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Something Pretty in a Glass Case

It was said by a Norfolk naturalist more than three-quarters of a century ago, that the desire to possess "something pretty in a glass case" caused the killing of very many birds, especially of such as were rare and beautiful, which if allowed to exist in our country would maintain the species and be a constant source of pleasure to all who beheld them. For who, walking by a riverside, does not experience a thrill of delight at the sudden appearance in the field of vision of that living jewel, the shining blue kingfisher! This is one of the favourites of all who desire to have something pretty in a glass case in the cottage parlour in room of the long-vanished pyramid of wax flowers and fruit. It is, however, not only the common people, the cottager and the village publican who desire to possess such ornaments. You see them also in baronial halls. Many a time on visiting a great house the first thing the owner has drawn my attention to has been his stuffed birds in a glass case: but in the great houses the peregrine, and hobby, and goshawk, and buzzard and harrier are more prized than the kingfisher and other pretty little birds.

The Philistine we know is everywhere and is of all classes.

It is to me a cause of astonishment that these mournful mementoes should be regarded as they appear to be, as objects pleasing to the eye, like pictures and statues, tapestries, and other decorative works of art. The sight of a stuffed bird in a house is revolting to me; it outrages our sense of fitness, and is as detestable as stuffed birds and wings, tails and heads, and beaks of murdered and mutilated birds on women's headgear. "Properly speaking," said St George Mivart in his greatest work, "there is no such thing as a dead bird." The life is the bird, and when that has gone out what remains is the case. These dead empty cases are as much to me as to any naturalist, and I can examine the specimens in a museum cabinet with interest. But the mental attitude is changed at the sight of these same dead empty cases set up in imitation of the living creature; and the more cleverly the stuffer has done his work the more detestable is the result.

It may be that some vague notion of a faint remnant of life lingering in the life-like specimen with glass eyes, is the cause of my hatred of the feathered ornament in a glass case. At all events I have had one experience, to be related here, which has almost made me believe that the idea of a sort of post-mortem life in the stuffed bird is not wholly fanciful. I will call it:


A DIALOGUE OF THE DEAD (AND STUFFED)

Ever since I came the wind has been blowing a gale on this furthermost, lonely, melancholy coast, as if I had got not only to the Land's End, but to the end of the world itself, to the confines of Old Chaos his kingdom, a region where the elements are in everlasting conflict. Two or three times during the afternoon I have resolutely put on my cap and water-proof and gone out to face it, only to be quickly driven in again by the bitter furious blast. Yet it was almost as bad indoors to have to sit and listen by the hour to its ravings. From time to time I get up and look through the window-pane at the few cold grey naked cottages and empty bleak fields, divided by naked grey stone fences, and, beyond the fields, the foam-flecked, colder, greyer, more desolate ocean. Would it be better, I wonder, to fight my way down to those wave-loosened masses of granite by the sea, where I would hear the roar and thunder of the surf instead of this perpetual insane howling and screaming of the wind round the house? I turn from the window with a shiver; a splash of rain hurled against it has blotted the landscape out; I go back once more to my comfortable easy-chair by the fire. Patience! Patience! By and by, I say to myself—I say it many times over—daylight will be gone; then the lamp will be brought in, the curtains drawn, and tea will follow, with buttered toast and other good things. Then the solacing pipe, and thoughts and memories and some pleasant waking drawn to while away the time.

What shall this dream be? Ah, what but the best of all possible dreams on such a day as this—a dream of spring! Somewhere in the sweet west country I shall stand in a wood where beeches grow; and it will be April, near the end of the month, before the leaves are large enough to hide the blue sky and the floating white clouds so far above their tops. Perhaps I shall sit down on one of the huge root-branches, "coiled like a grey old snake," so as to gaze at ease before me at the cloud of purple-red boughs, and interlacing twigs, sprinkled over with golden buds and silky opening leaves of a fresh brilliant green that has no match on the earth or sea, nor under the earth in the emerald mines. I shall watch the love-flight of the cushat above the wood, mounting higher and higher, then gliding down on motionless dove-coloured wings; and I shall listen to the wood wren, ever wandering and singing in the tree-tops—singing that same insistent, passionate—passionless strain to which one could listen for ever.

I shall ask for no other song, but there will be other creatures there. Down the tall grey trunk of a beech tree before me a squirrel will slip—down, down nearly to the mossy roots, then pause and remain so motionless as to seem like a squirrel-shaped patch of bright chestnut-red moss or lichen or alga on the grey bark. And on the next tree, but a little distance off, I shall presently catch sight of another listener and watcher—a green woodpecker clinging vertically against the trunk, so still as to look like a bird figure carved in wood and painted green and gold and crimson.

Just when I had got so far with the thought of what my dream was to be, I raised my eyes from the fire and allowed them to rest attentively for the first time on a collection of ornaments crowded together in a niche in the wall at the side of the fireplace. The ornamental objects one sees in a cottage are as a rule offensive to me, and I have acquired the habit of not seeing them; now I was compelled to look at these. There were photographs, little china vases and cups with boys or cupids, and things of that kind; these I did not regard; my whole attention was directed to a pair of glass-fronted cases and the living creatures in them. They were not really alive, but dead and stuffed and set up in life-like attitudes, and one was a squirrel, the other a green woodpecker. The squirrel with his back to his neighbour sat up on his mossy wood, his bushy tail thrown along his back, his two little hands grasping a hazel-nut, which he was in the act of conveying to his mouth. The green woodpecker was placed vertically against his branch, his side towards his neighbour, his head turned partly round so that he looked directly at him with one eye. That wide-open white glass eye and the whole attitude of the bird, with his wings half open and beak raised, gave him a wonderfully alert look, so that after regarding him fixedly for some time I began to imagine that, despite the old dead dusty look of the feathers, there was something of life still remaining in him and that he really was watching his neighbour with the nut very intently.

Why, of course he was alive—alive and speaking to the squirrel! I could hear him distinctly. The wind outside was madly beating against the house and trying to force its way through the window, and was making a hundred strange noises—little sharp shrill broken sounds that mixed with and filled the pauses between the wailing and shrieking gusts, and somehow the woodpecker was catching these small sounds in his beak and turning them into words.

"Hullo!" he said. "Who are you and what are you doing there?"

"I'm a squirrel," responded the other. "I've said so over and over again, but you will go on worrying me! My only wish is that I could bring my tail just a little more to the right so as to hide my head and paws altogether from you."

"But you can't. Hullo! squirrel, what are you doing there? You forgot to tell me that."

"I'm eating a nut, confound you! You know it; I've told you ten thousand times. I can't ever get it up quite close enough to bite it and I haven't tasted one for seventeen years. One forgets what a thing tastes like."

"I know. I've been fasting just as long myself. Never an ant's egg! Hullo! Have you got it up? How does it taste?"

"Taste! You fool! If I could only move I wouldn't mind the nut; I'd go for you like a shot, and if I could get at you I'd tear you to pieces. I hate you!"

"Why do you hate me, squirrel?"

"More questions! Because you're green and yellow like the woods where I lived. There were beeches and oaks. And because your head is crimson red like the agarics I used to find in the woods in autumn. I used to eat them for fun just because they said they were poisonous and it would kill you to eat them."

"And that's what you died of? Hullo! Why don't you answer me? Where did you find red agarics?

"I've told you, I've told you, I've told you, in Treve woods where I lived, very far from here on the other side of Lostwithiel."

"Treve woods, between the hills away beyond Lostwithiel! Why, squirrel, that's where I lived."

"So I've heard; you have said it every day and every night these seventeen years. I hate you."

"Hullo! Why do you hate me?"

"I always disliked woodpeckers. I remember a pair that made a hole in a beech near the tree my drey was in. I played those two yafflers with their laugh laugh laugh some good tricks, and the best of all was when their young began to come out. One morning when the old birds were away I hid myself in the fork above the hole and waited till they crept out and up close to me, when I suddenly burst out upon them, chattering and flourishing my tail, and they were so terrified they actually lost their hold on the bark and tumbled right down to the ground. How I enjoyed it!"

"You malicious little red beast! You chattering little red devil! They were my young ones, and I remember what a fright we were in when we came back and saw what had happened. It was lucky we didn't lose one! I shall never speak to you again. There you may sit trying to eat your nut for another seventeen years, and for a hundred years if this horrible life is going to last so long, but you'll never get another word from me."

"I thought that would touch you, woodpecker! Ha, ha, ha—who's the yaffler now? What a relief; at last I shall be left to eat my nut in peace and quiet, here in this glass case where they put me."

"Why did they put us here?"

"You are speaking to me! Are the hundred years over so soon?"

"There's no one else—what am I to do? Answer me, why did they put us here? Answer me, little red wretch! I don't mind now what you did—they were not hurt after all. You didn't know what you were doing—you had no young ones of your own."

"Hadn't I indeed! My little ones were there close by in the drey."

"And when they were out of the drey did you teach them to run about in the tree, and jump from one branch to another, and pass from tree to tree?"

"I never saw them leave the drey—I was shot."

"Where was that, squirrel?"

"In the Treve Woods where the big beeches are, beyond Lostwithiel."

"Never! Why, that's just where I lived and was shot, too. Did it hurt you, squirrel?"

"I don't know. I saw a flash and remembered no more until I found myself dead in the man's pocket pressed against some wet soft thing. Did it hurt you?"

"Yes, very much. I fell when he fired and tried to get away, but he chased and caught me and the blood ran out on to his hand. He wiped it off on his coat, then squeezed my sides with his finger and thumb until I was dead, then put me in his pocket. There was some dead warm soft thing in it."

Here there was a break in the talk owing to a momentary lull in the wind. I listened intently, but the shrieking and wailing noises without had ceased and with them the sharp little voices had died away. Then suddenly the wind rose and shrieked again and the talk recommenced.

"Hullo!" said the woodpecker. "Do you see a man sitting by the fire looking at us? He has been staring at us that way all the evening."

"What of it! Everyone who comes into this room and sits by the fire does the same. It's nothing new."

"It is—it is! Listen to me, squirrel. He looks as if he could hear and understand us. That's new, isn't it? And he has a strange look in his eyes. Do you know, I think he is going mad."

"I don't mind, woodpecker. I shouldn't care if he were to run out on to the rocks at the Land's End and cast himself into the sea."

"Nor should I. But just think, if before rashing out to put an end to himself he should, in his raving madness, snatch down our cases from the niche and crush them into the grate with his heel!"

"What do you mean, woodpecker? Could such a thing happen?"

"Yes, if he really is insane, and if he is listening to us, and we are making him worse."

"If I could believe such a thing! I should cease to hate you, woodpecker. No, no, I can't believe it!"

"Just think, old neighbour, to have it end at last! Burnt up to ashes and smoke—feathers and hair, glass eyes, cottonwool stuffing and all!"

"Never again to hear that everlasting Hullo! To hate you and hate you and tell you a thousand thousand times, only to begin it all over again!"

"To fly up away in the smoke, out out out in the wind and rain!"

"The rain! the rain!"

"The rain from the south-west that made me laugh my loudest! Raining all day, wetting my green feathers, wetting every green leaf in the woods beyond Lostwithiel. Raining until all the stony gullies were filled to overflowing, and the water ran and gurgled and roared until the whole wood was filled with the sound."

"No, no, woodpecker, I can't, I can't believe it!"

"It's true! It's true! Don't you see it coming, squirrel? Look at him! Look at him! Now, now! At last! At last! At last!"

Suddenly their sharp agitated voices fell to a broken whispering and died into silence. For the wind had lulled again. Looking closely at them I thought I could see a new expression in their immovable glass eyes. It frightened me, I began to be frightened at myself; for it now seemed to me that I really was becoming insane, and I was suddenly seized with a fierce desire to snatch the cases down and crush them into the fire with my heel. To save myself from such a mad act I jumped up, and picking up my candle, hurried upstairs to my bedroom. No sooner did I reach it than the wind was up again, wailing and shrieking louder than ever, and between the gusts there were the murmurings and strange small noises of the wind in the roof, and once more I began to catch the sound of their renewed talk. "Gone! gone!" they said or seemed to say. "Our last hope! What shall we do, what shall we do? Years! Years! Years!" Then by and by the tone changed, and there were question and answer. "When was that, squirrel?" I heard; and then a furious quarrel with curses from the squirrel, and "hullos" and renewed questions from the woodpecker, and memories of their life and death in Treve Wood, beyond Lostwithiel.

What wonder that, when hours later I fell asleep, I had the most distressing and maddest dreams imaginable!

One dream was that when men die and go to hell, they are sent in large baskets-full to the taxidermists of the establishment, who are highly proficient in the art, and set them up in the most perfect life-like attitudes, with wideawake glass eyes, blue or dark, in their sockets, their hair varnished to preserve its natural colour and glossy appearance. They are placed separately in glass cases to keep them from the dust, and the cases are set up in pairs in niches in the walls of the palace of hell. The lord of the place takes great pride in these objects; one of his favourite amusements is to sit in his easy-chair in front of a niche to listen by the hour to the endless discussions going on between the two specimens, in which each expresses his virulent but impotent hatred of the other, damning his glass eyes; at the same time relating his own happy life and adventures in the upper sunlit world, how important a person he was in his own parish of borough, and what a gorgeous time he was having when he was unfortunately nabbed by one of the collectors or gamekeepers in his lordship's service.

W. H. Hudson