The Professor's Mouse
PROFESSOR SLATER sat in his study, hard at work upon his Critical Examination of the Racial Connections of the Hittites, Hivites, Amorites, Amalekites, and Jebusites, when a mouse popped out of a hole in the door of a closet and sat up and looked at him.
This was a very curious coincidence, because the professor was on the track of a derivation which seemed to indicate that the Hittites and Jebusites had mice, while the Hivites, Amorites, and Amalekites did not.
Now it may surprise you to know that Professor Slater had never looked at a mouse before. He had seen mice, but had never looked at a mouse. To him a Jebusite was much more real than any of the small deer of house and garden, and an Amalekite far more exciting than any of the Rodentia. Mice were to his mind merely a minor nuisance, associated with cats and cheese; and now long habits of indifference made him say ‘Shoo!’ and wave his hand, whereat the mouse vanished. But in five minutes it was back again.
This time the professor did not say ‘Shoo!’ or wave his hand. Instead he reached cautiously for the poker, and, with an agility one would not have anticipated in a man of his age and habits, leaped from his chair and chased the mouse round the room. Of course he did not kill it; one never does with a poker. For the extermination of mice a broom is a much better weapon, but he did not know even that. The mouse, after encircling the room three times, shot into its hole, and Professor Slater dropped into his chair.
But the thread of his thought was broken. Try as he would, he could not regain his former moral intensity of research.
He was all alone in his rooms, for he was a bachelor with enough money to live in a small apartment. By day he earned his salary by lecturing to three university students and directing the thesis writing of two of them. His special knowledge of a subject about which nobody knows much gave him a feeling of importance and imparted to his classroom manner a snarling arrogance that deeply impressed the three young men. He was a very eminent man, though to tell the truth it is hard to say whether his eminence owed most to his articles, his nose, or his whiskers. His articles, it is true, never even by chance contained anything that anyone except a Hittite specialist could read; but his nose, riding high between his fierce eyes, like the beak of an Assyrian falcon, and his reddish whiskers, trained forward, like the beard of a Babylonian bowman, were sufficient to convince the most ignorant that their owner was entitled to whatever salary his university could afford to pay him.
In the apartment immediately below his lived Perkins, the Professor of English Literature, who had as many as thirty students in his graduate courses and whom Professor Slater therefore looked upon as a mere dilettant. Professor Perkins was accustomed to use Professor Slater, in his undergraduate courses, — without, of course, mentioning his name,—to illustrate the more disagreeable stanzas of ‘A Grammarian’s Funeral’ and to point the characterization of Dorothea Brooke’s first husband; and Professor Slater was in the habit of retaliating by making sly allusions to the æsthetic acrobatics of littérateurs and emotional critics, who did not even know Sanskrit.
Of course neither was entirely fair to the other. There is no bigotry stronger than the bigotry of professors. Professor Slater had his good points, as no doubt had Professor Perkins. Professor Slater had at any rate trained himself to be superior to the ordinary weaknesses of the flesh and the spirit. He knew, for example, that most people are fools and all other Hittite scholars knaves; that the only real scholar is the scientific specialist; that most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly; and that all poetry and religion are poppycock. In this simple creed he had been content if not happy now for twenty years. But he had been lonely, and never lonelier than to-night.
For twenty years of unremitting research will find out chinks in the toughest armor. He had of late, indeed, been visited by strange impulses. He had even once almost wondered whether the game was worth the candle, though his scandalized mind had rejected the doubt as a stomach spurns strange food.
And now this great man inexplicably found his researches into the etymology of mouse interrupted by a mouse. His thread of thought had indeed been broken, and, throw his papers about and slap over the pages of lexicons as he might, he could not remember where he had left off. Besides, his fire had died down, the radiator was cold, his nose, he felt sure, was becoming blue. He was just beginning to think of going to bed — and that was ordinarily the last thing he thought of—when he suddenly realized that he was hungry.
Almost, however, before the realization had fully formed in his mind, the mouse was there again! This was really becoming uncanny. He glared, but the little creature on the floor appeared unabashed. There it sat, motionless, erect, gazing at him with a look that seemed, even though he could not read it, full of meaning. And as he regarded it, his wrath slowly died down, for, although he knew little about the usual physique of a mouse, he felt sure that this one was extraordinarily thin. It seemed, in fact, emaciated. Being hungry himself, he thought that perhaps it was hungry too.
He rose to go to his little pantry, in the kitchenette with which his snug apartment was provided, and the mouse once more vanished under the closet door. Now in the closet, as he well knew, was nothing but his academic gown, hood, and mortar board, which hung on a peg there, except at such times as he appeared in them at commencements, regal in red and white plush over stiff flounces of black silk trimmed with bands of black velvet. He took a half-step toward the closet door, but went into the pantry instead and returned with crackers and cheese and a whiskey-and-soda — dangerous things to take singly after midnight and mental labor, and all but deadly in conjunction. But he raked up the fire, sat down at his desk again, and ate meditatively, chewing his crackers and cheese slowly and thoroughly, and sipping his highball with a zesting tongue.
Before long he felt surprisingly well. His nose and feet felt warm and his ears cool, his back stopped aching, and he was no longer conscious of smarting eyes. He wished the mouse would come back.
And it did come back. As if it had popped out of a hole in the rug, there it sat on its delicate haunches, its little ears, beady eyes, and noble whiskers all atremble with attention, while the professor lolled and looked. He flicked a bit of biscuit to the rug and watched with a novel pleasure the dainty gestures with which the little creature took it in its forepaws and nibbled it, sitting erect like a squirrel. As I have said, he had never really looked at a mouse before. Now he suddenly found himself confronted by the curious question whether he had ever really looked at anything — anything, that is, but a book.
But meanwhile he had looked so long and steadily that the mouse (or the cheese or the whiskey) began to do things to his eyes. The mouse swelled and swelled till it appeared the size of a rabbit, and then it dwindled till it was the size of a mouse, and then again it grew to the dimensions of a tapir, and diminished to the mass of a beetle.
This was all, of course, very strange; but the professor, who was nothing if not rational, no doubt rightly ascribed it to an illusion due to a partial autohypnotism, superinduced by night, subdued light, flickering flame, and alcohol. And yet all his rationalizing could not wholly obliterate his feeling that the mouse represented something vague, august, even awful, that was much more than mouse.
Just what this something was evaded him. It seemed to be something he had known about once but had forgotten, something that lay somewhere in the bottom of his being, covered up by the accumulations of the years. Out of the welter of such notions there rose, however, one thought that was clear. It was that about a living mouse there were suggestions of gray plush, delicate members, agile movements, and a certain manner which could perhaps only be denominated mousiness, that were all absent from the word mouse as one read this in a dictionary.
And, since the professor was an intelligent man, this realization led him on to thought after thought, each more disconcerting than the last. For, he reflected, if mouse meant little or much in proportion to one’s experience, why not, say, mushroom and merriment and music and mysticism and marriage ? Why not, in fact, anything? Or everything? And he began, in a kind of litany, to chant silently: newt, nuthatch, Nantucket, neighbor, nature; oats, oyster, offspring, organ, ocean; pea, pheasant, picnic, prayer, poet; testing each word as a word and as a thing, with the result that he became more and more embarrassed, and a novel humility began to mix itself with his thoughts. He even wondered (and nothing could better measure the seriousness of his condition) whether Perkins, whom he could hear moving about in the apartment below, and who, as he knew, was always expounding Life, Art, and Nature to his classes, might not really possess a larger slice of truth than he.
Meanwhile the mouse ate and ate, bits of cheese and cracker, until no more descended like manna from the heaven of the desk. Then it fastidiously wiped its whiskers. ‘Why,’ thought Professor Slater, experiencing an unwonted pleasure, ‘it’s almost human!’ But he immediately reflected that to say that was possibly not a compliment. ‘No,’ he amended, ‘it is evidently completely mousy. Only I have never realized how admirable a thing it is for a mouse to be entirely and unaffectedly mousy.’
Upon second thought these remarks seemed rather maudlin — how else could a mouse be but mousy? ‘Probably what I mean,’ he said to himself, ‘is that you are completely natural. And that,’ he added, with a solemnity that may have been a trifle tipsy, ‘is, as this world goes, Horatio, to be one mouse — I mean, man — picked out of ten thousand!’ But even this thought, upon reflection, did not seem as profound as it sounded, when spoken in an orotund voice with clerical intonations. The mouse, at any rate, thought little of it; for, its toilette completed, it scampered blithely across the floor and shot into the closet.
But now the professor was interested. The mouse must live somewhere, and he was suddenly curious to learn more of its domestic economy. He rose, tiptoed to the closet door, opened it softly, and peered in. Nothing was visible except his gown and hood; but he noticed that the hood was swaying slightly on its hanger, and a suspicion of the truth made him return to his desk, procure a flash light from a drawer, and, with cautious fingers, open the hood and flash the powerful beam of his torch into its depths.
There at the bottom of the silken cone was a great ball of scraps of paper, white fluff, and black threads, and warmly nestling in the middle of this lay his mouse, giving suck to four tiny things, hardly bigger than garden grubs.
For an instant he felt outraged. Old habits must have their way for a time, and the professor’s instantaneous recognition of the sources of the mouse’s nest, — for it was made of bits of his manuscripts, fluff from his hood, and threads from his gown, — and his feeling that his academic dignity had been affronted, could not but arouse his ire. But the mouse looked very cosy. It knew little and cared less about academic dignity. It had never heard of the Hittites. It had faithfully followed the laws of nature and its destiny. It had borne its little ones and nourished them as best it could. It had even conquered fear in order to save them. The professor decided to laugh.
He threw himself into a chair and laughed and laughed. It would take too long to explain just why he laughed, but laugh he did, slapping his thighs, stamping his feet, and throwing himself about, until Professor Perkins thumped on his ceiling in protest.
But the sound of the thumping immediately put a new idea into Professor Slater’s head. He went to his telephone, called the office, and asked to be connected with Professor Perkins.
‘Yes, yes, yes,’ sounded the latter’s voice, testily.
‘Oh, Perkins,’ said Professor Slater, ‘will you come up? I want to show you something.’
A grunt was the only response, but a few moments later Professor Perkins appeared in pyjamas and slippers under a flowered dressing gown.
‘Well,’ said he, sourly, ‘what’s the matter?’
For answer, Professor Slater beckoned him to the closet door, gingerly opened the hood, and flashed in his light. But the mouse, the desperate need of her progeny satisfied, thought this second visitation too much. She popped out and scuttled off into the hall, the door of which had been left ajar. Professor Perkins jumped, but Professor Slater held him firmly and made him peer at the four mouselings, which now lay apparently asleep in their nest of litter.
‘Is n’t that a joke?’ asked Professor Slater.
‘Nasty things!’ replied Professor Perkins, retreating. ‘I always hated mice.’
‘Now, now, Perkins,’ said Professor Slater, wagging his finger at him, ‘remember your “wee, sleekit, cowrin’, tim’rous beastie,” and your “best-laid schemes o’ mice and men,” and your
Like little mice, stole in and out,
and your “Country Mouse and City Mouse,” and your “Mistress Mousy, may I come in?” Your poets did n’t hate mice.’
‘I think you’re drunk,’ said Professor Perkins, who had observed the whiskey bottle.
‘I think I am, a little. But, that aside, do you catch the beautiful irony of all this? Here I was, trying to prove that the Hittites and Jebusites had mice, and thinking myself pretty fine to have found that out, and all the while a mouse was setting up housekeeping in my hood.’
‘Did you bring me upstairs to tell me that? I’m going to bed.’
‘But, Perkins,’ said Professor Slater, almost pleadingly, ‘don’t you see the point? Here we are, you and I, dealing every day in words, words, words — ’
‘Kindly speak for yourself,’ growled Professor Perkins.
’Mouse, for instance. What do we really know about a mouse?’
‘I teach literature; I am not a naturalist. What good would it do us to know about mice?’
‘Ah, there you have it! What good would it do us? Why, do you know, I have made a great discovery tonight. I have discovered that knowing about a mouse may make a tremendous difference.’
‘It may make all the difference between talking and knowing, between theory and experience. I had never looked at a mouse before, but now I have looked at one. And you’d be surprised at the number of things it made me think and do. I’m surprised myself. Why, it even made me laugh — at myself!’
‘Well,’ said Professor Perkins, gathering his robe around him, ‘that’s all very nice, if you think so; but as for me, I’m going to bed.’ And he stalked to the door.
‘Perkins,’ said Professor Slater, ‘I think you’re a fraud.’
‘Slater,’ said Professor Perkins, ‘I think you’re a fool.’
And he went out, slamming the door.
But Professor Slater opened it again a little, to let the mouse come back.