but I promised the mother woodpigeon to go back and talk to her, and I am going there now."

"The mother woodpigeon will be on her nest for another hour or two," said the squirrel, "so you will have time to talk to her and to me too. And let me tell you, it is not every little boy who can have a talk with a squirrel."

Tommy Smith thought that it was not every little boy who could have a talk with a woodpigeon either. But he wanted to have both, so he said, "Very well, Mr. Squirrel, and I hope you will tell me something interesting about yourself."

The squirrel only nodded, and said nothing; and then Tommy Smith remembered that he had to ask the questions, so he said, "Why is it, Mr. Squirrel, that you go to sleep in the winter? It seems so funny that you should. I stay awake all the time, you know—except at night, of course,—so why can't you?"

"That is easily answered," said the squirrel. "You have food in the winter, don't you?"

"Oh yes," said Tommy Smith.

"Of course you do," said the squirrel. "It is all got for you, so you have no trouble. I  have to find mine myself, but in the winter there is none to find. So if I didn't go to sleep, I should starve."

Tommy Smith remembered, then, that the grass-snake had told him that he  went to sleep in the winter, because he could get no frogs to eat; and the frog had said he  did, because he could find no insects. So he saw that there was the same reason for all these three animals, who were so different from each other, doing the same thing. "And that's why the dormouse goes to sleep too, I suppose," he said to himself, and then he began to think that if any other animals went to sleep all the winter, it must be because they  could get no food.

"But I don't think I could  go to sleep if I was very hungry," he said to the squirrel; "and if I did, I'm sure I should wake up again very soon and want my dinner."

"I daresay you would," said the squirrel; "and if you couldn't get it, you would soon die."

"But do you  never wake up and want your  dinner, Mr. Squirrel?" said Tommy Smith.

"Oh yes," said the squirrel, "I often wake up, but whenever I do, I can always get it. Do you know why? Because I am such a clever animal, that I hide away food in the autumn, so that I can find it in the winter."

"But you said  you couldn't find food in the winter," said Tommy Smith.

"Oh, I meant that I couldn't find it growing on the trees and bushes," said the squirrel. "Of course I can find what I have stored away, and that is enough for all the time I am awake. But it wouldn't be enough for the whole winter, so I sleep or doze most of the time, and then I don't require anything."

"But why don't you store away enough food for the whole winter?" said Tommy Smith. "Then you needn't go to sleep at all, you know."

"Good gracious!" said the squirrel, "that would take a great deal too much time. It is all very well to put a few things aside, so as to have something to eat on sunny days—for those are the days I like to wake up on,—but just fancy having to find dinners beforehand for every day all through the winter. I could never do that, you know. One dinner to think about is quite enough as a rule. How should you like to have to cook two dinners every day, and always put one of them in a cupboard?"

"But you don't cook your  dinners, Mr. Squirrel," said Tommy Smith.

"And you  don't look  for yours," said the squirrel. "I  do. You see," he went on, "I only begin hiding things away towards the end of autumn, so there isn't so very much time."

"But you have the rest of the year to do it in too," said Tommy Smith.

"Oh no," said the squirrel; "that's quite a mistake. In the spring and summer I have something else to think about. Besides, there is nothing worth hiding away then—no acorns, or beechnuts, or filberts, and, of course, one wants to have something really nice to eat when one wakes up in the winter. But in the autumn all those things are ripe. The autumn is the great eating-time. That is the time of the year that I like best of all."

"What! better than the spring or the summer?" said Tommy Smith.

"Well, in the spring, there are buds on the trees," the squirrel reflected; "and the birds' nests have got eggs inside them. They are both very nice, though I like nuts still better. But, you see, buds and birds' eggs don't keep, and so" —

"Oh but, Mr. Squirrel," cried Tommy Smith, "you surely don't eat the eggs of the poor birds! Oh, I hope you don't!" (You see he was not at all the same Tommy Smith now that he used to be, and he didn't go birds'-nesting any more.)

The squirrel looked just a little bit ashamed. "I wouldn't, you know," he said, "if they didn't make their nests in the trees."

"Of course they make their nests in the trees!" said Tommy Smith indignantly. "They have just as much right to the trees as you have, and I think it is very wicked of you to eat their eggs."

"Perhaps it is," said the squirrel; "but, you see, I get so hungry, and fresh eggs are so nice. By the bye, on what tree did you say the woodpigeon was sitting? I think I will go there with you."

"Indeed, you shan't!" said Tommy Smith (and he was very  angry). "I won't take you there. You want to eat her eggs, I know; and I think you are a very naughty animal."

The squirrel looked at Tommy Smith for a little while without speaking, and then he said, "You know, I  never eat hen's eggs."

"Don't you?" said Tommy Smith. It was all he could think of to say, for he remembered that he did  eat hen's eggs. Of course he knew that was different—the peewit had told him it was, but just at that moment he couldn't think of why  it was different, and he couldn't help wishing that he hadn't been quite so angry with the squirrel. "Perhaps you don't eat too many eggs," he said in a milder tone.

"Of course not," said the squirrel. "Wherever there are plenty of squirrels, there are plenty of birds too, as long as people with guns don't shoot them. That shows that we don't eat too many. And then, as for our killing trees" —

"Oh, but do  you kill trees?" said Tommy Smith. "I didn't know that you did that."

"Why, sometimes when we are very hungry," said the squirrel, "we gnaw the bark all around the trunk of a small tree, and then it dies. So those people who are always finding out reasons for killing animals say we do harm to the forests. But I can tell them this, that no forest was ever cut down by the squirrels that lived in it. Men cut down the forests, and shoot the birds and the squirrels; but if they left them all three alone, they would all get on very well together. Once, you know, almost the whole of England was covered with forests. Do you think it was the squirrels who cut them all down?"

"Oh no," said Tommy Smith. "It was men with axes, I should think."

"Yes," said the squirrel. "It is that great axe of theirs that does the mischief, not these poor little teeth of mine. It is axes, not squirrels, that they should keep out of the woods."

Tommy Smith thought the squirrel might be right, but he wanted to hear something more about what he did and the way he lived, so he said, "Oh, Mr. Squirrel, you haven't told me where you hide the nuts and acorns that you eat when you wake up in the winter."

"Oh, in all sorts of places," said the squirrel. "Sometimes I scrape a hole in the ground and bury them in it, and sometimes I put them into holes in the trunks of trees, or under their roots, if they run along the ground, or into any other little nook or crevice near where I live. In fact, I put them anywhere where it is convenient, but not  where it is inconvenient. That is another of my clever notions."

"But isn't it rather difficult to find them again when you wake up a long time afterwards?" said Tommy Smith.

"It would be to you, I daresay," said the squirrel; "but it is quite easy to me. You see, I have a wonderful memory, and never forget where I once put a thing. Even when the snow is on the ground, I know where my dinner is. It is under  a white tablecloth then, instead of being upon  one. I have only to lift up the tablecloth, and there is it."

"Do you mean that you scrape the snow away, Mr. Squirrel?" said Tommy Smith.

"Yes, that is what I mean," said the squirrel; "but I like to talk prettily. Well, have you anything else to ask me? You had better make haste if you have, because we squirrels can never stay still for very long, and I shall soon have to jump away. Look how my tail is whisking. I always go very soon after that begins."

Tommy Smith thought that, as the squirrel had proposed having a chat himself, and had prevented him from going on to the woodpigeon, it was not quite polite of him to be so very impatient. But he thought he  would be polite, at any rate, so he went on, all in a hurry, "I suppose, Mr. Squirrel, as you go to sleep in the winter," you have to come out of the trees and find a place on the ground to"—

"Out of the trees!" exclaimed the squirrel. "I should think not, indeed. That would be very unsafe. Besides, I should never feel comfortable if I did not rock with the wind when I was asleep. I should have a nasty fixed feeling, which would wake me up every minute."

This surprised Tommy Smith a good deal. He knew that squirrels lived in the trees all day, but he did not know before that they slept in them at night too. "Then do you make a nest like a bird, Mr. Squirrel?" he asked.

"Like a bird, indeed!" said the squirrel. "No; I make one like a squirrel. It is not necessary for me to imitate a bird. We squirrels can make nests a great deal better than birds can."

Tommy Smith did not quite believe this. At any rate, he felt quite sure that a squirrel could not make a better nest than some birds can. But he remembered that some other birds make only slight nests, or none at all, "And perhaps," he thought, "he only means those kinds of birds." But he thought he had better not ask the squirrel this, in case he should be offended, so he only said, "Oh, Mr. Squirrel, will you please tell me all about your nest, and how you make it, and what it looks like."

"Well," the squirrel began, "it is very large, much larger than you would ever think, to look at me. I could get inside the cap you have on your head. But how large do you think the house I make, and go to sleep in, is?"

"Perhaps it is a little larger than my cap," said Tommy Smith. He did not think it could be much  larger.

"Why," said the squirrel, "it is larger than you sometimes. You know those great heaps of hay that stand in the fields—haycocks I think they call them, —well, if you were to take my house to pieces, it would sometimes make a heap almost as big as one of them."

"Would it, really?" said Tommy Smith. "But why is it so large?"

"You see," said the squirrel, "if the walls were not nice and thick, they would not keep out the cold properly, and so I have to find a great deal of moss and grass, and a great many sticks and leaves, to make it with. Then I have to repair it every year—it would be too much trouble, you know, to build a new one,—and so it keeps on getting bigger, because of the fresh sticks and things I bring to it. That is why my house is so large."

"And are you always quite comfortable inside it?" said Tommy Smith.

"Oh yes," said the squirrel; "always comfortable, and always dry. I knit everything so closely together, that neither the rain nor the snow can get through."

"I suppose your house has a door to get in and out by," said Tommy Smith.

"It has two  doors," said the squirrel, "a large one and a small one. Why, what a question to ask! You will be asking if it has a roof to it next."

"Has  it a roof?" said Tommy Smith. (So, you see, the squirrel was quite right.)

"Of course it has," said the squirrel. "The idea of living in a house without a roof to it! I build it high up in the fork of a tree," he went on; "and I lie curled up inside it, as snug and as warm as can be."

"But isn't it too warm in the summer?" asked Tommy Smith.

"Oh, I don't go into it then," said the squirrel. "The house I have been telling you about is for the winter, but in the summer I have my summer-house to go into."

"Oh, then you have two houses!" said Tommy Smith. "That is cleverer than a bird, for they have only one nest."

"I  have two," said the squirrel, "and they are not at all the same."

"Oh, do tell me what the summer-house is like," said Tommy Smith.

"It is more lightly built than the winter-house," said the squirrel, "and not nearly so large. That is how summer-houses are always built, you know. Perhaps you have one in your garden."

"Oh yes, we have," said Tommy Smith.

"And isn't it much smaller than the other one?" said the squirrel.

"Oh yes, it is," said Tommy Smith.

"Well," said the squirrel, "my summer-house is constructed on the same principle. I will show it you, if you like, for I really can't sit still any longer. Just look  at my tail! It will whisk itself off soon if I don't jump about."

"Oh, I should so like to see it, Mr. Squirrel!" cried Tommy Smith. "Yes, do come down, and"—

"Oh, I'm not coming down," said the squirrel. "I shouldn't think of doing that. I shall go home by the treeway, and you can walk underneath me. Now then!" And as the squirrel said this, he gave his tail such  a whisking, and away he ran along the branch he had been sitting on, right to the end of it, and then gave such  a jump on to the branch of another tree, and then out of that tree into another one, and so from tree to tree, so fast that Tommy Smith could hardly keep up with him as he ran along the ground underneath.

It was not always that the squirrel had to jump from one tree to another, because their branches often touched each other, and then he would run along them without jumping at all. Sometimes they would be very near together without quite touching, and then when he came to the end of the branch he was on, he would lean forward, and, with his little forepaws, catch hold of the tips of several of those belonging to another tree, and draw them all together, and then give a little spring amongst them, and away he would go again. This was when he was in the fir trees. But to see him run down the long, drooping branch of a beech tree, right to the very end, and then drop off it on to another one far below—that was the finest sight of all. He did it so very gracefully. His tail was not turned up over his back now, as it had been whilst he was sitting up, but went streaming out behind him like a flag. And sometimes he would whisk it from side to side, and say "Sug, sug, —sug, sug,—sug, sug, sug, sug, sug!"

"Here it is!" cried the squirrel at last, from one of the very top branches of the tree he was on (it was a large beech tree). "Here is 'Tree-tops.' Can you see it?"

"Oh yes, I can see the top of the tree you are on," said Tommy Smith; "but"—

"Oh, I don't mean that!" said the squirrel. " 'Tree-tops' is the name of my residence. You know, houses have usually a name of some sort. So I call mine 'Tree-tops.' That describes it very well, because it is in a tree-top, and there are tree-tops all round it."

"But aren't all squirrels' nests like that?" said Tommy Smith.

"Oh yes," said the squirrel; "and they can be called 'Tree-tops.' I daresay you've seen more than one house that was named 'The Elms,' or 'The Firs,' or 'The Beeches.' But now look about, and see if you can see my summer-house."

Tommy Smith looked all about near where the squirrel was sitting high up in the tree, and at last he saw something that looked like a little black ball. "Is that it?" he said.

"Yes," said the squirrel, "that's it. Look! Now I am in it," and he made a little spring at the ball of sticks, and disappeared inside it. The jump made the thin end of the branch swing about, and the squirrel's summer-house swung with it, so that it looked as if it might be shaken off.

"Oh, do come out," Tommy Smith cried. "I'm sure it can't be safe in there."

"Not safe!" said the squirrel, as he poked his little head out, and looked down at Tommy Smith. "Do you think I would live with all my family in a house that was not safe? I have a wife and five children, you know, and we all live here together."

"Do you really, Mr. Squirrel?" said Tommy Smith, for he could hardly believe it.

"Why, of course we do," said the squirrel; "and great fun it is, too. You should see how we swing about in a high wind. Delightful!"

Tommy Smith thought that it would make him  giddy. "It must  be dangerous," he said. "Suppose you were all to be swung out, or the branch were to be blown off, or"—

"Oh, we never think of such things," said the squirrel. "They are sure not to happen; and even if they did, we should be all right, somehow, I daresay."

"I don't think you would," said Tommy Smith. "The woodpigeon might, perhaps, but you see, you can't fly, and so"—

"Oh, can't I?" said the squirrel. "Why, how did I get here then, from tree to tree? Didn't you see me?"

"Oh, but that was jumping," said Tommy Smith.

"Jumping? Nonsense!" said the squirrel. "Why, I went through the air, you know, and that is just what one does when one flies, isn't it?"

"Oh yes, of course," said Tommy Smith, "but"—

"Very well," said the squirrel; "then when I  jump, I fly."

"But you haven't got wings," said Tommy Smith. He knew he was right, but he didn't know how to prove it.

"That makes it all the more clever of me," said the squirrel. "It is easy enough to fly if you have wings, but very difficult indeed if you haven't. But we squirrels are a clever family, and can do anything. Why, one of us is called the 'Flying Squirrel,' you know; and why should he be called a flying squirrel if he can't fly? Not fly? Why, look here!—look here!—look here!—and at each "look here!" the squirrel was in a different tree, and still he went on jumping, or flying (which do you  think it was?) from one to another, until very soon he was quite out of sight.

And he never came back—at least not whilst Tommy Smith was there. I think he must have come back at some  time or other, to sit in his little summer-house again with his wife and children. But Tommy Smith had not time enough to wait for him; so, as soon as he was sure that he was really gone, he walked away to his friend the woodpigeon.

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