The Madness of Whistling Wings by Will Lillibridge
CHAPTER ISANDFORD THE EXEMPLARY
Ordinarily Sandford is saneundeniably so. Barring the seventh,
upon any other day of the week, fifty-one weeks in the year, from nine
o'clock in the morning until six at nightomitting again a scant
half-hour at noon for lunchhe may be found in his tight little box of
an office on the fifth floor of the Exchange Building, at the corner of
Main Avenue and Thirteenth Street, where the elevated makes its loop.
No dog chained beside his kennel is more invariably present, no
caged songster more incontestably anchored. If you need his services,
you have but to seek his address between the hours mentioned. You may
do so with the same assurance of finding him on duty that you would
feel, if you left a jug of water out of doors over night in a blizzard,
that the jug, as a jug, would be no longer of value in the morning. He
was, and is, routine impersonate, exponent of sound business
personified; a living sermon against sloth and improvidence, and easy
derelictions of the flesh.
That is to say, he is such fifty-one weeks out of the fifty-two. All
through the frigid winter season, despite the lure of California
limiteds or Havana liners, he holds hard in that den of his, with its
floor and walls of sanitary tiling and its ceiling of white enamel, and
hewsor grinds rather, for Sandford is a dental surgeonclose to the
All through the heat of summer, doggedly superior to the call of
Colorado or the Adirondacks or the Thousand Islands, he comes and
departs by the tick of the clock. Base-ball fans find him adamant; turf
devotees, marble; golf enthusiasts, cold as the tiles beneath his feet.
Even in early June, when Dalton, whose suburban home is next door,
returns, tanned and clear-eyed from a week-end at the
lakethere is but one lake to Daltonand calls him mysteriously back
to the rear of the house, where, with a flourish, the cover is removed
from a box the expressman has just delivered, to disclose a shining
five-pound bass reposing upon its bed of packed iceeven then, hands
in pockets, Sandford merely surveys and expresses polite
congratulation. Certainly it is a fine fish, a noble fish, even; but
for the sake of one like itor, yes, granted a dozen suchto leave
the office, the sanitary-tiled office, deserted for four whole days
(especially when Dr. Corliss on the floor below is watching like a
hawk)such a crazy proceeding is not to be thought of.
Certainly he will not go along the next week endor the next,
either. The suggestion simply is unthinkable. Such digressions may be
all right for the leisure class or for invalids; but for adults, live
ones, strong and playing the game? A shrug and a tolerant smile end the
discussion, as, hands still in his pockets, an after-dinner cigar firm
between his teeth, Sandford saunters back across the dozen feet of sod
separating his own domicile from that of his fallen and misguided
Dalton's got the fever again, bad, he comments to the little woman
upon his own domain, whom he calls Polly, or Mrs. Sandford, as
occasion dictates. She has been watching the preceding incident with
Yes? Polly acknowledges, with the air of harkening to a familiar
harangue while casting ahead, in anticipation of what was to come next.
Curious about Dalton; peculiar twist to his mental machinery
somewhere. Sandford blows a cloud of smoke and eyes it meditatively.
Leaving business that way, chopping it all to pieces in fact; and just
for a fish! Curious!
Harry's got something back there that'll probably interest you, he
calls out to me as I chug by in my last year's motor; better stop and
Yes, I acknowledge simply; and though Polly's eyes and mine meet
we never smile, or twitch an eyelid, or turn a hair; for Sandford is
observingand this is only June.
So much for Dr. Jekyll Sandford, the Sandford of fifty-one weeks in
Then, as inevitably as time rolls by, comes that final week; period
of mania, of abandon; and in the mere sorcerous passage of a pair of
whirring wings, Dr. Jekyll, the exemplary, is no more. In his place,
wearing his shoes, audaciously signing his name even to checks, is that
other being, Hyde: one absolutely the reverse of the reputable Jekyll;
repudiating with scorn that gentleman's engagements; with brazen
effrontery denying him utterly, and all the sane conventionality for
which the name has become a synonyme.
Worst of all, rank blasphemy, he not only refuses to set foot in
that modern sanitary office of enamel and tiling, at the corner of
Thirteenth and Main, below which, by day and by night, the L trains
go thundering, but deliberately holds it up to ridicule and derision
CHAPTER IITHE PRESAGE OF THE WINGS
And I, the observerworse, the accessoryknow, in advance, when
the metamorphosis will transpire.
When, on my desk-pad calendar the month recorded is October, and the
day begins with a twenty, there comes the first premonition of winter;
not the reality, but a premonition; when, at noon the sun is burning
hot, and, in the morning, frost glistens on the pavements; when the
leaves are falling steadily in the parks, and not a bird save the
ubiquitous sparrow is seen, I begin to suspect.
But when at last, of an afternoon, the wind switches with a great
flurry from south to dead north, and on the flag-pole atop of the
government building there goes up this signal: [Transcriber's Note:
signal flag image here]; and when later, just before retiring, I
surreptitiously slip out of doors, and, listening breathlessly, hear
after a moment despite the clatter of the wind, high up in the darkness
overhead that muffled honk! honk! honk! of the
Canada-goose winging on its southern journey in advance of the coming
stormthen I know.
So well do I know, that I do not retirenot just yet. Instead, on a
pretext, any pretext, I knock out the ashes from my old pipe, fill it
afresh, and wait. I wait patiently, because, inevitable as Fate,
inevitable as that call from out the dark void of the sky, I know there
will come a trill of the telephone on the desk at my elbow; my own
Pollywhose name happens to be Maryis watching as I take down the
receiver to reply.
CHAPTER IIITHE OTHER MAN
It is useless to dissimulate longer, then. I am discovered, and I
know I am discovered. Hello, Sandford, I greet without preface.
Sandford! (I am repeating in whispers what he says for my Polly's
benefit.) Sandford! How the deuce did you know?
Know? With the Hyde-like change comes another, and I feel
positively facetious. Why I know your ring of course, the same as I
know your handwriting on a telegram. What is it? I'm busy.
I'm busy, too. Don't swell up. (Imagine swell up from Sandford,
the repressed and decorous!) I just wanted to tell you that the
honkers are coming.
No! You're imagining, or you dreamed it!... Anyway, what of it? I
tell you I'm busy.
Cut it out! I'm almost scared myself, the voice is positively
ferocious. I heard them not five minutes ago, and besides, the storm
signal is up. I'm getting my traps together now. Our train goes at
three-ten in the morning, you know.
I said so.
Our train: the one which is to take us out to Rush Lake. Am I
clear? I'll wire Johnson to meet us with the buckboard.
Clear, yes; but go in the morningWhy, man, you're crazy! I have
engagements for all day to-morrow.
So have I.
And the next day.
And the next.
A whole week with me. What of it?
What of it! Why, business
Confound business! I tell you they're coming; I heard them. I
haven't any more time to waste talking, either. I've got to get ready.
Meet you at three-ten, remember.
Number, please, requests Central, wearily.
Thus it comes to pass that I go; as I know from the first I shall
go, and Sandford knows that I will go; and, most of all, as Mary knows
that I will go.
In fact, she is packing for me already; not saying a word, but
simply packing; and II go out-doors again, sidling into a jog beside
the bow-window, to diminish the din of the wind in my ears, listening
Yes, there it sounds again; faint, but distinct; mellow, sonorous,
vibrant. Honk! honk! honk! and again honk!
honk! honk! It wafts downward from some place, up above
where the stars should be and are not; up above the artificial
illumination of the city; up where there are freedom, and space
infinite, and abandon absolute.
With an effort, I force myself back into the house. I take down and
oil my old double-barrel, lovingly, and try the locks to see that all
is in order. I lay out my wrinkled and battered duck suit handy for the
morning, after carefully storing away in an inner pocket, where they
will keep dry, the bundle of postcards Mary brings mefirst exacting a
promise to report on one each day, when I know I shall be five miles
from the nearest postoffice, and that I shall bring them all back
And, last of all, I slip to bed, and to dreams of gigantic honkers
serene in the blue above; of whirring, whistling wings that cut the air
like myriad knife blades; until I wake up with a start at the rattle of
the telephone beside my bed, and I know that, though dark as a pit of
pitch, it is morning, and that Sandford is already astir.
In the smoking-car forward I find Sandford. He is a most
disreputable-looking specimen. Garbed in weather-stained corduroys, and
dried-grass sweater, and great calfskin boots, he sprawls among
gun-cases and shell-carriersno sportsman will entrust these
essentials to the questionable ministrations of a baggage-manand the
air about him is blue from the big cigar he is puffing so ecstatically.
He nods and proffers me its mate.
Going to be a great day, he announces succinctly, and despite a
rigorous censorship there is a suggestion of excitement in the voice.
The wind's dead north, and it's cloudy and damp. Rain, maybe, about
Yes. I am lighting up stolidly, although my nerves are atingle.
We're going to hit it right, just right. The flight's on. I heard
them going over all night. The lake will be black with the big fellows,
the Canada boys.
Yes, I repeat; then conscience gives a last dig. I ought not to
do it, though. I didn't have time to break a single engagementI'm a
dental surgeon, too, by the way, with likewise an office of tile and
enamelor explain at all. And the muss there'll be at the shop
Forget it, you confounded old dollar-grubber! A fresh torrent of
smoke belches forth, so that I see Sandford's face but dimly through
the haze. If you mention teeth again, until we're backmerely mention
themI'll throttle you!
The train is in motion now, and the arc-lights at the corners,
enshrouded each by a zone of mist, are flitting by.
Yes, he repeats, and again his voice has that minor strain of
suppressed excitement, we're hitting it just right. There'll be rain,
or a flurry of snow, maybe, and the paddle feet will be down in the
CHAPTER VIMARK THE RIGHT, SANDFORD!
And they are. Almost before we have stumbled off at the deserted
station into the surrounding darkness, Johnson's familiar bass is
heralding the fact.
Millions of 'em, boys, he assures us, billions! Couldn't sleep
last night for the racket they made on the lake. Never saw anything
like it in the twenty years I've lived on the bank. You sure have
struck it this time. Right this way, he is staggering under the load
of our paraphernalia; rig's all ready and Molly's got the kettle on at
home, waiting breakfast for you.... Just as fat as you were last year,
ain't ye? a time-proven joke, for I weigh one hundred and eight
pounds. Try to pull you out, though; try to. And his great laugh
drowns the roar of the retreating train.
At another time, that five-mile drive in the denser darkness, just
preceding dawn, would have been long perhaps, the springs of that
antiquated buckboard inadequate, the chill of that damp October air
piercing; but nowwe notice nothing, feel nothing uncomfortable. My
teeth chatter a bit now and then, when I am off guard, to be sure; but
it is not from cold, and the vehicle might be a Pullman coach for aught
I am conscious.
For we have reached the border of the marsh, now, and are skirting
its edge, andYes, those are ducks, really; that black mass, packed
into the cove at the lee of those clustering rushes, protected from the
wind, the whole just distinguishable from the lighter shadow of the
water: ducks and brant; dots of white, like the first scattered
snowflakes on a sooty city roof!
Mark the right, Sandford, I whisper in oblivion. Mark the right!
And, breaking the spell, Johnson laughs.
CHAPTER VIITHE BACON WHAT AM!
When is bacon bacon, and eggs eggs? When is coffee coffee, and the
despised pickerel, fresh from the cold water of the shaded lake, a
glorious brown food, fit for the gods?
Answer, while Molly (whose real name is Aunt Martha) serves them to
us, forty-five minutes later.
Oh, if we only had time to eat, as that breakfast deserves to be
eaten! If we only had time!
But we haven't; no; Sandford says so, in a voice that leaves no room
for argument. The sky is beginning to redden in the east; the surface
of the water reflects the glow, like a mirror; and, seen through the
tiny-paned windows, black specks, singly and in groups, appear and
disappear, in shifting patterns, against the lightening background.
No more now, Aunt Marthano. Wait until noon; just waitand
then watch us! Ready, Ed?
Waiting for you, Sam. It's been a year since I called him by his
Christian name; but I never notice, nor does he. All ready.
Better try the point this morning; don't you think, Johnson?
Yes, if you've your eye with ye. Won't wait while y' sprinkle salt
on their tails, them red-heads and canvas boys. No, sir-ree.
CHAPTER VIIIFEATHERED BULLETS
The breath of us is whistling through our nostrils, like the muffled
exhaust of a gasoline engine, and our hearts are thumping two-steps on
our ribs from the exertion, when we reach the end of the rock-bestrewn
point which, like a long index finger, is thrust out into the bosom of
the lake. The wind, still dead north, and laden with tiny drops of
moisture, like spray from a giant atomizer, buffets us steadily; but
thereof we are sublimely unconscious.
For at last we are there, there; precisely where we were
yesterdayno, a year agoand the light is strong enough now, so that
when our gun-barrels stand out against the sky, we can see the sights,
Down! Down, behind the nearest stunted willow tree; behind
anythingquick!for they're coming: a great dim wedge, with the apex
toward us, coming swiftly on wings that propel two miles to the minute,
when backed by a wind that makes a mile in one.
Comingno; arrived. Fair overhead are the white of breasts, of
plump bodies flashing through the mist, the swishing hiss of many wings
cutting the air, the rhythmic pat, patBang!
Was it Sandford's gun, or was it mine? Who knows? The reports were
And thensplash! and a second later,splash! as two
dots leave the hurtling wedge and, with folded wings, pitch at an
angle, following their own momentum, against the dull brown surface of
the rippling water.
Through the intervening branches and dead sunflower stalks, I look
at Sandfordto find that Sandford is looking at me.
Good work, old man! I say, and notice that my voice is a little
higher than normal.
Good work, yourself,generously. I missed clean, both barrels.
Do better next time, though, perhaps.... Down! Mark north! Take
the leader, you.
From out the mist, dead ahead, just skimming the surface of the
water, and coming straight at us, like a mathematically arranged
triangle of cannon balls, taking definite form and magnitude oh, so
swiftly, unbelievably swift; comingyesdirectly overhead, as before,
the pulsing, echoing din in our ears.
Again the four reports that sounded as two; and they are past; no
longer a regular formation, but scattered erratically by the alarm,
individual vanishing and dissolving dots, speedily swallowed up by the
gray of the mist.
But this time there was no echoing splash, as a hurtling body struck
the water, nor tense spoken word of congratulation followingnothing.
For ten seconds, which is long under the circumstances, not a word is
spoken; only the metallic click of opened locks, as they spring home,
breaks the steady purr of the wind; then:
Safe from me when they come like that, admits Sandford, unless I
have a ten-foot pole, and they happen to run into it.
And from me, I echo.
Lord, how they come! They just simply materialize before your eyes,
like an impression by flash-light; and thenvanish.
Seems as though they'd take fire, like meteorites, from the
I'm looking for the smoke, myselfDown! Mark your left!
Pat! pat! pat! Swifter than spoken words, swift
as the strokes of an electric fan, the wings beat the air.
Swish-h-h! long-drawn out, crescendo, yet crescendo
as, razor-keen, irresistible, those same invisible wings cut it through
and through; while, answering the primitive challenge, responding to
the stimulus of the game, the hot tingle of excitement speeds up and
down our spines. Nearer, nearer, mounting, perpendicular
The third battalion of that seemingly inexhaustible army has come
and gone; and, mechanically, we are thrusting fresh shells into the
faintly smoking gun-barrels.
Got mine that time, both of them. No repression, nor polite
self-abnegation from Sandford this time; just plain, frank exultation
and pride of achievement. Led 'em a yardtwo, maybe; but I got 'em
clean. Did you see?
Yes, good work, I echo in the formula.
Canvas-backs, every one; nothing but canvas-backs. Again the old
marvel, the old palliation that makes the seemingly unequal game fair.
But, Lord, how they do go; how anything alive can go soand be
Mark to windward! Straight ahead! Down!
This, the morning. Then, almost before we mark the change,
swift-passing time has moved on; the lowering mist has lifted; the
occasional pattering rain-drops have ceased; the wind, in sympathy, is
diminished. And of a sudden, arousing us to a consciousness of time and
place, the sun peeps forth through a rift in the scattering clouds, and
at a point a bit south of the zenith.
Noon! comments Sandford, intensely surprised. Somehow, we are
always astonished that noon should follow so swiftly upon sunrise.
Well, who would have thought it!
That instant I am conscious, for the first time, of a certain
violent aching void making insistent demand.
I wouldn't have done so before, but now that you mention it, I do
think it emphatically. This is a pitiful effort at a jest, but it
passes unpunished. There comes Johnson to bring in the birds.
After dinnerand oh, what a dinner! for, having adequate time to do
it justice, we drag it on and on, until even Aunt Martha is
satisfiedwe curl up in the sunshine, undimmed and gloriously warm; we
light our briers, and, too lazily, nervelessly content to even talk,
lay looking out over the blue water that melts and merges in the
distance with the bluer sky above. After a bit, our pipes burn dead and
our eyelids drop, and with a last memory of sunlight dancing on a
myriad tiny wavelets, and a blessed peace and abandon soaking into our
very souls we doze, then sleep, sleep as we never sleep in the city; as
we had fancied a short day before never to sleep again; dreamlessly,
childishly, as Mother Nature intended her children to sleep.
Then, from without the pale of utter oblivion, a familiar voice
breaks slowly upon our consciousness: the voice of Johnson, the
Got your blind all built, boys, and the decoys is outfour dozen
of them, he admonishes, sympathetically. Days are getting short, now,
so you'd better move lively, if you get your limit before dark.
CHAPTER XUPON WIPING THE EYE
To poets and epicures, perhaps, the lordly canvas-backthough
brown from the oven, I challenge the supercilious gourmet to
distinguish between his favorite, and a fat American coot. But for me
the loud-voiced mallard, with his bottle-green head and audaciously
curling tail; for he will decoy.
I am quoting Sandford. Be that as it may, we are there, amid
frost-browned rushes that rustle softly in the wind: a patch of shallow
open water, perhaps an acre in extent, to the leeward of us, where the
decoys, heading all to windward, bob gently with the slight swell.
Now this is something like sport, adds my companion, settling back
comfortably in the slough-grass blind, built high to the north to cut
out the wind, and low to the south to let in the sun. On the point,
there, this morning you scored on me, I admit it; but this is where I
shine: real shooting; one, or a pair at most, at a time; no scratches;
no excuses. Lead on, MacDuff, and if you miss, all's fair to the second
All right, Sam.
No small birds, either, understand: no teal, or widgeon, or
shovellers. This is a mallard hole. Nothing but mallards goes.
All right, Sam.
Now is your chance, then.... Now!
He's right. Now is my chance, indeed.
Over the sea of rushes, straight toward us, is coming a pair, a
single pair; and, yes, they are unmistakably mallards. It is feeding
time, or resting time, and they are flying lazily, long necks extended,
searching here and there for the promised lands. Our guns indubitably
cover it; and though I freeze still and motionless, my nerves stretch
tight in anticipation, until they tingle all but painfully.
On the great birds come; on and still on, until in another second
That instant they see the decoys, and, warned simultaneously by an
ancestral suspicion, they swing outward in a great circle, without
apparent effort on their part, to reconnoitre.
Though I do not stir, I hear the pat! pat! of their
wings, as they pass by at the side, just out of gunshot. Then, pat!
pat! back of me, then, pat! pat! on the other side,
until once again I see them, from the tail of my eye, merge into view
All is wellvery welland, suspicions wholly allayed at last, they
whirl for the second oncoming; just above the rushes, now; wings spread
wide and motionless; sailing nearer, nearer
Now! whispers Sandford, now!
Out of our nest suddenly peeps my gun barrel; and, simultaneously,
the wings, a second before motionless, begin to beat the air in frantic
But it is too late.
Bang! What! not a feather drops?... Bang! Quack!
Quack! Bang! Bang!... Splash!... Quack! Quack! Quack!
That is the storyall except for Sandford's derisive laugh.
What'd I tell you? he exults. Wiped your eye for you that time,
How in the world I missed It is all that I can say. They looked
as big asas suspended tubs.
Buck-fever, explains Sandford, laconically.
That's all right. I feel my fighting-blood rising, and I swear
with a mighty wordless oath that I'll be avenged for that laugh. The
day is young yet. If, before night, I don't wipe both your eyes, and
wipe them good
I know you will, old man. Sandford is smiling understandingly, and
in a flash I return the smile with equal understanding. And when you
do, laugh at me, laugh long and loud.
CHAPTER XITHE COLD GRAY DAWN
At a quarter of twelve o'clock a week later, I slip out of my office
sheepishly, and, walking a half-block, take the elevator to the fifth
floor of the Exchange Building, on the corner. The white enamel of
Sandford's tiny box of an office glistens, as I enter the door, and the
tiling looks fresh and clean, as though scrubbed an hour before.
Doctor's back in the laboratory, smiles the white-uniformed
attendant, as she grasps my identity.
On a tall stool, beside the laboratory lathe, sits Sandford, hard at
work. He acknowledges my presence with a nodand that is all.
Noon, Sandford, I announce.
Is it? laconically.
Thought I'd drop over to the club for lunch, and a little smoke
afterward. Want to go along?
Can't. The whirr of the electric lathe never ceases. Got to
finish this bridge before one o'clock. Sorry, old man.
Harry just 'phoned and asked me to come and bring you. I throw the
bait with studied nicety. He's getting up a party to go out to
Johnson's, and wants to talk things over a bit in advance.
Harry! Irony fairly drips from the voice. He's always going
somewhere. Mustn't have much else to do. Anyway, can't possibly meet
him this noon.
To-night, then. I suggest tentatively. He can wait until then,
Got to work to-night, too. Things are all piled up on me. Sandford
applies a fresh layer of pumice to the swiftly moving polishing wheel,
with practised accuracy. Tell Harry I'm sorry; but business is
business, you know.
Purr-r-r! drones on the lathe, purr-r-r! I hear it
as I silently slip away.
Yes, Sandford is sane; and will be for fifty-one weeks.