A CHRISTMAS STORY by Walter Higgins
Bob Chappell brought an old copy of Fur & Feather to Manchester. At that time, rabbits, cavies, mice, cats and pigeons were all included in the magazine, in very tiny print, and presumably numbered from Page 1 in January without a break, as the article below was on page 1233.
Though old-fashioned, it’s still a nice little story, and I thought it might help to get us in the Christmas spirit! –Ed
It was Christmas Eve. The fancier had fed his stock and was preparing to tell his small daughter a story before she went to bed. He decided to tell her about the first Christmas, sat her on his knee, and began…
Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the mousery were immersed in their nightly spate of gossip and argument. It was a good stud: small, select and very successful. The walls were plastered with cards (mostly red), diplomas, certificates; rosettes lent further splashes of colour; the boxes stood in neat rows like troops on parade.
In one corner lay the fancier’s cat half-asleep, listening with benevolent despotism to the chatterings of the stock. The fancier allowed him to spend his nights there; he enjoyed the warmth and the company, and while dealing swiftly with any wild creatures who dared to enter so sacrosanct a place, he was on good terms with the stock, treating their petty jealousies with good-humoured tolerance and grinning as only a cat can at their occasional outbursts of “cattiness”.
The conversation was being monopolised by a Fawn doe with a pedigree as long as the Victoria Hall staircase, who had once been awarded a Longtails Special for best type and had never forgotten it. Now – alas! – her charms were fading, and her once-beautiful curves were masked by what mice call the Curse of the Fawns, and known to humans as “middle-age spread”. Her show career was over (she had disgraced the stud by returning cardless from her last outing) and she was feeling fed-up and secretly jealous of the pink-eyed White doe in the adjoining box, whose first litter was imminent.
“Did I ever tell you of the handsome Champagne buck I met at Calder Valley?” she asked.
“Many times, and we don’t want to hear it again!” hissed a young Black buck whose coat shone like satin and who would have been best in show at Hillingdon but for one white toe-nail, spotted by a hawk-eyed judge.
“You’re only jealous,” she retorted. “Why, the bucks in this stud are a mouldy lot; if you’d been to the shows I’ve visited and seen some of the bucks there, you’d never hold up your whiskers again. I really don’t know how some of you dare to look through the bars of your Maxeys. If the judges weren’t as half-blind as the football referees humans talk about, you’d never be in the cards at all!”
At this, there was general uproar, for although any self-respecting mouse will agree that judges are incompetent and blundering, the doe’s remarks were interpreted as a reflection on the good name of the stud. This was too much, and except for the cat and the pink-eyed White (who was feeing rather unwell), the occupants of the boxes fell to and contributed to the pandemonium.
Suddenly a strange face appeared from behind a travelling box, and slowly its owner revealed itself as a wild mouse. And what a miserable object it looked in comparison with the sleek, well-fed residents of the mousery! Its type would never have qualified it for the Mendel Cup! Judges would have stared disbelievingly at its pitifully short tail and stunted ears; it would hardly have managed a “commended” in a class of seven!
For a split second there was complete silence, swiftly shattered by indignant squeaks and instructions to the cat (led by the Fawn doe) to chase this impertinent intruder away. But the cat, with the ageless wisdom of his tribe, had already sensed the subtle magic which fills the air on every Christmas Eve. Instead of obeying his instincts and springing at the stranger, he called for silence and commanded him to speak.
“I am deeply sorry,” said the wild mouse, “if my presence here offends you. I am but a homeless cousin seeking only shelter and a little food. I beg you to allow me to share your comfortable home for a short while before I go on my way.”
“What confounded cheek! Why should an object fit only for a waster box dare to talk to mice of our breeding in this way? Destroy him, Cat!” shrilled the Fawn.
But a grizzled old buck, the pink-eyed White’s mate, said quietly: “Let him speak, Cat; let him tell us about himself.” The cat nodded.
“Carry on, wild mouse,” he said, “and tell us why you think we should welcome you and offer you hospitality.”
“You are rightly proud of your pedigrees, my cousins,” went on the stranger, “but my ancestors go back as far as time itself, and we have shared man’s home since the world was young. We have been cursed and hunted, but I am proud to say that one of us was present in a Bethlehem stable on the first Christmas Eve. He lived in the manger, where he had fashioned his nest with the skill which only a mouse possesses, but gladly shared it with the man and woman from Nazareth, and when the Holy Child was born He had a comfortable bed on which to lie. My ancestor was privileged to give up his home to the Son of God, and to gaze on Him with the other animals in the stable. We are humble creatures, but humility is a quality sometimes hard to cultivate, and I have heard humans tell their young ones how Alice had to become small before she could enter Wonderland.”
“You are quite correct, my friend,” said the cat. “My own ancestors were royal pets who lived in luxurious palaces along the Nile and were fondled by rulers of nations. For centuries we have lived with humans and I have often heard of the animals od Bethlehem who were present at the Saviour’s birth. I have also seen how sugar mice are hung on Christmas trees side by side with angels to perpetuate their part in the Nativity. The most important Baby in the world’s history was born of humble parents in humble surroundings, and I am glad to acknowledge the birth of humility as a necessity of all living creatures.”
He paused and looked at the silent mice, and especially severely at the Fawn, who swallowed hard. “Therefore,” he continued, “as this is the season of peace and goodwill and a time when we should all seek anew the eternal truths of life, I propose that our visitor should share our home and whatever we can offer him until he is ready to continue his journey. Does anyone object?”
The response was immediate. All the mice – led by the Fawn – gave resounding approval. The eight-weekers danced in their sawdust, the oldest members nodded and smiled, and the happy chatter was so loud that the first muffled sounds from the pink-eyed White’s box were heard only by the sharp ears of the cat. He called for silence, and as they listened to the faint squeaks from the nest they heard the old church clock chime midnight, the bells pealed their eternal message, and in the distance a band of carol-singers sang: “Once in royal David’s city, stood a lowly cattle shed…”
In the house the fancier’s daughter lay asleep, dreaming of all the things children dream of on Christmas Eve. Downstairs, the sugar mice on the Christmas tree sparkled as the flames flickered in the hearth. A hush fell over the world. It is a long way from Bethlehem to Bradford, but the magic of Christmas knows no barriers of space or time, and its spirit is universal.