T HE December rain was falling down, down, down, as if the drops were lead instead of water. The December sky, if you could call it sky, had settled down, down, down, as if it too were of lead, and were being propped up only by the tops of the stiff bare trees.
A green stick in the fireplace behind me sizzled and sputtered and blew its small steam whistles to warn me away from the window,—from the sight of the naked trees, and the cold, thick fog upon the meadow, and the blur of the pine woods beyond, and the rain falling down, down, down.
A dreary world out of doors surely, with not a sign of life! The pine tree, rising up above the hillside in front of the window, was green, but only a few lifeless leaves rattled among the middle branches of the oaks, while up in the stark top of a hickory sapling was wedged a robin's nest, deserted and wet and going to pieces.
I shivered, in spite of the hearth-fire behind me, for the face of the gray gloom pressed close up against the window outside. And the empty robin's nest, already a ruin! its mud walls broken, its tiny timbers hanging loose in the rain!
But what a large nest for a robin, I thought; and how strangely peaked and pointed it is, like a little haycock! Then all at once, inside of me, and all over me, I felt a warm, delightful feeling.
"It isn't possible," said I aloud, but all to myself; "it isn't possible that little White-Foot has moved into that old robin's nest and fitted it up with a peaked roof for the winter?"
And the thought of it started the warm, delightful feeling again inside of me and all over me; and snatching up the tongs by the fireplace I ran out into the December rain and tapped a few times on the slender hickory sapling.
And what do you think happened?
It stopped raining?
You broke your tongs?
The nest fell out and hit you on the head?
You ran back into the house again out of the rain?
Yes, I did, and I went straight to the window and looked out again at the robin's nest,—my deserted, ruined robin's nest, with its thick thatch of waterproof cedar bark, with its little round door-hole in the side, with its soft furry bed, all toasty warm, out of which with my tapping tongs I had just roused White-Foot and brought him sleepy-eyed to look down at me from his door.
The rain continued to fall down; but my spirits went up, and up, at the thought of that little mouse all safe and warm for the winter in Robin's deserted nest.
And so, if "there are no birds in last year's nest," as mourns a doleful poem, you need not be sad on that account, for if you look closely, you may find, now and then, a mouse in last year's nest—and who will say that finding a mouse in a bird's nest is not almost as interesting as finding a bird there?
A robin's nest in the winter-time would be the wettest, muddiest, coldest place in the world for a robin; but a mouse can take that old robin's nest and turn it into a snuggery (if you know what a "snuggery" is) so cozy and warm that neither the tip of Mr. Mouse's sharp nose, nor the tip of his thin ears, nor the tippy-tip of his long bare tail ever feels one sharp nip of the cold outside.
So, if there are no birds in last year's nest (as surely there ought not to be), take your tongs and tap, or, better, climb up, and reach gently into the nest with your finger, for a mouse may be waiting inside to bite you,—and that would be interesting.
For a mouse is interesting—just as interesting in his mousy ways as a whale in his whalish ways, or a robin in his ways. Can you name anything that does not grow interesting as soon as you begin to watch and study it? Large things, small things, Bengal tigers or earthworms—all things will surprise and interest you if you will study them for a season.
I have a friend, for instance, who has shot more tigers, in more lands, than any other living man; who knows more about tiger habits and the tempers of the dangerous beasts than any other man; and who, as I am writing this, is himself writing a book which is to be called "Tiger Lands." That will be an exciting book, no doubt, for he has had adventures that made my hair stand up on my head, just to hear about. Yet I very much doubt if that book, with all its man-eaters, will be any more interesting or any more valuable to us than Darwin's book on earthworms.
So am I going to sigh because there are no birds in last year's nests? Had the poem said, "there are no mice in last year's nests," that might have made me sad, perhaps; though I am sure that I could go into the woods almost any winter day and find plenty of old stumps with mice in them. And I am equally sure that there will be plenty of birds in next summer's nests; so, until the robins come back and build new nests, I am going to look out of the window these dark December days, and think of White-Foot in Robin's old nest, high up there in the slender sapling, where no cat can climb to him, and where no crow will dare come to tear his house to pieces.
There he will swing in the winter gales with the snow swirling around and beneath him; there he will dream through the rain and the slanting sleet when his high sapling stairway is coated with ice and impossible for him to climb; there he will live, and whenever I thump with the tongs at his outer gate, up there in the little round doorway will appear his head—his eyes, I should say, for he looks all eyes up there, so large, so black, so innocent, so inquiring are they, so near to rolling off down the tip of his nose with sheer surprise.
I shall have many a cheering glimpse of White-Foot, many a comforting thought of him, out there, his thatch snow-covered, his thick-walled nest in the slender hickory riding the winter seas that sweep the hilltop, as safe as the ships anchored yonder in the landlocked harbor; and he will be much more comforting to me out there than here in the house with me; for, strangely enough, while White-Foot never seems to join the common mice in the barn, never a winter goes by without one or more of his kind coming into the house for the cold weather.
This would be very pleasant if they could keep out of the pop-corn and the nuts and the apples and the linen-drawers. But only recently one got into the linen in the china-closet, and chewed together the loveliest damask nest that any being ever slept in.
There was nothing for such conduct, then, of course, except to kill her. But I did not kill her, though I take no credit to myself, for I tried to kill her, as any one would have been tempted to do.
I got her out of that linen-drawer in a hurry and chased her from cupboard to couch, to radiator and bookcase, and lost her. The next day I resumed the chase, and upset most of the furniture before she finally gave me the slip. The next day she appeared, and once more we turned things upside down, and once more from some safe corner she watched me put the chairs back on their legs and pick up the pieces of things.
But the next morning, as I opened the grate of the kitchen stove to light the fire, there in the ash-pan huddled that little mouse; and under her in a bed of ashes, as if to reproach me forever, were five wee mice, just born, blind and naked in the choking dust, babes that should have been sleeping covered in a bed of downy damask in the linen-drawer.
I said I did not kill her. No, I reached in slowly, lifted her and her babes out softly in my hand, carried them into a safe, warm place and left them, devoutly hoping that they might all grow up to help themselves, if need be, to an ear of pop-corn, or even to a cozy corner and a sip of honey in the beehives.
No, I don't believe I hoped all of that, for White-Foot is exceedingly fond of honey, and no roof in all the out-of-doors is so much to his liking as a beehive, warm with the heat of the clustered swarm; and nowhere can he make such a nuisance of himself as inside the hive.
A robin's nest, a beehive, a linen-drawer, a woodpecker's hole—almost any place will do for the winter home, so thick and warm can the mice build their walls, so many bins of acorns and grain do they lay up, and so bold are they to forage when their winter stores run low.
I had a curious experience with a white-footed mouse in the cellar one winter. The small boys had carried into the cellar (to hide them from me, I imagine) about four quarts of chestnuts which they had gathered. A little later, when they went to get their nuts, the box was empty. Not a chestnut left!
"Have you eaten all our chestnuts, father?"
"No, I haven't—not a nut," I answered.
"Well, they are all gone!" was the wail.
And so they were, but how, and where, we did not know. House mice had not eaten them, for no shells were left behind; there were no rats or squirrels in the cellar that fall; and as for one of the small boys—that was past thought. The fact is, more suspicion was attached to me in the case than anything in my previous conduct called for; and, though altogether guiltless, I continued to be uncomfortably quizzed from time to time about those chestnuts, until I began to wonder if I had got up in my sleep and devoured the four quarts, shells and all.
Then one day, while we were putting things shipshape in the vegetable cellar, what did we come upon but a nice little pile of chestnuts hidden away in a dark corner; then we discovered another pile, laid up carefully, neatly, in a secret spot, where no human eye—except the human house-cleaning eye, that misses nothing—would ever have seen them, and where no big human hand would ever have put them.
I was allowed to go then and there scot-free; and a trap was set for the wood mouse. It was White-Foot, we knew. But we never caught her. And I am glad of it, for after we took away what chestnuts we could find, she evidently felt it necessary to make a new hoard, and began with a handful of old hickory-nuts, shagbarks, that had been left in the vegetable cellar beside the box of chestnuts.
Now, however, she felt the insecurity of the inner cellar, or else she had found a fine big bin out in the furnace cellar, for out there by the furnace she took those nuts and tucked them compactly away into the toe of one of my tall hunting-boots.
There were double doors and a brick partition wall between the two cellars. No matter. Here were the nuts she had not yet stored; and out yonder was the hole, smooth and deep and dark, to store them in. She found a way past the partition wall.
Every morning I shook those nuts out of my boot and sent them rattling over the cellar floor. Every night the mouse gathered them up and put them snugly back into the toe of the boot. She could not have carried more than one nut at a time—up the tall boot-leg and down the oily, slippery inside.
I should have liked to see her scurrying about the cellar, looking after her curiously difficult harvest. Apparently, they were new nuts to her every evening. Once I came down to find them lying untouched. The mouse, perhaps, was away over night on other business. But the following morning they were all gathered and nicely packed in the boot as before. And as before I sent them sixty ways among the barrels and boxes of the furnace room.
But I did it once too often, for it dawned upon the mouse one night that these were the same old nuts that she had gathered now a dozen times. That night they disappeared. Where? I wondered.
Weeks passed, and I had entirely forgotten about the nuts, when I came upon them, the identical nuts of my boot, tiered carefully up in a corner of the deep, empty water-tank away off in the attic!