The Rat and Mouse by Francis C. Woodworth

Every body, almost, entertains a sort of hostility to the rat family, and considers himself licensed to say all manner of hard things about them. They are a set of rogues—there is no doubt about that, unless they are universally slandered. But they are shrewd and cunning, as well as roguish; and many of their exploits are worth recording.

There were several slaughter-houses near Paris, where as many as thirty worn-out horses were slaughtered every day. One of these slaughter-houses was regarded as a nuisance, and a proposition was made to remove it at a greater distance from the city. But there was a strong objection made to its removal, on account of the ravages which the rats would make in the neighborhood, when they had no longer the carcasses of the horses to feed upon. These voracious creatures assembled at this spot in such numbers, that they devoured all the flesh (that was not much, perhaps, in many cases) of twenty or thirty horses in one night, so that in the morning nothing remained of these carcasses but bare bones. In one of these slaughter-houses, which was inclosed by solid walls, the carcasses of two or three horses were placed; and in the night the workmen blocked up all the holes through which the rats went in. When this was done, the workmen went inside with lighted torches and heavy clubs, and killed two thousand six hundred and fifty rats. In four such hunts, the numbers destroyed were upward of nine thousand. The rats in this neighborhood made themselves burrows like rabbits; and to such an extent was the building of these underground villages carried, that the earth sometimes tumbled in, and revealed the astonishing work they had been doing.

That is rather a tough story, but I guess we shall have to believe it. It comes to us on the authority of Mr. Jesse, who, in his excellent work on Natural History, is pretty careful to say nothing which cannot be relied upon as true. As to the battle which those men had with the rats in the slaughter-house, it must have been a desperate one. I should not have fancied it much. I had a little experience in fighting with rats once, when I was a boy. They were in a room occupied with meal and flour. The door was closed, so that they could not get out. I was armed with a fire shovel, or something of that sort, and I fought, as I thought at the time, with a good deal of bravery and some skill. But the rats got the better of me. They won the victory. They would jump upon a barrel, and from that upon a shelf, and then down they would fly into my face, ready to gripe me with their teeth. I was glad to beat a retreat soon, I assure you.

They are a shrewd set of fellows, these rats. Some years ago, the cellar of the house in which I resided was greatly infested with them. They devoured potatoes, apples, cabbages, and whatever came in their way; for they are not very particular about their diet, you know. Well, we set a trap for them. It was a flat stone set up on one end, with a figure four. We scattered corn all about the trap, and placed a few barrels on the end of the spindle under the stone. The first night these midnight robbers ate up all the corn around the trap, but did not touch a morsel under it. This they repeated several nights in succession; and all at once, there was not the trace of a rat to be found in the cellar. They no doubt held a council (rats are accustomed to hold councils, it would seem; they once held a council to deliberate upon the best mode of protection against their enemy, the cat, and concluded to put a bell on her ladyship—so the fable says)—they held a council, as I said before, and came to the unanimous conclusion that those quarters were no longer safe. So they decamped forthwith; and the very next day after we missed them, one of our neighbors complained that they were suddenly besieged by a whole army of rats.

A German succeeded in training six rats so that they would go through astonishing exercises. He kept them in a box, which he opened, and from which they came out only as their names were called. This box was placed on a table, before which the man stood. He held a wand in his hand, and called by name such of his pupils as he wished to appear. The one who was called came out instantly, and climbed up the wand, on which he seated himself in an upright posture, looking round on the spectators, and saluting them, after his own fashion. Then he waited the orders of his master, which he executed with the utmost precision, running from one end of the rod to the other counterfeiting death, and performing a multitude of astonishing feats, as he was bidden by his master. After these performances were finished, the pupil received a reward for his good behavior, and for his proficiency in study. The master invited him to come and kiss his face, and eat a part of the biscuit which he held between his lips. Immediately the animal ran toward him, climbed up to his shoulder, licked the cheek of his master, and afterward took the biscuit. Then, turning to the spectators, he seated himself on his master's shoulder, ate his dinner, and returned to his box. The other rats were called, one by one, in the same manner, and all went through the several parts with the same precision.

I have read a pretty tough rat story in the "Penny Magazine," but it is said to be authentic. "An open box," says the narrator, "containing some bottles of Florence oil, was placed in a room which was seldom visited. On going into the room for one of the bottles, it was perceived that the pieces of bladder and the cotton, which were at the mouth of each bottle, had disappeared; and that a considerable quantity of the contents of the bottles had been consumed. This circumstance having excited surprise, some of the bottles were filled with oil, and the mouths of them secured as before. The next morning the coverings of the bottles had again been removed, and part of the oil was gone. On watching the room, through a small window, some rats were seen to get into the box, thrust their tails into the necks of the bottles, and then, withdrawing them, lick off the oil which adhered to them."

Another story about these animals, almost as wonderful, I have upon the authority of a clergyman in England. He says that he was walking out in the meadow one evening, and he observed a great number of rats in the act of emigrating. He stood perfectly still, and the whole army passed close to him. Among the number he tells us was an old rat who was blind. He held a piece of stick by one end in his mouth, while another rat had hold of the other end of it, and was conducting him.

The Chicago Democrat tells the following, prefacing it with the remark that the rats of Chicago are "noted for their firmness and daring." A few nights since, a cat belonging to a friend, while exercising the office of mother of a family of kittens, was attacked by a regularly organized band of rats, which, sad to relate, contrived to kill the parent, and make a prey of the offspring. In the morning the cat was found bitten to death by the side of nine of her assailants, whom she slew before she was overpowered by superior numbers.

The following story about a rat extremely fond of good living, was told me by a clerical friend residing in the city of New York. The family in which this rat lived, had just purchased some round clams, and they were placed in the cellar. One night all the inmates of the house were alarmed by an unusual noise. It appeared as if some one was stamping about the house with heavy boots on. It was a long time before they found out how the matter stood; but when they did find out, an old rat was discovered dragging one of these clams about with him. It appeared that this fellow, thinking it would be nice to have a supper from one of the clams, which he saw open, thrust in his paw, and got caught.

This story reminds me of a French fable about the rat who got tired of staying at home, and went abroad to see something of the world. "A rat with very few brains"—so runs the fable—"got tired of living in solitude, and took it into his head to travel. He had hardly proceeded a mile, before he exclaimed, 'What a grand and spacious world this is! Behold the Alps and the Pyrenees!' The least mole-hill seemed a mountain in his eyes. After a few days, our traveler arrived at the sea-coast, where there were a multitude of oysters. At first he thought they were ships. Among these oysters, was one lying open. The rat perceived it. 'What do I see?' said he. 'Here is a delicate morsel for me, and if I am not greatly mistaken, I shall have a fine dinner to-day.' So he approached the oyster, stretched out his neck, and thrust his head between the shells. The oyster closed, and master Nibble was caught as effectually as if he was in a trap." I believe the moral of this fable is something as follows: "Those who have no experience in the world, are often astonished at the smallest objects, and not unfrequently become the dupes of their ignorance."

In 1776, one of the British ships engaged in the war with this country, became infested with rats to such a degree, that they at last devoured daily nearly a hundred weight of biscuit. They were at last destroyed, by smoking the ship between decks, after which several bushels of them were removed.

In the Isle of France rats are found in prodigious swarms. There were formerly so many, that, according to some accounts, they formed the principal cause for abandoning the island by the Dutch. In some of the houses, thirty thousand have been known to be killed in one year.

In Egypt, when the waters of the Nile retire, after the annual overflow, multitudes of rats and mice are seen to issue from the moistened soil. The Egyptians believe that these animals are generated from the earth; and some of the people assert, that they have seen the rats in a state of formation, while one half of the bodies was flesh and the other half mud.

The following anecdote is related by a correspondent of one of the English newspapers: "This morning," says he, "while reading in bed, I was suddenly interrupted by a noise similar to that made by rats, when running through a double wainscot, and endeavoring to pierce it. The noise ceased for some moments, and then commenced again. I was only two or three feet from the wall whence the noise proceeded; and soon I perceived a great rat making his appearance at a hole. It looked about for awhile, without making any noise, and having made the observations it wished, it retired. An instant after, I saw it come again, leading by the ear another rat, larger than itself, and which appeared to be much advanced in years. Having left this one at the edge of the hole, it was joined by another young rat. The two then ran about the chamber, collecting the crumbs of bread which had fallen from the table at supper the previous evening, and carried them to the rat which they had left at the edge of the hole. I was astonished at this extraordinary attention on the part of the young rats, and continued to observe all their motions with a great deal of care. It soon appeared clear to me that the animal to whom the food was brought was blind, and unable to find the bread which was placed before it, except by feeling after it. The two younger ones were undoubtedly the offspring of the other, and they were engaged in supplying the wants of their poor, blind parent. I admired the wisdom of the God of nature, who has given to all animals a social tenderness, a gratitude, I had almost said a virtue, proportionate to their faculties. From that moment, these creatures, which I had before abhorred, seemed to become my friends. By and by, a person opened the door of the room, when the two young rats warned the blind one by a cry; and in spite of their fears, they did not seek for safety themselves, until assured that their blind parent was beyond the reach of danger. They followed as the other retired, and served as a sort of rear-guard."

There are several species of mice. The engraving represents the field mouse, an animal which sometimes makes great havoc with the farmer's grain. The common domestic mouse is perhaps better known. He is generally, and I think I may say justly, regarded as a pest in the house where he becomes a tenant. But he is an interesting animal, after all. I love to watch him—the sly little fellow—nibbling his favorite cheese, his keen black eye looking straight at me, all the time, as if to read by my countenance what sort of thoughts I had about his mouseship. How much at home he always contrives to make himself in a family! How very much at his ease he is, as he regales himself on the best things which the house affords!

A day or two ago, a friend of mine was telling me an amusing story about some mice with which he had the pleasure of a slight acquaintance. He lived in the same house with a gentleman who kept a sort of bachelor's hall, and who was a great lover of pets. This gentleman took him into his room one day to see a mouse which he was educating to be a companion of his lonely hours. The bachelor remarked that he had been a pensioner for some time, that he fed him bountifully every day, and that he had become very tame indeed. "But," said the mouse's patron, "he is an ungrateful fellow. He is not content with eating what I give him; he destroys every thing he can lay hold of." A short time after this, my friend was called in again, when he was told by the bachelor, that, the mouse having become absolutely intolerable by his petty larcenies and grand larcenies, he set a trap for him and caught him. But still the larcenies continued. He set his trap again, and caught another rogue, and another, and another, till at last he found he had been making a pet of thirteen mice, instead of one, as he at first supposed.

The field mouse, represented in the engraving, lays up a large store of provisions in his nice little nest under ground, which he keeps for winter. These mice are very particular in stowing away their winter store. The corn, acorns, chestnuts, hickory nuts, and whatever else they hoard up, have each separate apartments. One room contains nothing but corn, another nothing but chestnuts, and so on. When they have exhausted their stock of provisions before spring, and they have nothing else to eat, they turn to, and eat one another. They are regular cannibals, if their manners and customs have been correctly reported. Sometimes the hogs, as they are roaming about the pasture, in the autumn, soon after a family of field mice have laid in their provisions, and before the ground has frozen, come across the nest, and smell the good things that are in it. Then the poor mouse has to suffer. The author of the Boy's Winter Book thus graphically and humorously describes the misfortunes of such a mouse: "There he sits huddled up in a dark corner, looking on, as the hog is devouring the contents of his house, saying to himself, no doubt, 'I wish it may choke you, you great, grunting brute, that I do. There go my poor acorns, a dozen at a mouthfull. Twelve long journeys I had to take to the foot of the old oak, where I picked them up—such a hard day's work, that I could hardly get a wink of sleep, my bones ached so. And now that great glutton gobbles them all up at once, and makes nothing of it! What I shall do in the winter, I'm sure I don't know. There goes my corn, too, which I brought, a little at a time, all the way from the field on the other side of the woods, and with which I was often obliged to rest, two or three times before I reached home; and then I sometimes had to lay my load down, while I had a battle with another field mouse, who tried to take the corn away from me, under pretence of helping me to carry it home, which I knew well enough meant his own nest. And after all this fighting, and slaving, and carrying heavy loads from sunrise to sunset, here comes a pair of great, grunting pork chaps, and make a meal from my hard earnings. Well, never mind, Mr. Pig. It's winter now; but perhaps by next harvest time, I shall creep into some reaper's basket, and have a taste of you, when he brings a part of you, nicely cured and cooked, and laid lovingly between two slices of bread and butter. I'll be even with you then, old fellow—that I will, if I am only spared!' And so he creeps out, scarcely knowing whether he should make up his mind to beg, borrow, or steal, half muttering to himself, as he hops across the way, to visit some neighbor for a breakfast, 'I declare such infamous treatment is enough to make one dishonest, and never be industrious and virtuous any more!'"