Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Our pets - Part 2
OUR PETS. By S. S.
(Continued from p. 18.)
Members of our rook colony being often maimed, or in other ways disqualified for providing for themselves, I received many into my hospital, but never found them very interesting companions. Jackdaws were more to my taste, and amongst the numbers at different times domesticated by the family, there was one which exhibited in a striking manner that distinctiveness of character to which I have already alluded as constituting the greatest source of interest afforded by tame animals. The usual habits, the amusing looks, and mischievous tricks of jackdaws are well known; but I had one which added to these an amount of affection seldom placed to their credit. It was the accustomed companion of my walks, and would alternately perch upon my shoulder, and then fly off into the neighbouring trees and hedges, chattering and keeping up a sort of running conversation with me, whether near or distant, but always pursuing the same route, and returning with me to our home. What was more remarkable, it would sit on my shoulder in the same way when I was riding on horseback, flying off occasionally to the hedges and returning to its perch. It always became more timid, however, as we approached strange roads and hedges, and so would leave me and fly back if I went further than about a mile from home. One of my accustomed rides was taken periodically, on a particular day of the week, when I always went and returned at the same hour and by the same route. In process of time the jackdaw began to wait for me upon this route, though at first very near home; but once I was startled by its alighting on my shoulder at the distance of three quarters of a mile from my house. I cannot describe the interest and enjoyment which I derived from this affectionate and voluntary intercourse; but, like many other enjoyments, it came to a sudden, and to me entirely unaccountable, close. One day, while walking out, my jackdaw disappeared. It had flown from my shoulder over a hedge, and I had no doubt whatever but it would return as usual. But it never came back; and although diligent search and inquiry were carried on for some time, no light was ever thrown upon the cause or the manner of its total disappearance.
Amongst the birds of prey which at different times I entertained as my guests, rather than my captives, I had many hawks—of the common sparrow hawk the greatest number. But I never tamed them exactly to my wishes, and so let them go if they desired their liberty; and I do not think I ever succeeded in eliciting from them any proof of affection towards myself. One, however, was bound to me in a very remarkable manner by the ties of self-interest. As usual with these birds they could not alight upon the ground, nor exhibit themselves in the neighbourhood of the poultry without an uproar of indignant cackling and screaming from all the old hens in the yard, who were ready with beak and claw to execute summary vengeance upon their family foe. On one of these occasions, my hawk, being young and inexperienced, was not able to defend himself. He was rescued with the loss of half his feathers, and barely escaped with life. But, worse than the loss of feathers—nay, almost too shocking to relate, the old hens had actually torn off the upper half of his bill quite close to the head. He was a frightful spectacle, and nobody expected him to live. However, I soon found that in other respects he was not much hurt, and to my surprise I found also that he could even take food when cut small and placed favourably in his poor distorted mouth. I fed him carefully, and soon had the pleasure of seeing that a horny substance was beginning to grow at the root of the torn mandible. By degrees it became more visible, and then projected so far as to be of some use in receiving his food, though he was still dependent upon me for placing it in his mouth. All this while the hawk was at perfect liberty to go or stay as he liked. The feathers of his cut wing grew to their full extent, and he was accustomed to fly about in the day time, always returning to me in the evening, when I used to place him for safety in a cage that was opened in the morning. I observed that the new bill continued to grow, though the disproportioned length of the lower mandible still prevented its being of much use. As it grew the hawk became gradually less tame. He began at length to stay out all night, but always came back to me when in want of food. The intervals between his visits became longer. He grew more timid in his approaches, so that I adopted the method of throwing pieces of food up into the air, where he caught them with avidity, and then flew away. I thought sometimes he had quite forsaken me, when, after the lapse of a week or more, I spied him hovering over my head as I walked in the garden, evidently anticipating his accustomed supply, in which he was never disappointed; until at last, on the expiration of about six months after his accident, he ceased altogether to claim my attention, and I concluded then that his bill had grown so as to enable him to provide for himself.
All this while I was the possessor of a monkey. It had been the dream of my early childhood to have a monkey; and a very pretty little brown fellow was given to me. It was of that species which hang by their tails to the branches of trees, and this power of its tail enabled my monkey to execute a larger amount of mischief than seemed possible for so small an animal. But the possession of this treasure was attended with a good deal of disappointment to me. I found that the tricks of my monkey consisted almost entirely of a mere routine of skilful mimicry, to which now and then some curious coincidence lent a strange drollery; such, for instance, as its tendency to uncork medicine bottles and taste pills, in which occupation it exhibited an amusing burlesque upon the physician. Or when it had watched some white-washers at work, and as soon as they were gone, seized the nearest brush, which happened to be one used for train oil, and dipping it into a bowl of pure milk, worked away at the kitchen wall just as the men had been doing.
It would be impossible to do justice to the amusement afforded to our friends and visitors by this little inmate of the family, who remained with us until his death at the expiration of sixteen years. Equally impossible would it be to record the amount of mischief which he managed to execute in his rambles around and about the house and garden, whenever he was allowed to be at liberty. Indeed such were the depredations he committed in the way of stripping off fruit, sometimes clearing a whole wall of fine pears in an incredibly short space of time; such the incongruous mixtures he left behind him after his investigations amongst dressing-cases, or medicine chests; and such his terrible fractures in china-closets and pantries, that it was absolutely necessary to keep him generally a prisoner. His winter residence was a comfortable recess beside the kitchen-fire, in a situation which commanded the view of a large hall, with all the congregating of animal life both dumb and vocal which used to throng that route, or meet beneath his quick and piercing eye. I mention this, because this situation afforded free scope for the exercise of that peculiar faculty or tendency which was the only thing that has ever struck me as peculiarly interesting in monkey character. This consisted in a rare perception on the part of the animal of the relative rank possessed by different members of the household, and a nice balancing of reverence exactly proportioned to its own estimate of such rank. The highest rank was of course awarded to my father; the next highest, as was very natural, to the cook, and so on through all grades of the family, until the utmost contempt, blended with the same relative proportion of spite, culminated in the lowest kitchen maid, whose red elbows often exhibited the marks of the monkey’s teeth, and whose shrieks of terror were the accustomed announcement that the animal had broken loose. Savage and defiant as this little creature was to those who held a subordinate position in the household, nothing could be more meek and servile than the monkey always was to my father, as the chief or head; and so in degree, until the tide turned in the middle, where we as children stood in its esteem. And like other servile worshippers of rank and power, the monkey was quite disposed as a talebearer to cater to my father’s influence. Thus, if ever any romping, fun, or even quarrelling took place amongst the servants, the monkey, though chattering all the while with proportionate vehemence, reserved his spite until the appearance of my father, when he would begin to chatter again with renewed emphasis, sometimes after the expiration of an hour, and as he told his tale, he would bob his head towards the culprit, with a grunt so emphatic, that it was impossible to be mistaken as to the offending party.
For this kind of littleness of spirit I never saw my monkey’s equal. Just in proportion as you faced about bravely, and defied him, he crouched, and gave up the contest; but if you flinched, if you ran or shrieked, he was upon you in an instant, grinning and chattering, as if the next movement would be to fasten his teeth in your cheek. He was not, however, half so bad as he seemed to be, and by a very small amount of quiet presence of mind, might be effectually subdued. I confess that in my own case I was not at all times sufficiently master of this calm philosophy, especially on some occasions when I thought it necessary to chastise him with a riding-whip; for he had a clever trick of seizing the small end, and so running up the whip, and being upon your arm in a moment.
Of course, it was impossible to inspire our friends, especially if young ladies, with the necessary amount of presence of mind; and many were the exclamations half of terror, and half of fun, which announced that the enemy was abroad, and at his usual tricks, climbing up to the open windows of the bed-rooms, or surprising the visitors under circumstances which did not admit of immediate rescue. I remember very distinctly one bright summer’s morning, when, with a house full of guests, we missed two young ladies at the breakfast-table. Thinking they had overslept themselves, we took no pains to disturb them, until the meal was nearly over, when I went up-stairs and tapped at their door. I was answered by a smothered cry of distress, when I opened the door, and saw the two unhappy creatures struggling under the bed-clothes, with the monkey perched upon their knees, grinning and chattering in the most malignant manner, and even making every now and then a most furious rush at them, when a hand or a nose happened for a moment to be exposed. It was well I had gone to their rescue, for their horror was beyond description, and so long as they screamed and struggled, the monkey was not likely to give them up. They said they had first heard some unusual sound upon the dressing-table, when, looking out of bed, they perceived to their dismay that the monkey had entered by the open window, and was busily examining the curiosities of their toilette. Had they been quiet he would most likely have returned as he came; but so soon as they betrayed their fear, he sprang upon the bed, threatening and defying them to the teeth.
It is but just to this little tyrant to state, that he was capable both of tenderness and affection. At the sight of a little baby its heart was completely melted, and it would take hold of the small hands and examine them with as much apparent interest as if it had been itself a nurse. Towards other young animals it would also on some occasions exhibit the same tenderness. It had once a favourite chicken, which it was in the habit of snatching from the brood, and hugging in its arms as a child would hold a doll; and one particular kitten was at another time distinguished by the same rather questionable marks of favour. My monkey died at last from an affection of the lungs, attended with a bad cough, and every symptom of consumption. It had always suffered from cold; but, having a thick brown coat of its own, refused all artificial clothing. Determined to gain the mastery in this respect, I once made it a jacket, which it could neither tear nor slip off. It struggled to rid itself of this appendage for the space of three days, when, finding itself completely conquered, it gave up in despair, but fell into so low a condition of health and spirits, that I removed the jacket out of sheer compassion, and never tried the experiment again.
Having begun my experience, in the way of training animals, with a large bird of prey, I acquired a certain kind of partiality for animals not generally tamed. Perhaps I fancied there was more glory in taming a naturally ferocious creature, and more distinction in that affection which could not easily be won. Thus I tried the experiment upon animals seldom domesticated, and in some instances less agreeably to my friends than to myself.
On one occasion a fine badger, caught in our fields, was brought to me as a valuable addition to my menagerie; but with him I failed entirely. He hated the sight of me, as much as all my other pets hated him; and I was not sorry to find, after our acquaintance of a few months, that one moonlight night he had contrived to make his escape.
I am afraid if the whole truth were told, some of our pets would have come under the charge of “nuisance,” had we lived in a more populous neighbourhood; but dwelling as we did amongst our own people, they were, upon the whole, very patiently borne with; and perhaps the amusement they afforded repaid others as well as ourselves for occasional inconvenience. Now and then a complaint was made, in some cases more entertaining than serious: as when a farmer living at the distance of two miles made a claim upon my father for damages committed by his sparrows. He knew my father’s belief in the usefulness of birds, and he was determined to charge him with the consequences.
An old woman who lived in one of our cottages brought her complaint with a little more justice. We had a large Asiatic sheep, of the kind which afford a feast to the epicure in the mass of fat accumulated in a monstrous cushion towards the end of the tail. I do not know whether the weight of this appendage enabled the animal to operate with more effect as a battering ram; but certainly his power in this way was far from agreeable to cope with. The old woman complained that it was impossible to hang out her linen to dry in the field where this sheep was kept; for, watching his opportunity, he no sooner beheld her standing with outstretched arms holding the linen in both hands, than he advanced from behind, and pitched her into or over the hedge. But this was not the worst, at least not to the neighbours, though it might be to the old woman herself. The surrounding cottages were visited periodically by a Methodist preacher, and the good man, not being aware of any danger, was crossing the field by a footpath, when a sudden attack, as usual from behind, sent him headlong, umbrella and all, into a ditch or hollow which crossed the path. On every attempt to regain his footing, the same attack was made, until at length he gave up in despair; and had not one of the women discovered something unusual in the field, a very serious interruption to the religious engagements of the evening must have been the consequence.
But for a terror to passers by, I have known few creatures to surpass an old swan. We had one who reigned for many years the undisputed sovereign of a pond, along the borders of which there was a road sometimes traversed by persons passing from one village to another. It happened one day that two tailors walked that way, and being proverbially better acquainted with the goose than the swan, had probably stopped to admire these beautiful creatures on the water. However that might be, it is certain that shrieks were heard, and that when some of our people rushed to the rescue, one of the tailors was down on his back, and the swan flapping him with his terrible wings. Our people said one of the tailors ran east, the other west, and were never heard of again; but I doubt the authenticity of this statement.