ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
Each year we broadcast a Christmas Day story. And this year, our story is a selection from Kenneth Graham's "The Wind in the Willows," the celebrated children's classic first published 101 years ago. The book is about four animals who live in the English countryside.
Mole, fed up with spring cleaning, leaves his underground home. He strikes up a friendship with Rat, who introduces him to the pleasures of the riverbank -simply messing about in boats. They visit the manic Toad, who's obsessed with motorcars, and then travel to the wild wood to see the solitary Badger.
We join Mole and Rat in Chapter Five of "The Wind in the Willows," as they're finishing up a country stroll and heading back to Rat's home. The chapter is called "Dulce Domum," Latin for "Sweet Home," and it's read by actress Jennifer Mendenhall.
Ms. JENNIFER MENDENHALL (Actress): (Reading) The sheep ran huddling together against the hurdles, blowing out thin nostrils and stamping with delicate forefeet, as the two animals hastened by in high spirits with much chatter and laughter. They were returning across country after a long day's outing with Otter, and the shades of the short winter day were closing in on them, and they had still some distance to go. And now they found a beaten track that made walking a lighter business. And responded, moreover, to that small inquiring something which all animals carry inside them, saying unmistakably, Yes, quite right - this leads home.
They plodded along steadily and silently, each of them thinking his own thoughts. The Mole's ran a good deal on supper, as it was pitch-dark, and it was all a strange country for him, as far as he knew, and he was following obediently in the wake of the Rat, leaving the guidance entirely to him. As for the Rat, he was walking a little way ahead. As his habit was, his shoulders humped, his eyes fixed on the straight grey road in front of him; so he did not notice poor Mole when suddenly the summons reached him, and took him like an electric shock.
We others, who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not even proper terms to express an animal's inter-communications with his surroundings, living or otherwise, and have only the word smell, for instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills, which murmur in the nose of the animal night and day - summoning, warning, inciting, repelling.
It was one of these mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal, even while yet he could not clearly remember what it was. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current that had so strongly moved him. A moment - and he had caught it again, and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood.
Home - that was what they meant; those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging all one way. Why, it must be quite close by him at that moment, his old home that he had hurriedly forsaken and never sought again, that day when he first found the river. And now it was sending out its scouts and its messengers to capture him and bring him in.
Since his escape on that bright morning he had hardly given it a thought, so absorbed had he been in his new life, in all its pleasures, its surprises, its fresh and captivating experiences. Now, with a rush of old memories, how clearly it stood up before him, in the darkness. Shabby, indeed, and small and poorly furnished, and yet his - the home he had made for himself. The home he had been so happy to get back to after his day's work. And the home had been happy with him, too, evidently, and was missing him, and wanted him back, and was telling him so through his nose, sorrowfully, reproachfully, but with no bitterness or anger; only with plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him.
The call was clear, the summons was plain. He must obey it instantly and go. Ratty, he called, full of joyful excitement. Hold on. Come back. I want you, quick.
Oh, come along, Mole, do. replied the Rat cheerfully, still plodding along.
Please stop, Ratty, pleaded the poor Mole, in anguish of heart.
The Rat was by this time very far ahead, too far to hear clearly what the Mole was calling, too far to catch the sharp note of painful appeal in his voice. And he was much taken up with the weather, for he too could smell something � something suspiciously like approaching snow.
Poor Mole stood alone in the road, his heart torn asunder, and a big sob gathering, gathering, somewhere low down inside him, to leap up to the surface presently, he knew, in passionate escape. But even under such a test as this, his loyalty to his friend stood firm.
With an effort he caught up to the unsuspecting Rat, who began chattering cheerfully about what they would do when they got back, and how jolly a fire of logs in the parlor would be, and what a supper he meant to eat - never noticing his companion's silence and distressful state of mind. At last, however, he stopped and said kindly, Look here, Mole old chap, you seem dead tired. No talk left in you, and your feet dragging like lead. We'll sit down here for a minute and rest. The snow has held off so far and the best part of our journey is over.
The Mole subsided forlornly on a tree stump and tried to control himself, for he felt it surely coming. The sob he had fought with so long refused to be beaten. Up and up, it forced its way to the air, and then another, and another, and others thick and fast; till poor Mole at last gave up the struggle and cried freely and helplessly and openly, now that he knew it was all over, and he had lost what he could hardly be said to have found.
The Rat, astonished and dismayed at the violence of Mole's paroxysm of grief, did not dare to speak for a while. At last he said, very quietly and sympathetically, What is it, old fellow? Whatever can be the matter? Tell us your trouble and let me see what I can do.
Poor Mole found it difficult to get any words out. I know it's a shabby, dingy little place, he sobbed forth at last, brokenly. Not like your cozy quarters, or Toad's beautiful hall or Badger's great house. But it was my own little home and I was fond of it, and I went away and forgot all about it. And then I smelt it suddenly on the road, when I called and you wouldn't listen, Rat. And everything came back to me with a rush and I wanted it
Oh, dear. Oh, dear. And when you wouldn't turn back, Ratty, and I had to leave it, though I was smelling it all the time, I thought my heart would break. We might have just gone and had one look at it, Ratty. Only one look - it was close by, but you wouldn't turn back, Ratty. You wouldn't turn back. Oh, dear. Oh, dear.
The Rat stared straight in front of him, saying nothing, only patting Mole gently on the shoulder. After a time he muttered gloomily, I see it all now. What a pig I have been. A pig, that's me.
He waited till Mole's sobs became gradually less stormy and more rhythmical. He waited till at last sniffs were frequent and sobs only intermittent. Then he rose from his seat, and remarking carelessly, Well, now we'd really better be getting on, old chap, set off up the road again, over the toilsome way they had come.
Wherever are you - hic- going to - hic, Ratty? cried the tearful Mole, looking up in alarm.
We're going to find that home of yours, old fellow, replied the Rat, pleasantly. So you had better come along for it will take some finding, and we shall want your nose.
Oh, come back, Ratty, do, cried the Mole, getting up and hurrying after him. It's no good, I tell you. It's too late and too dark, and the place is too far off, and the snow's coming. And � and I never meant to let you know I was feeling that way about it. It was all an accident and a mistake. And think of River Bank and your supper.
Hang River Bank, and supper too, said the Rat heartily. I tell you, I'm going to find this place now, if I stay out all night. So, cheer up, old chap, and take my arm, and we'll very soon be back there again.
Still snuffling, pleading, and reluctant, Mole suffered himself to be dragged back along the road by his imperious companion, who by a flow of cheerful talk and anecdote endeavored to beguile his spirits back and make the weary way seem shorter. When at last it seemed to the Rat that they must be nearing that part of the road where the Mole had been held up, he said, now, no more talking. Business. Use your nose, and give your mind to it.
They moved on in silence for some little way, when suddenly the Rat was conscious, through his arm that was linked in Mole's, of a faint sort of electric thrill that was passing down that animal's body. Instantly he disengaged himself, fell back a pace, and waited, all attention.
The signals were coming through.
Mole stood a moment rigid, while his uplifted nose, quivering slightly, felt the air. Then a short, quick run forward � a fault � a check � a try back; and then a slow, steady, confident advance.
The Rat, much excited, kept close to his heels as the Mole, with something of the air of a sleep-walker, crossed a dry ditch, scrambled through a hedge, and nosed his way over a field open and trackless and bare in the faint starlight.
Suddenly, without giving warning, he dived; but the Rat was on the alert, and promptly followed him down the tunnel to which his unerring nose had faithfully led him.
It was close and airless, and the earthy smell was strong, and it seemed a long time to Rat ere the passage ended and he could stand erect and stretch and shake himself. The Mole struck a match, and by its light the Rat saw that they were standing in an open space, neatly swept and sanded underfoot, and directly facing them was Mole's little front door with Mole End painted in Gothic lettering over the bell-pull at the side.
On the walls hung wire baskets with ferns in them, alternating with brackets carrying plaster statuary. Mole's face beamed at the sight of all these objects so dear to him, and he hurried Rat through the door, lit a lamp in the hall, and took one glance round his old home. He saw the dust lying thick on everything, saw the cheerless, deserted look of the long-neglected house, and its narrow, meager dimensions, its worn and shabby contents � and collapsed again on a hall-chair, his nose to his paws. O Ratty, he cried dismally, why did I ever do it? Why did I bring you to this poor, cold little place, on a night like this, when you might have been at River Bank by this time, toasting your toes before a blazing fire, with all your own nice things about you?
The Rat paid no heed to his doleful self-reproaches. He was running here and there, opening doors, inspecting rooms and cupboards, and lighting lamps and candles and sticking them up everywhere. What a capital little house this is, he called out cheerily. So compact. So well planned. Everything here and everything in its place. We'll make a jolly night of it. The first thing we want is a good fire - I'll see to that � I always know where to find things.
They went and foraged accordingly, hunting through every cupboard and turning out every drawer. The result was not so very depressing after all, though of course it might have been better; a tin of sardines � a box of captain's biscuits, nearly full � and a German sausage encased in silver paper.
There's a banquet for you, observed the Rat, as he arranged the table. No bread, groaned the Mole dolorously. No butter. No pate de foie gras, no champagne, continued the Rat, grinning. And that reminds me � what's that little door at the end of the passage? Your cellar, of course. Every luxury in this house. Just you wait a minute.
He made for the cellar door, and presently reappeared, somewhat dusty, with a bottle of beer in each paw and another under each arm. Self-indulgent beggar you seem to be, Mole. Deny yourself nothing. This is really the jolliest little place I ever was in. Now, wherever did you pick up those prints? Make the place look so home-like, they do. No wonder you're so fond of it, Mole. Tell us about it, and how you came to make it what it is.
Then, while the Rat busied himself fetching plates, and knives and forks, and mustard which he mixed in an egg-cup, the Mole related � somewhat shyly at first, but with more freedom as he warmed to his subject � how this was planned, and how that was thought out, and how this was got through a windfall from an aunt, and that was a wonderful find and a bargain, and this other thing was bought out of laborious savings and a certain amount of going without.
At last, the Rat succeeded in decoying him to the table, and had just got seriously to work with the sardine-opener when sounds were heard from the forecourt without � sounds like the scuffling of small feet in the gravel and a confused murmur of tiny voices. Now, all in a line; hold the lantern up a bit, Tommy; clear your throats first; here, come on, do, we're all a-waiting.
What's up? inquired the Rat, pausing in his labors.
I think it must be the field-mice, replied the Mole, with a touch of pride in his manner. They go round carol singing regularly at this time of the year. They're quite an institution in these parts, and they never pass me over. It will be like old times to hear them again.
Let's have a look at them, jumping up and running to the door.
It was a pretty sight - some eight or ten little field-mice stood in a semicircle, red worsted comforters round their throats, their fore-paws thrust deep into their pockets, their feet jigging for warmth. One, two, three, and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air:
(Singing) Villagers all, this frosty tide, Let your doors swing open wide, though wind may follow, and snow beside, yet draw us in by your fire to bide. Joy shall be yours in the morning.
Very well sung, boys, cried the Rat heartily. And now come along in, all of you, and warm yourselves by the fire, and have something hot.
Yes, come along, field-mice, cried the Mole eagerly. This is quite like old times. Shut the door after you. Pull up that settle to the fire. Now, you just wait a minute, while we...oh, Ratty, he cried in despair. We've nothing to give them.
You leave all that to me, said the masterful Rat. Here, you with the lantern, come over this way. I want to talk to you. Now, tell me, are there any shops open at this hour of the night?
Why, certainly, sir.
Then look here, said the Rat. You go off at once, you and your lantern, and you get me...
Here, much muttered conversation ensued. Finally, there was a chink of coin passing from paw to paw, the field-mouse was provided with an ample basket for his purchases, and off he hurried, he and his lantern.
The rest of the field-mice, perched in a row on the settle, their small legs swinging, gave themselves up to enjoyment of the fire, and toasted their chilblains till they tingled.
They act plays too, these fellows, the Mole explained to the Rat. Make them up all by themselves, and act them afterwards. They gave us a capital one last year, about a field-mouse who was captured at sea by a Barbary corsair, and made to row in a galley. Here, you; you were in it, I remember. Get up and recite a bit.
The field-mouse addressed got up on his legs, giggled shyly, looked round the room, and remained absolutely tongue-tied. His comrades cheered him on, Mole coaxed and encouraged him, and the Rat went so far as to take him by the shoulders and shake him, but nothing could overcome his stage-fright. They were all busily engaged on him like watermen applying the Royal Humane Society's regulations to a case of long submersion. When the latch clicked, the door opened, and the field-mouse with the lantern reappeared, staggering under the weight of his basket.
In a very few minutes supper was ready, and Mole, as he took the head of the table in a sort of a dream, saw a lately barren board set thick with savory comforts; saw his little friends' faces brighten and beam as they fell to without delay. As they ate, they talked of old times, and the field-mice gave him the local gossip up to date, and answered as well as they could the hundred questions he had to ask them. The Rat said little or nothing, only taking care that each guest had what he wanted, and plenty of it, and that Mole had no trouble or anxiety about anything.
They clattered off at last, very grateful and showering wishes of the season, with their jacket pockets stuffed with remembrances for the small brothers and sisters at home. When the door had closed on the last of them and the chink of the lanterns had died away, Mole and Rat kicked the fire up, drew their chairs in, brewed themselves a last nightcap of mulled ale, and discussed the events of the long day.
At last, the Rat, with a tremendous yawn, said, Mole, old chap, I'm ready to drop. Sleepy is simply not the word.
The weary Mole also was glad to turn in without delay, and soon had his head on his pillow, in great joy and contentment. But ere he closed his eyes he let them wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him, and now smilingly received him back, without rancor.
He was now in just the frame of mind that the tactful Rat had quietly worked to bring about in him. He saw clearly how plain and simple � how narrow, even � it all was, but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one's existence.
He did not at all want to abandon the new life and its splendid spaces to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him and creep home and stay there. The upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to, this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.
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SIEGEL: We've been listening to a special Christmas Day story for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Jennifer Mendenhall read Chapter 5 of "Wind in the Willows," Kenneth Graham's classic children's tale. It was adapted for radio by Ellen Silva and Melissa Gray.
I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.