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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
On Rats
By Francis Trevelyan Buckland (1826–1880)
 
From ‘Curiosities of Natural History’

ON one occasion, when a boy, I recollect secretly borrowing an old-fashioned flint gun from the bird-keeper of the farm to which I had been invited. I ensconced myself behind the door of the pig-sty, determined to make a victim of one of the many rats that were accustomed to disport themselves among the straw that formed the bed of the farmer’s pet bacon-pigs. In a few minutes out came an old patriarchal-looking rat, who, having taken a careful survey, quietly began to feed. After a long aim, bang went the gun—I fell backwards, knocked down by the recoil of the rusty old piece of artillery. I did not remain prone long, for I was soon roused by the most unearthly squeaks, and a dreadful noise as of an infuriated animal madly rushing round and round the sty. Ye gods! what had I done? I had not surely, like the tailor in the old song of the ‘Carrion Crow,’
            “Shot and missed my mark,
And shot the old sow right bang through the heart.”
But I had nearly performed a similar sportsman-like feat. There was poor piggy, the blood flowing in streamlets from several small punctures in that part of his body destined, at no very distant period, to become ham; in vain attempting, by dismal cries and by energetic waggings of his curly tail, to appease the pain of the charge of small shot which had so unceremoniously awaked him from his porcine dreams of oatmeal and boiled potatoes. But where was the rat? He had disappeared unhurt; the buttocks of the unfortunate pig, the rightful owner of the premises, had received the charge of shot intended to destroy the daring intruder.
  1
  To appease piggy’s wrath I gave him a bucketful of food from the hog-tub; and while he was thus consoling his inward self, wiped off the blood from the wounded parts, and said nothing about it to anybody. No doubt, before this time, some frugal housewife has been puzzled and astonished at the unwonted appearance of a charge of small shot in the centre of the breakfast ham which she procured from Squire Morland, of Sheepstead, Berks.  2
  Rats are very fond of warmth, and will remain coiled up for hours in any snug retreat where they can find this very necessary element of their existence. The following anecdote well illustrates this point:—  3
  My late father, when fellow of Corpus College, Oxford, many years ago, on arriving at his rooms late one night, found that a rat was running about among the books and geological specimens, behind the sofa, under the fender, and poking his nose into every hiding-place he could find. Being studiously inclined, and wishing to set to work at his books, he pursued him, armed with the poker in one hand, and a large dictionary, big enough to crush any rat, in the other; but in vain; Mr. Rat was not to be caught, particularly when such “arma scholastica” were used.  4
  No sooner had the studies recommenced than the rat resumed his gambols, squeaking and rushing about the room like a mad creature. The battle was renewed, and continued at intervals, to the destruction of all studies, till quite a late hour at night, when the pursuer, angry and wearied, retired to his adjoining bedroom; though he listened attentively he heard no more of the enemy, and soon fell asleep. In the morning he was astonished to find something warm lying on his chest; carefully lifting up the bed-clothes, he discovered his tormentor of the preceding night quietly and snugly ensconced in a fold in the blanket, and taking advantage of the bodily warmth of his two-legged adversary. These two lay looking daggers at each other for some minutes, the one unwilling to leave his warm berth, the other afraid to put his hand out from under the protection of the coverlid, particularly as the stranger’s aspect was anything but friendly, his little sharp teeth and fierce little black eyes seeming to say, “Paws off from me, if you please!”  5
  At length, remembering the maxim that “discretion is the better part of valor”—the truth of which, I imagine, rats understand as well as most creatures,—he made a sudden jump off the bed, scuttled away into the next room, and was never seen or heard of afterwards….  6
  Rats are not selfish animals: having found out where the feast is stored, they will kindly communicate the intelligence to their friends and neighbors. The following anecdote will confirm this fact. A certain worthy old lady named Mrs. Oke, who resided at Axminster several years ago, made a cask of sweet wine, for which she was celebrated, and carefully placed it on a shelf in the cellar. The second night after this event she was frightened almost to death by a strange unaccountable noise in the said cellar. The household was called up and a search made, but nothing was found to clear up the mystery. The next night, as soon as the lights were extinguished and the house quiet, this dreadful noise was heard again. This time it was most alarming: a sound of squeaking, crying, knocking, pattering feet; then a dull scratching sound, with many other such ghostly noises, which continued throughout the livelong night. The old lady lay in bed with the candle alight, pale and sleepless with fright, anon muttering her prayers, anon determined to fire off the rusty old blunderbuss that hung over the chimney-piece. At last the morning broke, and the cock began to crow. “Now,” thought she, “the ghosts must disappear.” To her infinite relief, the noise really did cease, and the poor frightened dame adjusted her nightcap and fell asleep. Great preparations had she made for the next night; farm servants armed with pitchforks slept in the house; the maids took the family dinner-bell and the tinder-box into their rooms; the big dog was tied to the hall-table. Then the dame retired to her room, not to sleep, but to sit up in the arm-chair by the fire, keeping a drowsy guard over the neighbor’s loaded horse-pistols, of which she was almost as much afraid as she was of the ghost in the cellar. Sure enough, her warlike preparations had succeeded; the ghost was certainly frightened; not a noise, not a sound, except the heavy snoring of the bumpkins and the rattling of the dog’s chain in the hall, could be heard. She had gained a complete victory; the ghost was never heard again on the premises, and the whole affair was soon forgotten. Some weeks afterward some friends dropped in to take a cup of tea and talk over the last piece of gossip. Among other things the wine was mentioned, and the maid sent to get some from the cellar. She soon returned, and gasping for breath, rushed into the room, exclaiming, “’Tis all gone, ma’am;” and sure enough it was all gone. “The ghost has taken it”—not a drop was left, only the empty cask remained; the side was half eaten away, and marks of sharp teeth were visible round the ragged margins of the newly made bungholes.  7
  This discovery fully accounted for the noise the ghost had made, which caused so much alarm. The aboriginal rats in the dame’s cellar had found out the wine, and communicated the joyful news to all the other rats in the parish; they had assembled there to enjoy the fun, and get very tipsy (which, judging from the noise they made, they certainly did) on this treasured cask of wine. Being quite a family party, they had finished it in two nights; and having got all they could, like wise rats they returned to their respective homes, perfectly unconscious that their merry-making had nearly been the death of the rightful owner and “founder of the feast.” They had first gnawed out the cork, and got as much as they could: they soon found that the more they drank the lower the wine became. Perseverance is the motto of the rat; so they set to work and ate away the wood to the level of the wine again. This they continued till they had emptied the cask; they must then have got into it and licked up the last drains, for another and less agreeable smell was substituted for that of wine. I may add that this cask, with the side gone, and the marks of the rats’ teeth, is still in my possession.  8
 
 
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