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THE BATH OF THE BIRDS
BY RICHARD JEFFERIES.
One morning Sir Bevis went down to the brook. Standing on the brink, he said: "Brook, Brook! what are you singing? You promised to tell me what you were saying."
The brook did not answer, but went on singing. Bevis listened a minute, and then he picked a willow leaf and threw it into the bubbles and watched it go whirling round and round in the eddies and back up under the fall, where it dived down and presently came up again, and the stream took it and carried it away past the flags. "Brook, Brook!"
said Bevis, stamping his foot; "tell me what you are singing."
And the brook, having now finished that part of his song, said: "Bevis, dear; sit down in the shadow of the willow, for it is very hot to-day, and the reapers are at work; sit down under the willow and I will tell you as much as I can remember."
"But the reed said you could not remember anything," said Bevis, leaning back against the willow.
"The reed did not tell you the truth, dear; indeed, he does not know all; the fact is, the reeds are so fond of talking that I scarcely ever answer them now or they would keep on all day long, and I should never hear the sound of my own voice, which I like best. So I do not encourage them, and that is why the reeds think I do not recollect."
"And what is that you sing about?" said Bevis impatiently.
"My darling," said the brook, "I do not know myself always what I am singing about. I am so happy I sing, sing, and never think about what it means; it does not matter what you mean as long as you sing.
Sometimes I sing about the sun, who loves me dearly, and tries all day to get at me through the leaves and the green flags that hide me; he sparkles on me everywhere he can, and does not like me to be in the shadow. Sometimes I sing to the wind, who loves me next most dearly, and will come to me everywhere in places where the sun cannot get. He plays with me whenever he can, and strokes me softly and tells me the things he has heard in the woods and on the hills, and sends down the leaves to float along; for he knows I like something to carry. Fling me in some leaves, Bevis, dear.
"Sometimes I sing to the earth and the gra.s.s; they are fond of me, too, and listen the best of all. I sing loudest at night to the stars; for they are so far away they would not otherwise hear me."
"But what do you say?" said Bevis; but the brook was too occupied now to heed him and went on.
"Sometimes I sing to the trees; they, too, are fond of me and come as near as they can; they would all come down close to me if they could.
They love me like the rest, because I am so happy and never cease my chanting. If I am broken to pieces against a stone, I do not mind in the least; I laugh just the same and even louder. When I come over the hatch, I dash myself to fragments; and sometimes a rainbow comes and stays a little while with me. The trees drink me, and the gra.s.s drinks me; the birds come down and drink me; they splash me and are happy.
The fishes swim about, and some of them hide in deep corners. Round the bend I go; and the osiers say they never have enough of me. The long gra.s.s waves and welcomes me; the moor-hens float with me; the kingfisher is always with me somewhere, and sits on the bough to see his ruddy breast in the water. And you come too, Bevis, now and then to listen to me; and it is all because I am so happy."
"Why are you so happy?" said Bevis.
"I do not know," said the brook. "Perhaps it is because all I think of is this minute; I do not know anything about the minute just gone by, and I do not care one bit about the minute that is just coming; all I care about is this minute, this very minute now. Fling me in some more leaves, Bevis. Why do you go about asking questions, dear? Why don't you sing and do nothing else?"
"Oh, but I want to know all about everything," said Bevis. "Where did you come from, and where are you going, and why don't you go on and let the ground be dry--why don't you run on, and run all away? why are you always here?"
The brook laughed and said: "My dear, I do not know where I came from, and I do not care at all where I am going. What does it matter, my love? All I know is I shall come back again; yes, I shall come back again." The brook sang very low and rather sadly now: "I shall go into the sea and shall be lost; and even you would not know me; ask your father, love; he has sailed over the sea in ships that come to Southampton, and I was close to him, but he did not know me. But by and by, when I am in the sea, the sun will lift me up, and the clouds will float along--look towards the hills, Bevis, dear, every morning and you will see the clouds coming and bringing me with them; and the rain and the dew, and sometimes the thunder and the lightning, will put me down again; and I shall run along here and sing to you, my sweet, if you will come and listen. Fling in some little twigs, my dear, and some bits of bark from the tree."
"That I will," said Bevis; and he picked up a stone and flung it into the water with such a splash that the kingfisher flew away; but the brook only laughed and told him to throw another and to make haste and grow bigger and jump over him.
"S--s, we shall meet by the drinking place," said the gra.s.shopper; and was just hopping off, when Bevis asked him what the birds went down to bathe for.
"I'm sure I do not know," said the gra.s.shopper, speaking fast, for he was rather in a hurry to be gone; he never could stand still long together. "All I can tell you is, that on Midsummer Day every one of the birds has to go down to the brook and walk in and bathe; and it has been the law for so many, many years that no one can remember when it began. They like it very much, because they can show off their fine feathers which are just now in full color; and if you like to go with me, you will be sure to enjoy it."
"So I will," said Bevis; and he followed the gra.s.shopper, who hopped so far at every step that he had to walk fast to keep up with him.
They went on in silence a good way, except that the gra.s.shopper cried "S--s" to his friends in the gra.s.s as he pa.s.sed, and said good-morning also to a mole, who peeped out for a moment.
"Why don't you hop straight?" said Bevis presently. "It seems to me that you hop first one side and then the other, and go in such a zigzag fashion it will take us hours to reach the brook."
"How very stupid you are!" said the gra.s.shopper. "If you go straight, of course you can only see just what is under your feet; but if you go first this way and then that, then you see everything. You are nearly as silly as the ants, who never see anything beautiful all their lives. Be sure you have nothing to do with the ants, Bevis; they are a mean, wretched, miserly set, quite contemptible and beneath notice.
Now, I go everywhere, all round the field, and spend my time searching for lovely things; sometimes I find flowers, and sometimes the b.u.t.terflies come down into the gra.s.s and tell me the news; and I am so fond of the sunshine, I sing to it all day long. Tell me, now, is there anything so beautiful as the sunshine and the blue sky, and the green gra.s.s, and the velvet and blue and spotted b.u.t.terflies, and the trees which cast such a pleasant shadow and talk so sweetly, and the brook which is always running? I should like to listen to it for a thousand years."
"I like you," said Bevis; "jump into my hand and I will carry you." He held his hand out flat, and in a second up sprang the gra.s.shopper and alighted on his palm and told him the way to go, and thus they went together merrily.
"Bevis, dear, I do not sing at night; but I always go where I can see a star. I slept under a mushroom last night, and he told me he was pushing up as fast as he could before some one came and picked him to put on a gridiron. I do not lay up any store, because I know I shall die when the summer ends; and what is the use of wealth then? My store and my wealth is the sunshine, dear, and the blue sky, and the green gra.s.s, and the delicious brook who never ceases sing, sing, singing all day and night. And all the things are fond of me; the gra.s.s and the flowers, and the birds and the animals--all of them love me."
"I think I shall take you home and put you under a gla.s.s case on the mantelpiece," said Bevis.
Off jumped the gra.s.shopper in a moment, and fell so lightly on the gra.s.s it did not hurt him in the least, though it was as far as if Bevis had tumbled down out of the clouds. Bevis tried to catch him, but he jumped so nimbly this way and that, and hopped to and fro, and lay down in the gra.s.s, that his green coat could not be seen. Bevis now went down to the brook and stood on the bank, where it was high, near a bush at the side of the drinking place. "Ah, dear little Sir Bevis!" whispered a reed, bending towards him as the wind blew, "please do not come any nearer; the bank is steep and treacherous, and hollow underneath where the water-rats run. So do not lean over after the forget-me-nots--they are too far for you. Sit down where you are, behind that little bush, and I will tell you all about the bathing.
The birds come down to bathe every Midsummer Day, and the goldfinches, and the sparrows, and the blackbirds, and the thrushes, and the swallows, and the wrens, and the robins, and almost every one of them, except two or three, whose great-grandfathers got into disgrace a long while ago. The rooks do not come because they are thieves, and steal the mussels, nor the crows, who are a very bad lot; the swan does not come either, unless the brook is muddy after a storm. The swan is so tired of seeing himself in the water that he quite hates it, and that is the reason he holds his neck so high, that he may not see more of himself than he can help."
Soon the birds came. They were all in their very best and brightest feathers, and as the sun shone on them and they splashed the water and strutted about, Bevis thought he had never seen anything so beautiful.
They did not all bathe, for some of them were specially permitted only to drink instead, but they all came, and all in their newest dresses.
So bright was the goldfinch's wing, that the lark, though she did not dare speak, had no doubt she rouged. The sparrow, brushed and neat, so quiet and subdued in his brown velvet, looked quite aristocratic among so much flaunting color. As for the blackbird he had carefully washed himself in the spring before he came to bathe in the brook, and he glanced round with a bold and defiant air, as much as to say: "There is not one of you who has so yellow a bill, and so beautiful a black coat as I have." In the bush the bullfinch, who did not care much to mix with the crowd, moved restlessly to and fro. The robin looked all the time at Bevis, so anxious was he for admiration. The wood-pigeon, very consequential, affected not to see the dove, whom Bevis longed to stroke, but could not, as he had promised the reed to keep still.
Bevis looked up into the sky, and there was the hawk, almost up among the white clouds, soaring round and round, and watching all that was proceeding. Almost before he could look down again a shadow went by, and a cuckoo flew along very low, just over the drinking place.
"Cuckoo!" he cried, "cuckoo! The goldfinch has the prettiest dress;"
and off he went.
Now the hawk had bribed the cuckoo, who was his cousin, to do this, and the cuckoo was not at all unwilling, for he had an interest himself in keeping the birds divided, so he said that although he had made up his mind to go on his summer tour, leaving his children to be taken care of by the wagtail, he would stop a day or two longer to manage this little business. No sooner had the cuckoo said this, than there was a most terrible uproar, and all the birds cried out at once.
The blackbird was so disgusted that he flew straight off, chattering all across the field and up the hedge. The bullfinch tossed his head, and asked the goldfinch to come up in the bush and see which was stronger. The greenfinch and the chaffinch shrieked with derision; the wood-pigeon turned his back and said "Pooh!" and went off with a clatter. The sparrow flew to tell his mates on the house, and you could hear the chatter they made about it right down at the brook.
But the wren screamed loudest of all, and said that the goldfinch was a painted impostor, and had not got half so much gold as the yellow-hammer. So they were all scattered in a minute, and Bevis stood up and hurried homeward.
BY HENRY D. Th.o.r.eAU.
It is remarkable how many creatures live wild and free, though secret, in the woods, and still sustain themselves in the neighborhood of towns, suspected by hunters only. How retired the otter manages to live here! He grows to be four feet long, as big as a small boy, perhaps without any human being getting a glimpse of him. I formerly saw the racc.o.o.n in the woods behind where my house is built, and probably still heard their whinnering at night. Commonly I rested an hour or two in the shade at noon, after planting, and ate my lunch, and read a little by a spring which was the source of a swamp and of a brook, oozing from under Brister's Hill, half a mile from my field.
The approach to this was through a succession of descending gra.s.sy hollows, full of young pitch-pines, into a larger wood about the swamp.
There, in a very secluded and shaded spot, under a spreading white-pine, there was yet a clean, firm sward to sit on. I had dug out the spring and made a well of clear gray water, where I could dip up a pailful without roiling it, and thither I went for this purpose almost every day in midsummer, when the pond was warmest. Thither, too, the wood-c.o.c.k led her brood, to probe the mud for worms, flying but a foot above them down the bank, while they ran in a troop beneath; but at last, spying me, she would leave her young and circle round and round me, nearer and nearer till within four or five feet, pretending broken wings and legs, to attract my attention, and get off her young, who would already have taken up their march, with faint wiry peep, single file through the swamp, as she directed. Or I heard the peep of the young when I could not see the parent bird.
There, too, the turtle-doves sat over the spring, or fluttered from bough to bough of the soft white-pines over, my head; or the red squirrel, coursing down the nearest bough, was particularly familiar and inquisitive. You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns....