Chapter XLIII. An Old Tenement

The few remaining days of August passed, and September came, bringing little suggestion of autumn rains or coolness. Dr. and Mrs. Marvin had joined them, and the former's interest in every wild creature of the woods became infectious. Alf and Fred were his ardent disciples, and he rarely found an indifferent listener in Amy. The heat of the day was given up to reading and the fashioning of alpenstocks, and the mornings and late afternoons to excursions. In one of these they had sat down to rest near an immense decaying tree that was hollow in parts, and full of holes from the topmost shattered branches to the ground.

"That," said the doctor, "might fitly be called an old tenement-house. You have no idea how many and various creatures may have found a home in it."

He was immediately urged to enumerate its possible inhabitants in the past, present, and future.

The doctor, pleased with the conceit of regarding the decaying tree in this light, began with animation: "All three of the squirrels of this region have undoubtedly dwelt in it. I scarcely need do more than mention the well-known saucy red or fox squirrel, whose delight is mischief. By the way, we have at home two tame robins that before they could fly were tumbled out of their nest by one of these ruthless practical jokers. The birds come in and out of the house like members of the family. The graceful gray squirrel is scarcely less familiar than the red one. He makes a lively pet, and we have all seen him turning the wheel attached to his cage. The curious little flying-squirrel, however, is a stranger even to those to whom he may be a near neighbor, for the reason that his habits are chiefly nocturnal. He ventures out occasionally on a cloudy day, but is shy and retiring. Thoreau relates an interesting experience with one. He captured it in a decayed hemlock stump, wherein it had a little nest of leaves, bits of bark, and pine needles. It bit viciously at first, and uttered a few 'dry shrieks,' but he carried it home. After it had been in his room a few hours it reluctantly allowed its soft fur to be stroked. He says it had 'very large, prominent black eyes, which gave it an innocent look. In color it was a chestnut ash, inclining to fawn, slightly browned, and white beneath. The under edge of his wings (?) tinged yellow, the upper dark, perhaps black.' He put it into a barrel, and fed it with an apple and shag-bark hickory-nuts. The next morning he carried it back and placed it on the stump from which it had been taken, and it ran up a sapling, from which it skimmed away to a large maple nine feet distant, whose trunk it struck about four feet from the ground. This tree it ascended thirty feet on the opposite side from Thoreau, then, coming into view, it eyed its quondam captor for a moment or two, as much as to say 'good-by.' Then away it went, first raising its head as if choosing its objective point. Thoreau says its progress is more like that of a bird than he had been led to believe from naturalists' accounts, or than he could have imagined possible in a quadruped. Its flight was not a regular descent on a given line. It veered to right and left, avoiding obstructions, passed between branches of trees, and flew horizontally part of the way, landing on the ground at last, over fifty-one feet from the foot of the tree from which it sprang. After its leap, however, it cannot renew its impetus in the air, but must alight and start again. It appears to sail and steer much like a hawk when the latter does not flap its wings. The little striped chipmunk, no doubt, has heaped up its store of nuts in the hole there that opens from the ground into the tree, and the pretty white-footed mouse, with its large eyes and ears, has had its apartment in the decayed recesses that exist in the worm-eaten roots.

"Opossums and raccoons are well-known denizens of trees, and both furnish famous country sports, especially in the South. ''Possum up de gum-tree, cooney in de hollow,' is a line from a negro ditty that touches a deep chord in the African heart. The former is found not infrequently in this region, but the Hudson seems to be the eastern boundary of its habitat."

"I took two from a tree in one night," Burt remarked.

"The raccoon's haunts, however, extend far to the northward, and it is abundant in the regions bordering on the Adirondacks, though not common in the dense pine woods of the interior. They are omnivorous creatures, and often rob nests of eggs and young birds, for they are expert climbers. They are fond of nuts and fruits, and especially of corn when in the condition of a milky pulp. Nor does poultry come amiss. They are also eager fishermen, although they are unable to pursue their prey under water like the otter and mink. They like to play in shallows, and leave no stone unturned in the hope of finding a crawfish under it. If fish have been left in land-locked pools, they are soon devoured. 'Coon-hunting by the light of the harvest-moon has long been one of the most noted of rural sports. During this month the corn kernels are in the most toothsome state for the 'coon bill of fare, and there are few fields near forests where they will not be marauding to-night, for they are essentially night prowlers. A 'coon hunt usually takes place near midnight. Men, with dogs trained to the sport, will repair to a cornfield known to be infested. The feasters are soon tracked and treed, then shot, or else the tree is felled, when such a snarling fight ensues as creates no little excitement. No matter how plucky a cur may be, he finds his match in an old 'coon, and often carries the scars of combat to his dying day.

"If taken when young, raccoons make amusing pets, and become attached to their masters, but they cannot be allowed at large, for they are as mischievous as monkeys. Their curiosity is boundless, and they will pry into everything within reach. Anything, to be beyond their reach, must be under lock and key. They use their forepaws as hands, and will unlatch a door with ease, and soon learn to turn a knob. Alf there could not begin to ravage a pantry like a tame 'coon. They will devour honey, molasses, sugar, pies, cake, bread, butter, milk--anything edible. They will uncover preserve-jars as if Mrs. Leonard had given them lessons, and with the certainty of a toper uncork a bottle and get drunk on its contents."

"No pet 'coons, Alf, if you please," said his mother.

"Raccoons share with Reynard his reputation for cunning," the doctor resumed," and deserve it, but they do not use this trait for self-preservation. They are not suspicious of unusual objects, and, unlike a fox, are easily trapped. They hibernate during the coldest part of the winter, reappearing in the latter part of February or March. They are fond of little excursions, and usually travel in small family parties, taking refuge in hollow trees about daylight. They make their home high up, and prefer a hollow limb to the trunk of a tree. Some of those half-decayed limbs yonder would just suit them. They have their young in April--from four to six--and these little 'coons remain with the mother a year. While young they are fair eating, but grow tough and rank with age.

"Two other interesting animals may have lived in that tree, the least weasel and his sanguinary cousin the ermine, or large weasel. Both are brown, after the snow finally disappears, and both turn white with the first snowstorm."

"Now you are romancing, doctor," cried Miss Hargrove.

"Yes," added Leonard, "tell us that you have caught a weasel asleep, and we will, at least, look credulous; but this turning white with the first snow, and brown as soon as the snow is gone, is a little off color."

"It's true, nevertheless," maintained the doctor, "although I have seen no satisfactory explanation of the changes. They not only make their nests in hollow trees, but in the sides of banks. Were it not for its habit of destroying the eggs and young of birds, the least weasel might be regarded as a wholly useful creature, for it devours innumerable mice, moles, shrews, and insects, and does not attack larger animals or poultry. It is so exceedingly lithe and slender that its prey has no chance to escape. Where a mouse or a mole can go it can go also, and if outrun in the field, it follows the scent of its game like a hound, and is as relentless as fate in its pursuit. They are not very shy, and curiosity speedily overcomes their timidity. Sit down quietly, and they will investigate you with intense interest, and will even approach rather near in order to see better. Dr. Merriam describes one as standing bolt-upright, and eying him, with its head bent at right angles to its slender body. After a brief retreat it made many partial advances toward him, meanwhile constantly sniffing the air in his direction. I've no doubt Dr. Merriam would have liked to know the weasel's opinion. They have two or three litters a year, and the nest is made of dry leaves and herbage. The mother weasel will defend her young at any cost, and never hesitates to sacrifice her life in their behalf. She will fasten herself by her sharp teeth to the nose of a dog, and teach him that weasel-hunting has some drawbacks.

"In its next of kin, the ermine, or large weasel, we have perhaps the most cruel and bloodthirsty animal in existence. It is among mammals what the butcher-bird is among the feathered tribes--an assassin, a beautiful fiend. It would seem that nature reproduces among animals and plants every phase of human character. Was it Nero or Caligula who said, 'Oh, that Rome had but one neck, that I might sever it?' Such is the spirit that animates the ermine. Its instinct to kill is so strong that, were it possible, it would destroy the means of its subsistence. It would leave none of its varied prey alive. The lion and even the man-eating tiger, when gorged, are inert and quiet. They kill no more than they want for a meal; but the ermine will attack a poultry-yard, satiate itself with the brains of the fowls or by sucking their blood, and then, out of 'pure cussedness,' will kill all the rest within reach. Fifty chickens have been destroyed in a night by one of these remorseless little beasts. It makes fearful ravages among grouse, rabbits, and hares. It is the mythical vampire embodied. It is not very much larger than the least weasel, and has the same long, lithe, slender body and neck. A gray squirrel would look bulky beside one, but in indomitable courage and pitiless ferocity I do not think it has an equal. Only a lack of material or bodily fatigue suspends its bloody work, and its life is one long career of carnage. It has a terrific set of teeth, which are worked by most powerful muscles. Dr. Coues, an eminent naturalist, has given a graphic account of him. His words, as I remember them, are a true portrait of a murderer. 'His forehead is low, and nose sharp; his eyes are small, penetrating, cunning, and glitter with an angry green light. His fierce face surmounts a body extraordinarily wiry, lithe, and muscular, which ends in a singularly long, slender neck that can be lifted at right angles with the body. When he is looking around, his neck stretched up, his flat triangular head bent forward, swaying to and fro, we have the image of a serpent.'

"This is a true picture of the ermine when excited or angry; when at rest, and in certain conditions of his fur, there are few more beautiful, harmless, innocent-looking creatures. Let one of the animals on which he preys approach, however, and instantly he becomes a demon. In the economy of nature he often serves a very useful purpose. In many regions field mice are destructive. The ermine is their deadliest foe. A rat will fight a man, if cornered, but it gives up at once in abject terror when confronted by the large weasel. This arch-enemy has a pride in his hunting, and when taking up his quarters in a barn will collect in one place all the rats and mice he kills. Sometimes a hundred or more have been found together as the result of two or three nights' work. The ermine hunts, however, both by day and night, and climbs trees with great facility. He is by no means shy, and one has been known to try to kill chickens in a coop when a man was standing near him. Hunger was not his motive, for he had destroyed dozens of fowls the night before. The ermine has been used successfully as a ferret. Having first filed the creature's teeth down, so that it could not kill the game, a gentleman secured twelve live rabbits in one forenoon.

"But it's getting late, and time we started tentward, and yet I'm not through even the list of quadrupeds that may have dwelt in our old tenement. There are four species of bats to be mentioned, besides moles and shrews, that would burrow in its roots if they are as hollow as the branches. There are thirteen species of birds, including several very interesting families of woodpeckers, that would live in a tree like that, not to speak of tree-toads, salamanders, brown tree-lizards, insects and slugs innumerable, and black-snakes--"

"Snakes?" interrupted Burt, incredulously.

"Yes, snakes. I once put my hand in a hole for high-holders' eggs, and a big black-snake ran down my back, but not inside of my coat, however."

"Please say nothing more about snakes," cried Amy; and she rose decisively, adding, in a low tone: "Come, Gertrude, let us go. The tenants of the old tree that we've heard about may be very interesting to naturalists, but some of them are no more to my taste than the people in the slums of London."

"You have made our blood run cold with horrors--an agreeable sensation, however, to-day," said Burt, also rising. "Your ermine out-Herods Herod. By the way, is not the fur of this pitiless beast worn by the highest dignitaries of the legal profession?" and he hastened after the girls.