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Title: Tales of the birds
Author: Fowler, W. Warde (William Warde)
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                          TALES OF THE BIRDS

                       [Illustration: colophon]

                      MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED
                      LONDON · BOMBAY · CALCUTTA
                               MELBOURNE

                         THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
                      NEW YORK · BOSTON · CHICAGO
                        ATLANTA · SAN FRANCISCO

                   THE MACMILLAN CO. OF CANADA, LTD.
                                TORONTO

 [Illustration: ... And stood there, proud and fierce, one foot still
                     grasping its victim.--P. 92.

                               _Front._]



                          TALES OF THE BIRDS

                                  BY
                            W. WARDE FOWLER

                  AUTHOR OF “A YEAR WITH THE BIRDS.”


                    “Μετἀ δἐ χρόνον την πελειάδα ἀνθρωηίη
                    φωνή αὐδάξασθαι λέγουσι.”
                               HERODOTUS


                  _WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY BRYAN HOOK_

                      MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED
                      ST. MARTIN’S STREET, LONDON
                                 1909

                    RICHARD CLAY AND SONS, LIMITED.
                     BREAD STREET HILL, E.C., AND
                           BUNGAY, SUFFOLK.

            _First Edition._, 1888.
            _Second Edition_, 1889. _Reprinted_, 1891, 1899, 1909.
            _School Edition_, 1901. _Reprinted_, 1903 (_twice_).

                                  TO
                               G. J. E.
                      IN MEMORY OF PLEASANT DAYS
                          IN THE SUNNY SUMMER
                               OF 1887.



CONTENTS.


                                   PAGE

A WINTER’S TALE                       1

OUT OF TUNE                          33

A JUBILEE SPARROW                    54

THE FALCON’S NEST                    82

A DEBATE IN AN ORCHARD              109

A TRAGEDY IN ROOK-LIFE              132

A QUESTION BEGINNING WITH “WHY”     156

THE LIGHTHOUSE                      181

THE OWLS’ REVENGE                   210



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.


... AND STOOD THERE, PROUD AND FIERCE, WITH ONE
    FOOT STILL GRASPING ITS VICTIM                (_Frontispiece._)

THUS THEY PASSED THE NIGHT, TOLERABLY WARM AND
  COMFORTABLE, AND EVEN SLEEPING      _To face page_             19

“HOW THAT BIRD DOES SING!”               “     “                 49

A “JUBILEE” SPARROW                      “     “                 61

AND THE BLACKBIRD BEGAN HIS ORATION      “     “                117

... DEEP IN MEDITATION ON THE PROBLEMS WHICH
    OCCUPIED HIS MIND                 _To face page_            141

“WOULD YOU MIND TELLING ME, AS I SEE YOU WAG
    YOUR OWN TAILS SO CONSTANTLY AND SO NICELY,
    WHY YOU DO IT?”                   _To face page_            170

PIPI LOOKED UP AND SAW FLIP; IN AN INSTANT THEY
    WERE TOGETHER                     _To face page_            205

HE IS SITTING AND EATING HIS DINNER AT THE FOOT
    OF HIS FAVOURITE OAK              _To face page_            212

TAIL-PIECE TO “THE OWLS’ REVENGE”             _Page_            239



TALES OF THE BIRDS.



A WINTER’S TALE.


There is a certain quiet bit of land, just where two midland counties
meet, that is in winter a favourite resort of the fieldfares. There they
find all they need--the hedges are usually bright with hips, and with
the darker crimson berries of the hawthorn; the fields are all
pasture-meadows, and the grass is tufty and full of insects; a little
stream winds snake-like through the fields, hidden by an overarching
growth of briar and bramble. No well-worn path crosses these meadows,
and you may count on being undisturbed if you sit for a few minutes, to
enjoy the winter sunshine and watch the shy birds, on the bole of one of
the scattered elms that shelter the cows in summer. The fieldfares are
in clover here: they get food, drink, sunshine when there is any, and
above all the solitude they so deeply love. In other parts of the
district you may see them, or you may not, for they move about and show
their handsome forms and slaty backs, now here, now there; but in this
favoured haunt some are always to be seen, and set up their loud
call-note from elm or hedgetop as soon as your intruding form is seen
moving in their direction.

One autumn there had been but a poor crop of berries; and by the time
the fieldfares arrived in middle England the blackbirds and
missel-thrushes had already rifled the hedges of much of their fruit.
But up to the middle of January enough remained to feed the usual number
of visitors, and when once January is past, they may hope for open
weather and a plentiful supply of grubs and worms to help them out.
During the third week in that wintry month, the sun shone bright and
warm, though the fields were covered with hoar frost at night; no
thought of trouble entered the hearts of the birds; in the middle of the
day you might even have heard them uttering a faint kind of song from
the hedge-top over the brook, as the genial sun warmed them and bade
them think of the spring that was surely coming.

But the frost went on, day by day; and now the blue sky was covered with
dull cloud, driven before a bitter north-east wind, so that the sun
could no longer melt the hard-bound meadows with his midday glow. The
fieldfares found themselves quite alone. The redwings had gone to the
neighbourhood of the towns and villages, and so too had the robins and
wrens, who had lived in the hedges all the winter through till now. The
rooks and starlings were in the ploughed fields, and searching even
there almost in vain for food. A chance crow or magpie was all the
company they had for several days together; and crows and magpies are
not always agreeable neighbours.

At last the berries were all gone, and the ground so hard-frozen that no
bill could break it and no bird hope to find grub or worm there. Some of
the elder birds went a long distance one day to forage; they returned
very tired with news of a single hedge on which there was still some
store of berries, but they had left one of their number behind them.
The old birds looked very grave; they called a meeting, and then the
eldest, with drooping tail and lack-lustre eye, told them that they must
stay no longer where they were, and no longer keep all together. They
must break up into small parties and find their food as best they could
for themselves; if they did not go far, and the frost broke up, they
might all find their way back again in a few days; all might yet be
well. “But I must tell you,” said he, turning to the younger birds,
“that if the frost goes on, or if snow falls, we shall all be in peril
of our lives. And see, a light, dry snow is falling already! You that
are young and strong must leave us at once and go southward. Do not
delay a moment; fly while you can. We, who are already tired out, will
seek the berry hedge we found, and try and recruit ourselves before we
move further. We left our poor old friend under that hedge this morning,
with his head under his wing, and we do not know whether we shall find
him again alive. But we will all hope for the best, and try to struggle
through a bad time. Good-bye, young ones, good-bye! Be sure you break up
into companies of three or four, or you will never find enough to keep
you from starving. Keep a good heart, and go straight southwards towards
the mid-day sun, and when the frost goes, come again northwards, and
hope to find us here.” Then he flew away, slowly and feebly, and most of
the other old birds followed him.

The young ones, who still had plenty of life and hope in them, and
hardly knew what it was to be in peril of their lives, soon broke up
into different divisions, and started different ways, but all in a
southward direction. Each company had its leader, and there was much
rivalry as to which should belong to the company which was led by a
handsome and lively bird named Cocktail, to whom they all looked up. But
Cocktail would not have more than three with him; and Cocktail was wont
to have his own way. He chose his great friend Feltie[1] and two others,
Jack and Jill; and off they went with a loud and hearty good-bye; the
other three quite confident in Cocktail’s prudence, skill, and courage.
He was nearly two years old; he had had a nest and family last summer
in a Norwegian pine-forest; he had attacked a magpie that was
threatening his young, and beaten it away in disgrace; he had led a
large party across the Northern Sea last autumn to England, and had
found them all a breakfast within an hour of landing. Whatever he did
was sure to be right, and wherever he went there was sure to be food. He
was well aware of all his virtues, and liked, in a cheerful and pleasant
way, to be made much of; and he had taken young Feltie under his
protection from their first acquaintance, because Feltie had very soon
made it plain that in his honest eyes there was no such bird as Cocktail
to be found in the whole world. Jill was chosen because she was a young
hen-bird of a mild and yielding disposition, yet of pleasant manners and
ladylike ways; and to say the truth, during these sunny days of late,
Cocktail had cast an approving eye upon her, and had half made up his
mind to select her as his partner for the coming spring and
summer--provided of course that no one with superior charms should meet
his eye in the meantime. As for her own choice in the matter, that never
entered into his calculations. Lastly, Jack was the brother of Jill,
and very fond of her--which is not usually the case with brothers and
sisters among the fieldfares; and on this account he was allowed to join
the party. “We must have one more,” Cocktail had said before they
started, “and it really doesn’t much matter who it is provided he will
follow me and do what I tell him. No swaggerers here, please; I want
some one who’s nobody in particular!”

“Oh, if you wouldn’t mind, Cocktail,” said Jill humbly, “I don’t think
Jack is any one in particular, mayn’t he come?”

“Let him come forward,” said Cocktail magnificently; “let me see him.
Here, you Jack, are you any one in particular?” Jack declared that he
was no one but himself, and therefore could not be any one _in
particular_, like Cocktail; and on the strength of this he was admitted
to the little company.

Cocktail now found the fondest desire of his heart realized; so far his
genius had always been hampered by older birds, who in spite of their
inferior talents would always contrive to direct the movements of a
troop by combining together: but now he was in sole and happy command
of three admiring subjects, who would not worry him with advice, and
would obey his orders implicitly. He took them first to the top of a
tall elm, whence they could see over the fast whitening fields to a
range of hills not far away to the southward; he told them that he
should cross those hills and rest for the night on the other side in
shelter which he would find for them. Meanwhile they were to fly at a
little distance apart, in order to keep a good look-out for berries; but
they must always keep their eyes on him, and when they heard his signal
“Chak-chak,” they were to join him again at once.

“The first who fails to come at that signal,” said Cocktail, “or who is
guilty of any negligence or disobedience, WILL BE AT ONCE LEFT BEHIND!”

With these words he started off, and the others followed him as they had
been told, at a little distance to right and left. Very little in the
way of food was found that day, and Jack and Jill were getting tired and
hungry, when after rising to the hills, and passing for some miles over
high, desolate country, where there was hardly a hedge to be seen, and
the white carpet was only broken by low gray stone walls which could not
help a hungry fieldfare, they descended towards evening into the shelter
of a little well-wooded valley,[2] where were the pleasant grounds of a
gentleman’s house. Cocktail made straight for this house, but stopped
short on a tall tree outside the garden, and began to look round him.

It was about four o’clock, and fast getting dark. He could see the lamp
lighted in a room in the house, and a bright fire burning; a lady sat by
the fire at work; then a maid came in with tea, and the blinds were
drawn down, the shutters closed, and all was gray and cold again. But
Cocktail’s keen eye had seen something by the bright firelight which
made him jerk his tail and sit more upright on his bough--berries,
scarlet berries, arranged all about an old oak chimney-piece!

“Shame!” said he indignantly; “but there must be more of them in the
garden.” And bidding the others follow, he flew down into the
well-planted grounds. They here found themselves nearer to human
habitations than they had ever been in their lives before; but hunger
made them bold. “To right and left,” said Cocktail, “and look for
holly-bushes.” His own search was a failure; he found several bushes,
but not a berry was left. He felt very angry when he thought of the rich
store of berries inside that cosy room, where no starving birds could
get at them. There was the well-fed lady enjoying her tea by the fire,
and looking with admiration at the berries (_looking_ indeed, thought
Cocktail, and not eating them!), and here were four poor birds starving
outside in the cold for want of them.

But now a “chak” was heard from another part of the garden. Making his
way there, he found that Jack was the lucky discoverer of a bush that
still boasted a fair store of berries; up came the others too, and now
they had a good feast on the berries as long as the light lasted: then,
at Cocktail’s order, they dropped down to roost in a thick shrubbery
some distance from the house, where the evergreens had as yet kept the
snow from lying very deep upon the ground. In a few minutes their four
heads were under their tired wings, and they were fast asleep.

Next day they were awake early, but their breakfast on the remaining
berries was rudely interrupted by the gardener, who came to sweep the
snow from the walks; and after lingering in a tree for a few minutes,
Cocktail gave an angry “chak,” and led the way again southwards. To have
his breakfast broken into in this way was more than he was used to, and
for several days he had had no morning bath. And more than that, he was
tired and stiff with the night’s hard frost; so his temper was not so
good as usual, and he flew high and quick, hardly looking at the hedges
as he passed over them. Many a time the others would fain have stopped
to pick a stray berry, or try for grains on a stubble-field where they
could see partridges cowering below them; but on went Cocktail without
heeding, and on they had to go too.

About midday they came to the foot of another long range of hills, which
they had seen in the distance for some time. The north-east wind was
blowing hard, and had driven them some way to the westwards; and they
had turned still farther west to avoid a large town,[3] where engines
were puffing, and trains rushing continually in and out. Under these
hills they found a large park, with thorn-bushes planted here and there,
on which a few berries were still showing red through the white rime
that clung to them; and here Cocktail at last halted, and allowed his
famished followers a little rest. But he was more severe and imperious
than on the day before, and strictly forbade them to go out of his
sight.

“We shall go on again before long,” he said; “we must get further south
yet, so be ready to start at any moment.”

“Don’t you think,” said Jack, “that we might stay here a day or two at
least? The park is large, and there are a few berries on a good many of
the trees.”

“Did I ask your advice?” said Cocktail angrily.

“No, you didn’t, but--”

“Then hold your tongue, Mr. Nobody-in-particular. I did not bring you
here to tell me what I ought to do. Leave this bush directly. Do as I
tell you at once--it’s all you’re fit for.” So Jack retired in disgrace,
and in great wrath, and Jill went with him. Poor little Jill! She was
getting very faint, and had hardly had strength left to get as far as
she had come; but being a brave little soul she kept it to herself and
struggled on. But when she was alone with Jack she told him how bad she
felt.

“Jack,” she said, “I can fly no further to-day. Why does he want to go
on?”

“Because he knows more about it than we do, I suppose,” said Jack. “And
we have promised to follow, you know. You must have a good dinner and
come on somehow.”

“But I can’t eat,” said Jill: “I’m so tired, I can hardly move, and the
berries are so hard and dry, I can’t get them down my throat.”

“That’s serious,” returned Jack; “you must certainly have rest. I’ll go
and tell Cocktail, and he’ll be sure to stay a day or two.”

So Jack flew back to Cocktail’s bush, but was instantly ordered off
again. Feltie however flew after him to ask what he wanted, and on
hearing the state of things, undertook to be his ambassador to
Cocktail. But that imperious captain would not listen.

“Rubbish,” he said. “Do you suppose I didn’t know that we should have
this kind of thing going on? What’s the good of a leader if he is not to
whip up lazy birds?” And he instantly gave the signal for starting, and
flew off towards the hills. Feltie followed him by instinct, and turning
to look back, saw Jack and Jill starting too, the latter flying slowly
and feebly. Feltie’s heart sank within him; he couldn’t help thinking
that it was cruel of Cocktail, and that there was no real reason why
they should not stay. He looked at the line of hills; they were one long
range of pure white, not even broken by the dark line of a wall or a
hedge. As the ground rose below them the cold wind blew still colder.
How much more comfortable it had been in the park! He would make a last
effort to save Jill’s strength, and perhaps her life. If they could only
halt on that large clump of trees at the top of the great curving hill
they were now flying up, all might be well; Cocktail might be persuaded
to turn back again.

He put on his utmost speed, and overtook his leader.

“Cocktail,” he said, “dear captain, will you perch for a moment on these
trees to let the others come up?”

Cocktail was really fond of Feltie, whereas he only patronized Jill and
tolerated Jack. He also felt that he had been harsh, and was willing to
be gracious once more. He agreed to halt, and when they reached the
trees he turned round to the wind and gave his loudest “Chak-chak.” But
there were no birds in sight.

They waited a moment, Feltie’s heart fluttering; Cocktail sitting
strongly on his bough, with head erect. Then he called again, and then
again. After that there was a long silence. Feltie dared not break it;
Cocktail was too proud to do so. Not a living creature was in sight; not
a labourer returning to his fireside; not a rook, not a rabbit. There
were tracks of four-footed creatures on the snow below the clump of
trees, but all was deadly still, except the branches as they swayed in
the bitter wind.

Suddenly the shriek of an engine coming from the distant town broke in
on the silence, and gave Feltie a kind of courage.

“Let us go back,” he said, “and find them. Jill can’t go on, I feel
sure, and Jack has stayed with her. Let us go back and pass the night in
the park.”

“Feltie,” said Cocktail, “I never guessed you were such a coward. _You_
want to stay behind too, do you? Go back and join Jack and Jill; the
berries won’t last so long as the frost, and you will be less able then
to fly further south. There you’ll stay, and there perhaps you’ll die;
and I shall never see you again. Why can’t you trust in me? I expected
to be obeyed, and you are all rebelling and deserting me!”

Feltie made up his mind in a moment. Jack and Jill must take care of
themselves; he and Cocktail must hold together. A shade of pity crossed
his mind for Cocktail’s disappointment. “He was meant to lead,” he
thought, “and we are not giving him a fair chance. Whatever happens I
will stick to him, and perhaps he will need my help yet.”

“I am ready,” he said; “I will not leave you.”

“That’s a good fellow,” said Cocktail. “Now fly your best; the sun must
be sinking soon, for though it is all cloudy, I can see a faint pink
light on the hills we left behind us this morning. Remember how easily
we got across them, and what a good supper we found on the other side.
We shall soon be across these hills too, and then we will find another
garden and more holly-trees.” And off he flew.

Cocktail was quite himself again, but he had reckoned without his host:
how was he, poor bird, to know what the Marlborough Downs were like in
winter? How was he to guess that instead of reaching some deep warm
valley at sunset, they might fly on till after dark, and indeed perhaps
all through the night, without a chance of escaping from that terrible
wind? Long, undulating plains, all shrouded in white; rounded hills,
whose dim whiteness melted into leaden gray as it met the snow-laden
clouds; here and there a shelterless dip, down which the wind swept
almost more wildly than on the open plain: between these they had to
choose, if choose they would: and as one was no better than the other,
they went straight on.

At last they reached a rather deeper and wider hollow, at the bottom of
which a large road ran.[4] A high bank sheltered this road to the north,
and at the top of the bank was a hedge. It was now dark, blowing and
snowing furiously.

“This is our only chance, Feltie,” said Cocktail: “but see there where
the road turns a little; there we can get a better shelter.”

And here, just where an old ruined turnpike cottage stood between the
road and the bank, with long brown grass growing behind it, they settled
down for the night--a night which few who live on those downs will ever
forget. Feltie himself used afterwards to say that they must have died,
but for one solitary piece of good fortune. The two birds had crouched
down in the long grass at the foot of the bank close to each other, and
put their heads under their wings, but sleep would not come; they were
too hungry and too wretched. Some time after dark a rustling was heard
in the frozen grass; some four-footed creature was coming.

[Illustration: Thus they passed the night, tolerably warm and
comfortable, and even sleeping.--P. 19.]

“Fox!” whispered Cocktail; “but I can’t fly, and if I could, where
should we go? It’s all up, I fear, but crouch closer in the grass and
see.”

It was not a fox; it was a hare. Puss came softly in behind the ruined
cottage, and crouched down quietly close to the birds. They kept
perfectly still. When she was fast asleep Cocktail whispered to Feltie
to move up to her, and did so himself, getting as near her warm breath
as possible. Feltie followed his example. And thus they passed the
night, tolerably warm and comfortable, and even sleeping. Puss never
offered to stir, and was still fast asleep when they left her in the
morning.

The next day, no breakfast. Not a morsel of food was to be found
anywhere. The fields were deep in snow. Once they tried a rickyard, but
the farmer’s son came out with his gun, and they had to take to flight
again, frightened out of their lives. Their wings were getting feeble,
and they often had to alight on the ground and rest; and after resting,
every fresh starting was more difficult than the last. Cocktail said
little, and seemed to be getting deaf and sleepy; Feltie had to take
the lead and keep the lookout. They passed at midday over some
lower-lying country,[5] and then, almost without knowing it, they once
more found themselves upon a high, bleak table-land of never-ending
down.[6] As night fell they sank quite exhausted on the sheltered side
of a high hill, whose flanks were clothed thickly with gorse, hoping
that some friendly hare might again favour them with her company.

In the middle of the night Cocktail suddenly spoke: “Feltie,” he said,
“we ought to have stayed in that park. If I had known what was coming I
would have stayed, but one can’t know everything. You may have to go on
without me to-morrow; if I can’t fly, you must go on. I’m your leader,
and this is my last order. Go on till you get food, and when the frost
goes, come back this way if you care to. If you don’t find me, tell Jack
and Jill that they were right, and I was wrong. Good-night once more,
old Feltie; mind and do as I tell you.”

Cocktail said these last words with something of his old cheerful tone
of authority; then he put his head under his wing again. Feltie said
nothing, but nestled closer to him. When morning broke, and Feltie
ruffled his feathers and looked about him as usual, Cocktail did not do
the same. His head was still under his wing, but not a feather stirred;
Cocktail was dead, and frozen hard. Feltie shuddered and flew away,
hardly knowing where he went.

It did not indeed much matter which way he went. Death was all around.
The only living creature abroad was a wandering carrion crow, whose
melancholy croak seemed to tell that he too was starving. The broad
white pall lay silently over the whole plain; the sky was still
overcast, and the wind blew from the north-east with hardly less cruel
violence than on the day before. It was more the wind than his own wings
that carried Feltie along. Those wings were stiff and painful, and would
do their work no longer. And he, too, like poor Cocktail, was getting
drowsy with hunger and fatigue; life was going slowly out of him. He did
not feel much pain; he simply kept getting every minute more tired, more
sleepy, and, strange to say, more comfortable.

After a time he came to the edge of a steep hill, at the foot of which
was a straggling village. It looked desolate enough, for the thatched
roofs were covered with snow, and tall elms above them swayed in the
howling wind. Beyond the village were some flat meadows, full of
ditches, and divided by a stream not yet quite frozen over; on the other
side of the meadows the downs rose steeply again. Feltie had not enough
life left in him to feel that there was any hope for him in this valley;
he was simply drifting like a dead leaf or a snowflake, and it little
mattered where he stopped. Somewhere the leaf would settle and decay,
somewhere the snowflake would drop and melt: somewhere too the poor
starving bird must rest from his last flight, and sink into a
never-ending sleep. The wind took him over the brow of the hill, and
with a series of little flights, ever growing shorter and feebler, he
made his way down the white slope, and settled, almost stupefied, under
the leeward side of a large barn, which stood close to a farmhouse on
the outskirts of the village. There he sat crouching, his head sunk into
his neck, his tail and wings drooping, his eyes half closed--a very
different bird from the Feltie who had started on his journey three days
before, quite unconscious of trouble and pain.

What was this? Human voices, laughter, coming round the corner of the
barn! Feltie had never been so near a human being before. He tried to
fly, but it was impossible; no strength was left. His heart beat, and he
crouched closer to the ground. Then two small ploughboys, shouting and
snowballing each other, burst round the barn; the foremost, seeing
Feltie, at once ran up and seized him, thus offering a splendid aim to
his pursuer, who sent a snowball at him which took deadly effect on him.
But the first boy popped Feltie into his pocket, and ran off, crying out
as he ran:

“I’se got a bird: thee sha’n’t have none of un!”

Down the village street he ran, making for his father’s cottage, but had
got no farther than the vicarage gate, which was half way down the
street, when another well-compacted snowball, delivered from behind the
gate, knocked his hat off into the road, and filled one ear with snow
which at once began to trickle gently down his neck. He looked up with a
red face, and saw the vicar’s son, a boy of fourteen, swinging on the
gate and laughing with all his might.

“Oh, that was a beauty!” he said: “Oh, that was a tickler for you,
Bill!”

“Thou beest a beast,” was Bill’s reply. He didn’t mean a pun, but
perhaps there was a pleasant emphasis in the doubled syllable. “Thou
beest a beast, thou beest.”

“What’s that?” said the swinger on the gate suddenly jumping down. “What
am I? I’ll teach you--” But Bill did not stop to hear what he was to be
taught. He took to his heels again and ran like a deer. But the vicar’s
son was more than a match for awkward Bill at running, and in less than
a hundred yards he collared him and had him down in a twinkling on the
snow in the deserted street.

“I’ll teach you to call me names, you young cad.” And he began his
lesson by scientifically “bagging” Bill’s wind.

“Doan’t thee pummel I, doan’t thee now,” said panting Bill. “I’ll gi’
thee a bird I’se got in my pocket, if thee woan’t pummel I no more.”

“Where’s the bird? Get up and show it me directly, you young lubber,”
said his conqueror, keeping a fast hold of his prisoner’s collar, the
better to secure the execution of the bargain. Bill sulkily obeyed, and
produced Feltie from his pocket. But the jolting and banging produced by
Bill’s headlong flight in his heavy hob-nailed boots had been too much
for Feltie; he still breathed, but his eyes were shut and he was in fact
quite unconscious of what was going on. The vicar’s boy let go Bill’s
collar, and taking Feltie in both hands, began to walk back to the
vicarage gate.

In two minutes he and Feltie were in the snug warm drawing-room of the
vicarage, where his mother and three sisters were sitting by the fire at
work.

“My _dear_ George,” said the mother from her armchair as the boy came
in, “how can you go out a day like this without a greatcoat? And what in
the world have you got there?”

“Don’t be frightened, mother,” said George, as he sat down on the
hearthrug to thaw; “it’s only a fieldfare.”

“What is a fieldfare, George?” asked his youngest sister.

“First of all, Miss Minnie,” answered George, “a fieldfare is a bird;
secondly, it’s a kind of thrush; thirdly, it only comes here in winter;
fourthly, it eats berries; and fifthly, if you don’t go and get some
brandy quickly, this one will die, for it’s all skin and bone, and
hasn’t had the ghost of a berry inside it this last week, _I_ should
say.”

“Brandy, George! Who ever heard of a bird drinking brandy!”

“Now do you ladies want to save this bird’s life, or do you not?” said
Master George impatiently. “Because if you do, Minnie will go and shut
up the cat and dog, and Edith go and get some drops of brandy, and Katie
will get me a quill pen to pour the brandy down his throat with, and
mother--”

“And mother will take care of the bird until George has changed his
jacket, for he’s dripping on to the hearthrug like old Father
Christmas,” said the mother, and quietly took Feltie out of his hand
into her lap, where she began to stroke him gently. “Now, George, make
haste, or he’ll die before you’re down again.”

They all ran off on their several commissions, and when George came down
again, still putting on his jacket in his hurry, they were all assembled
round the mother, who had Feltie on a napkin in her lap, and was cutting
a quill pen into a proper shape for giving him the first and last
medicine he ever had in his life. George held the bird’s beak open,
while she deftly contrived to slip a single drop of brandy in half a
teaspoonful of water down his throat; in five minutes she gave him
another dose, and then another; and now Feltie’s eyes opened wide, and
his feathers began to quiver slightly all over him.

“Now, mother, put your two hands over him, and keep him quite warm for a
bit. He’ll do, I expect,” said George.

It was a bold experiment to give a bird brandy-and-water, but on this
occasion it answered its purpose. In another hour or two Feltie was able
to eat a few shreds of meat, which were given him at the suggestion of
the vicar, who had now come in, and was taking much interest in his
recovery. Then he wanted to go to sleep, but the bright light of the
room made him feel very uncomfortable, and the loud human voices sounded
harsh and strange in his ears. There was much discussion as to where he
should be put for the night; but the vicar decided that he should sleep
in the conservatory, which was warmed with hot water. So they carried
him there in procession, and left him in a warm corner on a heap of the
gardener’s matting, with plenty of scraps of meat and crumbs, and a
saucer of water if he should be thirsty in the night. So Feltie fell
fast asleep, and dreamt of poor Cocktail all alone and frozen under the
gorse on Salisbury plain; and George too fell fast asleep in his snug
bed, and dreamt that a whole flock of fieldfares were come to the
vicarage, asking for brandy-and-water to be given them with a quill pen.

Next morning George was down betimes, half dressed, and in a state of
great excitement, to see how his fieldfare was getting on. But Feltie
was awake still earlier, and had already taken his breakfast when
George opened the conservatory door. He felt quite strong again, and
with his strength had returned all his dread of human beings. So no
sooner was the boy inside the door, than he began to flutter among the
plants, and then flew up to the glass roof and tried to struggle through
it. Then he came down again, and smelling the fresh air coming through
the door, was attracted in that direction, and in another minute was
free. Off went George after him--over the garden wall, where he dropped
a slipper, for he had not had time to put on his boots; across the road,
through the hedge, which tore his trousers and scratched his face; over
the orchard, and up into the stubble-field beyond, where a shepherd who
was tending the new-born lambs that had been dropped in spite of the
snowstorm, was much astonished to see the vicar’s son tearing along
without a hat, without his boots, and with his usually neat collar
flying behind him secured by only a single button. But still Feltie went
on, and George, seeing that he was able to shift for himself, gave up
the pursuit, and consoled himself by a talk with the shepherd about the
young lambs and their mothers, before he went home to dress and tell
his tale.

Meanwhile Feltie had perched on a hedge some distance away, and began to
look about him. “What was this he felt? Surely it was not so cold, and
the wind was blowing gently from the south-west. Was not the snow
melting?” (Master George’s right foot had found that out as soon as he
got over the garden-wall.) “Was not it beginning to rain?”

“Chak-chak! Chak-chak!” cried Feltie, suddenly finding his voice: “the
storm is over, the fields will be soft again, the worms will come to the
surface, and perhaps the sun will shine again soon! Chak-chak!”

His voice was answered feebly from a distance. Then over a hedge came
half-a-dozen fieldfares, flying weakly, as he had done the day before.
He joined them, and they gave him welcome, and told him how they too had
gone southwards, a brave band of fifteen, of whom only six were now
alive; how they had gone on and on till they had reached a stormy sea
which they were too weak to cross; and how they had turned back again
in despair, and were now returning northwards.

Feltie told them his story too; and then the seven set out on their
journey; and in the afternoon the sun shone warmly out of the rainy
clouds, the lark rose in the air and sang, the robins sat on moist twigs
and cheered them with a strain as they passed; the streams rose, full of
melting snow, and rushed over their banks into the meadows, moistening
them and making them soft and pleasant to the searching bills of hungry
birds: the air was soft, wet, and delicious, and in the fields they
heard the bleating of the young lambs, and the calls of neighbouring
parties of fieldfares and redwings.

At last when they neared the familiar spot which Feltie had left but a
few days before, he bade farewell to his fellow-travellers and turned
with a beating heart in the direction of the well-known elm-trees,
standing in the flat meadows where the stream wound here and there under
its brambly archway.

His loud “chak-chak” was answered: there were some old friends there
still. There was Jill: and there too was Jack: they had saved their
lives, then, by staying in the friendly park among the thorn-trees. But
that terrible storm had done its work upon the little company: more than
half were still missing, and Feltie himself was almost the last
straggler to arrive. Many an adventure had to be narrated, and many a
story of struggle for life and death; but there was none so thrilling as
the winter’s tale that Feltie had to tell, and no loss so sadly to be
bewailed as the death of the brilliant Cocktail in the gorse on the
dreary frozen down.



OUT OF TUNE.

            “Spirits are not finely touched
    But to fine issues.”


In a certain manufacturing town, of no great size, there lived a
musician. For the most part he gained his living by playing at concerts
and giving lessons; but he was young, ardent, and clever, and he had
always nursed a hope that he might one day be a great composer. He felt
a soul of music within him, that wanted to come out and express itself.
But, though he had had a complete training in composition, and had
written much music and published a little, no one took any notice of
what he composed; it was too good to sell well (so he used to say, and
perhaps it was true), and he had never had a chance of having any of his
larger works performed in public. And he began to get rather irritable
and impatient, so that his wife was sometimes at her wits’ end to know
how to cheer him up and set him to work once more with a good heart.

Great was the poor man’s delight when one day a letter arrived from the
town clerk, to tell him that on the approaching visit of the Prince of
Wales to open the new Town Hall, a grand concert was to be given, in
which works by natives of the town were to be performed; and that he was
invited to write a short cantata for voices and orchestra. A liberal sum
was to be paid him, and he was to train his own choir, to have the best
artists from London to help him, and to conduct his composition himself.
The news put him in such a state of high spirits that now the prudent
wife was obliged to pour a little cold water on his ambition, and tell
him that he must not expect too much success all at once. But she made
him comfortable in their little parlour, and kept the neighbours from
breaking in upon his work; and for some time the cantata went on at a
flowing pace, until nearly half of it was done.

After a while however the musician’s brain began to rebel against being
kept in all day hard at work, and to refuse to keep quiet and rest in
soothing sleep at night. It said as plainly as possible--“If you will go
on driving me in harness all day long, I shall be obliged to fidget at
night, and what is more, it is quite impossible for me to do such good
work in the day as I used to. So take your choice: either you must give
me repose sometimes, or I must cease to be able to find you beautiful
melodies, and to show you how to treat them to the best advantage.” But
the musician did not know that his brain was complaining in this way,
though his wife heard it quite well; and he went on driving it harder
than ever, whipping it up and spurring it on, though it had hardly any
strength left to pull the cantata along with it. And all this time he
was shutting himself away from his friends, who used formerly to come
often and refresh him with a friendly chat in the evenings; he refused
to go with his wife and visit the very poor people whom they had been
in the habit of comforting out of their slender store; he lost his
temper several times with his pupils, and one day boxed a boy’s ears for
playing a wrong note twice over, so that the father threatened to summon
him before the magistrates and have him fined for assault; and his wife
began at last to fear that his stroke of good luck had done him more
harm than good.

One morning he got up after a restless night, in which his poor brain
had been complaining as usual without being taken any notice of, and
settled himself down in the parlour after breakfast with the cantata,
feeling worried and tired both in his body and mind. With great labour
and trouble he finished the last chorus of his first part, and uttered a
sigh of relief. The next thing to be done was to write the first piece
of the second part, which was to be an air for a single voice, and was
to be sung at the concert by one of the best singers in the country. All
the rest of the cantata had been thought out carefully before he began
to write; but this song, for which beautiful words were chosen from an
old poet, had never worked itself out in his brain so as to satisfy him.
And now the poor brain was called upon for inspiration, just at a time
when it was hardly fit even to do clerk’s work.

He tried to spur it up with a pipe of tobacco, but not a bit would it
budge. Then he took a dose of _sal volatile_; but the effect of it only
lasted a few minutes, and then he felt even more stupid than before.
Then he opened the window and looked out into their little back-garden,
just as a gleam of sunshine shot down through a murky sky. This made him
feel a little better, and he returned to his desk, and sat for a few
moments looking at the words which he was to set to music, feeling
almost as if he were now going to make a little way. But the sunshine
had also made the canary in the window feel a little warm-hearted, and
it burst out into such a career of song, that the room seemed to be
echoing all over with its strains. And all his own music fled at once
out of the distracted composer’s head.

“You little noisy fiend!” he cried angrily, “putting in your miserable
little twopenny pipe, when a poor human artist is struggling to sing.
Don’t you know, you little wretch, that art is long and time is
fleeting?”

He jumped up, took down the cage with an ungentle hand, and carried it
into another room, where he drew a heavy shawl over it and shut the
door. The canary’s song was stifled, but the musician’s song was not a
bit the better for it. And after a while there came another annoyance.
The house was small and not very solidly built, and though the room
where he was at work did not look out on the street, any street-calls,
bands, hurdy-gurdys, or such like noise-making enemies, could be heard
there quite distinctly. This time it was a street-boy whistling a tune;
it was not a bad tune, and it was whistled with a good heart; indeed the
boy put so much energy into his performance, that he must have been in
very high spirits. And why did he stop there so long? Generally they
passed by, and the tails of their tunes disappeared in the distance, or
they turned down the next street. But this one was clearly stopping
there on purpose to annoy the composer.

He went softly into the front room, keeping out of sight from the
window. He was seized with a desire to wreak vengeance on this
tormentor, but he was not quite clear how to do it, and must survey his
ground first. Stepping behind the window-curtain, he peeped out between
the curtain and the window-frame, and saw a small boy, whistling hard,
with a long string in his hand, which descended into the area below. The
musician stood on tiptoe, and looked down into the area; it was a sort
of relief to him to see what this urchin was about. At the end of the
string he perceived a dead mouse, which was being made to jump up and
down and counterfeit life, as well as was possible under the
circumstances, for the benefit of a young cat of the household, who was
lying in wait for it, springing on it, and each time finding it drawn
away from her just as she thought her claws were fast fixed in it. This
boy was in fact an original genius, who had invented this way of amusing
himself; he called it cat-fishing, and it was excellent sport.

The musician suddenly flung up the window, and faced the boy, who seemed
by no means disconcerted; he only left off whistling and looked hard at
the musician.

“What are you doing with the cat?” said the latter, with all the dignity
he could put on. “What business have you to meddle with my cat, and make
that infernal din in front of my house?”

The boy began slowly to haul up the string, looking all the while
steadily at the composer.

“I say, guv’nor,” he said, with a mock show of friendly interest, “do
you know as you’ve got a blob of ink at the end o’ your nose?”

The composer was taken aback. He certainly did not know it, but nothing
was more likely, considering how he had been pulling his moustache and
scratching his head with fingers which, as he glanced at them, showed
some traces of ink. He put his hand involuntarily to his nose, and half
turned to the glass over the chimney-piece. There was not a stain there:
the nose was innocent of ink. Instantly he returned to the window, but
the boy was gone; all that was left of him was a distant sound of
“There’s nae luck aboot the house” far down the street. The composer
went gloomily back to his study, without a particle of music in his
brain; the canary and the whistler had driven it all away. He sat down
mechanically at his desk, but he might as well have sat down at the
kitchen-table and tried to make it play like a piano.

He got up once more, and looked out of the window. The sun was again
shining, and the little garden, fenced in between brick walls which
caught the sunshine, and enlivened with a few annuals (for it was early
summer), did not look altogether uninviting. At the end of it was a
little arbour which he had built himself, and a rose tree that he had
planted against it was already beginning to blossom. The composer
thought he would go and quiet himself down in this little arbour, and
try and get his thoughts fixed upon the air he was to write. Out he
went, and seated there, began to feel more at ease. After a while he
began to think once more of the old poet’s lines; and feeling as if
music were coming into his brain again, went and fetched his manuscript
and his pen and ink, to be ready in case he should have musical thoughts
to write down.

Suddenly there broke in upon his peace the loud, shrill song of a wren.
It was close to him, just outside the arbour; and when a wren sings
close to you, it pierces your ears like the shrillest whistle ever blown
by schoolboy. It was all unconscious of the presence of the composer so
close to its nest, which it had built in the branches of the rose-tree
that climbed up outside; and it hopped down for a moment on the gravel
just in front of the arbour to pick up some fragment of food. The
composer’s nerves were quite unstrung by its sudden outburst of
self-asserting song; it was an insult to music, to the poet, and to
himself. No sooner did the tiny bird appear, as complacent and hearty as
all wrens are, than he seized the ink-bottle, and like Luther at
Wittemburg, flung it wildly at the little fiend that thus dared to
disturb his peace. Of course he missed his aim; of course he broke the
ink-bottle and spilt the ink; and alas! when he returned from picking up
the bits, a splash from the bottle had fallen in a grand slanting puddle
over the neat manuscript of the last page of the chorus which concluded
his second part. And as he stood beholding it in dismay, lo! the voice
of that irrepressible little wren, as shrill and pert as ever, only a
little further off!

If the musician had not quarrelled with his brain, and if the struggle
between them had not put his nerves all out of tune--if he had been then
the gentle and sweet-tempered artist he generally was--he would have
laughed at the idea of such a little pigmy flouting him in this
ridiculous way. As it was, he growled under his breath that everything
was against him, crushed his hat on his head, took the manuscript into
the house and locked it up in a drawer, wrote a hurried note to his
wife, who had gone put, to say he had gone for a long walk and would not
be back till late, and sallied out of the house where no peace was any
longer possible for him.

He walked fast, and was soon out of the town and among the lanes. They
were decked with the full bloom of the wild roses, and the meadows were
golden with buttercups; but these the composer did not even see. Birds
sang everywhere, but he did not hear them. He was just conscious that
the sun was shining on him, but his eyes were fixed on the ground, and
his mind was so full of his own troubles that there was no room in it
for anything nicer to enter there. He was thinking that his song would
never be written, for he could not bear to write anything that should be
unworthy of those words, or second-rate as music; and it seemed as if
his brain would never again yield him any music that he could be
satisfied with. “I shall be behindhand,” he thought to himself. “I shall
have to write and say I can’t carry out my undertaking; my one chance
will be lost, and all my hopes with it. I shall lose my reputation and
my pupils, and then there will be nothing left but beggary and a
blighted life!” And he worked himself up into such a dreadful state that
when he was crossing a river by a bridge, it did actually occur to him
whether it would not be as well to jump over the parapet and put an end
to his troubles once for all. His mind was so full of himself that for a
moment he forgot even his wife and child, and all his friends and
well-wishers.

He stood by the parapet for some minutes looking over. The swallows and
sand-martins were gliding up and down, backwards and forwards through
the bridge, catching their food and talking to themselves. A big trout
rose to secure a mayfly from the deep pool below, and sent a circle of
wavelets spreading far and wide. A kingfisher flashed under the bridge,
all blue and green, and shot away noiselessly up the stream; and then a
red cow or two came down to drink, and after drinking stood in the water
up to their knees, and looked sublimely cool and comfortable. And the
river itself flowed on with a gentle rippling talk in the sunshine,
hushing as it entered the deep pool, and passing under the bridge slowly
and almost silently--“like an _andante_ passing into an _adagio_,” said
the musician to himself; and he walked on with eyes no longer fixed on
the ground, for even this little glimpse of beauty from the bridge had
been medicine to the brain, and it wanted more--it wanted to see and to
hear more things that were beautiful and healing.

He went on, still gloomy, but his gloom was no longer an angry and
sullen one. Through his eyes and ears came sensations that gradually
gladdened his heart, and relieved the oppression on his brain: he began
to notice the bloom on the hedges and in the fields; and the singing of
the larks high in air, though he hardly attended to it, made part of the
joyousness of nature which was beginning to steal into his weary being.
Presently he came to a little hamlet, hardly more than a cottage or two,
but with a little church standing at right angles to the road. The
churchyard looked inviting, for rose-bushes were blooming among the
graves, and it was shut out from the road by a high wall, so that he
would be unobserved there. He walked in and sat down on a tombstone to
rest.

He had not been there long, and was beginning to feel calmed and
quieted, when there broke out on him from the ivied wall the very same
shrill wren’s song that had so wounded his feelings in the morning. It
sent a momentary pang through him. There started up before his eyes the
broken ink-bottle, the smeared page, the bitter vexation and worry, and
the song not even yet begun. But the battle of body and brain was no
longer being waged, and as the tiny brown bird sang again and again, and
always the same strain, he began to wonder how such cheerful music
could ever have so maddened him. It brought to his mind a brilliant bit
of _Scarlatti_, in which a certain lively passage comes up and up again,
always the same, like a clear, strong spring of water bubbling up with
unflagging energy, and with a never-failing supply of joyousness. And
the wren and _Scarlatti_ getting the better of him, he passed out of the
churchyard, and actually began to feel that he was hungry.

Just across the road was a thatched cottage, standing in a little garden
gay with early summer flowers; beehives stood on each side of the
entrance, and a vine hung on the walls. It looked inviting, and the
musician stepped over the little stile, and tapped at the door, which
was open. A woman of middle age came forward.

“Can you tell me,” said he, “whether there is an inn anywhere near where
I could get some bread and cheese?”

She answered that there was no inn nearer than the next village, two
miles away. “But you look tired and pale, sir. Come in and have a
morsel before you go on; and a cup of tea will be like to do you good.
Sit you down in the porch and rest a bit, and I’ll bring you something
in a moment.”

The musician thanked her, and sat down in the porch by the beehives. It
was delicious there!--bees, flowers, sunshine; on the ground the shadows
of the vine-leaves that were clustering unkempt above his head; in the
distance golden meadows and elm-trees, and the faint blue smoke of the
town he had left behind him. Outside the porch hung a cage, in which was
a skylark, the favourite cage-bird of the poor; it had been interrupted
in its song by the stranger’s arrival, but now began again, and sang
with as good a heart and as lusty a voice as its free brethren in the
blue of heaven.

“What a stream of song!” thought the musician. “He sings like good old
Haydn! We can’t do that now. We don’t pour out our hearts in melody, and
do just what we like with our tunes.”

[Illustration: “How that bird does sing.”--P. 49.]

The lark ceased for a moment, and the ticking of the big clock within
the cottage suddenly called up in his mind the _andante_ of the _Clock
Symphony_, and the two bassoons ticking away in thirds with that
peculiar comical solemnity of theirs; and he leant back in the porch and
laughed inside himself till the lark began to sing again. Then he went
on mentally to the last _allegro vivace_, and caught up by its
extraordinary force and vivacity, his brain was dancing away in a flood
of delicious music, when the woman came out to him with a cup of tea and
bread and butter.

“How that bird does sing!” he said to her. “It has done me worlds of
good already!”

“Ah,” she answered, “he has been a good friend to us too. It was my boy
that gave him to me--him as is away at sea. He sings pretty nigh all the
year round, and sometimes he do make a lot of noise; but we never gets
tired of him, he minds us so of our lad. Ah, ’tis a bad job when your
only boy will go for to be a sailor. I never crosses the road to church
of a stormy morning and sees the ripples on the puddles, but I thinks of
the stormy ocean and my poor son!”

The musician asked more about the sailor; and he was shown his likeness,
and various relics of him that the fond mother had cherished up. And
when he rose to go he shook hands with the woman warmly, and told her
that he would one day bring his wife and ask for another cup of tea.
Then he started off once more, refreshed as much by the milk of human
kindness as by the tea and bread and butter.

He soon began to feel sleepy, and looked for a quiet spot where he could
lie down in the shade. Crossing two or three fields he came to a little
dingle, where a stream flowed by a woodside; on the other side was a
meadow studded with elms and beeches, and under the shade of one of
these, close to the brook, and facing the wood, he lay down, and was
soon fast asleep.

He was woke up by a musical note so piercing, yet so exquisitely sweet,
a _crescendo_ note of such wonderful power and volume, that he started
up on his elbow and looked all round him. It was not repeated; but in a
minute or two there came from the wood opposite him a liquid trill; then
an inward murmur; then a loud jug-jug-jug; and then the nightingale
began to sing in earnest, and carried the musician with him into a kind
of paradise. He did not think now of the great composers; this was not
Beethoven or Mozart; this was something new, and altogether rich and
strange. Every time the bird ceased he was in suspense as to what would
come next; and what came next was as surprising as what went before. At
last the nightingale ceased, and dropped into the thick underwood; but
the musician lay there still, and mused and dozed.

At length he started up and looked at his watch; it was past seven
o’clock. He hurried off homewards in the cool air, refreshed and
quieted, thinking of nothing but the things around him, and now and then
of the cottage, the lark, the brookside, and the nightingale. But
presently there came into his recollection the old poet’s lines, and he
repeated them over to himself, for they seemed in harmony with his mood,
and with the coolness, and the sunset. Then as a star comes out in the
twilight, there came upon his mind a strain worthy to be married to
immortal verse; like the star, it grew in brightness every moment, until
he could see it clear and full. In a moment paper and pencil were in his
hand, and the thought was fixed beyond all fear of forgetting. By the
time he reached home, the whole strain was worked out in his mind, and
he wrote the first draft of it that same evening, as he sat contented in
his parlour, with his wife sewing by his side.

After this nothing went wrong with the cantata. It was finished, it was
a great success, and the music to the old poet’s words was
enthusiastically encored. The audience called loudly for the composer,
and the Prince of Wales sent for him, and congratulated him warmly. And
the day after the concert he took his wife out into the country, and
they had tea at the cottage; the lark sang to them, the flowers were
alive with murmuring bees, and the musician’s mind was free from all
care and anxiety.

As they sat there, he told his wife the whole story of that eventful
day, not even keeping from her the thought that had passed through his
mind on the bridge. When he had finished, she laid her hand on his, and
said, in her comfortable womanly way--

“You were out of tune, dear, that’s what it was. And you can’t make
beautiful music, if you’re out of tune: everything you see and hear
jars on you. You must tell me next time you feel yourself getting out of
tune, and we’ll come out here and set you all right again.”

They went comfortably back to the town, after a day of complete
happiness. As they neared their own door, they saw the street-boy
leaning again over their railings, and cat-fishing as usual in the area.
He was whistling with all his might; but this time it was “Weel may the
keel row.” They took it as a good omen; and the astonished urchin found
himself pounced on from behind, carried into the house by main force,
and treated with cake, and all manner of good things, while the musician
sat down to the piano and played him all the beautiful tunes he could
remember. He did not come to fish in their area any more after this; but
a few days later he was heard whistling “Vedrai carino” with an
abstracted air, as he leant over a neighbour’s railings, amusing himself
with his favourite pastime.



A JUBILEE SPARROW.


On the evening of the 21st of June, 1887, a cock sparrow sat on the roof
of St. James’s Palace, in London, gazing down now into St. James’s
Street, now into Pall Mall, where the preparations were almost finished
for the Jubilee which was to take place next day. Flags were being fixed
at all the windows, and Chinese lanterns hung out for the illuminations;
seats were being everywhere contrived for the spectators, and all was
bustle and activity. Every one seemed in good humour; it was plain that
all were bent on showing the good Queen who had reigned fifty years
without a blot on her fair fame, that their hearts went out to her in
sympathy and goodwill. Yet any one skilled in the ways of birds, who
could have seen the sparrow as he sat there, would have judged from the
set of his feathers that _his_ mind was very far from being at ease.

“There’s no time to lose,” he muttered to himself; “she’ll have to sit
all day and all night, or we sha’n’t do it after all.” He flew down to a
snug corner behind a tall brick chimney looking to the south, where his
wife was sitting on a nest with four eggs in it.

“My dear,” he said; “you mustn’t leave the nest to-day; you know my
hopes and wishes; you will disappoint me dreadfully if you can’t manage
to hatch out an egg to-morrow. It really is our duty, as we live in a
palace, to have a nestling hatched on the Jubilee day. Why, my people
have lived here ever since the Queen came to the throne, and one of my
ancestors was born on the very day of her accession! we must keep up the
tradition, and, my dear, it all depends on you. Remember, I picked you
out of a whole crowd down in St James’s Park, and I made no inquiries
about your connections; you may have come from a Pimlico slum for all I
know. But I saw you had good qualities and I asked no questions. Now do
try and do yourself justice. Sit close, and don’t on any account leave
the eggs, and I will bring you all sorts of good things from the Prince
of Wales’ own kitchen.”

The hen sparrow fluttered her wings a little and meekly assured her
husband that she would do her best. “It’s hard work,” she added; “my
poor breast is getting quite bare, and I’m so hungry. But I’ll sit till
August to please you, you beautiful and noble bird.”

“That’s right,” said the cock sparrow, much pleased; and indeed he was a
fine bird, with his black throat and blue head, and mottled brown back.
He flew straight down to the back door of Marlborough House, where the
Prince of Wales lives (he patronized no human beings but royalty and the
aristocracy), and finding the usual supply of crumbs and scraps put out
by the royal kitchen-maid, he made a good meal first himself, and then
set to work to carry his wife her supper.

The day was very hot and very long, and the warmth greatly helped the
weary hen in performing her duties. She stuck to her post all the time
she was having her supper, and she knew that her eggs would soon be
hatched; but neither she nor her husband had quite reckoned for the
warmth of the day. Just when the cock was going to roost, well satisfied
with his wife, and certain that his fondest hopes would be realized
to-morrow, crack, crack! peep, peep! out came a tiny sparrow from the
egg in the warmest corner of the nest, full three hours before the
Jubilee day was to begin!

She called her husband--

“Oh what a little darling,” she cried. “Oh, what a lovely little yellow
beak! and what a sweet crumply little red skin!” And she forgot all
about the Jubilee.

“What a horrid little wretch you mean,” said the cock sparrow. “An
impudent, pushing little ugly brute, to come out just at the wrong time!
And he would have seized it and thrust it out of the nest, if the poor
delighted mother had not spread her wings quite over it.

“Oh, don’t be so cruel,” she said, “please don’t; I’ll hatch another
to-morrow, if I possibly can. I’ll sit all day, and never even want to
go and see the procession, as you promised I should.”

“Very well,” said the cock. “You stay here and sit close till you’ve
hatched another. Not one bit of food shall that little monster have from
me, till his brother is born. And if he is _not_ born to-morrow, it’ll
be very much the worse for you, my dear!”

He went to roost again, and his wife cuddled herself down once more on
the eggs, and fondled her little new-born chick. All night long the
hammering of boards went on in the streets below, where the preparations
were being finished for the procession, and the poor hen passed a very
sleepless night. Her body was tired, and she was dreadfully afraid of
her husband’s anger, if she should fail in her duty. “But, after all,”
she thought, “one must go through a good deal if one is to have a
husband who lives in a palace and is connected with the highest families
in the land!”

The next day was, as we all remember, another very hot one. The sun
blazed down upon the poor hen sparrow, who was obliged to keep sitting
close all day, until she really thought she must have died with heat and
anxiety. Not for one minute would her husband allow her to leave the
nest and look at the processions. He perched on a chimney whence he
could see her on the nest, and also see the procession coming through
from Buckingham Palace; and he described it all to her from his chimney,
but what was the good of that? She might just as well have read it in
the newspapers the next morning.

All day long she sat on those three remaining eggs, and it really seemed
as if they would never crack. The cock got more and more angry and
impatient. “We shall be disgraced,” he cried, when the processions were
all over, and still no second chick; “we shall be disgraced, and we
shall have to leave the Palace. I shall, at least; you may stay if you
like: you have no connection with the royal family and no sense of
shame.”

The hen could say nothing. She was doing her best, poor thing, and she
could do no more. Hour after hour passed, and still no egg burst. At
last, as the big clock on the Palace struck seven, crack! peep!--a
second little sparrow poked out its bill into this wicked world.

The cock sparrow was in a state of wild excitement. He pushed his wife
off the nest, and declared he was going to take charge of it all
himself.

“Oh, what a beauty!” he exclaimed; “so different from that other little
wretch! Fly at once, my dear, to Buckingham Palace, and let Her Majesty
know. She’ll be delighted. And only think if you were to bring back some
crumbs from the hand of royalty itself! I’ll take care of it meanwhile.”

Off flew poor weary Mrs. Sparrow on her errand. But when she got to
Buckingham Palace, she didn’t know how to find the Queen; so she flew
down into Palace Road, and picked up a crumb or two in front of a
baker’s shop there, which she brought home in her beak.

“Well done!” cried her husband, without waiting to ask where they came
from. “Crumbs from Her Majesty’s own hand! wasn’t she

[Illustration: A Jubilee Sparrow.--P. 61.]

delighted? Did she say it was to be called ‘Jubilee,’ in honour of the
day? Of course she did. Jubilee he shall be; and there isn’t another
young one in London to compare with him.”

There was indeed a terrible to-do made about this little nestling, which
was ugly enough in the eyes of every one but its parents. The news of it
spread about, and from all parts of London sparrows came to see it. All
sorts of tales were told of it, and the further you got from St.
James’s, the more wonderful they were. In the Strand they told how the
bird broke the egg as the Queen was passing by, and how Her Majesty
happened to look up to see what o’clock it was, and seeing the old
sparrow on the roof, bowed to him most graciously. Further east, the
sparrows of St. Paul’s Cathedral narrated how a bird had been born on
the roof of Buckingham Palace, just over the Queen’s own bedroom window,
and how Her Majesty, on hearing the news, had sent for a long ladder,
and ordered the Lord Chamberlain to take up some choice dainties to the
parents on a plate of solid gold. And far away in the East-end, the
black and sooty sparrows who inhabit those parts, and who firmly believe
themselves and their race to be the most important part of the whole
population of London, were much stirred by a rumour that a sparrow had
been born in the West-end, which had been declared by the Queen to be
heir to the throne, and that the days of the rule of man were coming to
an end, and the sparrows were going to have it all their own way.

Thus the fame of little Jubilee spread over the whole of London, and
even into the country, for the sparrows that were going out of town for
the summer carried the news with them, and the whole world of sparrows
were in a few days chattering and quarrelling about it.

Meanwhile Jubilee was being stuffed with all sorts of good things, and
in the second week of his existence very nearly died of over-eating. If
he had been fed with wholesome flies, like the others, he would have
taken no hurt; but his father was always bringing bread-crumbs from the
Prince of Wales’s back-door, and these, when forced down the wide-open
yellow throat of poor Jubilee, were apt to choke him sadly.

“Never mind,” said the father, “it will all help to strengthen his
blood, and make him a fit neighbour for kings and princes!”

Luckily the entreaties of his mother, who declared he would die if he
were not fed properly, had some effect, and Jubilee grew to be a
fledgling without falling a victim to his own greatness. When he was
ready to leave the nest, the others, who had been carefully brought up
to consider themselves nobodies, and to bow before Jubilee in
everything, were told to go and shift for themselves--their mother might
look after them if she liked. As for Jubilee, he was to be under his
father’s care for a while longer, and to be introduced to the world
where he was to cut such a great figure. He had by this time, as you may
suppose, come to think a good deal of himself; and to say the truth,
there was no such conceited young jackanapes of a sparrow to be found in
the whole of London. But all the parent sparrows had taught their young
ones to look up to him, and his high mightiness had things pretty much
his own way.

The royal families being by this time gone out of town, it was not
possible to have him presented at court; so the father sparrow was
obliged to be content with taking him to the water in the park, to
introduce him to the ducks. He did indeed drop a hint or two about going
to Windsor Castle when Jubilee should be strong enough; but he had never
been so far himself, and had some doubts in his own mind as to his
reception by the rival sparrows of that royal residence. Supposing they
had produced a Jubilee sparrow there too! It might be wiser not to go so
far a-field.

The ducks were very gracious to Jubilee. They informed him that they
were the property of the state, and under the especial care and
patronage of the nobility and gentry. They lamented that the royal
princes and princesses did not often come to feed them, and told him how
two centuries ago, that excellent monarch Charles the Second had made it
a regular practise and duty to walk in the park for the purpose of
throwing bread to the ducks of that day. They said that Jubilee might
come every day and share the things that were given them.

So Jubilee led a happy life for a while in the society of the ducks, and
became more vain than ever. He was very bold, and would hardly get out
of the way of the passers-by. And this vanity and boldness led to a turn
in the fortunes of this sadly spoilt young bird, which it is now our
painful duty to relate.

One day he was left by his father with the Ducks, and was listening to
their aristocratic conversation, taking a bathe in the water now and
then, and preening himself in the sunshine, when two very ragged and
dirty boys came by. One of them had a large hunk of bread which he was
eating, and as he passed the ducks he threw them a few crumbs. The ducks
did not mind where they got their bread; whether it were given them by a
monarch or a street-boy was all the same to them; and young Jubilee of
course did as they did. So it came to pass that he flew down from the
bush where he happened to be perching at the moment, and dexterously
picked up a crumb which had fallen just at the edge of the water.

The boys, seeing this, threw him another and then another, nearer and
nearer to themselves; and Jubilee, in all his pride and self-confidence,
came close up to them. Suddenly one of the boys whipped off his cap, and
flung it with such good aim, that it knocked over poor Jubilee, and half
stunned him; the other boy instantly pounced down upon him, and he was a
prisoner in a pair of grimy hands. He called out loud to the ducks, but
they only said “quack-quack,” and went off to the other side of the
water, as they saw no more bread was coming.

“Serves him right!” said an old drake: “you ducks made such a fuss about
that little piece of impudence, that he was getting quite unbearable.”

Meanwhile, to prevent his escape, as he struggled and pecked with all
his might, his captor put him into his pocket; where he found himself in
company with a morsel of mouldy cheese, a half-eaten apple, two or three
bits of string, the cork of a ginger-beer bottle, the head of a herring,
and the bowl of an old clay pipe; all of which, combined with the
dirtiness of the pocket itself, made up such a smell that Jubilee will
never forget it to the last day of his life. The only comfort was that
there was one place where light showed through the pocket; and for this
he made and tried to struggle out. The boy, feeling him struggling, gave
his pocket a slap, which quieted master Jubilee for a time; but after a
while he recovered and began to make for fresh air again. This time the
other boy saw his beak coming out and warned his companion in time; so
Jubilee was taken out, and they tied the poor prisoner’s legs together
with one of the bits of string, and put him into another pocket in
company with a dead mouse. And now he had to lie still and take things
as they came. He was tired out with fear, and struggling, and hardly had
life enough left in him to be angry or cry out.

It was some time before he was released from the company of the dead
mouse. When he was taken out of the pocket, he found himself in a dark
and grimy room, with hardly any furniture, no fireplace, and only one
small window high up in the wall. What a change from St. James’s Palace!
He was in fact in the cellar of a small house in a back street in
Westminster, where the father of the boys lived: a very poor man, whose
wages were so small, even when he was lucky enough to get work, that he
could only afford to rent a cellar; and here he and his wife and their
two boys lived.

When the door was shut, Jubilee’s legs were untied and he was then put
into a small box, in the lid of which one of the boys had bored a few
small holes to give him air. Some crumbs were dropped through the holes,
but they quite forgot to give him water, and the poor bird had to suffer
great torments of thirst. When night came at last and the family lay
down on their wretched mattresses in the corners of the room, Jubilee
expected to get some sleep; but even this was denied him. No sooner was
all quiet than the rats began to prowl about the room; and you may be
sure they soon smelt out Jubilee. They came and climbed up on to the
box, and when they heard him inside, they began to gnaw the wood between
two of the holes. Luckily the nights were still short, and the
poverty-stricken family were stirring early, or they would have got at
Jubilee before morning. Even as it was, the poor bird, who used to sleep
so peacefully after a good supper on the roof of the Royal Palace in the
snuggest corner of the nest, had to spend his whole night within a few
inches of half-a-dozen hungry monsters, who were thirsting for his
blood. He was almost out of his mind by morning.

The boys had each a piece of bread given them for breakfast, some crumbs
from which they gave their prisoner; and at the instance of their
mother, they also gave him some water, and Jubilee felt a little better,
and began to forget about the rats. Suddenly there came a knock at the
door. The father had gone to work; the mother opened it. A man in
uniform came in. Jubilee thought it must be a special messenger from the
Queen, come to demand his instant release.

But it was only the School Board attendance officer, who had come to see
why the boys were not at school. They shrank into a corner and presently
made for the door, but the officer was too quick for them. He told
their mother that he did not wish to have the father fined, and that if
the boys would go to the school with him at once, and promise to go
regularly, he would not summon him. The boys were frightened and went
off with the officer: and Jubilee was left alone with the mother, who
now began to try and clean up a bit, and make the room tidy; though,
indeed, poor thing, she was too thin and starved to do any real work.

Soon she came to the box where Jubilee was.

“Ah, poor bird!” she thought to herself, “you have come out of fresh
air, and away from kind friends, just as we did when we came to this
dreadful London. Oh, why did I ever leave the village, and father and
mother, and the orchards, and the meadows where we used to gather
buttercups and tumble in the hay?” And she sat down on a broken chair by
Jubilee’s box, and thought of the sweet air of the country, and wiped
away a few slow tears with her apron. At last she got up, and took the
box in her hands. “He’ll only starve here,” she thought, “and the rats
will get at him. I’ve a great mind to let him go.” But then she thought
how vexed the boys would be, and she gave up that idea. If she could
only sell him they might all be the better for it. She would try and
sell him for sixpence and they would buy a fourpenny loaf, and the boys
should have a penny each to console them for the loss of their bird. She
took him down the street in the box, turned down another street, and
offered him at a shop where numbers of birds in cages were hanging in
the window.

“Will you give me sixpence for this bird?” she asked. A pang went
through Jubilee; to be sold for a sixpence, and he a royal bird!

The shopman, who was in his shirt (and very dirty it was), and had an
evil face, and a short stubbly gray beard, looked with great contempt at
Jubilee.

“Sixpence,” he shouted; “why, it’s only a sparrow!”

“Oh,” thought Jubilee, “if I could only tell him that I am a Jubilee
sparrow, the only one in London, and worth a thousand times more than my
weight in gold!” He had heard this so often from his father, that he at
last had come to believe that if ever he really were to be sold they
would weigh him and multiply the result by a thousand.

“Sixpence!” cried the shopman. “Sparrows are dear at a penny!”

The poor woman was sadly disappointed, and so indeed was Jubilee. She
offered to sell the box as well, and after some bargaining, Jubilee and
his box were handed over to the man for the sum of threepence, on which
the starving family dined that day, and were thankful too.

Jubilee had not been long in the shop when the evil-faced man opened the
box cautiously and seized him before he could escape. Once more his legs
were tied together, and he was taken into a little dingy back room and
laid upon a table. Then the man shut the door, lit a gas-lamp, and took
out some paints and washes; and setting a canary in a cage before him,
began to paint Jubilee’s feathers to imitate it.

“What a fat little brute you are,” he said, as he poked his dirty finger
into the poor bird’s stomach. “But we’ll soon take that down; we’ll
soon starve you into a nice slim canary. No more fat living for you, you
little pig.”

Every feather of Jubilee’s wings and tail had to be painted separately,
and washed before it was painted; and the poor worn-out bird had to lie
there on the table all that day with his legs tied, and was given
nothing to eat. After it was all over he was untied and put in a small
cage, but kept in the same dingy inner room, away from the street. Two
days later he was taken out again, and the whole process had to be gone
over once more; and all this time he was getting thinner and thinner. It
was a week after he had been sold, before he was pronounced fit to be
taken into the shop, and hung in the window in his cage; a label was
tied on to it on which was written--

                          “Canary, a Bargain.
                     “Warranted Sound. Only 3/6.”

Poor Jubilee! He was at least worth three and sixpence, and his affairs
were beginning to go up again. If he could only have the luck to be
bought by one of the royal family, all might be well again. But it was
not to be. And for a long time nobody even offered to buy him. A fat
bullfinch was sold, and Jubilee was quite glad to get rid of him; he was
so fat, and so proud of his portly red waistcoat. Linnets and
Goldfinches went, and others took their places, and there was always a
pretty brisk sale of canaries. But Jubilee was neglected, probably
because he used to sit on his perch and mope and ruffle his feathers,
from hunger and hatred of the world. He looked sulky, and of course he
never sang; so the customers would have nothing to say to him. It was a
sad downfall for him, to sit in a cage all day and mope, and have faces
made at him by street-boys, who loved to flatten their noses against the
window and make all sorts of horrible noises and cat-calls, until the
old man ran out with a stick and drove them away. But hunger and
misfortune had done Jubilee some good, though it had made him very
miserable. He had lost all his old pride, and had had all the nonsense
knocked out of his head which his foolish father had stored up there.

One day he was sitting on his perch, dull and listless as usual, and
terribly annoyed by the shrill singing of three canaries who were in the
window with him, and were always making fun of him because he was only a
sham canary and couldn’t sing; when two boys stopped at the window. They
were of quite a different kind from any who had been there before; they
did not flatten their noses against the glass, or make horrible noises;
they wore good clothes, and had broad white collars which were quite
clean, instead of dirty old handkerchiefs. They looked a good deal at
Jubilee, and were evidently talking about him; but he could not hear
what they said. At last they came into the shop and offered the old man
two shillings for him.

“Make it half-a-crown,” said he, “and you shall have him;” for he was
anxious to get rid of Jubilee. He might begin to moult, or the paint
might wear off; and then there might be mischief.

The boys consented to give half-a-crown, and took Jubilee away with
them. How glad he was to get out of that shop! Surely better times were
coming! He was once more in the hands of the aristocracy, and certainly
they handled him much more gently than the street boys. They carried him
to a big house in Belgravia, put him in an empty cage, and began to
examine him closely. Then they took him out and turned up his feathers.

“I thought so,” said one: “I told you so when we were looking at him
through the window. That fellow’s a regular old thief. It’s nothing but
a common sparrow. Run and ask father to come and see him.”

The other boy soon returned with a kind-looking gentleman, who laughed
when he saw Jubilee, and told the boys they were lucky to have caught a
well-known thief and impostor. Then he sent for a cab, took the cage and
the boys, and drove down to the street where the old man lived, taking
up a policeman on the way. And in another half-hour Jubilee found
himself at a police-station; he was put in a sunny window, and the paint
partly washed off him, the old man was locked up in a cell, and the
gentleman and the boys were to come next day and give evidence.

The next day Jubilee was brought into court in his cage. It was not very
pleasant; for he was half yellow and half his natural brown, and all the
people laughed at him when he was handed up to the magistrate to be
looked at. But a kind-hearted policeman, who had taken care of him the
evening before, and given him seeds and water, had pity on him, and took
him out of court as soon as he had been looked at, and washed the paint
quite off him, and put him back in his sunny window. The case was soon
proved, and when the old man had been sent away to prison for obtaining
money on false pretences, the policeman asked the boys if he might keep
the bird, as it was only a sparrow, and his sick wife would be very glad
of it to keep her company while he was out on his beat. The boys gladly
let him have it, and Jubilee was once more carried off in his cage to a
new residence.

This was a small two-storied house in Pimlico. The policeman carried him
up-stairs to his wife who lay ill in bed.

“Ah, Harry dear,” said she, “I’m so glad to see you; I’ve been waiting
so long for you. I thought the morning would never come to an end. And
what have you got there?”

“Something to make the time go quicker for you,” said the policeman; and
he put the cage down on his wife’s bed, and told her the story of the
sparrow.

“Poor bird,” said she, “poor thing. I can feel for him, as I’m caged up
too, and can’t get out into the fresh air. But thank you, Harry, for
thinking of me. He’ll be a companion to me, these long dreary mornings.
But what shall we call him?”

“Well,” said Harry, “I reckon he’s about two months old; and to-day’s
the 20th of August; so that just about takes us back to Jubilee day. I
think he must have been born very near about the Jubilee. Let us call
him Jubilee.”

And Jubilee felt that he was among friends, for now he had his right
name, and was made much of, and was really of some use. And the
policeman’s uniform was consoling too: for it brought back to his mind
St. James’s Palace, and the policemen walking up and down the street
below, and the scarlet-coated sentinels marching to and fro in front of
the Prince of Wales’s gates.

And so two or three weeks went by, and Jubilee sat on his perch, and was
fed well with seeds, and wished he could have sung like the canaries to
show his gratitude and make the time pass quicker for the suffering
wife. She grew paler and paler, and wearier and wearier, and seemed to
take pleasure in nothing but Jubilee, and in looking for the time when
her husband should come home. She would take the bird out of his cage,
and he would hop about on the bed, and take seeds and crumbs out of her
hand. He did not want to escape, and meet with new perils and
adventures. Never had Jubilee been so happy before.

One day the doctor came, and told her husband that if his wife was ever
to get well, she must go into the country for fresh air. It was hard on
Harry, for he could not go with her; he must stay in London, and earn
his living. But he took his savings out of the bank, and with these he
contrived to get his wife taken to Victoria station, and thence in the
train to the Sussex village where her parents lived. And of course
Jubilee went with her.

I cannot stop to tell the wonders of that journey for Jubilee, or the
delight of getting into pure fresh breezes among the Sussex downs. He
was put into a window in an old red-brick cottage, where he soon learnt
to forget all about London, and the pride of his early days, and all the
horrors he had gone through. And, in spite of his being only a sparrow,
and having never a song to sing, he was able to soothe the sick wife’s
weary hours, and perhaps loved her as dearly as she loved him.

But she got no better; and one day the doctor said that a telegram must
be sent at once to fetch her husband from London. When he came in the
afternoon, she was lying unconscious, with Jubilee on a chair beside the
bed. Jubilee did not know what followed; but before it was dark the
policeman had taken his cage to the window and opened the door, saying
in a voice that trembled as the bird had never heard it tremble
before--

“We shall not want you any more, little Jubilee; go your way, and take
our thanks with you.”

Jubilee flew out of the cage into the free air. What has since become of
him I cannot tell you. But we may be sure that he did not go back to the
perils of London streets, or to the pride and glory of a royal palace.



THE FALCON’S NEST.


Up the little street of thatched fishermen’s cottages, that ran inland
from the stony beach and then curved away under the swelling down, there
hurried early one May morning a dark-eyed girl, with a wounded pigeon in
her hand. The wings of the bird were fluttering, as if it were in pain;
a feather dropped here and there upon the road, and there was blood at
its beak. The girl pressed it to her cheek in loving pity, and her loose
dark brown hair fell over it, as the morning breeze followed her from
the sea.

She stopped at a cottage gate, half way up the street, unlatched it with
her free hand, passed through the little garden, and ran into the
cottage without knocking. No one was in the little room.

“Harold!” she cried. “Harold! where are you?”

A boy of fifteen, tall and lithe, bonny-looking, and fair-haired, came
in through the back door. He wore a blue jersey, and seemed made for a
seafaring life.

“Why, Molly, it’s not seven o’clock, and we haven’t had breakfast yet. I
thought you girls were in bed at this time of day. Hallo! What’s the
matter with the pigeon?”

He took the bird out of her hand, for Molly, in spite of her fourteen
years, had begun to cry, and could not answer his question. He turned
the bird over gently and smoothed its feathers. Then he fell to stroking
Molly’s hair.

“Poor old Molly,” he said soothingly. “Don’t cry. Was it the cat?”

Molly sat down, took the pigeon back from him, and dried her eyes on its
silky plumage.

“No,” she said, still choking a little, “it wasn’t the cat, it was a
terrible great bird. Why should he have come at _my_ pigeon, that _you_
gave me, when there were so many others for him? I saw him, as I was
dressing, come right down, and just as he was seizing poor Snowdrop I
threw my shoe at him and frightened him, and then he let go Snowdrop,
and made a swoop into Mrs. Timms’s garden, and carried off another
pigeon instead. Oh, the horrible, cruel creature!”

Harold gave a long whistle. “It’s the falcon,” he said, “from the red
cliffs. I know him, the cruel brute! He’s got his nest there, Molly, and
he’s feeding young ones. That’s why it is he comes here now. Never you
mind, Molly,” he added, as he saw the pigeon was dead, “I’ll give you
another, and what’s more, I’ll have those young falcons to make all
safe.”

Molly looked at him with her usual admiring gaze. Harold and she had
been playmates since they were small children and lived as next door
neighbours, and though they did not see quite so much of each other now
that Harold’s father was dead, and his mother had come to live in a
smaller cottage further up the street, they were still as fond of each
other as ever. Molly had long ago given up her whole soul to Harold: she
had no secret from him. He had been a brother to her all her life, and
even more than a brother. Perhaps if she had had any brothers they
would have either despised her and kept her down, or they would have
spoilt her, but Harold did neither. He was her sun, cheering and warming
her; as to being obliged to do without him, that was a thing she had
never thought of.

But some little time before the appearance of the falcon Harold had
suddenly taken it into his head that he must go into the royal navy. A
coast-guard friend of his had for some time been trying to persuade him
to join a training-ship, but Harold had steadily refused, thinking that
a fisherman’s free life was the happiest in the world. But as he grew
older he began to discover that the fisherman’s freedom was bought at a
high price. They had to sell their fish for very little, and other
people made the money they ought to have had. And for a great part of
the year very little was done in the way of fishing, except lobster-and
crab-catching, and lobsters and crabs were getting scarcer than they
used to be. There were in fact too many fishermen, and they were
gradually catching all the crabs and lobsters on the coast. And so
Harold at last came to the conclusion that if he was to support his
mother in her old age he should set himself to some work which would
make him sure of a fixed income, and if possible a rising one.

When Molly learnt that her Harold was actually going to leave her, and
that in a few days she would see the last of him for a long time to
come, her whole life seemed to be going to change. It was as if her boat
had suddenly sprung a leak, and was sinking away from beneath her. The
village, the bay, the beach, the lanes, could never be the same without
Harold. She had been used to lean on him, to rest her whole being
against his; and she did not know that even boys and girls, like men and
women, must lose the props they make for themselves, and yet contrive
somehow to stand without their help. Seeing her sorrowful eyes, and
wishing to see them bright again, rather than feeling with her in her
pain, he had given her the pigeon; and now the cruel falcon’s talons had
torn her sensitive little heart almost as ruthlessly as the bird’s
tender breast.

Harold came out of the cottage door and looked at the weather. It was a
still spring morning with a silky mist lying about the hills, which
would clear away if the slightest breeze got up.

“I’ll go to-day, Molly,” he said, “and you shall come with me if you
like. We’ll have one jolly day together before I go to the
training-ship. The tide runs eastward up till twelve, and will bring us
back easily in the afternoon. Come down to the beach in half an hour:
I’ll have the boat ready, and some bread and cheese. You ask your mother
for some cold tea.” And Harold, delighted with his plan, and with his
mind as cloudless as a sunny summer’s day, ran off to get his boat
ready, hardly finding time to give Molly the kiss that her uplifted
grateful face demanded of him.

In half an hour she and the boat were both ready, and they passed out of
the little bay, she steering and he rowing, as the mist began to lift
from the curving outlines of the downs. It was very restful to Molly to
glide over that silky sea, with the gulls quietly sailing above, the
breeze from the land just breathing on her, and Harold’s bright face
opposite to her; and for a while she was perfectly happy, thinking of
nothing. But suddenly the sound of a big gun reached them, and looking
out to sea they saw the distant masts of a huge ironclad, and a white
curl of smoke, which had already risen high in air by the time the sound
reached them. As they looked, another white puff, and, as it slowly
rose, another faint boom. Harold’s eyes sparkled, and he rested on his
oars, and turned to watch the ship.

“I expect it’s the _Monarch_,” he said. “I know she’s cruising about
here. Just think, Molly! Some day perhaps you’ll hear the big guns and I
shall be on board. And thinking of you,” he added, as his face came
round to look at Molly with a look half of pity, half of pride. But
there was a big tear slowly slipping down Molly’s brown cheek. The
thought of Harold’s going had come over her like a cloud, and the rain
was beginning to fall. For a moment he felt angry; plunged the oars
into the water, and rowed on strongly with just a faint flush on his
cheek. Then seeing her face turned away, so that he should not see the
tear, and the little mouth compressed and chin held firm so as to keep
another from escaping, he shipped his oars, jumped across to her, and
with boyish energy gave her a host of rough kisses on each cheek. Then
he took her face between his hands and said--

“Molly, don’t you be silly. If you’re going to cry every time you hear a
big gun fired I’ll sail right away to the other side of the world and
marry some one over there. But if you’ll be a good girl I’ll come back
some day and be a coastguard, and then we can live in one of those
cottages by the flagstaff, and you shall polish the windows and the
floors till they shine like mother’s china. And when I get to Portsmouth
I’ll have a likeness taken in uniform, and you shall have it to hang up
in your own room. Now then, let go, silly, or we shall be on the rocks!”

He disengaged himself from the fervid embrace in which Molly had caught
him, and was back in his seat, pulling hard into the current of the
tide again, which was now carrying them fast along the foot of the
cliffs. They rounded one little headland, and then another, and
presently found themselves under a deep curve of the cliffs, here some
three or four hundred feet high, quite inaccessible from above, where
the rocks were almost perpendicular, but broken somewhat at the base by
the action of the sea. These cliffs--the red cliffs as they were called
from their colour--were the favourite breeding place of many birds, and
they were dotted all over, as the boat rounded the headland, with
kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, and other sea-birds, who sailed up
into the air, or far away to sea, with loud cries, as the intruders came
nearer. Harold paid them little attention, but made straight across the
curve towards the opposite headland, where the cliff seemed almost to
beetle over, and where the shadow, as they had been rowing eastwards and
it was still morning, lay heavy and black over the water. Here, he knew,
the peregrine falcon built its nest nearly every year: for the nest
could only be reached from the sea, and no hardy climber had as yet
attempted to get at it by that way. Once the male bird had been shot,
and for two or three years no nest had been built; but another pair had
found the place out, and this year had been so far lucky enough to
escape the guns of collectors and gamekeepers.

Harold put in to the shore, and moored the boat to a stone. No falcon
was in sight. He told Molly to lie down in the boat quite still; and
stretching himself beside her on his back, he fed her with bread and
cheese, keeping a sharp lookout all the while. For a long time they lay
there, and it was a happy time for both of them. The gentle sigh of the
waves daintily lapping the stones, and the call of the sea-birds
overhead, were all the sounds they heard, except the occasional distant
boom of a gun, which still sent a little pang through Molly’s tender
heart. But she thought of the coastguard’s cottage, and all the time
that was to be passed before she could be polishing its floors and
windows for Harold melted away before that vision of happiness, which
stood out like a distant peak when all the nearer hills and vales are
hidden in a morning mist.

So they lay there in the boat, waiting for the falcon to appear, for it
was hopeless to try and discover the nest until one of the old birds
should return to it with food for the young. Every now and then Molly’s
rosy mouth opened to receive a bit of bread and cheese, offered it on
the point of Harold’s clasp-knife, which his coastguard friend had given
him; but at last there was no more, and lulled by the gentle motion of
the boat, she fell into a peaceful doze. She awoke, feeling Harold’s
hand on her mouth.

“Don’t speak, Molly,” he whispered; “look there! That’s the wicked thing
that killed your Snowdrop.”

She looked up and saw a large bird hovering just at the edge of the
cliffs above them. Its great wings were spread out, as it sailed round
and round for a while, looking to see that the coast was clear: and
their sharp eyes could see that it carried something in its talons.
Then, seeing nothing to disturb its solitude, it wheeled slowly down the
cliff, and perched on a projecting bit of rock, not very high above
their heads, and stood there, proud and fierce, with one foot still
grasping its victim, which they could now see was a young leveret,
bleeding and struggling in its last agony. When the last struggle was
over, and not before, the sharp, cruel, beak was driven like a knife
into the leveret’s neck, and the fur torn from its back; and when the
butcher’s work was complete, the great bird slowly rose on its wings,
and sailed into the air once more with the bleeding victim.

Harold slowly changed his position in the boat, and watched the falcon
closely and silently. Wheeling once or twice, as it rose against the
cliff, and uttering a chattering cry as if to announce its coming to its
young ones, it passed within a narrow cleft in the rock, about a third
of the way down the precipice, and disappeared. The boy was on his feet
in an instant, and, springing out of the boat, he took off his blue
jersey, and threw it to Molly to take care of; then he took a long look
at the rocks above him, and rapidly made up his mind as to the line he
would take in climbing. The first part was easy enough; but at the
height of about a hundred feet from the sea the rocks suddenly became
steeper. Still there was nothing to prevent an active lad from scaling
them, if the hold for hand and foot were only firm; but the red rock was
sometimes loose and brittle, and would need great care in handling. If
he could pass safely along the face of these higher rocks by a little
ledge which gave room for a few rock-loving plants to grow, he would
reach the cleft into which the falcon had disappeared; once there, he
must trust to luck, for he could not see further from below.

He quickly passed up the lower and more broken part of the cliff, Molly
watching the easy motion of his supple form with pride and confidence.
No shade of anxiety for him crossed her mind; she had often seen him
climb both rocks and trees before, and had even sometimes climbed with
him. She too was strong and active, and knew the delight of swinging
herself from rock to rock or from bough to bough, with the perfect
confidence that young heads place in the resources of their hands and
feet. She would have been quite willing to dare even these cliffs with
him, if he had asked her; but Harold knew very well that this would be
the roughest climb he had ever yet tried, and had all the morning spoken
as if he were going alone; so Molly quietly acquiesced, as she always
did on such occasions. She sat in the boat, her hands playing with her
blue worsted cap, but her eyes intently fixed on the climber.

When he reached the steeper rocks, he went more slowly; and she could
see him testing the firmness of his foothold by a kick, or loosening a
stone with his hand, which went leaping downwards and fell into the sea
with a splash, almost too near the boat to be pleasant. Once or twice he
picked up the egg of some Guillemot or Gull which had flown off as he
approached, and held it out for Molly to see; and once he stopped to
examine the skin of the leveret which the falcon had left behind on the
projecting bit of rock. At last he safely reached the ledge, and began
to walk carefully along it, steadying himself against the rock above him
with his right hand. Just before he reached the cleft to which the ledge
was leading him, Molly saw the falcon sail out of it again within a few
yards of him; but Harold stood perfectly motionless in the shadow of the
rock, and the magnificent bird, too busy to search for intruders, failed
to see him, and rising slowly, passed over the beetling brow of the
cliff and disappeared inland.

Then he went on again slowly, to the corner where the ledge passed into
the cleft and out of Molly’s sight: and now she first began to wonder
whether he would after all be able to reach the nest. The corner
projected sharply, and in rounding it, the ledge seemed almost to come
to an end; no grass grew on it at that point, and the rocks above and
below were cut sharply and steeply. She saw him stop for a minute or two
when he came to this corner, and put his foot forward to try the
footing; her blue cap dropped out of her hands into the boat, and she
sat up gazing with eager eyes and parted lips. Then she saw him rest his
left foot on the jutting bit of rock he had tested, kneel down on his
right knee, and slowly work himself along with the help of his hands. As
he turned the corner, he seemed to get into easier quarters, for he
rose to his feet again, and passed in a moment out of her sight into the
dark cleft.

A few minutes later she heard the cries of the young falcons, and a loud
shout from Harold told her that vengeance was being done for Snowdrop’s
death. Sticks and rubbish began to fall down the rocks; he was razing to
the ground the falcon’s rockbuilt refuge. And then he emerged again,
with a young bird in his hand, which he proceeded to tie up in his
pocket-handkerchief, and button inside the breast of his shirt. When all
was ready, he again knelt down, this time with his left knee, using his
right foot to support him below wherever it could find a firm support.
Molly watched her hero now impatiently; she wanted him to come down
quickly and show her the young falcon.

The difficult part was almost over, when some bit of stone on which he
had rested his right foot gave away, and rolled down the precipice. He
had nothing now to hold by except his left knee, and Molly, now standing
up in the boat in real anxiety, saw him keeping his balance with
difficulty by pressing his unsupported leg hard against the rocks. Then
she saw him make a spring--such a spring indeed as one can make with
nothing to spring from but one’s left knee--and try to catch at a big
red knob which lay just at the end of the perilous part of the ledge.
His hands caught the knob, and he turned with his face to the rock
struggling to bring his feet up once more to the level of the ledge. But
the stone was treacherous and gave way, and the boy, after another
moment’s effort to save himself, fell after it down the steeper part of
the rocks, till he was caught by another ledge below, and there lay
quite still.

Molly uttered an inarticulate sound as she saw him fall; she did not cry
or scream, but she trembled all over. A cold feeling went down her back,
and her heart beat so violently that for a moment she was obliged to sit
down panting. She looked all round to see if any boat was in sight, but
the fishermen did not often come so far at that time of the year, and
the sea was unbroken by an oar. Only far out in the offing lay the huge
form of the ironclad; and for an instant there flashed through Molly’s
mind the picture of Harold in his young strength sitting opposite her
with his oars, turning to watch the firing of the big guns, then holding
her face in his hands, and bidding her not be silly. Something told her
that now an effort was needed from her, such as she had never had to
make in her life before; and, strong and healthy as she was, she felt
her faintness passing, and her will growing strong. She was quite alone;
she must act; what should she do?

At first she thought of rowing back for help, but she knew that the tide
had not yet turned, and that she would be a much longer time getting
back than they had taken in coming. And then she would have to leave
Harold all that time, and he perhaps dying, or at least badly hurt. He
might indeed be dead; but at none of these possibilities did she quail
again, now that she had fully nerved herself for action. She must climb
and reach him; and she set about it instantly. With a woman’s instinct
she took what was left of the cold tea that they had brought with them,
tied Harold’s blue jersey round her neck by the sleeves, stepped firmly
out of the boat, and after marking the spot where he fell, began to
climb.

Once at the top of the easier rocks, she found herself not far below the
shelf upon which he must be lying, and called to him. No answer came.
Panting with effort and excitement, but with firm limbs and steady head,
she began to ascend the steeper rocks, and presently reached what seemed
to be a faint track, made perhaps by some animal, which led her easily
upwards to the shelf. When she reached it her strength failed for a
moment, and her eyes seemed dim; but mastering herself again she
advanced, and suddenly came upon Harold, lying on his back in a little
bed of rough grass and samphire. She saw in an instant that he was
alive, and spoke to him, but he did not answer. Then she knelt down
beside him, folded up the jersey and put it under his head; opened the
bottle of cold tea, and moistening her fingers with it, rubbed his
temples and wetted his nostrils. She gave his forehead one kiss; but
there was work to be done, and this was no time for kisses: she felt
half ashamed even of this one. She searched for wounds, but could find
none; only she feared that one arm on which he was lying must be badly
hurt. But she could not move him, and must wait till he came to himself;
and she went on rubbing and chafing, yet sparing the tea till he should
wake and be able to drink some. It was quite an hour before he came to
himself.

At last his eyes opened slowly, and his lips moved a little, but without
a sound. She held the bottle to them, and he swallowed a little of the
tea; then the eyes closed again, and he seemed to sleep. Presently she
saw a fisherman’s boat passing at some distance from the shore. She
stood up, waved her handkerchief and shouted; but the boat was too far
off, and she was neither heard nor seen.

Her shouting woke Harold again, and in a faint voice he said, “What’s
the matter, Molly?” and then, after a pause, “Where’s the young
falcon?”

She looked in his shirt; the handkerchief was still there, and the young
bird was in it, though dead. “Here it is, Harold,” she said; “and now
you must try and get up and come down with me to the boat, and I’ll row
you home and take care of you till you’re all right again.”

“Dear old Molly,” was all that Harold answered; but they were words that
Molly never forgot.

He tried to get up, but the pain in his arm was so great that he fainted
away again; and Molly had to sit, now silent and sad, and watch for some
boat coming round the headland, chafing his temples from time to time
with fingers as gentle as a lady’s. When he came to himself once more,
it was getting towards evening; the sea was cold and gray, and the mist
began to creep again around the cliffs. Molly had been thinking of what
was to be done; her mind seemed stronger and clearer than it had ever
been before, and she spoke to Harold firmly, like a mother talking to
her little boy.

“Harold dear, I must leave you and go and get help; you will die of cold
if we have to stay out all night. But first I must make you as
comfortable as I can. Which pocket is your knife in?”

He told her, and she succeeded in getting it out without hurting him.
Then she took the jersey from under his head, cut off the sleeve that
belonged to the injured arm, and contrived to slip the warm garment over
his body and right arm; took off her own jersey, and laid it under his
head, gave him a kiss and stroked his fair hair, and told him to lie
still and go to sleep, and she would be back soon. And then she started
down the rocks, marking her way carefully that she might recollect it
when she returned, and stepping into the boat, pulled westwards as fast
as she could. The sun was setting when she reached the village.

Her news spread like wildfire. Her father borrowed a horse, and rode off
to the nearest town for a doctor; her mother put on her bonnet and went
to break the news to Harold’s mother. By the time Molly, still steady of
purpose though stiff and tired, had eaten such a meal as she could get
down, and put up some more provisions and some brandy for Harold, four
stalwart fishermen were ready with a big boat and lanterns, and were
waiting for her on the beach. Tired as she was, Molly would have liked
to have taken an oar, and even asked to be allowed to do so. She could
not bear to be doing nothing; she was in a state of restless activity
and energy. One of the men laughed, and bade her lie down in the boat
and go to sleep. But an older man, who saw her dark eyes sparkling in
the moonlight with a strange wildness, did Molly a good turn.

“Give her the tiller, Dick,” he said: “don’t you see the lass must be at
something? Come, Molly, lass, steer us straight, and tell us all about
you and the lad.”

So Molly took the helm, and went over the story with them again, and
kind old Martin kept asking her to describe this or that once more and
once again, and they pulled so strongly and quickly that they were at
the Red Cliffs long before she expected. Then she asked them to shout,
and held her hands to her ears in hopes of catching an answer from the
cliff, and after the second shout there came a feeble answer.

She led the way up the rocks in the moonlight. They found Harold very
cold and in pain; but the brandy soon revived him, and he even contrived
to eat a little.

“Dear old Molly,” he said once more. And Molly kissed him again, and
stepped downwards with the lantern, to show them the best places for
their feet, while they lifted the boy, groaning sadly with pain, laid
his injured arm over his chest, and began to carry him slowly down the
rocks. She guided them safely down, though the work took a long time,
and was perilous for men who could not use their hands, and terribly
painful for Harold: but it was over at last, and he was laid safely in
the bottom of the boat, and made as comfortable as possible with the
rugs and pillows which Molly’s mother had provided. Molly sat in the
stern again holding the tiller; but she soon began to droop over it now
the tension was taken off her, and in a few minutes was fast asleep.
Old Martin took the tiller from her hand, laid her down by Harold, and
covered her with his own rough pilot-coat. When they reached the
village, where the beach was crowded with eager faces, and lanterns were
moving about here and there, he took her in his arms and carried her to
her mother’s cottage.

“That’s a rare lass of yours,” he said, “and I never would have thought
it of her. They two must make up together one of these days; and a fine
pair they’ll be! Good-night, ma’am.”

Molly was put to bed, and slept an unbroken sleep till late in the
morning. When she woke she was so stiff and tired that she could hardly
turn round; but when she did so, she saw the two mothers, her own and
Harold’s, standing by the bedside. The latter kissed her many times on
the forehead, and told her how Harold had slept well and was now wide
awake, and asking for her; and how he had sent her another pigeon, even
more beautiful than the last.

“But, Molly,” she went on, “the doctor says his spine is injured as
well as his arm, and he won’t be able to go into the Navy. He’s terrible
vexed about it, poor lad.”

Molly sprang out of bed, in spite of her stiffness. She felt a real and
lively pity for Harold, and she must go to him at once. All her
childishness was gone; if she could have seen Harold that moment in his
sailor’s dress, marching off to Portsmouth, she would have jumped for
joy. There was work still left for her to do; she must comfort Harold.

       *       *       *       *       *

The case was more serious than the doctor at first supposed. Harold had
before long to be taken away to a London hospital, where he could get
the benefit of constant attendance and all kinds of appliances. His
mother went with him, and took up her abode in London, in the house of
one of Harold’s uncles, who was a small dealer there, and Harold slowly
recovered his strength, was apprenticed to a carpenter, learnt his trade
with a good will, and began to make a start in life. It was full four
years before Harold and Molly met again.

When at last he came to pay a visit to the old fishing-village, he found
Molly a tall, strong and sensible-looking maiden of eighteen. It was she
who proposed a row to the Red Cliffs, to see the scene of their
adventure four years ago; and it was she who rowed this time, while he
sat in the stern and steered. But it was he who, on their homeward way,
just before they rounded the last headland into the little harbour, let
go the tiller, took her brown face between his hands, and said once
more,

“Dear old Molly!”

And they plighted their loves as the old thatched cottages came in sight
under the curving embrace of the down.



A DEBATE IN AN ORCHARD.


It was one of those midsummer evenings which to the discontented seem
almost too long. In the orchard the old birds had finished finding the
young ones their supper, and the long labours of the day were over. The
swifts were flying, and screaming with delight as they flew, round the
old church tower, and the swallows were gliding less noisily in and out
of the long shadows of the apple-trees; but most of the dwellers in the
orchard had taken a quiet perch, and were singing, or dallying in some
pleasant way with the last half-hour of daylight, until it should be
time to go to roost.

A blackbird, a robin, a sparrow, and a blue titmouse found themselves
together on a single tree. They were old acquaintances, for they had
lived together in the orchard and garden the whole winter; friends, in
the proper sense of the word, they were not, for they differed a good
deal in their opinions, and had quarrelled nearly every day in the
winter over the crumbs which had been put for them outside the farmhouse
windows. But they contrived to put up with one another, and had been so
busy with their young of late, that all ill-feeling had passed away from
their minds.

“Well,” said the sparrow, “here we are again. Upon my word I wish the
sun would set; there’s nothing more to do.”

“Why don’t you sing?” said the robin.

“That’s a stale joke,” was the answer. “And your song is getting stale
too, Mr. Robin; you’ll have to leave it off a bit soon.”

“One should not sing too much,” observed the blackbird. “I wonder you
robins don’t get tired of hearing yourselves. It’s too hot to sing this
evening: spring is the time for that. Let us do something else to amuse
ourselves.”

“Let us see who can hang from a bough best with his head downwards,”
said the blue tit; and he instantly performed the feat with great
agility. The sparrow, being in want of something to do, tried to imitate
him, but he couldn’t do it a bit, and made himself ridiculous.

“What a lubberly creature!” said a swallow, who had paused in her flight
through the orchard to rest for a moment at the end of a dead bough of
the same tree. “Are you so hard up for something to do? Why don’t you
have a debate? There was a debate going on in my barn the other evening,
and very amusing it was. Old Squire Wilmot was in the chair. He told the
men and boys that they were going to have a debate once a month to
sharpen their wits, and--”

(“That’ll take a long time,” put in the blue tit.)

“And the young squire was going to propose a motion himself that night.”

“What do you think it was about? Bird’s-nesting! He said it was cruel, I
believe; and some one else said it wasn’t; and there they were
chattering away all the evening. But I had young to attend to, and of
course I couldn’t listen, even if it had been worth while. Why don’t you
have a debate? I dare say you wouldn’t talk quite such nonsense. Good
evening.” And off she went, without waiting for an answer.

“That’s not a bad idea,” said the blue tit; “only I don’t much care to
imitate Man. What a lumbering animal it is! However, if we are to have a
debate, why not debate about _him_? We shall all have something to say
on that subject, anyhow.”

“Very well,” said the Robin, who had a way of taking things into his own
hands, “very well, we will discuss Man. But first we must elect a
president. I am willing to be president, if you like. Our family has
encouraged Man for many centuries, and we ought to know something about
him by this time!”

There was silence for a minute. The Robin was not so popular in the
orchard as to be elected at once by acclamation. At this moment the
Swallow returned to her twig, just to see how they were getting on, and
was informed of the difficulty.

“Oh, by all means elect Robin,” said she; “they always elect some
respectable person president. They like some one who looks better than
he talks. Presidents don’t make speeches as a rule; they sit and look
grand, like the beadle in the church where I nested last summer. And now
I think of it,” she added, “that beadle had a red waistcoat just like
Bobby’s; so he had.”

And off she went again.

“Bother that bird,” said the Robin; “she’s like a wild-rose bush, all
prickles and no caterpillars. I won’t be president if I am not to be
allowed to speak. Let the Blackbird preside; it would just suit his
capacity.”

“I don’t pretend to be better than I am,” said the Blackbird in his
mellowest tones; “but we had better vote at once, it will soon be dark.
Each of you imitate the voice of the bird you wish to elect. All the
birds in the orchard shall be welcome and eligible: Starling, Nuthatch,
Creeper, Wren, Flycatcher, Chaffinch. Now then, one, two, three----”

A variety of strange sounds were heard, so strange and discordant that
the farmer’s wife looked out at her back-door to see what could be going
forward. But while it was still going on, there was heard at the top of
all the din the clear shrill song of a Wren from a heap of old sticks by
the wall.

“The very bird for you,” said the Swallow, alighting once more on her
twig. “He’ll only have to turn on his loudest song to stop the speakers
if they get tiresome or lose their tempers. He’ll be like the organ in
that church I was telling you of; it was put there to prevent the
singers being heard, and it did its business very well. Yes, yes, elect
the Wren; he’s small, but he’s afraid of no one. And in some countries
they call him king.”

She flew to the heap of sticks, and returned with the Wren, who took his
station on a prominent bough, cocked his tail very high, and sang his
very loudest.

“That will do capitally,” said the Swallow. “Turn on that whenever they
make fools of themselves, and you’ll have the debate to yourself after
all.”

And she was gone again, leaving them another pleasant little keepsake.
But they were too eager for the debate to begin, to mind much what she
said, and they all consented to accept the Wren as president.

“I appoint the Blackbird to open the debate,” said the Wren, who had
been duly instructed in his duties by the Swallow. “Let the Blackbird
state what motion he will propose.”

“I will propose,” replied the Blackbird, “that too close an association
with Man is degrading to the race of birds.”

“I won’t speak on that motion,” said the Robin, “I consider it
personal.”

“So do I,” said the Sparrow; “grossly personal and insulting.”

“What’s insulting?” said the Swallow, who was back again for the fourth
time. “Oh, most insulting to birds who use men’s buildings for their
nests! Look at me and the Sparrows, see how refined and elevated we have
become through ages of association with man! One doesn’t like to talk
of one’s self, but I put it to you whether the Sparrow’s charming,
fairy-like grace, dainty appetite, and chastely brilliant colouring, can
well be ascribed to any other cause? But dear me, I never meant to make
a speech. Good-bye; don’t quarrel, and, above all, don’t be sarcastic;
it’s a habit I abhor.” And she glided away once more.

“That’s one for you, Philip,” said the mischievous Blue-Tit to the
Sparrow. “Let her have it back again next time, my dear boy; have a
repartee ready. Make haste, you have no time to lose.”

“All right,” said the Sparrow. “Don’t fidget so. I’ll think of my
repartee during the Blackbird’s speech.”

“Silence!” called the president. “Trrrrrr-lira-lira-lira-la-trrr! I must
call on the Blackbird to put his motion in another form, as it is
considered personal.”

“Well,” said the Blackbird, “I move that Man is an animal as useless as
he is pernicious. That’ll suit everybody, I hope.”

“Won’t do,” said the President. “You must

[Illustration: And the Blackbird began his oration.--P. 117.]

have three adjectives, and they must all begin with the same letter. It
always is so, I assure you; the Swallow told me so just now, and she
heard it all going on in the barn. The young squire proposed that
bird-nesting was mean, mischievous, and malevolent; and a very sensible
motion too.”

“Very well,” said the Blackbird, “then I move that man is a mean,
mischievous, and malevolent animal. Will that do for you?”

“Excellent!” said every one. “Go on, and be quick.”

“Be as quick as you can,” said the Robin, “or there won’t be time for my
speech.”

“Silence!” cried the president. “I call on the Blackbird.” And the
Blackbird began his oration.

“Man,” he said, “is in the first place _mean_. This may be thought
perhaps too obvious a proposition to need proof. I need but ask you to
look over the orchard wall into the kitchen-garden yonder. What do we
see there? Gooseberry-bushes, currant-bushes, covered with delicious
fruit; I know it, for did I not try the flavour of every one of them
daily till yesterday? And now, now, just as their juices are mellowing,
each of those trees has been covered over with a most vile and
treacherous netting! If time were not pressing I could easily produce
statistics to show----”

“What are statistics?” asked a Flycatcher deferentially.

“A new kind of earwigs,” said the Blue-Tit promptly. “Don’t interrupt.
What a flow of eloquence!”

“I could produce statistics to show,” continued the Blackbird, “that
those gooseberries and currants would be sufficient to feed scores of
blackbirds for several weeks together. Think of what is here lost to the
world through the meanness of Man!

“The raspberries indeed are not netted; but, friends, I would ask you,
if you can control your feelings for a moment, to look in the direction
of the raspberry canes. There you may see--I can hardly bear to mention
it--the dead bodies of two cousins of mine, who lost their lives through
the meanness of Man, in the exercise of their natural rights and
appetites. Shot, cruelly shot, by the farmer’s son, and exposed to view
to frighten us!”

Here the speaker was overcome by emotion, and paused for a few moments.

“Go on,” said the Robin, “or you’ll never get to the end of your speech.
Why do you want to eat fruit? Caterpillars are much better.”

“Order, order,” cried the President. “Trrrrr-lira-lira-trrr.” The
Blackbird resumed the thread of his argument.

“I do not care,” he said, “to notice unseemly interruptions at a moment
when such painful thoughts have obtruded themselves on my mind. I will
proceed in the next place to show that man is _mischievous_. I need not
dwell on this point; the fact is known to you all. The word is far too
mild. Which of us has not lost a nest, or seen our young caught and
killed, either by man himself, or by his parasite the cat? They are the
only two animals who kill for the pleasure of killing. Of the two, as
you know, man is far the worst; he is more cruel and more awkward than
a cat. A cat is agile, nimble, even beautiful to look at, terrible as
she is; and she does not steal the nests which we have taken such
infinite pains to build. A kitten is a pretty and even a harmless little
creature; but the young of man is horrible to contemplate. What dreadful
noises he makes! What a contemptible object he appears! Though compelled
by nature to keep to the ground and go along on two stumps, he will
sometimes climb trees if he can but see a chance of doing us a mischief.
You hear the awkward creature crashing through the branches; you are
forced to fly for your life, and to leave your young and eggs to the
monster’s mercy! I will not harrow your feelings further, but will
content myself with the simple assertion that cats are far better.

“I now come to the third point. Man is _malevolent_. Man, that is (as
some of you may not understand the word), is evilly disposed towards us.
His evil deeds are the result of an evil will. I see you are getting
impatient, so I will only give you a single instance of this, which
shall at the same time be a crushing proof. As I was enjoying myself in
a gooseberry bush a day or two ago, before the meanness of man displayed
itself in those malicious nets, I heard the farmer’s wife singing to her
baby as she sat on the seat under the pear-tree close by me. I kept very
quiet, as you may imagine, and heard all she said. Fancy my horror when
I heard her begin--

    “Four-and-twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie.”

Thus you see from his earliest years--from the egg, I might have said,
had Fate destined him for a higher sphere than that he occupies--is Man
taught malevolence towards the birds. His mother whispers the poison
even into his baby ears; he grows up thinking of baked blackbirds; and
though no doubt in later life he prefers what he (luckily for us) calls
bigger game, the malevolence of his mind towards us singing-birds is
ever on the increase. Such then is Man: mean, mischievous, malevolent; a
creature that might indeed, in many ways be our equal if he could but
restrain his evil instincts; but as he is, degraded, demoralized, and
dangerous.”

This burst of eloquence took the company by surprise; they never
suspected the Blackbird of possessing such genius. There was general
applause, which was broken in upon however by an unlucky incident. The
Robin, when the Blackbird stopped, had instantly taken possession of the
orator’s bough, a prominent one directly below that of the president.
The Sparrow, seeing this, and being always ready to pick a quarrel with
the Robin, had flown to the bough with angry screams, and was trying to
turn out the new orator. Robin fought as might be expected of him, the
other birds were preparing to join in, the President was calling for
order, and whistling his very shrillest, when up came the Swallow once
more. She preferred to be absent during the speeches, but looked in, she
said, to see if their wits were getting sharpened.

“What!” she exclaimed, “quarrelling already! Ah, I see, no wits to
sharpen, so try claws and beaks instead!”

“Where’s your repartee, Philip?” said the Blue Tit. But before the
repartee was forthcoming the Swallow was gone again.

The Swallow’s remark had the result of calming the troubled waters; and
as the Robin had been first on the bough, the President called on him to
speak.

“I do not pretend to eloquence,” said the Robin; “but I know what I
think, and shall say it as well as I can. Some things the Blackbird has
said I agree with; but birds who habitually eat fruit must expect man to
make war upon them. Now between my family and man there has been for
ages a treaty of peace--a treaty which man keeps up, because he knows
how much it is to his advantage; and which we keep up, not only for our
own benefit, but because we hope that in due time we may improve and
elevate man. He is powerful, but he is by nature vicious, as the
Blackbird has observed. Well, we hope we have done something in the
past, and may do something in the future, to rid him of his baser
qualities.

“You probably do not know how this treaty of peace came to be made. I
will tell you as shortly as I can. Long ages ago there was a king of
this island who married and had two lovely children, a boy and a girl.
These children went out one day to play in the wood near their papa’s
palace, and lost their way. Night came on, and they lay down to sleep;
they never woke up again, but lay there dead and cold. _We_ saw them
there; _we_ covered them with leaves, and paid a last tribute to their
beauty and innocence. The king and queen found us at the good work, and
then and there made a treaty with us, which has lasted in this island
ever since. By this treaty it was ordained--

“1. That man should not use his strength or his dreadful engines of
destruction to kill or molest any robin.

“2. That man should abstain from taking the nest of any robin; but that
he should be allowed to take one egg now and then, if he should feel his
evil desire for collecting getting the better of him.

“3. That man should put food outside his windows for the robins in the
winter, and should take care that it was not all eaten up by sparrows.”

(Here the Sparrow asked the President whether the speaker was in order
in introducing such offensive matter into his speech. The President
decided that as the Robin was quoting a historical document, no offence
could be taken.)

“These,” said the Robin, “are the most important clauses of the treaty.
On our side it was agreed:

“First, that the robins should abstain as far as possible from damaging
man’s property, _i.e._ his fruit or his corn, and should do him as much
good as possible by eating the grubs and caterpillars in his gardens.

“This clause has been faithfully kept by us, to our own lasting benefit
as well as that of man. I would advise all birds who insist on eating
fruit and corn to observe how excellent are the results of a grub and
caterpillar diet.” Here the Robin paused a moment, and displayed his
portly red waistcoat in all its glory to the audience. Then he went
on:--

“Secondly, it was agreed that the robins should take up their dwelling
as far as possible in the haunts and gardens of man, and should sing to
him, not only in the spring or the summer, but all the year round, as
often as they should feel able and disposed to do so. This clause has
also been faithfully kept by us, and the result is, in my humble
opinion, that we are now not only the most regular, but the most
versatile and accomplished singers who affect the haunts of man. I will
not however press that point, as I see some of you seem to dissent.

“Now you will observe that though, as was right and proper, this treaty
was framed much to the advantage of the robins, both parties to it have
certainly gained by it, and man, who has on the whole kept it fairly
well, has learnt from it to respect and to care for at least one family
of birds. I would therefore conclude by asking you to consider, before
you pass this motion, and commit yourselves to perpetual enmity to
mankind, whether it would not be wiser to follow our example, and make a
lasting peace with him. I am convinced that you would do yourselves no
harm; and I am still more firmly convinced that you would find a
pleasure in joining us in the good work of raising mankind to a higher
level of life, and a better appreciation of the superior creatures
around him.”

There was but faint applause when the Robin left the orator’s bough. He
was not popular, as has been remarked; and he was always posing (so they
thought) as a superior person. And now he claimed superior wisdom on the
ground of his intimacy with man! The Sparrow, who had listened very
impatiently to his speech, sprang up at once to the bough, and began in
loud and rather angry tones:--

“What rubbish people can talk! The motion itself is absurd, the
Blackbird’s speech was silly, and the Robin’s speech shows that his
whole race, from the beginning, have, as I always said, been the victims
of a delusion. You none of you know the least bit how to deal with man.
We Sparrows found out the secret ages ago, and look how we have
prospered! Talk of treaties! why in the name of all that’s feathered
should any one want to make a treaty with man? I say it’s ridiculous.
That isn’t the way to do it. Only idiots would do that.”

“Order, order!” said the President. “I really must call on the
honourable speaker to control his feelings and modify his expressions.”

“Very well,” said the Sparrow; “but really when one hears such
blathering nonsense talked--”

“Order, order!” called the President, and whistled his loudest. “The
honourable Sparrow must positively address himself to the point, and not
be rude, or I shall call on him to retire.” Thus admonished, the Sparrow
continued in milder tones:--

“Well really, you know, what I was going to say was, when the President
interrupted me, that man is here to be made use of, not to be made
treaties with. We found out long ago how to make use of him, just as we
found out long ago how to use the martins’ nests. (Loud cries of
‘shame.’) Shame, indeed! Rubbish! If you want to prosper, take what you
can get, and don’t go to make treaties about it, or fight for it more
than you can help; lay your claws into it when no one’s looking, and
make sure of it. You’ll be the better, and no one else the wiser. Man
sows corn: we take it; thousands of us live on it nearly all the year
round. Man sows peas: we take them--at least all the juicy young
ones--he can have the old ones for himself. Man plants crocuses: we
found out that there was good food inside the blossoms, and we take
them. Man puts bread-crumbs outside his window, in fulfilment of his
treaty with the robins, no doubt: we take it nearly all. Man does no end
of other things, and we take advantage of them all. And see how it pays!
We sparrows are the rising race. We increase every year by thousands; we
go everywhere; we despise nothing; we eat anything; and we have a good
time of it. All you other birds will disappear in time; there’ll be no
room for you, and nothing left for you to eat. Man will remain, but only
to support us; we must have peas and corn, so man must remain. And may
he ever remain,” added the orator, in a burst of eloquence, “the
infatuated slave that he is now!”

“Bravo!” said the twittering voice of the Swallow, who had returned
again, attracted by the Sparrow’s loud tones. “Capital! and how pleasing
to think that there’s one animal in the world who’s a greater blockhead
than a Sparrow!”

“Now then, Philip,” said the Blue Tit, “here’s your chance; where’s that
repartee?”

The Sparrow ruffled his feathers, and pecked at them, as if half
expecting to find the repartee there; but not succeeding, he was just
about to fly at the Swallow and drive her from her perch, when lo! a
little maiden of seven years old came running and dancing into the
orchard, and made for the very tree on which the birds were perching.
The Blackbird went off instantly with a loud cackle; the Sparrow
chattered excitedly and went off too; the Robin departed very quietly to
another part of the orchard; and the Starling, Chaffinch, and others
made off as fast as they could go. Only the Swallow and the Wren were
left; neither of them were a bit frightened.

“Now by the salt wave of the Mediterranean, which I have so often
crossed,” said the Swallow, “I am glad we were spared that repartee.”

“Now by the sweet juices of a green caterpillar, which I have so often
sucked,” said the Wren, “I am glad we have come to the end of this
folly. Good-night; the sun has set. There’s a bat; I really must get
home.”

The Swallow was left alone. “Well,” said she to herself, “once is
enough; I’ll not ask them to have another debate. I’m glad I didn’t hear
the speeches. We swallows trust in man, and he loves us; but we cannot
understand him, nor he us. But we live all our lives by love and trust,”
said she, as she opened her wings to fly; “as for understanding, that
must wait.”

She was gone, and the orchard was silent again.



A TRAGEDY IN ROOK-LIFE


It was a fine day early in February, and the rooks, after roosting on
the elm-trees in the village, and surveying the remnants of the nests of
last year, were assembled, some on the moist pastures, some on the
ploughed land, hard at work searching for grubs and worms. The bachelor
rooks were also looking out for partners, and some of them were already
settled in life--for that season at least.

There was a certain young bachelor among them who had not as yet won his
way to the heart of any black maiden. Jetsom had certain ways about him
that were looked on with suspicion by his fellows. His father and mother
had had some doubt whether they ought to bring him up. His very egg had
been unlike the others in the nest; it was longer and narrower, and not
so thickly covered with dark spots. It was clearly an ill-omened egg. A
one-eyed old rook, famed for wisdom and foresight, had been consulted
about it, and was of opinion that no good would come of it. He sat on
the edge of the nest, and turned his battered old bill this way and
that, uttering now and then a hoarse inward caw. “I remember,” said he
at last, “an egg exactly like this; it was the year the new allotments
were made, long before you two were born. It was a lucky year in that
way, for those allotments are a great blessing to us all, though you
young folks don’t value them as you ought. But let me tell you (and here
he ruffled his feathers, and made a dab with his bill at the unlucky
egg), the chick from that egg became a scare-crow on those allotments!”

And overcome with his emotions, he gave several loud caws, and flew away
to his own tree, leaving the young parents in great anxiety.

“We’d better turn it out,” said the father; “it’ll never do to see his
body on a stake every time we go to feed in the allotments.”

“Let us hatch it first,” said the mother, “and see what it looks like.
That old Gaffer thinks himself too wise; if it turns out all right we’ll
proclaim him as a humbug.”

This was too tempting a proposal to be resisted. The egg continued in
the nest, and in due time it was hatched. There was no difference
between the chick of the queer egg, and those that came from the others.
The mother-bird was right, and on the strength of this she got her own
way in other matters. Her husband had loved and admired her, and now he
also obeyed her, because of her prudence and wisdom. When old Gaffer
came, uninvited, to look at the chick, she actually ordered her husband
to drive him away; which he did with such valour that the old gentleman
lost three of his tail feathers, and retired in great wrath to a
neighbouring branch to recover his breath. When he had got it he croaked
out a dismal prophecy for the chick, which struck terror into the hearts
of the rooks in that tree; and in fact the whole matter was the cause
of much scandal.

Old Gaffer did not venture to the nest again; his reputation for wisdom
had been shaken, and his damaged tail was secretly made fun of by the
younger birds. But he let it be known through a friend that there was no
doubt whatever in his mind that young Jetsom would be shot--and serve
him right--at the rook-shooting next month. It is only the oldest birds
that think of the shooting beforehand; they know it is coming and take
it as a matter of course. The colony must not be overstocked with young
birds, which are often impudent and annoying, and the old inhabitants
are not sorry to get rid of them.

When May came the young birds were one day perching on the edges of
their nests, and taking short flights to exercise their wings; Jetsom
was among them, as fine a young bird as any, and the peculiar pride of
his parents. Some men came under the trees with guns, the parent-birds
cawed loudly to their young, and all was noise and disturbance. Bang
went the guns; half-a-dozen young rooks fell dead or struggling through
the branches. The others took flight a short way, but thinking all was
safe again, returned very soon to their tree. Young Jetsom however, who
was stronger of wing than most, got carried on by a gust of wind, and
found himself very soon over a ploughed field, where a few rooks were
peaceably feeding. He dropped down on it, rather flustered and tired,
and seeing the other birds poking their bills into the ground, and
turning over the clods, began to do the same. Presently one of them came
near him, looked at him, cawed, flapped its wings, and said, “Who are
you? You don’t belong to us.”

Jetsom explained as well as he could.

“My young friend,” said the rook, “you had better make haste and go.
It’s my duty to hustle you to death for coming here, and I shall do it
if you stay another minute. Be off, before the others see you. Here they
come--”

Jetsom heard no more; he was off, and on the other side of the nearest
hedge, before the other rooks could come up; and there he lay for some
time, too frightened at first to think. When he recovered himself life
presented itself to him in a new aspect; it was evidently not all grubs
and wire-worms. It was rather a serious matter. There were other rooks
besides those of his colony, and they were not friendly. It was possible
to get hustled to death by them. How much there was to be learnt in the
world! You had hard work to keep the skin on your bones, to avoid being
shot, made a scare-crow of, hustled to death. Why was all this? Why not
live in peace with your neighbours? Why should men shoot at you when
they laid out allotments for your express benefit? All this was very
puzzling to Jetsom, as he lay still under the hedge; things were
certainly not as they should be. He could hear the shooting going on in
the distance, but at last it stopped, and he summoned up courage to take
flight homewards.

When he reached the tree, and perched tired out on the first branch he
came to, all was hubbub and confusion: but above the din he could hear
the hoarse voice of old Gaffer, who had ventured himself quite close to
the nest, and was addressing his parents.

“Do you know what they do with the young birds they shoot?” said that
well-informed old bird. “They pull all the feathers out of their bodies,
put them all together into a big dish, and bake them over the fire. Then
they eat them, and the cat and the dog get the bones. I’ve seen it all
through the window. That ill-omened young Jetsom is in the pie-dish now.
Take advice when you can get it. The cook plucked him an hour ago.
Capital eating, you may be sure! You fed him so well with worms, you
know. So kind of you! Take advice when you can get it. I see the smoke
coming out of the chimney now; they’re baking down below. You’ll find
his feathers in the back-yard presently. Take advice--”

“Stop that, and go and look for your tail-feathers,” said the angry
voice of the mother. And she ordered her husband to drive the old wretch
away, but at that moment Jetsom flew into the nest. Great was the
delight and excitement of the parents; but seeing his exhausted state,
his mother sent her husband off on the instant for a cargo of worms, and
when she bethought herself next of old Gaffer, that prudent old rook was
not to be seen.

It was a great triumph. Gaffer’s fame as a prophet was at the lowest
ebb. But he knew the ways of the world, and the foibles of his kind; he
stuck to his point none the less for his defeat, and never ceased to
assert that young Jetsom was a mistake, and ought never to have been
hatched out. Some of the older birds shared this opinion, and as time
went on Gaffer began to notice with great satisfaction that Jetsom was
of a disposition likely to get him into trouble.

The fact was that his first adventure had caused him to reflect on the
nature of things; and, as we all know, that is a dangerous habit to get
into. He had told them of his adventure with the foreign rooks, and had
received most strict injunctions to have nothing to do with them
henceforward. He naturally asked why, but was sharply told to hold his
tongue. His mother told him ghastly stories of what happened to young
rooks who asked questions; and his father sat on a twig close by and
cawed his admiration of his wife’s wisdom and eloquence.

Old Gaffer watched them at a safe distance, and promised himself revenge
for the loss of his tail-feathers.

All these dreadful stories had their due effect on Jetsom’s mind, and he
asked no more questions, but he could not help reflecting silently on
the nature of things. And so it came to pass that he grew up a silent
and philosophical rook, and it was frequently remarked that he did not
make his proper contribution to that chorus of cawing which at certain
times of the day is so necessary to the happiness and comfort of a
rookery. He would sometimes, too, decline to accompany the others when
they wheeled about in the air of an evening before settling down to
roost; and from his solitary habits was often chosen to sit on a tree as
sentinel when the rest were at work feeding on a ploughed field. His
father and mother were quite content that this should be so, and so was
he, for it redeemed him a little from the suspicion that was beginning
to

[Illustration:....Deep in meditation on the problem which occupied his
mind.--P. 141.]

fall on him; and he would often sit on his perch by the hour, pretending
to keep a look-out, but really deep in meditation on the problems which
occupied his mind.

And so the winter passed; and with the first approach of spring the
young birds of the year began to find themselves mates, and to think
what tree they should select to nest in; but on that day in February
with which this veracious story began, Jetsom had not yet found a bride.
Yet he was too much of a rook to consider his spring complete without
the duty and honour of bringing up a nestful of young, as his fathers
had done before him.

That morning the billing and cooing (or rather cawing) of the lovers was
very distasteful to him; they played such silly games, and talked such
amorous rubbish. No one took any notice of him, until at last a flirting
pair came in playful pursuit of each other close up to the railing on
which he sat disconsolate, and he heard the young lady ask her lover not
to take her near that horrid Jetsom.

“He’s got an evil eye,” she said, “and if I marry you (which I probably
sha’n’t), depend on it all the eggs will be addled.” And off she flew,
with her admirer after her.

This was too much for Jetsom; he also took flight to escape further
insult; and flying straight ahead while he meditated on his wrongs, he
passed over several miles of open country before he found himself
hungry, and descended on a juicy-looking meadow to look about for food.
He had not been there long, when, happening to look round, he saw that
there was another rook in the field; only one, walking slowly about in a
far corner. Flying quietly a little nearer, he perceived by her ways
that she was a young maiden of scarce a year old. Every moment he
expected to hear the caws of her companions, and prepared to fly for his
life; but none came, and she continued to walk about with a pensive air,
turning her head from side to side, and wholly unconscious of his
presence. But forced by curiosity, he came nearer and nearer, and now
she could not help noticing that she was not alone.

“Oblige me, sir,” she said, “by retiring from this corner. I have not
the honour of your acquaintance, and am at present engaged in reflecting
on the problems of life.”

“So,” said Jetsom, “am I; allow me to ask what you make of them?”

“I can make nothing of them,” she replied; “I run my bill against a
pebble everywhere, and cannot get hold of a single worm. Perhaps you
have been more fortunate. For my part, I find the ground everywhere hard
frozen; I can make no impression on it. Excuse my putting my ideas in
this vulgar way.”

“Your field of thought may be hard,” he said, “but your words are soft
and sweet as the juiciest grubs. I am an outcast, because I think; and I
find comfort in listening to an alien voice. But destiny surrounds us,
as the hedge surrounds this field; we rooks are bound by eternal and
immutable laws; and one of them forbids us, as you have reminded me, to
have anything to do with an alien. I must apologize for my intrusion,
and retire to my life of misery.”

“Stay,” said she; “we are alone and unseen. Your presence is not
disagreeable to me. Destiny, if it keeps aliens apart, has at least
brought you to me. Day changes to night, summer to winter; old trees
wear out (so my grandmother tells me) and we are obliged to take to new
ones. Can it be that the nature of our race never changes too? Is there
not a future to be realized when the narrowing bonds of our society may
be relaxed, and when in ever-widening circles our race may stir the
world with a new life? And may it not be you--you the outcast and
philosopher--who are destined to lead the van in this glorious
movement?”

“I!” he replied. “Can it be so? But not alone--not alone.” And he
glanced at her curiously.

“Hush,” she hurriedly whispered; “I heard a distant caw. Meet me here
again to-morrow when the sun is at its highest.” And so they parted, to
meditate on the destinies of the ages, and the enfranchisement of
rook-society.

When Jetsom returned to his rookery he found that his absence had not
been noticed, so occupied was every one with the business of wooing and
stick-collecting; and he kept his appointment next day without much
misgiving. What fears he had were easily overcome by the thought that
there might be a great and happy future in store for him if he could
induce his new acquaintance to become his partner, and to help him to
carry out in practice the ideas that were floating through their minds.
He little knew, poor bird, what was really in store for him. Though he
had not been aware of it, one eye had all this time been upon him. Old
Gaffer, who was always on the look-out for his chance of revenge, had
seen him leave the meadow, and noticed his late return; and when he made
quietly off again the next day, Gaffer as quietly followed him. From a
tree near the trysting-place he saw Jetsom meet his friend, and knew in
a twinkling that his chance had come. He watched them for a while as
they walked about the meadow together, deep in philosophic converse; but
when they flew up into a tree (luckily it was not Gaffer’s) with some
little serious attempt to play with each other, he felt he might go home
safely and consider what was the best plan to bring this wilful pair to
shame and ruin.

Slipping warily out of his tree he flew slowly homewards, and before he
reached the rookery had made up his mind as to what should be done. He
mentioned to a few old friends, the ancient dignitaries of the
settlement, that he wished to consult them at once on an important
matter; and a meeting was accordingly held on a tree hard by. An aged
and highly respected bird, with two white feathers in his wing, was
voted into the chair, who, taking his perch on a prominent bough,
requested Gaffer to open his mind.

“My friends,” said Gaffer, turning his one eye with an evil look round
and round upon the assembly, “you will perhaps remember that last spring
I was asked advice about a certain egg, and that my advice was not
taken. I will ask you whether that egg has been a credit to our
rookery?”

A chorus of cawing encouraged him to proceed.

“I will not allude,” said he, “to painful circumstances connected with
that egg, and to personal insults which I suffered on account of that
egg. I may feel that I hardly received at that time the support which I
might have looked for from the older and wiser among us. But let bygones
be bygones. I have to tell you that the bird which was the ill-omened
result of that egg is about to bring home a wife who is not one of our
community. (Great disturbance, lasting several minutes.) I have watched,
and I have seen the guilty pair but an hour since, and we may expect
them at any moment. This is painful news to have to tell you, but I must
sacrifice my own feelings. I wish to know what line of action you would
propose that we should take?”

Almost before he had finished speaking, such a hubbub of indignation
arose, that the president had the utmost difficulty in restoring order.

“Friends,” said he at length, “let us take a flight to calm our spirits
after the terrible news which has been sprung upon us; then we will
deliberate on the case.”

Agreed. They all sailed about above the tree for a few minutes, and then
descended again, cawing so loud that a passing wayfarer looked up at
the tree in astonishment. The president then called on the oldest rook
in company to give his opinion.

“Kill her,” he said; “it’s the shortest way and the least trouble. As
for him, he’ll soon get over it.”

This proposal was received with a round of cawing, in which Gaffer did
not join. When it came to an end the President asked whether any one
else had a plan to propose. A worthy old rook flapped her wings and
said,

“I object to killing. It excites the young birds. When they have done it
once they want to do it again. We might be breaking up the very
foundations of society by encouraging this kind of punishment. Let them
build in a tree by themselves. Live and let live, I say.”

This plan found a few supporters, but more assailants: Gaffer prudently
held his tongue. Every one began to give his own opinion, and the two
opposing parties got so angry that the president felt obliged to order
another flight. When they returned, Gaffer spoke as follows:--

“I hope my worthy friends who have made their proposals, will not take
it amiss if I state my opinion that they are both open to serious
objection. If we kill this upstart’s bride, surely we shall be leaving
the real criminal unpunished. (Loud caws of approval.) If on the other
hand we let them build in a tree by themselves, they will bring up their
young, and instead of having two rebellious birds to deal with, we shall
have a whole family to keep aloof from. I ask you, is it likely, is it
possible, that we should be able to keep our young birds from
associating with them? Now what I propose is this: let them come and try
to build in our trees, as I know they will; let us tell our younger
birds, who will be very glad of the job, to take away every stick they
bring, and worry them till they are sick of it. If they get a few
bruises, or a broken leg or wing, so much the better; if they give up
the attempt, and go elsewhere, we shall have got rid of bad rubbish
(applause), and they won’t get on better anywhere else, depend upon it.
If any rook here thinks that I have a personal grudge against this young
Jetsom, I trust that the moderation of this proposal will undeceive
him. I request the President to put my motion to the vote without
delay.” (Much cawing.)

The President did as he was desired; and the motion was carried by a
large majority. Each old bird was then directed to tell his younger
friends that they might freely take any nesting materials collected by
Jetsom and his spouse; and the meeting broke up.

The victim of these hard-minded old birds brought his wife home that
night, and they roosted in one of the trees without being molested or
even noticed. Next morning early they set about choosing a place for a
nest, and while they were looking about, Gaffer sent a polite message,
by a lively young bird, that an excellent position was vacant in his
tree. The wily old gentleman wished to witness the success of his plot,
without taking part in the proceedings himself. Jetsom began to think he
was getting into Gaffer’s good books again, and gladly accepted the
offer. “That old fellow,” he said to his wife, “is a great authority
here, and if we can enlist him in the great cause, it will be the best
thing that could happen to us. Now, my dear, we will begin our labours
cheerfully.”

All that day they went backwards and forwards bringing sticks to lay the
foundation of the nest; and Gaffer sat on a high bough and looked down
on them benignly with his one eye. He even condescended once or twice to
give them a little advice as to how the sticks should be placed. In the
evening they went off to rest, bathe, and enjoy a little conversation
about the happy future of the race of rooks; and a happier or more
loving pair of birds were not to be found in all that large rookery. How
their hearts sank within them on their return when they found that every
stick they had laid had been taken away!

Gaffer was still sitting there, looking very wise: and Jetsom asked him
who had done them this bad turn, and why.

“My dear young friend,” said Gaffer, with an ill-concealed leer, “these
are little troubles that we have all had to go through. It’s only fun,
you may be sure. Some of those idle young birds have been amusing
themselves at your expense. Don’t be disheartened: begin again.”

“Thank you, you dear, kind old bird,” said Jetsom’s wife. “How good of
you to take such an interest in us. May I have a little talk with you
some day about the problems of life?”

Gaffer was overpoweringly polite. “My dear,” he said, “you do me great
honour. I shall be delighted to discuss them with you. But perhaps you
will solve them for yourselves.” And he seemed to leer at her with his
vacant eye, while he winked the other at a friend in a tree hard by.

The work began again next day; the same thing happened again, and again
Gaffer encouraged them to persevere. Next day Jetsom stayed on guard,
while his wife collected sticks. Seeing this, Gaffer took himself off,
and only returned to find, to his extreme delight, his victim in a very
ruffled state, the other rooks in possession of all his sticks, and his
wife in very low spirits. She appealed to him to protect them.

“My dear,” said Gaffer, “this is one of the problems of life. You are
now beginning to face the facts of the world. Go on, persevere, and
sooner or later you will solve the problems.”

The luckless pair took his advice once more, and day after day went on
collecting their sticks, only to find them stolen directly their backs
were turned. If one remained on guard, battles ensued; and Gaffer could
hardly repress his delight when he saw Jetsom’s feathers begin to fall
off in these fights. Several times he had to retire by himself to a
distant tree, to enjoy his revenge in solitude.

At last the younger birds began to get tired of this game, and having
finished their own nests, were no longer in want of the sticks that
Jetsom collected. Gaffer began to get sulky and anxious. He sat on his
bough and saw the nest beginning to rise at last: something must be done
at once. He waited till both birds were away together; then down he went
on the nest and began to pull it all to pieces. But it was a long job
for one bill, and before he had done, back came the owners. Gaffer was
surprised, and was quite unable to persuade them that he was only
helping to arrange the sticks; it was all too plain. Jetsom fell into a
fury that frightened his poor wife out of her wits, and before Gaffer
could stammer out something about “the problems of life,” he was
attacked, pecked, driven from one tree to another, worried, pushed,
flapped at, till his one eye closed for ever, and he fell to the ground
lifeless. But the problems of life had been too much for Jetsom. He felt
a moment of glorious triumph as his enemy fell, and was just returning
to his wife and nest with pride and honour, with heart swelling with joy
and hope: when his senses gave way, his bill opened, his eyes grew dim,
and in the moment of victory he expired, falling to the ground by the
side of his conquered foe. He had solved his problem.

       *       *       *       *       *

Half an hour later a gentleman walking down the road, stopped to watch a
strange assembly of rooks in an adjoining meadow. They were standing in
a large circle, making a great noise; in the centre of the circle stood
a single rook, ruffled and miserable-looking. As he watched, the noise
gradually ceased, and after a moment’s silence, the whole company rose
on their wings and rushed upon the victim in the middle. The noise again
became deafening, and nothing could be seen but a _mêlée_ of wings,
tails, and beaks, on the spot where the solitary bird had been seen a
moment before. The gentleman scrambled over the hedge, waving his stick
and shouting: the rooks flew away with loud cawings. When he reached the
spot, he found nothing but a mangled mass of feathers--the lifeless body
of one miserable bird.

It was the body of Jetsom’s widow. She too had solved the problem of her
life, and the rookery was no longer troubled with revolutionary ideas.



A QUESTION BEGINNING WITH “WHY.”


One warm summer afternoon two young men were leaning out of a window,
smoking their pipes, and enjoying a lazy half-hour. The window was one
of a long row in the garden-quadrangle of an old gray Oxford college;
and you looked out of it on a beautiful close-shaven lawn, bordered with
flower beds, and inclosed on one side by one of watery Oxford’s many
streams. This lawn, in the summer, is never without its family of
water-wagtails. Here there is no fear of bird-nesting boys, and
comparatively little peril of cats; and the turf is mown so often and so
closely, that even the youngest bird can find his food there without the
least trouble. And there they were that July afternoon, sometimes
running so quickly that you quite lost sight of their little black legs,
then stopping suddenly and moving their tails rapidly up and down for a
few moments, then pouncing upon some unlucky insect on the grass, or
perhaps pursuing it in the air with a quick fluttering of wings and
tails; and all the while uttering that contented little double-note of
theirs, which seemed to say to the occupants of the old panelled rooms
above them, “This is real happiness; we take what comes, and ask no
questions; _we_ don’t puzzle our heads over Philosophy, and Biology, and
Constitutional History, and Economical Science. Why, even _you_ wouldn’t
be trying to find out a reason for everything, if you weren’t afraid the
Examiners were going to ask you for it! Come down here and lie on this
beautiful lawn in the shade, and forget all about the why and the
wherefore. Take things as you find them; there are no Examiners about
just now!”

The two young men were not thinking of the wagtails; but neither were
they thinking of anything else in particular, and the invitation to go
and lie on the lawn found its way somehow into their temporarily vacant
minds. They put on their flannels and their boating coats and went and
stretched themselves at full length under the cool shade of an acacia.
There they lay quite quiet and happy, and were for some time so silent
that the wagtails ventured up quite close to them without any sign of
fear.

One was a poet; at least his friends thought him one, and as he himself
was not quite sure that they were right, it is not impossible that he
had a few poetic streaks in his nature. The other was a student of
science, and spent most of his time in cutting earth-worms and frogs
into beautiful little slices, and looking at them through a microscope.
They had a liking for each other, because neither fully understood the
other’s thoughts and ambitions; so there was plenty of room for
comfortable silence, and cosy human companionship.

At last the silence was broken by the poet. He spoke as much to himself
as to his friend.

“It’s very puzzling,” he said.

“Very,” said the man of science, without taking his pipe from his lips,
and not in the least knowing what the other was thinking of. At this
moment a young wagtail took a long run, and stopped, in all the innocent
fearlessness of youth, within half-a-dozen yards of them. There was a
pause again.

“I never can make out,” at last pursued the poet, “why Shakespeare wrote
no more plays during the last years of his life. He wasn’t old, and he
must have had plenty of time at Stratford.”

“He probably liked better to lie in his garden and think of nothing at
all,” said the other. “But I don’t see why you want to find out. Much
better to leave the poor man alone.--”

“Why, what do you do all day up at the Museum?” asked the poet. “I
thought you were always trying to find out something or other. I dare
say you’d like to find out why that bird wags its tail,” he added, as
the young wagtail made another little run forward, and stood there just
in his line of vision with her tail going gently up and down.

“Why it wags its tail?” said the man of science: “you just catch it and
bring it up to the Museum, and we’ll soon tell you why it wags its
tail. It’s only a matter of nerves and muscles, and spinal cord you
know, and all that sort of thing. The professor would soon put you up to
all that. But that reminds me that I said I’d help him with some
specimens this afternoon, and it’s past three o’clock.” And up he
jumped, and ran off to get his hat, startling the young wagtail, which
flew away to the other end of the lawn.

Little did these two lads know how much trouble and anxiety their
conversation was to bring upon the inhabitants of that peaceful lawn.
That young wagtail had heard what they said; for birds certainly
understand what men say. Do they not carry secrets? People should be
careful what they say in their hearing.

Now up to this time this young bird, like her brothers and sisters, had
never given a moment’s thought to what she did, or what she looked like.
Nor had she noticed what the others did, or what they looked like. She
wagged her tail, but she did it without thinking of it; as for asking
why she did it, that was very far from the mind of herself or any of the
family. And now she suddenly became aware, not only that she did it,
but that it was possible to ask _why she did it_.

She looked at the others: they were all doing it, every other minute or
so. Then she wagged her own tail, to see what it felt like, now she knew
that she did it. And now she began to feel very ill at ease.

“What can it all be for?” she said to herself. “Even that man didn’t
seem to know all about it. There goes my tail again! Really, it wags
almost without one’s knowing it. There can’t be any harm in it, I should
think, as father and mother are doing it too. But why do we all do it? I
don’t see any use in it. There it goes again, before I ever thought of
holding it still. I must really go and ask mother about it.”

She flew up to her mother, who was in a very happy and contented frame
of mind, having brought up her young so prosperously in the midst of
plenty and comfort.

“Mother,” she said, “will you please tell me why we all wag our tails?”

The prudent mother was rather taken aback; but after taking a little
run and flight, to collect her mind, she returned answer very decidedly,

“We don’t wag our tails. Who’s been putting such fancies into your
head?”

“A big man on the other side of the lawn said he should like to know why
we wag our tails!”

“Men are blockheads,” said the mother. “Don’t you go near them, Kelpie,
on any account. They know nothing about us. I tell you we don’t wag our
tails, and I won’t be contradicted. Go away, child, and look for
beetles.”

Kelpie went away, but she could not throw herself into the
beetle-catching with the same ardour as before. Whenever she looked up
she saw some one’s tail moving, and she got more and more puzzled over
it. At one moment she thought she was rid of the puzzle: “Mother says we
don’t,” she reflected, “so of course, at least I suppose, it’s all my
fancy;” and she began to search for food. But the next minute she felt
that her own tail was going up and down, and back came all the puzzling
thoughts as lively as ever again. At last she lost all confidence in her
mother, and resolved to ask her father’s opinion.

“What does my little Kelpie want?” said he, as the young one came flying
up.

“I want to ask a question, father. Mother says we don’t wag our tails,
but a man I heard talking said we did. Which do you think is right?”

“Your mother’s sure to be right, my dear,” said he; “I never, never knew
her wrong. Never,” he said with warmth, and wagging his tail to
emphasize his words. “Believe all she says, and do everything she tells
you.”

“But father, dear, you’re wagging your own tail now as fast as you can!”
cried Kelpie.

“I do it sometimes when I am a little excited,” he said, taken by
surprise. “But don’t you think any more about it, Kelpie, there’s a
dear; it would vex your mother so, you know. And promise me you won’t
say anything about it to your brothers and sisters. Will you promise?
All sorts of dreadful things might happen, you know, if one went about
asking questions like that.”

Worse and worse for poor Kelpie! Her mother had plainly told her an
untruth; her father had half admitted it to be so, and had seemed quite
frightened at the idea of such questions being asked. What could the
mystery be? Kelpie’s little mind was all in a flutter.

She went on as usual however from day to day, and said nothing to the
rest of the family about the troubles of her mind. At last however it
struck her that she might question other birds, though it was clearly no
good consulting her own kith and kin. A thrush who frequented the lawn,
and always looked very wise, seemed likely to be a friend in need; so
she took an opportunity one day, when the others were out of hearing, of
asking him her question.

The thrush put his head on one side, and listened very attentively while
Kelpie was speaking. “Now,” thought she, “I shall get an answer. Oh,
what a relief.” She stood quite still and waited patiently.

“Ah,” said the thrush, quite suddenly, “I thought I heard it!” And he
made a quick dig into the earth with his bill, and pulled out a long
worm by the tail. Kelpie watched while he swallowed it,--it did not take
more than a few seconds--and then said timidly, “If you please, sir, I
don’t think you heard me, I--”

The thrush again put his head on one side, stood quite still in an erect
attitude, and seemed absorbed this time in Kelpie and her troubles.

“I asked you a question, sir,” said she again; “I’m very much afraid I’m
troubling you, but I do _so_ want to find out the answer.”

“I’ve found it,” said the thrush, as suddenly as before; and he darted
his bill into the ground again, pulled out another worm, and this time
flew away with it. Kelpie was left alone, a sadder but not a wiser bird.

She was greatly disheartened for a time. At last however she determined
to try once more. An old jackdaw, with a very gray head, used to come
very early of a morning on to the lawn when no one was about except a
few starlings. Kelpie didn’t think the starlings looked very promising,
they were so restless, and there were so many of them together. But the
jackdaw, she had heard her parents say, was the wisest bird in the whole
garden; so she watched her chance, and approached him one morning very
modestly.

“I fear, sir,” she said, “that you will think me very bold, but I have
heard of your great wisdom, and I thought you would be good enough to
explain something to me.”

The jackdaw looked at her, not unkindly. “Have you asked your parents?”
he said.

“Yes, sir, but they won’t explain it to me.”

The jackdaw shook his head. “Probably they couldn’t,” he replied.
“Wagtails are very ignorant birds. But I’ll give you a bit of advice. If
anything puzzles you, go and listen in chimneys. There are no fires
there now, and you can hear what men and women say. That’s how my family
has come to be so wise. But you must get into the habit of it, you know;
you must spend a good deal of time there; it may be years before you get
an answer to your question.”

“But perhaps _you_ could answer my question,” said Kelpie; “because, you
see, you might have heard the answer yourself in a chimney.”

“No doubt, no doubt,” said the jackdaw gravely. “But, my dear child,
what would be the use of knowledge if we were always giving it away,
like the lecturers we hear from these Oxford chimneys? No, no; you go
and listen in chimneys (you’re black and gray, like us, and it wouldn’t
spoil your feathers), and when you find out the answer to your question
keep it safe and don’t part with it. That’s the way to get wise.”

The jackdaw made a grave bow, and flew up to the college tower. Kelpie
flew on to the college roof, perched on a chimney, and looked down. It
smelt very nasty and was quite dark; however she tried to descend a
little way, but she got so frightened that she came up again directly,
and gave up the attempt for good.

“I must give it up,” she thought; and with a deep sigh she joined her
family at their breakfast on the lawn. She found them in a state of some
excitement, for after breakfast father Wagtail was to make an important
announcement.

“My dears,” he said, when they had all gathered round him, “the summer
is almost over; you are all old enough to shift for yourselves, and our
little party must now break up. We may very likely meet again, but your
mother and I, having brought you up as well as we can, will not be
responsible for you any longer. You are free to go when and where you
like. Some of you may like to cross the sea, and visit foreign
countries; some may prefer to take the chance of a mild winter here. Do
just as you like: but we advise you all to travel more or less, and get
acquainted with the world. Now good-bye, and good luck to you all.”

Kelpie was overjoyed at hearing this news. She had not been happy for a
long time; now she could go out into the wide world, and try to find out
the answer to the question that so weighed on her mind. She bade adieu
to the rest at once, and started off by herself in high spirits. She
would be very careful, she thought, as to whom she questioned, and would
try and find some really friendly and open-hearted adviser.

She was so occupied with all the new and strange things she saw--the
rivers, the ploughed fields, the hills and downs she passed over, and so
determined not to be put upon any more by thrushes and jackdaws, that
autumn had set in before she ventured to address a single bird on the
subject she had at heart. But one day in September she was enjoying
herself by the side of a rapid little brook which ran through pleasant
meadows, when she caught sight of a very long tail going up and down, up
and down. The bird it belonged to was hidden behind a stone in the
stream. She watched, and saw a gray wagtail come from behind the stone,
and fly with graceful curves a little further on, then she saw another
bird join him, and stood in speechless admiration of these beautiful
creatures, so slender, so gentle-looking, and so beautifully covered
with gray above and yellow beneath. But what most fascinated her was the
motion of their long tails, which were never for a moment still.

She went up and introduced herself. They received her kindly as a
distant connection, and said she was welcome to the brook; and in their
company she remained for the greater part of the day, before she
summoned up courage to open her heart to them.

“You are very kind and good,” she said at last, “and I think you must be
very clever too. Would you mind telling me, as I see you wag your own
tails so constantly and so nicely, why you do it, and why all our family
do it too? If you only would, I should be so happy and grateful; you
can’t think how it’s been troubling me!”

The gray wagtail looked at his wife, and she looked at him, and they
seemed to nod to one another in rather an odd way.

“Dear, dear!” said the wife,--“what a sad pity!”

“Oh, dear me, dear me!” said the husband, “how sad! And such a nice
young creature too! What can we do for her?”

The wife shook her head silently; Kelpie felt dreadfully ashamed of
herself. What could be the matter?

“Please tell me if I have done anything wrong,” she said.

“My dear,” said the wife very kindly, “I fear you are not very well. If
I were you I should

[Illustration: “Would you mind telling me, as I see you wag your own
tails so constantly and so nicely, why you do it?”--P. 170.]

get advice as soon as possible. I strongly recommend the kingfisher, who
lives yonder up the brook; I believe he is very clever in cases like
yours, and he eats fish, which is very good for the brain, you know.
You’ll be sure to find him if you wait about a little. I am very sorry,
my dear, but we must go away, for they say it’s extremely catching.” And
followed by her husband she flew away down the stream.

Kelpie was now quite frightened. Something seemed to be altogether wrong
with her. She began to think she must have eaten something that fatal
day on the lawn, which was growing up inside her, and causing her all
this trouble. She hastened away up the brook, and after searching for a
while, she found the kingfisher sitting on a bough overhanging the
stream. She addressed him without any apology, for she wanted dreadfully
to know what was the matter with her; and she poured out her whole sad
story from beginning to end. The kingfisher sat quite quiet on his
bough, and listened with great attention.

“Yours is a very curious case,” he said when she had done; “a very
interesting case indeed. I should strongly recommend constant change of
scene; a tour on the Continent, now, would be very likely to do you
good. Frequent application of cold water could hardly fail to be useful;
keep to your usual insect diet, but vary it a little with the small
crustaceans you will find in the stream; I can speak warmly of their
value from my own experience; they are an excellent tonic. This is what
I advise you to do; but if you should find yourself still troubled, I
should go to some one who has made a special study of these cases, which
I have not.”

“Whom would you recommend?” said Kelpie nervously. She felt quite sure
that she would have to go to the specialist, because the kingfisher had
told her to do exactly what she always did. She changed her scene, she
dabbled in the water, and she lived on flies and anything she could get
in the brooks.

“You might consult a crow,” said the kingfisher. “They are the most
highly developed of all birds, and are nearest to man. There is one who
lives in a wood a mile or two higher up. You can mention my name if you
like.”

“Thank you very much,” said Kelpie; “but would you be so very kind as to
tell me what is the matter with me?”

The kingfisher sat still for another moment as if in deep reflection;
then he made a dart downwards into the water, dived, brought up a fish,
and glided with it in his beak round a turn of the stream and
disappeared.

Kelpie went at once in search of the crow. She felt that whatever came
of it, she must find out what was wrong with her. After a long search
she found the crow sitting on the dead branch of a hollow old oak-tree.
The bones of a young rabbit, which he had been dissecting, doubtless
with a scientific object, lay on the ground below. Kelpie felt very
frightened when she looked at this huge black bird, with his enormous
black bill, curved into a sharp hook at the end. But there was no help
for it; she felt she must go through with it. As she approached, he gave
a low hoarse croak.

“What do you want here?” he said.

“The kingfisher recommended you, sir,” said Kelpie, “as a--”

“The kingfisher _recommended me_, did he?” said the crow. “The impudence
of these small practitioners! But never mind the kingfisher: pray go on,
my time is limited.”

“I have been greatly troubled,” said the trembling Kelpie, “with a
desire to find out--”

“I see,” said the crow decisively. “Yours is a very simple case. What
did the kingfisher say about it?”

“He said I was to have change of scene, and cold water, and--”

“Exactly,” said the crow. “He’s quite wrong. You would certainly have
died if you hadn’t come to me. You are suffering from a _tumor
inquisitivus esuriens_ of a very virulent kind. I can take it out for
you.” And he began to sharpen his beak on the bough.

“Is it a very--a very dangerous operation?” asked Kelpie.

“One and a half per cent survive it,” said the crow.

“I think I would rather not have it done,” said Kelpie.

“Very well,” said the crow; “but you won’t live through the winter. And
if you don’t make haste and go,” he added fiercely, “I’ll do it whether
you like it or not!”

Kelpie flew away as fast as she could, and never stopped till she was a
good mile away, and she left that part of the country the very same day.
She resolved to ask no more questions, but to pass the rest of her life
as well as she could, and die contentedly in the winter. As for foreign
travel, that was plainly no good now; so she thought she might as well
return to the pleasant place where she had been brought up, try and find
some of her relations, and get a little help and comfort before she
died.

Slowly and sadly she made her way towards Oxford. It was now getting
towards November, and the country was growing sad with falling leaves
and creeping mists; but that was quite in keeping with her own feelings,
and she did not notice the absence of the sun, or feel any sorrow at the
browning of the trees and fields; only just one little gleam of sunshine
brought her a moment’s pleasure, when she saw the spires of Oxford
catch it in the distance, as she came flitting up the river-bank from
the point where she had struck the Thames.

About two miles below Oxford she met a boat coming easily down stream,
with two human beings in it; one was sculling, the other steering. She
stopped on the towing path at a safe distance from them, and waited till
they should pass. They were within a few yards of her, and she was just
going to take flight again, when the one who was steering called out to
the other in a voice she remembered only too well,

“Easy a moment, Poet, I want to look at that bird.”

Kelpie stood quite quiet, except that her tail was moving up and down
with great rapidity. The Poet looked round and saw her.

“Aha, Chick,” he said (his friend was called Chick because he spent so
much time in studying the development of fowls in the egg), “do you
remember that hot afternoon when we lay in the garden and watched the
wagtail? I suppose you’ve found out by this time why they wag their
tails?”

“No, I haven’t,” said Chick. “Nor have you found out why Shakespeare
wrote no plays the last three years of his life.”

“Quite true,” said the Poet; “but then I don’t work at the Museum, where
they find out everything!”

“No, they don’t,” said Chick; “you’re quite out of it. Spare your irony
for once. I’ll just tell you what happened that afternoon. I kept
thinking of that bird all the way up to the Museum after I left you, for
when I came to think of it, that tail-wagging was rather an interesting
point. So when I got there, I asked the Professor about it. Well, he was
a bit bothered with his specimens that afternoon, and rather short in
his temper, and I was late, which made him worse; so he gave me a
lecture on the spot. He’s a good lecturer, you know, even when he’s
quite serene: but when he’s savage there’s no one like him. He comes out
with home-truths then, and blows you into little bits. I wish you would
come and let him demolish you, Poet, it would knock such a heap of
rubbish out of your poetic head.”

“Very likely,” said the Poet: “but what nonsense did he knock out of
_your_ head? Plenty there to operate upon.”

“I quite allow it,” said Chick. “That is a scientific view of education
which you poets would do well to act on. But the Professor growled at me
when I asked him why wagtails wag their tails, and said there would have
been some use in asking _how_ they do it. And then he took me into his
room, and showed me diagrams, and explained the muscular system of a
bird, which I never understood before; and he kept me a whole hour
there, till at last he got quite sweet again. And after that he said
he’d give me a piece of advice, which I’ll hand on to you, and I hope it
will do you good.”

“I’m sitting at your feet,” said the Poet, “go on.”

“Well, what he said was this: ‘You young fellows are a deal too anxious
to get hold of a reason for everything; and I dare say you think it a
fine thing to come and try to puzzle us with questions. Now what you
have to learn here at present is not reasons, but facts. Leave alone
for the present these questions that begin with the word _why_; there
are many of them that can never be answered, as far as I can see, or
they can only be answered by getting together and properly arranging a
great quantity of facts. Your wagtail question is just one of this kind.
You have no more business to be asking me such a question, than a young
wagtail has to be asking its parents why it wags its tail. You stick to
facts, and don’t ask _why_ a thing is, until you know altogether and
exactly _that_ it is and _how_ it is.’

“And I’ve been sticking to facts ever since,” added Chick; “and you’d
much better do the same. Pull on, Poet; and whenever you see a wagtail
think of what I’ve told you, and your poetic brain will be all the
better for it.”

“There she goes,” said the Poet: “I wonder why she stopped so long. I
really think she was listening to us.”

“I might have spared you the Professor’s sermon,” said Chick. “Pull on,
Poet; go ahead. Here we are running into the bank while you’re asking
questions that begin with _why_!” And they dropped slowly down the
stream.

The Poet was quite right. Kelpie had been listening--drinking in every
word of the Professor’s sermon. A delicious and soothing feeling grew
upon her at each sentence, and when it was over she sprang upon her
wings with a sense that a whole load of trouble had been taken off her
mind.

“They were all wrong,” she said to herself: “thrush, jackdaw,
kingfisher, and especially that wicked old crow. Why couldn’t they tell
me the truth? But that’s a question that begins with _why_, and I must
stick hard to facts.”

Kelpie kept hard to her facts, and found her happiness in doing so. She
kept to flies, beetles, and small crustaceans; she kept hard to her
husband when the pairing-time came, and to her eggs and young; she kept
to the laws of her kind, and left the questions that begin with “why” to
the Professor and his species.



THE LIGHTHOUSE.


It was a wild and gusty day early in April; a wet wind from the
south-east drove the waves into a little bay, where the sea had long ago
forced an opening in the great chalk rampart of the coast. The downs
rose steeply above this opening, their short sweet grass freshened by
rain and wind; down below in the hollow a little stream, clear as every
chalk-stream is, trickled through the long grass, still brown with the
sun of last summer, and nestled here and there under a fringe of dwarf
willows or alders. As it reached the shore, which was a huge bank of
rounded flints from the white cliff, the brook spread itself out for a
little space on a stony bed, and played with a few green weeds that had
fastened themselves upon the larger pebbles, then crept quietly into the
flinty bank, and vanished utterly before it lost itself finally in the
sea-waves.

Early in the morning of that April day you might have seen a tiny bird
fly in from the sea, and settle, more dead than alive, upon the top of
the bank. Here the strong wind, coming now from behind it, blew up its
feathers and made it so uncomfortable that in a minute or two it
fluttered down the stones to the wider bit of stream beyond; and then
again, seeing still better shelter a little further on, it struggled
along the brook till it reached the first little group of fringing
willows, and there, close to the water, in a little hollow under the
bank, where the willow-roots were thick and close, and where a turn in
the brook gave respite from the gusts and rain, it felt itself safe and
tolerably warm, began to preen its feathers, and at last put its head
under its little brown wing and slept.

It was a willow-warbler; olive-brown on head, back, and tail, but with
just a tinge of yellow too; whitish-gray on throat and breast, and with
a faint light stripe over the bright hazel eyes. It was very small, not
more than five inches from point of beak to end of tail; but it had that
night crossed the sea from France, and in the last few days it had made
a journey of some thousand miles from the north of Africa where it had
passed the winter. It had not travelled alone; it had left the coast of
Normandy with a company of tired friends; but in the night the wind rose
howling in the south-east and scattered the weary but hopeful little
band. Many a time in that trying night it would have sunk upon the waves
if the thought had not ruled its soul of the cool moist and of varied
sunshine and showers, where it had first learned to fly, where the next
summer it had learnt to use its voice and to woo a mate, and had brought
up its young without disaster. Driven northward by the burning heat of
the south, which had dried up the streams, and killed the juicy insects
it loved, it had made its way steadily with its comrades to the green
moist land of its birth, and its heart was full of ardent hope for
another long summer of love and song and happiness.

After a while the clouds passed and the sun came out; then the little
bird woke up, and realized that it had eaten nothing since it left the
coast of France. In a moment it was stealing up the willow, searching
every twig for insects, and finding very few, for the pelting rain had
washed the boughs clean; it made its way slowly up the brook, and
presently coming to a bit of treeless marsh land, whence the stream was
fed, it took a longer flight across a ploughed field, and stopped at a
likely-looking spot--a small round pond, closely shut in by willows and
hazels. Hardly had it alighted on one of these, when it recognized the
faint voice of a bird of its own kind, and returned the single cheep by
another like it. In a moment the two birds were together, and recognized
each other as having been in company all the way from Africa, until the
storm separated them at sea.

“I’m very glad to see you,” said our friend; “but where are the others,
and how did you come here?”

Just then it saw an insect on a twig hard by, and went off in an
instant to seize it; then another and another; and in its hunger forgot
all about the answer to its question.

“Well, you had better catch your fill of insects, and then I can answer
your questions,” said the other. “I have been here ever since the sun
came out, and though I thought I could hardly have eaten anything after
the loss of poor Pipi, I managed to make a good meal as soon as I got my
feathers in order.”

“The loss of poor Pipi! What _do_ you mean? Is he only lost or is he
dead?”

“Dead as a thrush’s snail!” was the answer of the other bird, who seemed
a little put out by his long journey. “I’m very sorry of course, but it
was all his own fault. You know how Pipi was always ready for any game;
always for prying and poking his beak into anything strange, just like
any vulgar sparrow.”

“Don’t talk like that, please,” said our friend whose name was Flip.
“Pipi was my particular friend and if you insult him you insult me.”

“Well, don’t get angry,” said the other, “but wait till I tell you how
that foolish Pipi came by his end. We started, as you know, at
nightfall; Pipi was near me. He was as lively as ever, and was making
fun of old Blossom because he had only half his tail feathers--you
remember that sunny garden by the Mediterranean, where the cat got hold
of Blossom and we thought his last hour had come?--Blossom couldn’t fly
quite straight, and Pipi, that mischievous Pipi, said he wondered what
sort of a _tale_ Blossom would have to tell when he got to land!”

“But he helped on old Blossom, too,” said Flip; “and don’t you remember
how we all had to slacken pace halfway across, before the storm came on,
in order not to leave the old creature behind? Pipi would have it so!”

“Yes, I do indeed,” said Twinkle; “and it was a mercy that we ever got
here alive. I should like to know why we should risk our lives for old
Blossom, or why we should obey Pipi--Pipi of all birds.”

“Come,” said Flip, “don’t be so crusty. You have no cause to be angry
with Pipi. I remember very well, when we were among those cruel
Italians, how Pipi saved your life: I saw it with my own eyes. You were
in an olive-tree by a stone wall, and on the top of the wall sat a boy
with a bow and arrows, aiming at you; Pipi gave you our alarm-note, and
when you took no notice he flew right at you and made you move. The boy
shot the arrow, but seeing two birds he luckily missed both.”

“Well,” said Twinkle, “didn’t I say I could hardly eat because of Pipi’s
death? Now I am going to tell how it was. You know how even in our first
journey we were specially warned about those lighthouses, which we
always so much want to go to: I really don’t know how it is, but somehow
one does want dreadfully to go and see what that light is. Pipi was
always excited about it; he declared he would find out some day what
they are, and now he has found out with a vengeance. Poor old Pipi! He
and I and one or two more were together the greater part of the way, but
it was very hard to stick to one another. We had better have put off our
crossing a day or two. The wind changed to the south-east, and that is
very disagreeable; it comes behind you, and forces you on whether you
will or no, and it gets in among the feathers and ruffles them about,
and lays bare your skin, and blows the breath out of your body, and
bangs you about this way and that--I can feel it now,” said Twinkle, in
an injured tone, as he turned round his head and smoothed his feathers
with an air of great feeling and commiseration for himself.

“Now I didn’t ask him to tell about himself,” thought Flip. “Here he is
safe and sound anyhow.” But he held his tongue, and Twinkle went on:--

“After we had got half-way across, a sudden blast of wind broke up our
company, and for some time I was quite alone in the darkness. Every now
and then I could hear the voices of our comrades, and they must have
been close to me, for the wind howled so, that it would have been
impossible to catch them at any distance. I was high up, as we all had
been, but now it began to rain, and I flew lower down, to see if there
was any island or object on which I could rest and get shelter; but that
was hard work, I can tell you, for the wind seemed to come from below
whenever I opened my wings wide, and gave me such a lifting that I was
quite giddy.”

“Go on, please,” said Flip, as the other paused again to recall his own
discomfort. Flip felt much inclined to make unpleasant remarks, but
swallowed them down with a juicy green fly, which he found at that
moment. All this time they had been quietly working about the willows,
and eating what they found; for willow-warblers are seldom still, and
can talk very well as they search for their food.

“Well, don’t be in too great a hurry,” said Twinkle. “Consider what
self-denial it is to me to tell you such a story: it’s nearly as bad as
going through it all again. When I succeeded in getting lower down, and
could see the white foam of the waves, I suddenly saw a light below me,
and a little in front, twinkling like a great hawk’s eye, and--”

“The lighthouse!” cried Flip, with a pang, for he felt sure that the
worst part of the story was coming.

“No, not the lighthouse,” said Twinkle. “Don’t interrupt. You’re a most
unpleasant bird to tell a story to, stopping one just in the most
exciting part: it quite spoils the pleasure of story-telling.”

“Why, I thought--” Flip was going to have reminded him that it was such
_self-denial_, but he thought better of it, and swallowed his impatience
with another fly.

“And down I went,” continued Twinkle, “to get a rest; for where there is
a light, there must be something to perch on. Well, in a minute or two I
found myself clinging with all the strength of my poor claws--” (here he
looked at them compassionately for a moment, and gave them a peck or two
with his bill, to clear away some tiny particles of salt that still
adhered to them).

Flip could hardly help making an angry dash at him, and indeed ruffled
his feathers indignantly, but the other was too much occupied with
himself to see it.

“Clinging with my poor claws,” said Twinkle, slowly and sadly, “to the
rigging of a ship, and trying to get my breath. I hadn’t been there very
long, when I heard a voice I knew, and who should seize hold of the
same rope but Pipi himself!”

“Was Pipi very bad and tired too?” asked Flip.

“Not a bit,” was the answer. “I never knew such a bird as Pipi. Of
course I pointed out to him that we were in great danger, and that we
couldn’t hope to hold out much longer--and what do you think he said?
‘Twinkle,’ he said, ‘think of your first nest last year. Don’t you
remember those sunny days in the meadow by the brook, and the excitement
as the hatching days drew near?’ Can you imagine such folly as to talk
of hatching when we were sitting in a place like that, hardly able to
hold on for the wind?”

Flip thought he knew why Pipi had said that, but he did not interrupt
this time.

“Well,” continued Twinkle, “he went on like that, and told me to cheer
up, and said we couldn’t be far from land, for the ship was only a
fishing-smack caught in a storm, and they never venture very far from
shore; and at last I got very angry with such nonsense, and told him
nothing should make me leave go except the wind. So Pipi declared at
last that he was going on, and I had better come too; but I wouldn’t, so
he opened his wings, and just as he left the rope, somehow or other I
did so too.”

“Why,” said Flip, unable to suppress himself this time. “I thought you
said Pipi was the last bird in the world you would obey!”

“I didn’t obey Pipi,” said Twinkle, indignantly. “I went of myself.”

But Flip knew better, for Pipi had a wonderful influence over the other
birds, and they all knew that Twinkle in particular could always be led
by him.

“Well, there we were again at the mercy of this horrible south-easter.
Pipi was a little ahead of me, and kept up his call-note continuously: I
kept on answering it as well as I could. We had not been flying long,
when suddenly, at no great distance, a light burst out in the darkness.
‘Land and the lighthouse!’ called out Pipi, and on we went at a
tremendous speed, for the gale was now almost behind us, roaring
furiously. In another moment the light went out as suddenly as it had
begun, and then I knew that it was one of those revolving lights that we
have sometimes seen in our travels, and I guessed that it was that one
on the headland yonder, where we arrived a year ago, that beautiful calm
night with the gentle westerly breeze.”

“Oh, dear, dear!” said Flip, “I remember that it puzzled Pipi dreadfully
that night, and he declared he would find out all about it some day.”

“Well,” said Twinkle, “his wish has been gratified this year. I was
almost too faint and tired to fly any farther, and my pace had
slackened, so that Pipi was some way in front, when out came the light
again, a great deal bigger than before, and just ahead of us. As I
reached it, and was sinking down on the land exhausted, I saw Pipi fly
right up to it, and heard a loud tap of his bill against something hard;
and then he fell down on the balustrade in front of the light, and there
he lay, as dead as a thrush’s snail, as I said before.”

Flip was silent, and put his head under his wing to hide his grief. “Did
you go and look at him?” he said at last.

“How can you ask such a question?” answered Twinkle. “I sank to the
ground, and got into some long grass under a bit of hedge by the
lighthouse. I hadn’t strength left to take wing again; and if I could
have done it, I should have been blown against the lighthouse: and what
was more, the light had gone out again, and I couldn’t see where it
was.”

“But the light came out once more, I suppose?” asked Flip.

“I don’t know,” said the other. “I put my head under my wing and went to
sleep under the hedge; which is exactly what you too would have done, if
you had been there.”

Flip said no more; but he formed a strong opinion about Twinkle, and
felt that he did not care for his company any longer. Watching his
opportunity, while the other was at work on a fly, he flitted quietly
into the thick of the alders on the other side of the round pond, and
taking a perch right down in the roots by the water, began to give vent
to his own sorrow by uttering a sad cheep every minute or two. Poor
Pipi, the kindest and the cleverest of them all! always helping some
one, and always in good humour! never without some little fun of his
own, even in the most awkward moments! How could they possibly get back
again to Africa, when the summer was over, without Pipi? How indeed
would Flip have the heart to sing to his wife during the nesting-time,
unless Pipi’s voice was heard from the next tree? Pipi was always
singing, and his voice was the best of all: for while the others were
always finding their voices go up with a turn at the end of their
strain, like those commonplace chaffinches, Pipi almost always brought
down his in a perfect cadence, which is the great accomplishment of a
willow-warbler. And when the young were fledged, no young father of a
brood was so careful or so beloved as Pipi. _He_ did not leave all the
work to his wife, as some did; Mrs. Pipi had been hard-worked ever since
they built their nest at the foot of the big elm-tree, and now she was
sent off every day in the early morning to eat her fill of insects in a
neighbouring garden, with a special warning to beware of the old gray
cat, who was always creeping about between the pea-rows. Then Pipi used
to take the young ones under his own charge, and put off his own
breakfast till he had fed them well, popping the food into their gaping
beaks as fast as if his wife had been there to help him. What fun he
used to make of them! Flip remembered how he was once sitting on a
bough, singing to his own wife, who had not yet hatched all her eggs,
when he saw Pipi trying to entice his young ones out of the nest. They
all came out at last, except Dot the youngest, who sat at the door of
the nest, and looked through the buttercup stems into the wide world
with fearful and restless eyes. Pipi tried all he could to make her come
out; he perched on the bough above her and sang his best, so that her
little black eyes twinkled, for she knew that music well; but still she
hesitated. Then he picked up a little green caterpillar and put it down
just in front of her; her bill opened wide at the sight of such a juicy
morsel, but still she did not come. Just then a snail came slowly by,
with its shell on its back.

“Dot,” said Pipi, “do you see that creature with his nest on his back?
Shall I tell you why he must always carry it? When he was a nestling, he
wouldn’t come out of his nest like the others; so at last the nest stuck
to him, and he carries it to this day, and always will. So take care the
same thing doesn’t happen to you, Dot--I rather think I see your back
beginning to stick to that bit of moss; and if you don’t make haste--”
But before he could finish the sentence, the horror-stricken Dot was out
of the nest; and in another minute she was on a twig beside him.

Recollections like these passed through poor Flip’s clouded mind, as he
lurked in the stems of the alder-root. But after a while, as the wind
went down, he bestirred himself, and flying up to the top of the alder,
began to look about him. There was the sea, and there the little gap,
with the stream, where he had landed: and there, right above it, on a
headland, was the lighthouse. It would not take long to get there, and
he felt that he must go and find out if anything was to be seen of poor
Pipi. A flight would do him good, and there were plenty of hedges to
rest on. So after a number of quick low flights from hedge to hedge and
tree to tree, he came to the front of the lighthouse, and sank rather
tired into the long grass where Twinkle had landed in the night. Peeping
out after a while, he flew about a little, searching for poor Pipi’s
body: but nothing was to be seen of it. Then, taking courage, he flew up
on to the platform in front of the light, on which Twinkle had described
Pipi’s falling, but neither here was there a trace to be seen of Pipi.

Just as he was going to fly off he heard a voice inside the
lantern-room, and listened, for birds can understand all languages.

“Well, Peter,” said the voice, “what did you get in last night’s gale?
The warblers ought to be coming now; we have had the chiffchaffs and the
wheatears, and a few redstarts; who are the next earliest this year?”

Flip peeped in at a corner of the window; it was dangerous, but he might
see or hear something of Pipi. The man who had spoken was a tall, hale,
and hearty looking old gentleman, with a face glowing with its own
good-nature as well as with the blustering of the gale. He was answered
by the lighthouse-man, who wore an oilskin hat, and was short and
weather-beaten.

“Good afternoon, Professor,” he said, as he put his hand into a deep
pocket of his overcoat, “I’ve a thing or two for you this time; sure to
get something in a gale like that, though for the matter of that a calm
night suits ’em better. We’ll have more to-night again, I’ll answer for
it. Here they be: some of ’em knocked agen the window and fell on the
platform (Flip felt his ears tingling and his brain swimming); some on
‘em were blowed right away and we couldn’t find ’em. Wrens we calls ’em
here, though they ben’t just like our jenny wrens, all the same,” said
he, as he pulled out a number of little birds and laid them on the
table.

Flip shuddered; he recognized his kindred, but their eyes were closed,
their heads hung down, and their feathers lay loose and heavy: there was
no telling one from another, especially at his distance from the table.
Still, he had no doubt in his mind that Pipi was among them.

“Willow-wrens, if you like,” said the Professor; “willow-warblers, I
like to call them; _Phylloscopus trochilus_ is the scientific name, and
you will find all about them in that book of mine I gave you, at page
432. A redstart too, I see, poor fellow; so much the worse for
somebody’s garden or field this next May or June. But now, where’s the
diary; let us have them all down--wind, what was it, south-east by
south?”

“That’s it, sir,” said the lighthouse-man; and they sat down together at
the table, and began to turn the birds over one by one. Flip watched
till they came to the last, in the dim expectation of recognizing Pipi;
but it was impossible, for the dead eyes showed no traces of their
luckless owner’s identity. It was a mournful scene, and Flip was just
about to take flight, when he heard Peter’s voice again.

“There be another on ’em down stairs, Professor,” he said; “he were only
stunned like, and my missus said as she’d keep un a bit, and see if he’d
come to life again.”

Flip’s feathers stood on end with excitement.

“Missus,” called out Peter, putting his head out of the door, “what ha’
you done with that bit of a wren as I give you this marnin’?”

“Putten him in the old canary cage, and given him some crumbs and milk,”
said the wife from below; “but he won’t touch neither of ’em, and he’s
as bad as can be. Ask the Professor gentleman if he’ll come down and see
him.”

Thereupon the Professor and Peter went down stairs, and Flip could hear
no more. He felt sick at heart. Even if this was Pipi, it was clear
enough he was going to die. If he got nothing better than crumbs and
milk, how in the name of all that’s feathered was he going to live?
“What stupid creatures these men-folks are!” thought Flip; and perhaps
he was not far wrong. But he did not know what a professor meant, and he
was not aware that the genial old gentleman from the distant University
knew almost as much about the food of willow-warblers as he did himself.

Flip flew round to the back of the lighthouse, and looking in through
the window, he saw the Professor sitting by the fire with something in
his hand. But his back was turned to the window, and Flip could not see
what it was. The woman was looking over the Professor’s shoulder, and a
small bird-cage stood on the table, the sight of which made Flip tremble
all over. At last the Professor put down on the table the thing he had
in his hand: it was a willow-warbler, still alive, for the beak was
slowly opening and shutting; but the eyes were closed, and it was
evidently dying. Flip could not tell whether or no it were Pipi; the
room was now getting dark, and the window was away from the sun. But it
was no use waiting any longer; Flip felt sure the bird must die, and
even if it did not, it would be put into the cage to pine away for want
of air and proper food; and after all, how was he to tell that Pipi was
not among the dead birds up stairs? So he flew away with an aching
heart, feeling that there was nothing left to do, but to try and forget
all about it. “And yet,” thought poor Flip, as he reached the little
pond once more, “I can try and remember what poor Pipi used to do, and
how good-natured and cheerful he was; and so far as there ever can be
another Pipi, I will be he.”

       *       *       *       *       *

The willow-warblers do not all take flight together to their inland
haunts after their arrival from the sea, but work their way gradually
through woods and hedges, refreshing and strengthening themselves as
they go. The party to which Flip and Twinkle belonged had not far to go
to get to the meadow by the brook, of which Pipi had reminded Twinkle on
the fishing-smack--the meadow where they themselves had reared their
brood last year, and close to another, not less delicious, where they
themselves had been born. In two or three days they had reached it, and
soon began to exercise their voices, so as to be ready for the arrival
of the hen birds, who always come a few days later. This year the
weather continued cold and stormy, with strong April showers, and the
hens did not come for a day or two later than usual. What excitement
there was when they arrived at last, straggling in by twos and threes
along the bushes that grew by the brook’s edge, so as to keep sheltered
from the wind! Flip went down the willows to meet them, and asked each
one whether she had come by the lighthouse, or seen anything of Pipi;
but the hens were either too tired or too excited to pay much attention
to him.

“That is not the way to welcome us,” they said; “accidents must happen,
and must be forgotten. No, we saw nothing of Pipi. Why don’t you sing,
instead of telling us sad tales?” And on they went into the meadow,
where the songs of the cock birds were calling them.

One well-known song was missing from the tall elm by the brook-side; and
Flip, in spite of his excitement in singing, and his hopes that his
courtship might be successful with a certain little brown member of a
last year’s brood, could not help thinking now and then, with a heavy
heart, of Pipi the best of singers, and of all the happiness they might
have had but for that unlucky lighthouse. Twinkle too would sometimes
remind him of his sorrow in

[Illustration: Pipi looked up and saw Flip; in an instant they were
together.--P. 205.]

his blunt and selfish way, and Flip felt his company still so unpleasant
that he moved to a tree further up the brook.

One day, not long after the arrival of the hens, when Flip had made sure
of his little spouse, and they were flying after one another from tree
to tree round the field, then into another field and another, in loving
chase, Flip caught a low song that made him stop instantly and perch. It
sounded again from a low willow, and then Flip could see the singer
moving about inside the tree, where the leaves were just beginning to
appear. In another moment a willow-warbler fluttered out; its flight was
feeble, and as it perched again, Flip could see that it held on with
some difficulty to the twig, for its right leg was injured. But it was
Pipi!

Yes, it was Pipi beyond all doubt; and Flip, glued to his bough by
amazement, gave out such a strain of song as he had never in his whole
life before been able to produce. Pipi looked up and saw Flip; in an
instant they were together, and in such a state of tremor and delight,
that poor Mrs. Flip was left quite out in the cold, and became for the
first time in her life jealous of a cock bird.

“Never mind me,” said Pipi at last; “look at me, Mrs. Flip, a poor
wreck, with a bruised bill, and a game leg, and only half a song: who
could be jealous of me? Leave off fluttering round poor Flip, and let me
tell him my story, and then you shall have him all to yourself.”

So Mrs. Flip perched quietly on a bough hard by, for she was a sensible
bird, or she would not have married Flip; and she had so often heard him
talk of Pipi that she felt he must want sadly to hear the story.

Then Pipi told how he had suddenly come upon the light, and then lost
all his senses as suddenly; how, when he came to himself, he was in a
horrible cage, with nothing fit to eat, even if he could have eaten it;
how the Professor had taken him in his hand and stroked him softly, and
then had bound up his leg without hurting him a bit; how he had told
Peter’s wife to keep Pipi warm, and to get some insects off the trees
for him if he got any better. And then how he felt the warmth slowly
reviving the life within him, and how he began to flutter a little
about the room, and was very nearly caught by the cat, and then put into
the cage out of her reach; how Peter brought a great piece of
willow-bough, as the Professor had told him, on which Pipi had contrived
to find a few insects; and how, as strength returned, a great desire
grew within him to get away to the meadow and the brook, and he
fluttered so much that his feathers began to fall out, and he could take
no more food. And lastly, how Peter’s good wife had taken the cage into
the garden and opened the door, and how he had made his way, slowly and
wearily, to the old summer home.

“And now you know all about it,” he said, and sang one strain with
something like the old force. “Let us go and find old Blossom,” said he,
“and see if his _tale_ is equal to mine. And Twinkle too--poor grumpy
Twinkle; I shall never be able to hold up my head before him any more,
and he will be more unpleasant than ever. But after all,” he went on
after a moment, “Twinkle was my only companion that dreadful night, and
he is not such a bad bird after all, and is sure to be glad to see me.
And let me tell you,” he added, in a serious voice, “that I intend to
visit that kind lighthouse-woman again, and the Professor too, if I can
find him; for I have found out one thing in the lighthouse, and that is,
that though men are often cruel to us birds, they are not all so; and
though they must, most of them, know very little about us, there are a
few at least who understand our ways.”

Pipi soon regained his strength, his song, and his spirits; he found a
wife, and when his young ones were old enough to understand, he told
them many stories of his wonderful adventures. And he did not forget to
go and see Peter and his wife in the autumn, when the birds were on
their way once more to the south. He came into the garden, and from the
stunted currant-tree on the wall he looked into the kitchen, and uttered
a little low note of greeting. The woman looked up from her washing, saw
Pipi, and uttered a cry of delight. “Peter!” she called, “it is the sick
bird! Come quick and see!” But Pipi could not stay for Peter, and the
cage, still standing on the dresser, made him even now feel a little
uncomfortable. His voice, like that of all his comrades, had been almost
silent for several weeks; but as a gleam of autumn sunshine shot into
the garden, and lit up the hardy little double daisies that still
contrived to bloom in that bleak spot, he called up all his strength,
and uttered a single strain, the faint echo of his old spring song,
before he flew away. It went straight to the good woman’s heart, and she
never forgot it.

“Peter,” she said, as the lighthouse-man came into the kitchen, “don’t
forget to tell the Professor gentleman that the little bird came back to
thank him and us. And, Peter, don’t you ever go for to keep any more
birds in cages, when you can have ’em sing to you out o’ doors; for the
blessed creatures are worth better than that, and there’s human beings
as might take a lesson from ’em.” And those kind eyes of hers were moist
as she went on with her washing.



THE OWLS’ REVENGE.

(A TALE OF BIRDS AND MEN.)


I.

In May all woods are beautiful; but of all the woods I know, there is
none on which the month of bluebells so freely lavishes her delights, as
on the ancient and unkempt wood of Truerne. The blue carpet spread in
every clearing, the gray-green oak-stems rising softly out of the blue,
the fleecy clouds of spring, seen gently moving eastwards through the
ruddy young leaves overhead, can never be forgotten by any one who has
rambled here for a whole May-morning. No trim park-paling shuts in
Truerne wood; its outskirts are set about, in these sweet spring days,
with an untidy maze of “whitening hedges and uncrumpling fern,” with
stretches of gorse and trailing bramble, with dense thickets of
blackthorn where the nightingale builds his nest and sings unheeded. It
is all this wild setting of the woodland, as well as the freedom of the
wood itself, that makes it so dear to such of its human neighbours as
love quiet and solitude, as well as to the birds and beasts that find
home and happiness in its shelter.

Of the few human beings who haunted it a few years ago, old Oliver the
woodman was the only one to whom it had wholly yielded up its secrets;
and when one day he was found under his favourite old oak-tree, wrapped
in a slumber from which there was no awakening, we felt that the good
genius of the wood had vanished, leaving no successor. But on the
morning of that 16th day of May on which my story begins and ends, old
Oliver was still vigorous, and had risen at daybreak in order to finish
his work early. He meant to set forward about midday for the
neighbouring town on the hill; for it was fairday, or “club” as we call
it in these parts, at Northstow, and he wished once more to buy a
fairing for the rheumatic old wife sitting by the chimney-corner at
home.

He is sitting, and eating his dinner, at the foot of his favourite oak,
which is separated by a few yards of bluebells and undergrowth from one
of the grassy rides, or “lights” (as we call them) which intersect the
wood, and let sunshine and fresh air into its tangled depths. It is his
favourite tree, partly because its gray-lichened stem divides on one
side, as it nears the ground, into two big root-branches which leave a
comfortable space between them--a mossy arm-chair of which he only knows
the comfort who has toiled since daybreak without ceasing; and partly
because the tree is old, as old as the abbey of Truerne which once stood
under the shadow of the wood in the meadows below; and because it is
hollow enough to be the home of a family of brown owls, whose ancestors
had been tenants of the wood long before the monks became its owners.
These owls were some of Oliver’s best friends; he seldom saw them, nor
they him; but, boy and man, he had known them for more than half a
century, and knew them well to be discreet and quiet creatures, who did
no harm and gave no trouble to any one but vermin. There was

[Illustration: He is sitting and eating his dinner at the foot of his
favourite oak.--P. 212.]

a silent, mysterious sageness about their ways, which suited well with
the old man’s humour.

As he sat there eating and resting, the silence of the wood was broken
by the sudden squeak of a pig; and half turning his face in the
direction of the ride, Oliver saw an uplifted sapling descend on the
back of the squeaker, who raised his piteous voice again, and rushed
onwards down the path with his companions. They were followed by the
owner of the sapling, a tall man in a long greasy coat of a yellowish
colour; his face was fat and ruddy, and out of it there looked two small
cunning eyes, which followed the movements of his pigs to right and left
with merciless swiftness. It was the kind of face which men seem to
acquire who spend their lives in driving pigs and driving bargains, and
who are ever bullying animals and browbeating their fellow-men. Close at
his heels was another smaller man, a little wizened, discontented
farmer, whom Mr. Pogson, with his natural imperativeness, had pressed
into his service in driving his pigs to Northstow fair. An umbrella, as
decrepit as the farmer himself, was the weapon he used, without much
energy, when a pig chanced to stray in his direction.

Oliver kept very quiet as they passed: he did not like Pogson, and had
no respect for Weekes the little farmer. At last they had disappeared
down the ride, and after sitting a while longer, listening to the
sibilant notes of the wood-wren overhead, and watching the squirrels and
the nuthatches who were fellow-owners of the tree opposite to him, he
rose with something of a sigh,--for he was unwilling to exchange the
quiet wood for the noise and worry of the fair,--and stepped into the
bridle-path to set out on his walk.

“Are ye ganging to the fair, Oliver, ye lonesome auld dog?” said a grave
but friendly voice in a Scotch accent. It was the voice of Mr. McNab the
keeper, who without his gun, and in his best velveteen, was on his way
to look out for a spaniel-puppy or two to fill vacant places.

“Ay,” said Oliver simply, and they walked on side by side; Mr. McNab’s
serious gray eyes glancing here and there through the wood, and Oliver’s
earnest and rather wistful gaze kept steadily on the bluebells at his
feet, as was his wont when walking. Neither of them was a man of many
words or many friends; nor had they spoken to each other half a dozen
times a year since the Scotchman came into the neighbourhood. Yet each
of them felt, as they went along, that he had a reasonable man beside
him.


II.

It was high tide at Northstow fair: the broad, sloping street was
crowded with pens of sheep and pigs, and resounded with the noises of
oppressed animals, with the loud voices of their tyrants, and with the
hideous braying of the organs which of late years have added new
attractions to the merry-go-rounds. Old Oliver, soon wearied of the
crowd and the hubbub, had bought his wife’s new shawl early, and was
about to turn his steps homewards, when it occurred to him that it would
be as well, if circumstances were favourable, to get a comfortable shave
before leaving.

The Northstow barber had a double shop, one window of which was
decorated with his own wigs and perfumery, while the other showed caps
and bonnets, and was the domain of the milliner, his wife. As Oliver
passed this latter window, and was about to step into the shop, his eye
caught the well-known form of an owl--a young one, perched in an uneasy
attitude on a lady’s hat. He stopped to look at it, and then discovered
a placard, conspicuously placed just underneath the hat, and bearing the
following inscription:

                   Wanted at once, by a London firm,
                 ONE THOUSAND OWLS![7]

The old fellow stood rooted to the pavement, spelling out this placard
again and again. What could it mean? and what the owlet on the lady’s
hat? As he lingered, two men came up behind him, and there jarred
suddenly on his senses the bud coarse voice of Mr. Pogson, already a
little thickened by frequent glasses of ale and brandy. “Wanted, one
thousand howls!” spelt out Mr. Pogson, slowly. “How much a-piece, now?
There be scores on ’em in Truerne, be’nt there, Oliver, eh?”

“Ay, there be brown uns in the wood, and white uns in my barn, and in
Highfield church tower,” said the feeble voice of Mr. Weekes the farmer.

At this moment the barber, relieved for a moment from his duties, came
out on his doorstep to enjoy the cheering sights and sounds of the fair.

“Good day, Mr. Pogson,” he said. “How’s the pigs? Coming in for a shave?
Low prices in pigs to-day, so I hear tell. Ah, you’re looking at the
notice? My wife brought it down from town yesterday. There’s a chance
for making money now!”

“What do they want ’em for?” said Mr. Weekes.

“What do they give for ’em, you mean,” said Mr. Pogson with some
contempt.

“What do they want ’em for?” answered the barber, shirking Mr. Pogson’s
question. “Why you haven’t got any pretty daughters, Mr. Weekes, or
you’d know that by this time. Look at that there owl on the bonnet! Why,
bless you, ’tis all birds now with the ladies in London--and in the
country too for the matter o’ that. Birds on their hats, and birds on
their dresses; and a very pretty taste too, in my opinion. What’s
prettier, now, than birds? Think of their songs, Mr. Pogson, and all
their pretty ways! Why when you sees ’em a fluttering about on the
ladies’ hats in town, you could a’most believe as you was out in the
country seeing the little creeters a-flying round you and singing! And
now it’s all owls, I take it. Such softness o’ feathers, you see, such
wings, such----”

“But what’ll they pay for ’em?” asked Pogson impatiently, tired of the
barber’s talk.

“Fancy prices, sir, fancy prices,” said the barber; “why there’s a
fortun’ in that placard! There’s birds o’ paradise selling in town--so
my wife tells me--for fifty guineas a-piece, and there’s kingfishers and
woodpeckers fetching a mint o’ money. I tell you even blackbirds and
such like brings in something, for they dodges ’em up with other birds’
wings, or dyes ’em red and green, as pretty as can be. And now here’s a
run on owls, you see; can’t get enough of ’em. Half-a-sovereign a-piece
for the best ones, I think it was she told me. If pigs is down, Mr.
Pogson, why owls is up, you see. Want a shave then? Come along,
gentlemen, I’m free.”

“There be scores on ’em in Truerne wood,” said the pigdealer again to
Weekes, as he preceded him into the shop; but catching sight of Oliver,
who had shrunk away from the pair, and stood at a little distance
riveted by the barber’s speech, Mr. Pogson added, “There’s that old tree
by the ride: Oliver’s armchair, the Highfield folks calls it; there’s
owls there now, and young ’uns as well, I’ll be bound. Ain’t there now,
old soft-head?” And he made a playful cut at Oliver with his sapling as
he went up the steps.

The old man was seriously alarmed. That these two men would be ready to
meddle in the wood for the sake of a few guineas, or even a few
shillings, if they had the chance, he knew very well; and the fact of
the placard being there on fair-day was quite enough to set all the
gun-owners in the neighbourhood owl-hunting. As he turned away from the
window, he caught sight of the tall form of Mr. McNab sauntering through
the fair, and regarding its various follies much as a grown-up man looks
at the frolic of a pack of children just let out of school. He went
after him quickly, and touched him on the arm.

“Mr. McNab! Mr. McNab!” said he, with earnest and imploring eyes,
“there’s mischief up there; there’s mischief in the barber’s shop.
There’s a placard out for a thousand owls, and they’re going to shoot
‘em in Truerne wood!”

“They might do waur,” said the keeper, not at all taken aback.

“‘Tis hard as Lunnon folk can’t leave us alone,” continued Oliver with a
rueful face. “They’ll cut the wood down next and burn it for charcoal;
I’ve heard talk on it afore now. But I’ll be in my grave before then, if
so be as my prayers be granted.”

“They winna do that,” said the keeper; “dinna fash your auld head with
sic notions. And we maunna hae the owls killed oot either, or we’ll be
owerrun with rats in a year or twa. When the cat’s awa--ye ken. But what
for is a’ this about owls, I wonder? Are they gaun clean doited in
Lunnon then?”

And leaving Oliver, Mr. McNab walked up to the barber’s shop, and after
looking at the milliner’s window, he went in, and did not come out again
while Oliver remained within sight.

The old fellow waited a while, and walked about the fair; but he saw no
more of McNab, and had to turn his face homewards without a word of
reassurance. As he passed through the narrow passage, thronged with
hard-faced men and boys, which divided the pens of crowded pigs and
sheep, it made him wince a little to see Mr. Pogson, his ruddy face
still ruddier, and his sunken little eyes sparkling with drink and with
unwonted expectations of wealth, cutting at the hind-quarters of his
newly-bought pigs with the sapling, shouting in a hard voice to greasy
friends, and looking at every one who came near him as if they had
better mind what they were about. For old Oliver he had a profound
contempt; and as the old man passed him, he caught the pig that was
nearest him at the moment such a cut with his switch, that its squeaks
resounded through the street; it tried to escape over the backs of its
fellows, who all with a loud chorus of squeaking rushed to the further
side of the pen. Which so pleased Mr. Pogson that he turned to the old
man with a wink, as if to say, “Now you see the proper way to treat
animals.” But Oliver had passed on quickly.


III.

Old Oliver trudged down the road from the little town on the hill, with
his fairing under his arm, thinking of his old wife sitting in her
chimney-corner, and of the old days when he bought the pretty young
farm-servant her first fairing, in that same town and on that very same
day in May, some five-and-forty years ago. Straight before him were the
Cotswold hills, and on their slope he could see the spire of Highfield
church, and further down and nearer was the great dark mass of Truerne
wood, hiding the hamlet where he had lived all his life. The sight of
the wood made him think of the owls, and he unconsciously quickened his
pace, as if to make haste and see that all was right with them as yet.

Down the long sloping road he went, and then turning off by a
bridle-path, passed through another wood--not his, and therefore no
place for dallying in--and crossing the river by an old flood-beaten
bridge, took his way through a wealth of buttercups that gilded his old
boots with yellow dust, to the further side of the water-meadows, where
his own beloved wood came down in gentle slopes to the valley. Evening
was coming on and the light was subdued; all was quiet and peaceful
unless a nightingale broke out suddenly in song from a thicket, or the
voice of the chiff-chaff rang out from overhead. Over the bluebells the
shadows were lengthening, and against their deep blue, as it mingled in
the distance with the blue of the sky peeping through the branches, rose
the straight and darkening stem of many an ancient tree. What a change
from the noise and worry and ill-dealing and cruelty of the fair!

When he came to his own old oak he paused and listened; but no sound
was heard but the song of the wood-wren in the higher foliage.

“‘Tis all right as yet,” he said to himself; “they’re not astir so early
as this; but maybe they’ll be hooting when Pogson and the pigs come
along later, and then they’re marked birds; the warrant ’ll be out
against ’em. The Lord deliver them out of the hand of the Philistines,”
said the old fellow, quite aloud. “I’ll get a bit of supper, and come
and have a look presently”; and he went on up the ride.

Close behind him was the gamekeeper. Mr. McNab, finding that there were
no spaniel-puppies at the fair, had no further reason to stay there; for
he had a poor opinion of the people of those parts, and did not care to
listen to their stupid talk, or to help them to drink bad beer. Moreover
during his visit to the barber he had satisfied himself that his domains
were really in danger of being invaded by unsportsmanlike clod-hoppers
in search of owls; and the more he thought of it, the more impossible it
seemed to have fellows like Pogson roaming about in his woods with
firearms. It was bad enough to have pigs driven through your wood every
fair-day, though that could not be helped where there was a right of way
for man and beast; but he had reason to suspect Mr. Pogson of other
still more objectionable practices, and at all times disliked the man as
a noisy, bullying lout.

So he had left the fair soon after Oliver, only stopping at a shop in
the outskirts of the town to buy a good-sized twist of strong cord. He
did not stay to look at the view, or to sit on the bridge and watch the
water, or to admire the bluebells when he came to Truerne wood. Mr.
McNab was a man of a practical mind, and a swift walker; and he had
nearly caught up Oliver when he arrived at the old oak-tree, so that he
just heard the old fellow’s ejaculation about the Philistines, and then
saw his smockfrock retreating up the ride. The Scotchman stopped and
watched it disappear.

“Yon auld Oliver has mair gude sense,” he said to himself, “than a’
these blathering gowks o’ pigdrivers; and he kens his Bible too! A wee
bit too saft--mair backbane, mair backbone! But he’s no sae doited as
the rest!”

The sun was almost setting, but the owls in the old oak were still
silent. “They’ll be hooting in an hour or twa,” he said, as Oliver had
said it before him; and drawing the twist of cord from his pocket, he
stepped aside among the bluebells to the oak-tree. Plenty of young
ground ashes were shooting up among the flowers, and with the help of
these, and of a low hazel bush or two, he contrived to fasten the cord
in a pretty tight circle round the tree-trunk, at a distance of some
half-dozen yards from it, and about a foot and a half from the ground.
There being still plenty of cord, he looked about for a log of wood, and
finding one not too heavy, he tied the cord round it, and hoisted it up
on a low branch of the big tree, on the side nearest the ride, just
balancing it at the junction of one gnarled bough with another, so that
a strong pull at the string would easily bring it down. This done, he
fastened the other end tightly down to his circle below, and then
paused, with a face of extreme gravity, to contemplate his apparatus.

Suddenly his severe features relaxed. There had shot across his memory
a certain scene, when as a bare-legged callant playing on his native
braes, he had devised just such a booby-trap to catch another boy, with
a view of securing for himself a certain nest in which eggs were about
to be laid. The grim features of Mr. McNab relaxed, I say, and in his
solitude in the wood he burst out into a hearty ringing laugh.

“At bairn’s wark in my auld age! And what wad the Dominie say? Wad I be
for a crack wi’ the tawse, or the knuckle-end of the auld crab-stick at
hame, eh!”

Mr. McNab lit his pipe, the better to resume his ordinary composure; and
puffing at it with lips which now and then a convulsive movement almost
compelled to laughter, he strode away through the wood to his own
dwelling on the further side of it.


IV.

And now the wood was left once more in profound peace. Since old Oliver
passed through it the shadows had grown still longer, and from the west
there now came a flush of sunset through the boughs, turning the blue
carpet into one of deeper purple; while against the fading light the
great tree-trunks stood up solemnly, slowly blackening as their shadows
died away. Here and there a wood-pigeon broke the stillness in the
boughs, or a nightingale broke out into a flash of song, and ceased
again as suddenly; but the owls in the old tree began to bestir
themselves in soft silence, and reserved their hootings until they
should have procured a meal for the downy nestlings in the deep warm
hole. But beware, O ye owls and owlets, for the Philistines are at hand,
and the warrant of the ladies is out against you!

As the last hues of sunset died away on the Cotswold hills there came
through the wood unlucky little Mr. Weekes; small in person and small
in acres; discontented with his dealings at the fair, and with things in
general, and ready for any project that might put a pound or two into
his pocket without actually endangering his limbs or his liberty. As he
passed the great oak, a large creature flew noiselessly over his head in
the direction of the tree, and woke up Mr. Weekes’ memory, which had
been halting in the slough of his discontent.

“Ah, the owls!” he thought. “Half-a-guinea a-piece, did he say? Well, it
might be, if there’s a run on ’em; and that fellow Pogson said he was
coming here first thing to-morrow morning to shoot ’em; but I’ll be even
with the prosperous fat brute.”

Mr. Weekes thought of the morning’s pig-driving, into which he had been
compelled by Pogson’s superior force of character; of the two ribs of
his wife’s umbrella which he had broken on the back of one wayward
squeaker; and of the long detour he had taken when leaving Northstow, to
avoid falling again in with the pig-driver, and being once more driven
to drive.

So he went home to his rickety little homestead beyond the wood, and
reached down his old gun from its place above the chimney-piece; only
yielding to the injunctions of his wife that he must eat a bit o’ supper
first, and that if he must be for shooting owls, he should begin by
shooting the one which was stealing all their young pigeons. Obedient as
usual, though querulous, Mr. Weekes presently took up his station in his
yard, watching the dovecote and the darkening sky; but luckily for the
pigeons, whom the owls were nightly protecting from their enemies the
rats, no owl made his appearance for a full half-hour after Mr. Weekes
had given them up in despair, and had carried off his gun to the wood in
hopes of better luck.

Meanwhile Mr. Pogson, after purchasing some dozen or so of fine porkers,
and a bottle of brandy to help him in the arduous task of getting them
home safely, began in the late afternoon to drive them down the long
high road towards the wood. The pigs were lively, and their owner began
to be a little unsteady on his legs--a sensation which he more than once
sought to correct by a draught of strong ale at a roadside
public-house. The remedy did not have the desired effect, and his
progress became slower and slower; but in spite of all obstacles, and by
dint of extreme severity and a lavish outlay of bad language, he
contrived to conduct himself and his charges across the bridge and the
meadows to the edge of the wood without serious mishap, arriving there
about the time at which Weekes was prowling in his yard after the barn
owl. The bottle of brandy was by this time more than half empty, and the
wood was as dark as pitch.

If Mr. Pogson had been in full possession of his wits he would hardly
have tried to force his way through the wood, and would have avoided the
bridle-path, and taken his pigs a couple of miles round by the road; but
he had gone like an unreasoning animal in the way he was accustomed to,
and now it was too late to turn back. He took another pull at the
bottle, switched the nearest pigs, and pulling himself for a moment
together, forced his drove into the narrow ride, trusting that they
would follow their noses and keep to the open path.

In the dense black darkness and stillness, a sleepy and a sickly
feeling came over Mr. Pogson’s usually hide-bound senses, from which he
was only for a moment awakened by a sudden movement of the pigs in front
of him. Whether it were a badger in the path, or a prowling fox that had
frightened them, certain it is that at this moment they all faced about,
and rushing with loud squeakings past the legs of their driver, vanished
in a general stampede away into the wood.

Mr. Pogson stood aghast, and leant against a tree-trunk for support. The
noise of the pigs died away, and he was alone--alone in blank darkness.
Even pigs are company, and now he would have given a good deal for the
companionship of a single one of his victims. There was a singing in his
ears, a cold sweat on his hard brow; he felt quite unable to go further;
his head swam.

Suddenly he heard a voice from overhead--a gentle voice, reproachful and
somewhat hollow and ghostly--

“Whoo? Tu-whoo?”

Mr. Pogson felt a creepy sensation, and would have cast himself to the
ground and hidden his face in the bluebells, but again the voice asked--

“Whoo? Whoo? Tu-whoo?”

“Pogson o’ Highfield,” cried the belated man in answer. But in still
more reproachful accents, the voice demanded for the third time--

“Whoo? Tu-whoo?”

“Pogson o’ Highfield, pig-dealer,” cried the wretched man in stuttering
accents; “a man as never did no harm to nothing in all his life!”

“Whoo? Whoo?” said the voice, seeming to retreat, and urged to follow it
by some mysterious influence, Mr. Pogson staggered forward a few paces.
But he had hardly left his tree for more than half a minute, when
something caught him on the shins and tripped him up; at the same moment
he received a violent blow on the head which, added to the effects of
the brandy, stretched him quite unconscious on the ground. There he lay
in the darkness, with the bottle slipping out of his pocket, while the
mysterious voice continued to question him in vain from the old oak-tree
overhead.

And now, but for the voice, all is silent again for a few minutes.
Stay, who is this coming down the “light,” betraying his presence by the
crackling of a dry twig beneath his boot? It is Mr. Weekes, bent on
further profitable destruction; who would not have ventured himself in
the wood after dark for fear of ghosts and other terrors, but is now
urged to unwonted courage by the hope of gain and by the companionship
of his old gun. He is making for the tree where he saw the owl at
sunset.

As he advanced deeper into the dead blackness of the wood, Mr. Weekes
began to feel a slight uneasiness, which was soon uncomfortably
increased by strange noises on his right-hand, as of weird creatures
making towards him through the underwood. But he was now close to his
tree, and he could hear the hooting of the owls that were to be his
prey. He was in the act of raising his gun, ready to fire when an owl
should cross the bit of sky-line open above him, when the noises
increased to his right, and with a terrific crackling and confusion an
army of terrible creatures burst out upon him into the ride. All his
courage fled. With a yell of fear he discharged his gun at the
advancing foes, and then throwing it at them as a last resource, took to
his heels and ran from them. But he had not run many yards when he
tripped first over a heavy body, and then over a tightened cord, and
losing at once his balance and his senses, Mr. Weekes swooned outright.


V.

“Did ye hear the gun then?” said the keeper to Oliver, as they met a few
minutes later at the entrance to the wood. “There’s mischief _here_,
forbye at the barber’s. Tak’ yon big stick, mon, and gang ye on wi’ the
lantern.”

They went softly down the ride together, neither speaking again.
Presently the keeper stumbled over some solid body lying in the grass,
and Oliver, applying the lantern to it, discovered the corpse of a pig.
The keeper whistled softly, and turned it over with his foot.

“Lawfu’ spoil,” he whispered, “lawfu’ spoil. Ye shall taste Pogson’s
bacon yet afore ye die, Oliver!”

Then they found the gun, which Mr. McNab, now in his element, seized as
further spoil, and gave to Oliver to carry instead of the big stick. And
now he turned aside for a few yards to see what other sport his bairn’s
tricks of that day might have brought him. Oliver followed close at his
heels with the lantern.

“Whoo! Tu-whoo!” said the owl overhead.

“Ay, ye may weel hoot at ’em,” said the keeper, as the lantern revealed
the prostrate forms of Mr. Pogson and Mr. Weekes; the latest arrival
lying across the other, and seeming to embrace him with one arm, while
the hand of the other was thrust into a tuft of faded primroses.

Oliver and McNab regarded this spectacle for a few moments in silence.
Then Oliver, catching sight of the bottle slipping from the pig-dealer’s
pocket, turned his wistful eyes on the Scotchman.

“Mr. McNab,” he said, “I’m an old man, and maybe as I won’t be
woodcutting here much longer; but don’t you--for my sake don’t you”
(here he shyly laid his wrinkled hand on the keeper’s arm), “let such
sodden brutes as these come along and take the lives of innocent
creatures--creatures as God above loves, and has made me for to love
too--and all for a few shillings, or maybe guineas, and to please the
ladies in Lunnon as don’t know what a wood be like, nor what creatures
lives their lives here. I’ve known this tree for more nor fifty year,
but the owls ha’ known it belike for five hundred; and now, afore I’m
dead, the warrant’s out agen them. The fine ladies wants their feathers,
but they don’t know what they’re doing--they don’t _think_ what they do,
Mr. McNab. ’Tis fashion, I take it, only fashion, and it’ll blow over in
a bit if you’ll but stop ’em now. I’m an old fool maybe, but God knows
I’ve none too many to care about, or for to care about me, but my old
woman, and beside her there’s none but these birds and beasts in the
wood. And the peace of it, and the quiet of the life in it! Don’t you
let it be rooted up, Mr. McNab, nor the wild beast of the field devour
it!”

The keeper slapped him on the back of his smockfrock, and then seized
him by the hand. “Oliver, my auld lad,” he said, “ye’ve just saved them
out o’ the hand of the Pheelistines! And ye shall never want for friends
to care for ye, be they owls or be they McNabs!”

       *       *       *       *       *

And this was the story that old Oliver used to tell, with many a kindly
word of respect for his friend the keeper, till one day, as I said at
the beginning, death came upon him painlessly under that very tree,
while the cuckoo sang in the distance, and the chiff-chaffs two notes
echoed from the sunny end of the wood. How he came to know what happened
to Mr. Pogson and the pigs is more than I can tell; probably the owls
told it to him, or it may be that the conscience-stricken pig-dealer
revealed to him alone the story, as to one who understood, as none else
did, the mysteries of Truerne wood.

However that may be, it is certain that the enemy never again invaded
his paradise. The owls were never disturbed, and by some mysterious
agency the placard disappeared almost at once from the barber’s window.
Mr. Pogson never passed through the wood again, and finding that
distorted versions of his adventures were abroad in Highfield (where
they are still told with relish by the winter fireside), he removed to a
village some miles away, a milder and more merciful man. Mr. Weekes too
was not long in giving up his farm, and disappearing entirely from the
neighbourhood. In peace the owls and Oliver lived out their days under
the grave but kindly guardianship of Mr. McNab the keeper; and when I
last passed through the wood it showed no signs of the presence of the
Philistine.

THE END.

[Illustration]

R. CLAY AND SONS, LTD., BREAD ST. HILL, E.C., AND BUNGAY SUFFOLK

FOOTNOTES:

 [1] Local name for fieldfare.

 [2] The valley of the Colne in the Cotswold Hills.

 [3] Swindon.

 [4] The London and Bristol road in the Kennet Valley west of
 Marlborough.

 [5] Pewsey Vale.

 [6] Salisbury Plain.

 [7] A fact.





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