Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Billy and Hans: A True History
By William James Stillman (1828–1901)
SO long as the problem of the possession of the capacity of reasoning by the animals of lower rank than man in creation is investigated through those of their species that have been domesticated, and in which the problem of heredity has become complicated with human influence, and the natural instincts with an artificial development of their faculties, no really valuable conclusions can be arrived at. It is only when we take the native gifts of an animal under investigation, at least without the intervention of any trace of heredity and of what under teaching may become a second nature, that we can estimate in scientific exactitude the measure of intelligence of one of the lower animals. The ways of a dog or cat are the result of innumerable generations of ancestors reared in intimate relations with the human master mind. As subjects for investigation into the question of animal character, they are therefore misleading, and the wild creature must be taken. And so far as my observation goes, the squirrel, of all the small animals, shows at once the most character and the most affection; and I believe that the history of two that I have lately lost has a dramatic quality which makes it worth recording.  1
  In my favorite summer resort at the lower edge of the Black Forest, the quaint old town of Lauffenburg, a farmer’s boy one day brought me a young squirrel for sale. He was a tiny creature, probably not yet weaned: a variation on the ordinary type of the European Sciurus (Sciurus vulgaris), gray instead of the usual red, and with black tail and ears; so that at first, as he contented himself with drinking his milk and sleeping, I was not sure that he was not a dormouse. But examination of the paws, with their delicate anatomy, so marvelously like the human hand in their flexibility and handiness, and the graceful curl of his tail, settled the question of genus; and mindful of my boyhood and early pets, I bought him and named him Billy. From the first moment that he became my companion he gave me his entire confidence, and accepted his domestication without the least indication that he considered it captivity. There is generally a short stage of mute rebellion in wild creatures before they come to accept us entirely as their friends,—a longing for freedom which makes precautions against escape necessary. This never appeared in Billy: he came to me for his bread and milk, and slept in my pocket from the first, and enjoyed being caressed as completely as if he had been born under my roof. No other animal is so clean in its personal habits as the squirrel when in health; and Billy soon left the basket which cradled his infancy, and habitually slept under a fold of my bed-cover, sometimes making his way to my pillow and sleeping by my cheek: and he never knew what a cage was except when traveling, and even then for the most part he slept in my pocket. He went with me to the table d’hôte, and when invited out sat on the edge of the table and ate his bit of bread with a decorum that made him the admiration of all the children in the hotel, so that he accompanied me in all my journeys. He acquired a passion for tea sweet and warm, and to my indulgence of this taste I fear I owe his early loss. He had full liberty to roam in my room: but his favorite resort was my work-table when I was at work; and when his diet became nuts he used to hide them among my books, and then come to hunt them out again, like a child with its toys. I sometimes found my typewriter stopped, and discovered a hazelnut in the works. And when tired of his hide-and-seek he would come to the edge and nod to me, to indicate that he wished to go into my pocket or be put down to run about the room; and he soon made a limited language of movements of his head to tell me his few wants,—food, drink, to sleep, or to take a climb on the highest piece of furniture in the room. He was from the beginning devoted to me, and naturally became like a spoiled child. If I gave him an uncracked nut, he rammed it back into my hand to be cracked for him with irresistible persistence. I did as many parents do, and indulged him, to his harm and my own later grief. I could not resist that coaxing nodding, and gave him what he wished,—tea when I had mine, and cracked his nuts, to the injury of his teeth, I was told. In short, I made him as happy as I knew how.  2
  Early in my possession of him I cast about if I might find in the neighborhood a companion of the other sex for him; and when finally I heard that in a village just across the Rhine there was a captive squirrel for sale, I sent my son with orders to buy it if a female. It turned out to be a male; but he bought it just the same,—a bright, active, and quite unreconciled prisoner, two months older than Billy, of the orthodox red, just tamed enough to take his food from the hand, but accustomed to be kept with his neck in a collar, to which there was attached a fathom of light dog-chain. He refused with his utmost energy to be handled; and as it was not possible to keep the little creature in the torture of that chain,—for I refuse to keep a caged creature,—I cut the collar and turned him loose in my chamber, where he kept involuntary company with Billy. The imprisonment of the half-tamed but wholly unreconciled animal was perhaps as painful to me as to him, and my first impulse was to turn him out into his native forest to take his chances of life; but I considered that he was already too far compromised with Mother Nature for this to be prudent: for having learned to take his food from a man, the first attack of hunger was sure to drive him to seek it where he had been accustomed to find it; and the probable consequence was being knocked on the head by a village boy, or at best re-consigned to a worse captivity than mine. He had no mother, and he was still little more than a baby; so I decided to keep him and make him as happy as he would let me. His name was Hans. Had I released him as I thought to do, I had saved myself one sorrow, and this history had lost its interest.  3
  After a little strangeness, the companionship between the two became as perfect as the utterly diverse nature of their squirrelships would permit. Billy was social and as friendly as a little dog, Hans always a little morose and not over-ready to accept familiarities; Billy always making friendly advances to his companion, which were at first unnoticed, and afterward only submitted to with equanimity. It was as if Billy had accepted the position of the spoiled child of the family, and Hans reluctantly that of an elder brother who is always expected to make way for the pet and baby of the house. Billy was full of fun, and delighted to tease Hans, when he was sleeping, by nibbling at his toes and ears, biting him playfully anywhere he could get at him; and Hans, after a little indignant bark, would bolt away and find another place to sleep in. As they both had the freedom of my large bedroom,—the door of which was carefully guarded, as Hans was always on the lookout for a chance to bolt out into the unknown,—they had plenty of room for climbing, and comparative freedom; and after a little time Hans adopted Billy’s habit of passing the night in the fold of my bed-rug, and even of nestling with Billy near my head. Billy was from the beginning a bad sleeper, and in his waking moments his standing amusement was nibbling at Hans, who used to break out of his sleep and go to the foot of the bed to lie; but never for long, for he always worked his way back to Billy, and nestled down again. When I gave Hans a nut, Billy would wait for him to crack it, and deliberately take it out of his jaws and eat it,—to which Hans submitted without a fight, or a snarl even, though at first he held on a little; but the good-humor and caressing ways of Billy were as irresistible with Hans as with us, and I never knew him to retaliate in any way.  4
  No two animals of the most domesticated species could have differed in disposition more than these. During the first phase of Hans’s life he never lost his repugnance to being handled, while Billy delighted in being fondled. The European squirrel is by nature one of the most timid of animals, even more so than the hare, being equaled in this respect only by the exquisite flying-squirrel of America; and when it is frightened, as for instance when held fast in any way or in a manner that alarms it, it will bite even the most familiar hand, the feeling being apparently that it is necessary to gnaw away the ligature which holds it. Of course, considering the irreconcilability of Hans to captivity, I was obliged, much against my will, to get a cage for him to travel in; and I made a little dark chamber in the upper part of a wire bird-cage in which the two squirrels were put for traveling. During the first journeys the motion of the carriage or railway train made Hans quite frantic, while Billy took it with absolute unconcern. On stopping at a hotel, they were invariably released in my room.  5
  Arriving at Rome, I fitted up a deep window recess for their home: but they always had the run of the study, and Hans, while never losing sight of a door left ajar, and often escaping into adjoining rooms, made himself apparently happy in his new quarters, climbing the high curtains, racing along the curtain poles, and at intervals making excursions to the top of the bookcase; though to both, the table at which I was at work soon became the favorite resort, and their antics there were as amusing as those of a monkey. Toward the end of the year Billy developed an indolent habit, which I now can trace to the disease that finally took him from us; but he never lost his love for my writing-table, where he used to lie and watch me at my work by the hour. Hans soon learned to climb down from their window bench, and up my legs and arms to the writing-table, and down again by the same road when he was tired of his exercises with the pencils or penholders he found there, or of hunting out the nuts which he had hidden the day before among the books and papers; but I never could induce him to stay in my pocket with Billy, who on cold days preferred sleeping there, as the warmth of my body was more agreeable than that of their fur-lined nest. There was something uncanny in Billy,—a preternatural animal intelligence which one sees, generally, only in animals that have had training and heredity to work on. He soon learned to indicate to me his few wants: and one of the things which will never fade from my memory is the pretty way in which he used to come to the edge of the window bench and nod his head to me to show that he wished to be taken; for he soon learned that it was easier to call to me and be taken than it was to climb down the curtain and run across the room to me. He nodded and wagged his head until I went to him, and his flexible nose wrinkled into the grotesque semblance of a smile, with all the seductive entreaty an animal could show; and somehow we learned to understand each other so well that I rarely mistook his want, were it water or food, or to climb, or to get on my table, or rest in my pocket. Notwithstanding all the forbearance which Hans showed for his mischievous ways, and the real attachment he had for Billy, Billy clearly preferred me to his companion; and when during the following winter I was attacked by bronchitis, and was kept in my bedroom for several days, after a day of my absence my wife, going into the study, found him in an extraordinary state of excitement, which she said resembled hysterics, and he insisted on being taken. It occurred to her that he wanted me, and she brought him up-stairs to my bedroom, when he immediately pointed to be taken to me; and as she was curious to see what he would do, and stopped at the threshold, he bit her hand gently to spur her forward to the bed. When put on the bed, he nestled down in the fur of my bed-cover, perfectly contented. As long as I kept my room he was brought up every day, and passed the day on my bed. At other times the two slept together in an open box lined with fur,—or what they seemed greatly to delight in, a wisp of new-mown hay,—or the bend of the window-curtain, so nestled together that it was hard to distinguish whether there were one or two.  6
  Some instincts of the woods they were long losing the use of, as the habit of often changing their sleeping-places. I provided them with several, of which the ultimate favorite was the bag of the window curtain; but sometimes when Billy was missing, he was found in my waste-paper basket, and even in the drawer of my typewriter desk, asleep. In their native forests these squirrels have this habit of changing their nests; and the mother will carry her little ones from one tree to another to hide their resting-place, as if she suspected the mischievous plans of the boys to hunt them—and probably she does. But the nest I made my squirrels in their traveling-carriage, of hard cardboard well lined with fur, suited the hiding and secluding ways of Hans for a long time best of all; and he abandoned it entirely only when he grew so familiar as not to care to hide. They also lost the habit of hiding their surplus food when they found food never wanting.  7
  When the large cones of the stone-pine came into the market late in the autumn, I got some to give them a taste of fresh nuts; and the frantic delight with which Hans recognized the relation to his national fir-cones, far away and slight as it was, was touching. He raced around the huge and impenetrable cone, tried it from every side, gnawed at the stem and then at the apex, but in vain. Yet he persisted. The odor of the pine seemed an intoxication to him; and the eager satisfaction with which he split the nuts, once taken out for him, even when Billy was watching him to confiscate them when open, was very interesting: for he had never seen the fruit of the stone-pine, and knew only the tiny things which the fir of the Northern forest bears; and to extricate the pine-nuts from their strong and hard cones was impossible to his tiny teeth. As for Billy, he was content to sit and look on while Hans gnawed, and to take the kernel from him when he had split the nut; and the charming bonhomie with which he appropriated it, and with which Hans submitted to the piracy, was a study.  8
  The friendship between the two was very interesting: for while Billy generally preferred being with me to remaining on his window bench with Hans, he had intervals when he insisted on being with Hans; while the latter seemed to care for nothing but Billy, and would not remain long away from him willingly as long as Billy lived. When the summer came again, being unable to leave them with servants or the housekeeper, I put them in their cage once more, and took them back to Lauffenburg for my vacation. Hans still retained his impatience at the confinement even of my large chamber, and with a curious diligence watched the door for a crack to escape by, though in all other respects he seemed happy and at home and perfectly familiar; and though always in this period of his life shy with strangers, he climbed over me with perfect nonchalance. Billy, on the contrary, refused freedom; and when I took him out into his native woods he ran about a little, and came back to find his place in my pocket as naturally as if it had been his birth-nest. But the apparent yearning of Hans for liberty was to me an exquisite pain. He would get up on the window-bench, looking out one way on the rushing Rhine, and the other on the stretching pine forest, and stand with one paw on the sash and the other laid across his breast, and turn his bright black eyes from one to the other view incessantly, and with a look of passionate eagerness which made my heart ache. If I could have found a friendly park where he could have been turned loose in security from hunger and the danger of hunting boys and the snares which beset a wild life, I would have released him at once. I never so felt the wrong and mutual pain of imprisonment of God’s free creatures as then with poor Hans, whose independent spirit had always made him the favorite of the two with my wife; and now that the little drama of their lives is over, and Nature has taken them both to herself again, I can never think of this eager little creature with his passionate outlook over the Rhineland without tears. But in the Rhineland, under the pretext that they eat off the top twigs of the pine-trees and spoil their growth, they hunt the poor things with a malignancy that makes it a wonder that there is one left to be captured; and Hans’s chance of life in those regions was the very least a creature could have. As to the pretext of the destruction of the pine-tops, I have looked at them in every part of the Black Forest that I have visited, and have never been able to discover one tree-top spoiled. It is possible that the poor little creatures, when famished, may eat the young twigs of trees; but in my opinion the accusation is only the case of the wolf who wants an excuse to eat the lamb. Hans and Billy were both fond of roses and lettuce; but nothing else in the way of vegetation, other than fruits and nuts, would they eat. But when I remember that in my boyhood I have joined in squirrel hunts, and that my murderous lead has often crashed through their tender frames, I have no right to cast stones at the Germans, but with pain and humiliation remember my cruelty. I would sooner be myself shot than shoot another. I feel so keenly their winsome grace when I can watch them in freedom that I cannot draw the line between them and myself, except that they are worthier of life than I am. The evolutionists tell us that we are descended from some common ancestor of the monkey. It may be so: and if, as has been conjectured by one scientist, that was the lemur, which is the link between the monkey and the squirrel, I should not object; but I hope that we branched off at the Sciurus, for I would willingly be the far-off cousin of my little pets.  9
  But before leaving Rome for my summer vacation at Lauffenburg, the artificial habits of life, and my ignorance of the conditions of squirrel health, began to work their usual consequences. Billy had begun to droop, and symptoms of some organic malady appeared; though he grew more and more devoted to me, his ambition to climb and disport himself diminished: and it was clear that his civilized life had done for him what it does for many of us,—shortened his existence. He never showed signs of pain, but grew more sluggish, and would come to me and rest, licking my hand like a little dog, and was as happy so as his nature could show. They both hailed again with greedy enthusiasm the first nuts, fresh and crisp, and the first peaches, which I went to Basel to purchase for them; and what the position permitted me I supplied them with, with a guilty feeling that I could never atone for the loss of what they lost with freedom. I tried to make them happy in any way with my limited abilities; and, the vacation over, we went back to Rome and the fresh pine-cones and their window niche.  10
  But there Billy grew rapidly worse, and I realized that the tragedy of our little ménage was coming. He grew apathetic; and would lie with his great black eyes looking into space, as if in a dream. It became tragedy for me: for the symptoms were the same as those of a dear little fellow who had first rejoiced my father’s heart in the years gone by, and who lies in an old English church-yard; whose last hours I watched lapsing into the eternity beyond, painlessly, and he, thank God! understanding nothing of the great change. When he could no longer speak, he beckoned me to lay my head on the same pillow. He died of blood-poisoning, as I found after Billy’s death that he also did; and the identity of the symptoms (of the cause of which I then understood nothing) brought back the memory of that last solitary night when my boy passed from under my care, and his eyes, large and dark like Billy’s, grew dim and vacant like his. Billy, too, clung the closer to me as the end approached; and when the apathy left him almost no recognition of things around, he would grasp one of my fingers with his two paws, and lick it till he tired. It was clear that death was at hand: and on the last afternoon I took him out into the grounds of the Villa Borghese to lie in the sunshine, and get perhaps a moment of return to Mother Nature; but when I put him on the grass in the warm light he only looked away into vacancy, and lay still, and after a little dreamily indicated to me to take him up again: and I remembered that on the day before his death I had carried Russie into the green fields, hoping they would revive him for one breathing-space, for I knew that death was on him; and he lay and looked off beyond the field and flowers; and now he almost seemed to be looking out of dear little Billy’s eyes.  11
  I went out to walk early the next morning, and when I returned I found Billy dead, still warm, and sitting up in his box of fresh hay in the attitude of making his toilet; for to the last he would wash his face and paws, and comb out his tail, even when his strength no longer sufficed for more than the mere form of it. I am not ashamed to say that I wept like a child. The dear little creature had been to me not merely a pet to amuse my vacant hours,—though many of those most vacant which sleepless nights bring had been diverted by his pretty ways as he shared my bed, and by his singular devotion to me,—but he had been as a door open into the world of God’s lesser creatures, an apostle of pity and tenderness for all living things, and his memory stands on the eternal threshold nodding and beckoning to me to enter in and make part of the creation I had ignored till he taught it to me; so that while life lasts I can no longer inflict pain or death upon the least of God’s creatures. If it be true that “to win the secret of a weed’s plain heart” gives the winner a clue to the hidden things of the spiritual life, how much more the conscient and reciprocal love which Billy and I bore, and I could gladly say still bear, each other, must widen the sphere of spiritual sympathy; which, widening still, reaches at last the eternal source of all life and love, and finds indeed that one touch of nature makes all things kin. Living and dying, Billy has opened to me a window into the universe, of the existence of which I had no suspicion; his little history is an added chamber to that eternal mansion into which my constant and humble faith assures me that I shall some time enter; he has helped me to a higher life. If love could confer immortality, he would share eternity with me, and I would thank the Creator for the companionship. And who knows? Thousands of human beings to whom we dare not deny the possession of immortal souls have not half Billy’s claim to live forever. May not the Indian philosopher with his transmigration of souls have had some glimpses of a truth?  12
  But my history is only half told. When I found the little creature dead, and laid him down in an attitude befitting death, Hans came to him, and making a careful and curious study of him, seemed to realize that something strange had come: and stretched himself out at full length on the body, evidently trying to warm it into life again, or feeling that something was wanting which he might impart; and this failing, began licking the body. When he found that all this was of no avail, he went away into the remotest corner of his window niche, refusing to lie any longer in their common bed or stay where they had been in the habit of staying together. All day he would touch neither food nor drink; and for days following he took no interest in anything, hardly touching his food. Fearing that he would starve himself to death, I took him out on the large open terrace of my house, where, owing to his old persistent desire to escape, I had never dared trust him, and turned him loose among the plants. He wandered a few steps as if bewildered, looked all about him, and then came deliberately to me, climbed my leg, and went voluntarily into the pocket Billy loved to lie in, and in which I had never been able to make Hans stay for more than a minute or so. The whole nature of the creature became changed. He reconciled himself to life, but never again became what he had been before. His gayety was gone, his wandering ambitions were forgotten, and his favorite place was my pocket,—Billy’s pocket. From that time he lost all desire to escape: even when I took him out into the fields or woods he had no desire to leave me; but after a little turn, and a half-attempt to climb a tree, would come back voluntarily to me, and soon grew as fond of being caressed and stroked as Billy had been. It was as if the love he bore Billy had changed him to Billy’s likeness. He never became as demonstrative as Billy was; and to my wife, who was fond of teasing him, he always showed a little pique, and even if buried in his curtain nest or in the fold of my rug, and asleep, he would scold if she approached within several yards of him: but to me he behaved as if he had consciously taken Billy’s place. I sent to Turin to get him a companion, and the merchant sent me one guaranteed young and a female; but I found it a male, which died of old age within a few weeks of his arrival. Hans had hardly become familiarized with him when he died. The night before he died I came home late in the evening; and having occasion to go into my study, I was surprised, when I opened the door, to find Hans on the threshold nodding to me to be taken, with no attempt to escape as of old. I took him up, wondering what had disturbed him at an hour when he was never accustomed to be afoot, put him back in his bed, and went to mine. But thinking over the strange occurrence, I got up, dressed myself, and went down to see if anything was wrong; and found the new squirrel hanging under the curtain in which the two had been sleeping, with his hind claws entangled in the stuff, head down, and evidently very ill. He had probably felt death coming, and tried to get down and find a hiding-place, but got his claws entangled, and could not extricate them. He died the next day, and I took Hans to sleep in his old place in the fold of my bed-cover; where, with a few days’ interruption, he slept as long as he lived. He insisted on being taken, in fact, when his sleeping-time came, and would come to the edge of his shelf and nod to me till I took him; or if I delayed, he would climb down the curtain and come to me. One night I was out late, and on reaching home I went to take him; and not finding him in his place, alarmed the house to look for him. After long search I found him sitting quietly under the chair I always occupied in the study. He got very impatient if I delayed putting him to bed; and like Billy, he used to bite my hand to indicate his discontent, gently at first, but harder and harder till I attended to him. When he saw that we were going up-stairs to the bedroom he became quiet.  13
  Whether from artificial conditions of life or because he suffered from the loss of Billy (after whose death he never recovered his spirits), or as I fear, from a fall from some high piece of furniture,—for he loved still to be on any height, and his claws, grown too long, no longer held to the furniture, so that he had several heavy falls,—his hind legs became slowly paralyzed. He now ran with difficulty; but his eyes were as bright and his intelligence was as quick as ever, and his fore feet were as dexterous. His attachment to me increased as the malady progressed; and though from habit he always scolded a little when my wife approached him, he showed a great deal of affection for her toward the end, which was clearly approaching. Vacation came again, and I took him once more with me to the Black Forest, hoping that his mysterious intelligence might find some consolation in the native air. He was evidently growing weak very fast, and occasionally showed impatience as if in pain; but for the most of the time he rested quietly in my pocket, and was most happy when I gave him my hand for a pillow, sometimes, though rarely, licking the hand—for he was even then far more reserved in all his expressions of feeling than Billy. At times he would sit on the window bench, and scan the landscape with something of the old eagerness that used to give me so much pain, snuffing the mountain air eagerly for a half-hour, and then nod to go into my pocket again; and at other times, as if restless, would insist, in the way he had made me understand, that like a baby he wanted motion, and when I walked about with him he grew quiet and content again. At home he had been very fond of a dish of dried rose-leaves, in which he would wallow and burrow; and my wife sent him from Rome a little bag of them, which he enjoyed weakly for a little. But in his last days the time was spent by day mostly in my pocket, and by night on my bed with his head on my hand. It was only the morning before his death that he seemed really to suffer, and then a great restlessness came on him, and a disposition to bite convulsively whatever was near him: but at the end he lay quietly in my hand, and when the spasm was on him I gave him a little chloroform to inhale till it had passed; and when he breathed his last in my pocket, I knew that he was dead only by my hand on his heart. I buried him, as I had wished, in his native forest, in his bed of rose-leaves, digging a niche under a great granite bowlder. He had survived his companion little more than six months; and if the readers of my little history are disposed to think me weak when I say that his death was to me a great and lasting grief, I am not concerned to dispute their judgment. I have known grief in all its most blinding and varied forms, and I thank God that he constituted me loving enough to have kept a tender place in my heart “even for the least of these,” the little companions of two years; and but for my having perhaps shortened their innocent lives, I thank him for having known and loved them as I have.  14

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