“One chilly evening, about the time of the first snows, when the wind was beginning to whistle over the heath and make strange noises in the castle, two old hens were up in the loft having a chat and picking up a few stray grains of corn for supper. All of a sudden they heard a mysterious ‘Piep.’ ‘Hollo!’ said one, ‘what’s that? no one can be hatching out at this time of the year–it’s impossible; yet surely something said “Piep” down there in the corner.’
“Just then another ‘Piep’ was heard.
“‘I don’t think it sounds quite like a young chicken,’ replied the other hen.
“In the middle of their discussion on this knotty point, they descried a couple of mice at the edge of the corn-heap. One of them was sitting on his hind-legs, washing his ears and whiskers with his fore-paws, but his wife was gobbling up corn at a rapid rate, and in this sight the wise and far-seeing old hens discerned the probability of future troubles.
“‘Hollo there! that’s our corn,’ they cried; ‘you mustn’t steal it. Of course you may have a few grains in the depth of winter to keep you from starving; but remember, when spring comes again, this sort of thing must stop, and you must go away and never come here any more.’
“‘Piep,’ said the mice, and vanished.
“The two hens told the rest what had happened, but nobody troubled themselves about such an insignificant matter, and some said that the poor old things made mountains out of molehills. Anyhow, in two days everybody, including the wise hens themselves, had forgotten all about it. Later on, that winter, the mice had seven young ones–seven such skinny, thread-limbed, beady-eyed little beasts that no one noticed their arrival.
“Very soon after, almost before any hen had time to look round or think, behold! mice were squeaking in every corner, and there were holes behind every wainscot, plank, and rafter.
“A year passed away, and when winter returned again the mice came and took the stored corn away in such quantities that everybody saw none would be left to sow in the spring.
“Matters had come to a crisis; many and anxious discussions were held amongst the fowls, for good counsel was a thing much sought after at Hencastle.
“At first they took very energetic measures, and many a mouse fell a victim to a well-aimed peck from a cock’s beak; but alas! the mice took energetic measures also, and resisted to the death, so that many a fowl’s leg was bitten to the bone. Much had been said, and much was done, but the mice were more numerous than before.
“The commonwealth then decided on sending three experienced cocks out into the world, to try and find some means for getting rid of the plague of mice.
“The cocks journeyed for one whole day without finding anything to help them in their trouble, but towards evening they came to a wild, rocky mountainside, full of caves and clefts, and made up their minds to stay there for the night; so they crept into a hole under a ledge of rock, put their heads under their wings, and went to sleep.
“In the middle of the night they were roused by the sound of flapping wings, followed by a whispering voice, saying, ‘whish–ish,’ which soon broke out into a loud ‘Whoo–hoo! whoo–hoo!’ They popped their heads out of the hole to see what was the matter, and they perceived a great owl sitting on a stump, flapping its wings up and down, and rolling its great round eyes about, which glared like red-hot coals in its head.
“‘Mice here! Mice here! Whoo–hoo!’ it shrieked.
“On hearing this the cocks nudged one another, and said, ‘We are in luck’s way at last.’ Then as the owl still continued to call for mice, one of them plucked up courage and addressed it: ‘If you will only come with us, sir, you shall have as many mice as you can eat–a whole house-full, if you like.’