The strange story book/The Good Sir James

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THE GOOD SIR JAMES


My Sir James is not the leal friend of Robert Bruce nor is he the Douglas who fell at Otterburn and was buried 'by the bracken bush that grows on yonder lilye lee.' My Sir James is alive and well to-day, and is one of the Quiqui people who live in the wood beyond the avenue at the end of our garden. There were two of these little squirrels, Sir James and Lady Quiqui, and both sometimes came on to the lawn and grubbed up crocus bulbs and committed other sins readily forgiven to people of such beauty. They lived a peaceful and happy life till one wild November night, when poor Lady Quiqui fell or was blown off a tree. I went out next morning, and close to the garden gate I found her little body on the ground still alive, but unable to move. I brought her to the house, but no care could save her and she died within a few hours. Sir James was now an inconsolable widower. I think he felt lonely, for after his wife's death his appearances about the house became more and more frequent.

The days were short and cold, and every morning the ground was white with frost. Hungry birds flocked to the drawing-room window-sill for a breakfast of bread-crumbs. One day Sir James came when they were feasting. He was angry:

'The feast is for me,' he said, and with skilful, energetic hands he put sparrows, chaffinches, and robins to flight and then breakfasted with an excellent appetite.

Rows of sad little birds perched on the fence, and sat and watched greedy Sir James from afar, but done dared come near the window till he had gone. This happened nearly every day.

Once a great big herring-gull came and I think the little birds hoped that their wrongs would now be avenged. Again and again the gull swooped down and attempted to snatch some choice morsel, but again and again the good Sir James tiny and brave, drove away his gigantic foe. It then circled round uttering shrieks of rage and despair, and finally departed, leaving Sir James triumphant.

One morning, a few days after the discomfiture of the herring-gull, Sir James had another adventure. He had been sitting quietly on the window-sill enjoying his cake and nuts. All of a sudden his mood changed and he became very restless and angrily excited. He ran backwards and forwards at a great pace for some moments, then he gave a spring forward and downward towards the narrow garden-path. I looked out and, to my horror, saw no Sir James, but the terrifying sight of 'Dolly,' the gardener's cat, galloping away at full speed. Dolly was at once pursued and captured. We almost wept with relief when we found that our worst fears were not realised and that the good Sir James was not in Dolly's mouth. Indeed, we blamed the cat far too hastily, and I now think that Sir James was possibly not the victim, but the aggressor, and that he had merely been driving the innocent Dolly away from the vicinity of his breakfast. All we know for certain is that he very soon ran back to this breakfast and finished it with much enjoyment, and that his return brought peace and comfort to our agitated and anxious minds.

Sir James was sometimes unpunctual, and on those days the birds thoroughly enjoyed themelves. By the time the little Quiqui-man arrived, not a crumb was to be found off which he could dine. The birds twittered with delight.

One day I bought a little cream-can with a lid, and filled it with his favourite dainties. I then put it out on the window-sill, fastening the handle firmly to a nail.

'Fancy expecting a wild animal to eat out of a thing like that,' someone remarked, scornfully; 'he will think it is a trap and never go near it.'

I waited anxiously. About twelve o'clock a startled flight of small birds announced the arrival of Sir James. Although there were still some crumbs lying about, he went straight to the cream-can and shook it vigorously with eager hands and teeth. It took him nearly five minutes to get it open, but he persevered and succeeded. I then had the satisfaction of seeing him dive into the tin, head first, about half a dozen times, each time reappearing with cake or a nut.

From that day the little cream-can was kept well supplied with nuts and cake. As tune passed, Sir James grew more and more particular about his food. He soon scorned crocus bulbs and even bread-crumbs, insisting on a diet of shortbread cake and nuts. He always selected the biggest nut or piece of cake to carry home. It was surprising what he could do. He was one day seen dragging off about a third of a coconut that I had hung up for the tits, and he managed to get this heavy burden over the high fence that bounds our garden.

Another time we put uncracked nuts in the can instead of the usually carefully prepared ones. Sir James examined them, dropped them, and then with angry hands drummed upon the window-panes. Our guilty consciences told us what was wrong, so we gently opened the window. Sir James disappeared for a few moments, but long before we had finished cracking the nuts he was back and watching us. We have never since dared offer him uncracked nuts.

Winter passed, and 'in the spring a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love.' Sir James was very lonely and he longed for the companionship of his own kind. He took to wandering. Sometimes days went by without our seeing him, and our hearts were anxious when the little cream-can remained with closed lid and contents untouched. Then on one occasion I met the Quiqui-man nearly a mile from home. I knew him at once and he knew me, for he came half-way down a tree to greet me, waving his little brown hands with ten very black nails. When I saw the good Sir James so far from home, I feared for him. I thought of the perils from hawks and prowling cats that he was daily incurring. Something must be done and at once. Negotiations produced the arrival a few days later of Jemima Golightly, a fine handsome squirrel, who came by herself all the way from Eastbourne to these West Highland shores. Miss Golightly was instantly put in a cage, and next morning the wedding breakfast was prepared and put in the cream-can. The cage was placed on a table by the open window in the drawing-room. How anxiously I watched for the coming of Sir James! At last he appeared. Just as he was making for his cream-can, his quick eye detected Miss Golightly. In a moment he was on the top of the cage tugging away at the handle, while Miss Golightly inside rushed round and round, banging herself about so that I thought the cage would get knocked over. Sir James, finding his efforts with tooth and nail were unsuccessful, bestowed a further inspection on the cage. He soon discovered the door which opened easily to his skilful touch. Miss Golightly sprang out with a graceful bound—poor little captive, set free by as gallant a knight as ever sat at Arthur's table.

The two squirrels stood quite still for a moment. Then Sir James led the way through the open window, closely followed by Miss Golightly. I rushed to the library. From there I could see the two little forms making for the beech avenue. I was delighted. My joy, however, received a decided check when Sir James reappeared alone, half an hour afterwards. He went at once to the cream-can and in solitary splendour ate nearly all the wedding breakfast. Had he already deserted the little English bride he had so bravely rescued. Sir James resumed his daily visits to the cream-can, but he never said anything about the bride. To be sure, he always took away a tribute when he went home, but as he was in the habit of doing this, we could not feel certain that it was intended for anybody but himself.

It was about a fortnight later that a servant came to my room and said, 'Sir James is at the window.' I went at once to the drawing-room and, to my surprise, saw, not Sir James, but the little bride. She was redder in colour than Sir James, and had much bigger hands. I was enchanted, and still more so when a few minutes later the good Sir James himself arrived on the scene, and it was certainly charming to see the two little squirrels side by side on the window-sill. Both the Qui-qui people have often come since then, but Lady Quiqui has never to this day learned the secret of the cream-can. Sir James himself always performs the opening ceremony, and he then retires and allows his lady to dine. When he thinks that she has had enough he comes back and she goes away home, and he feasts on what is left.

Sir James seems content with this arrangement and never fails to give Lady Quiqui first choice of all the good things. This is the more touching as he is rather a greedy little man. Greedy, generous, and brave; and all of us, who know him, realise the fascination of the good Sir James.