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What the Pink Flamingo Did by Susan Coolidge

 

The great pink flamingo roused from his resting-place among the sedges when the noise began. At first he only stirred sleepily, and wondered, half awake, at the unusual sounds; but as they increased, curiosity began to trouble him. Party after party in launches or bright-hued gondolas glided past, all gay and chattering, and full of excitement about something, he did not know what. It was the first night on which the buildings and grounds of the Chicago Fair were illuminated, and the flamingo could not tell what to make of it, any more than could the herons and swans, the Muscovy ducks, the cranes, or any other of the winged creatures which had learned to make themselves at home on the banks of the lagoons.

The pink flamingo's name was Coco. He had been “raised” on the shore of the St. Johns River, in Florida, as the pet and protégé of Cecil Schott, a boy who had taught him many tricks,—to catch fish and fetch them out in his mouth, as a retriever fetches a bird, to eat caramels, to dive after objects thrown into the water and bring them up in his beak:—after Cecil himself even, so long as he was small enough to be counted as an “object.” Often and often had Coco plunged into the deep river, following the downward sweep of his little master, and seized him by the arm or foot before he was anywhere near the bottom. He would eat from Cecil's hand, also, and stand by his side, folding one wide wing across the boy's shoulder, as though it were an arm. Cecil was growing up now, and had been sent to school; so when Mr. Schott heard that the Chicago directors were making a collection of birds for the Fair Grounds, he offered Coco, whose fearlessness and familiarity with human beings seemed peculiarly to adapt him for a public position.

When the fifth electrical launch had sped past the sedges, and strange, hovering lights began to burn in the sky, and ring the domes and roofs in the distance toward the south, Coco could endure it no longer, and, betaking himself to the water, started on a tour of investigation. He looked very big in the dim light of the upper waterways,—almost as big as the smaller of the gondolas. The people in the boats exclaimed with astonishment as he passed them, his broad wings raised above him, like rose-colored sails, and his stout legs beating the water into foam behind, like a propeller.

At first his course lay amid soft shadows. The upper part of the Fair Grounds was not illuminated, and only a bird's keen vision could have made out accustomed objects. But the flamingo had no difficulty in seeing. He knew exactly where to look for the nest of the female swan on the wooded island. He could even make out her dim white shape in the gloom, and hear the disturbed flutter of her wings. There was the plantation of white hyacinths, and there the outline of the shabby old “Prairie Schooner,” into which he had more than once poked his inquisitive head. There stood the “Log Cabin,” and beyond, the twinkling lanterns of the Japanese Tea Garden. The pink flamingo recognized them all. Under one graceful bridge after another, past one enormous beautiful building after another, he swept, following the curves and turnings of the waterways, startled here and there by unaccustomed lights and the sounds of a hurrying crowd, till at last, with one bold sweep, he glided under the last arch and out into the broad basin of the Court of Honor.

He had been there before. Catch the pink flamingo leaving any part of the Fair Grounds unexplored! He was not that sort of bird. He had even been there in the evening, when the moon shone clearly on the water, with only a point of light here and there on the surrounding shores, and no sounds to break the stillness but the plash of waves washing in from the lake, and the low talk of little groups of late-stayers, sitting on the steps before the Liberal Arts Building, looking across to the fountain and the dim row of sculptured forms on the summit of the Peristyle. But now all was different. The gilded dome of the Administration Building was ringed with lines of fire. The façade of the Agricultural blazed with lights, which shone on the bas-reliefs and sculptures, on the winged Diana above, and the great bulls which guard the approach to the boat-landing. Every figure which topped the long double lines of the Peristyle stood out distinctly against the transparent sky; the gilding of the broad arch toward the lake glowed ruddy in the light, and so did the majestic figure of the Republic, its noble outline reflected in the shimmering waters beneath. The great fountain opposite caught the blaze, and sent its smooth shoots over the basin edges with a white phosphorescent radiance. Then a wide beam from a search-light swept across, and seemed to turn the figures into life; made the form of the Discoverer and the beautiful figures of the rowing women on either side, throb and pulsate, fluctuating with the fluctuating ray, till they seemed to bend and move. On either side, the electrical fountains lifted high in air great sheaves of iridescent colors, scarlet, green, and blue, like a flag of upheaving jewels, while the faces of the immense throng along the esplanades and on the dome of the Administration Building changed from gloom to glory and back again to gloom as the dancing ray wandered to and fro.

It was a scene from fairyland; but it did not altogether please Coco, who, startled and affrighted, made a dive, and disappeared under water by way of a relief to his feelings. Then he came up again, and, growing by degrees accustomed to these novel splendors, he recovered confidence, and began to look about him.

“Oh, what a beautiful bird!” he heard some one say; and though he did not understand the words, he knew well enough that he was being admired, and thereupon proceeded to make himself a part of the show. He splashed, dived, extended his wide wings, curved his long neck, and generally exhibited himself to the best of his ability, all the time maintaining an absent-minded air, as if he were not aware that any one else was present. Coco was very conceited for a bird.

Meanwhile, at about the same moment in which the pink flamingo was roused from his slumbers, a small Turkish boy named Hassan awoke from his, in the retirement of the Midway Plaisance. He had not been at all a good little Turk since he came to America, his parents thought. Something in the air of freedom had apparently demoralized him. It might be that domestic discipline had been relaxed since their arrival, for there had been much to do in getting the Turkish Bazaar and the Mosque and the Village ready; but certain it is that Hassan had been naughtier and given more trouble during the past ten weeks than in all the previous years of his short life. Once, in a great rain-storm, he had actually run away, slipping past the guard at the gate, and tearing wildly down the street. Where he was going, he did not know or care; all he wanted was to run. How far he might have gone, or what would have become of him in the end, no one can say, had his father not caught a glimpse of the small fleeting figure.

“Beard of the Prophet!” ejaculated the scandalized Mustapha. “That son of Sheitan, the enemy of true believers, will be run over by the horses of the infidel if I do not overtake him speedily.”

He tucked up his blue robe, which almost touched the muddy ground, it was so long, revealing, as he did so, yellow boots topped with American socks, and, above these, a pair of green drawers, and started in pursuit. Alas! the guard at the turnstile stopped him, and demanded his pass. In vain Mustapha remonstrated, and explained, in fluent Turkish, that his sole object was to capture his evil child, who had escaped from home. The guard did not understand the language of Turkey, and persisted, explaining, in the tongue of Chicago, that he was acting under orders, and that no “foreigner” could go in or out without proper authority.

“Permit! Permit! Pass! Pass! You must show your pass!” cried the guard. “Backsheesh, you know.”

It was his sole Turkish word. He had learned it since the Fair opened from hearing it so often.

“You bet!” responded Mustapha. It was his sole English word. “The Prophet visit you with a murrain and total baldness!” he continued, in his own vernacular. Then, seeing that Hassan, who was having a most enjoyable time, was nearing a corner and about to disappear, he uttered a wild shout of despair, and, thrusting the guard aside, darted through the gate and after the child. His long petticoat waggled in the wind, and blew behind him like a wet umbrella broken loose. The guard was so convulsed with laughter that he could only stand still and hold his sides. Two chairmen, who had trundled two ladies down the Plaisance to the gate, were as much convulsed as he. Little Hassan ran for all he was worth. His gown of drab cotton, as long, in proportion, as his father's, switched and fluttered as he flew along. But longer legs always have the advantage over shorter ones in a race. The pursuer gained on the pursued. When Hassan saw that there was no hope, and he was bound to be overtaken, he just flung himself down in a mud-puddle and kicked and screamed. His exasperated parent pulled him up, and, with a shake, set him on his feet. Hassan made his legs limp, and refused to walk; so Mustapha tucked him under his arm, and strode back toward the Plaisance. The guard was still too doubled up with laughter for speech, so he let him pass unscolded. Once safely inside, Mustapha shifted his wet and dirty little burden on to its feet, whirled aside the drab skirt, and, with trenchant slaps, administered a brief but effectual American spanking. He then conducted Hassan to his veiled mother in her retirement, and intimated his pleasure that he should be made to undergo a further penance.

It was this same naughty little Turk who woke up at the same time with the pink flamingo. He heard music and shouts, and saw the same strange glow toward the southward which had startled the bird from its rest. His father and mother had joined the motley throng of foreign folk of all nationalities, garbs, and shades of complexion,—Arabs, Javanese, Alaskans, Eskimos, South Sea Islanders, Cossacks, American Indians, and East Indians, Chinese, and Dahomyans,—who had flocked out of the Plaisance to see the spectacle. No one was left behind but the sleeping children, and here was Hassan, no longer asleep, but very wide awake indeed.

[Illustration: Down the esplanade sped the little figure.—PAGE 191.]

No time did he lose in hesitation; he knew in a moment what he wanted to do. His queer little clothes were close at hand,—the drab gown, still mud-stained from his run, the yellow slippers, the small fez for his head. Into them he skipped, and, stepping out of the door, he ran down the Plaisance, keeping on the shaded side as far as might be, for fear of being stopped. He need not have been afraid; there was no one to stop him. The great Woman's Building came in sight, with the outlines of the still larger Horticultural beyond. Down the esplanade sped the little figure. The light grew more brilliant with every turn; more and more people passed him, but all were pressing southward. And in a crowd like this, nobody had time to notice the advent of such a very small Turk among them. Hot and breathless after his long run, Hassan at last emerged, as the pink flamingo had done, on the Court of Honor.

Here his smallness proved an advantage to him, for he could crowd himself into minute spaces in the living mass where a grown person could not go, squeeze between people's legs, and wriggle and twist, all the time pressing steadily forward, till at last he gained the parapet, and, climbing up, seated himself comfortably on the top. Then his eyes and mouth opened simultaneously into an “Ahi!” of wonder, for close before him was one of the electrical fountains, shooting blue and crimson fires, and a little beyond shone the pulsating radiance of the dazzling forms grouped above the Discoverer, the rearing horses, the winged shape in the bow of the boat. Never before had anything so wonderful been seen by our little Turk. The great basin twinkled with reflected lights, like a starry sky set upside down; overhead the statues glittered; a round silver moon hung above, and broad rays, like her own beams intensified and set into motion, wandered to and fro from the search-light opposite, darting now on a splendid façade, now on a towering dome, again on a bridge packed with people, whose expectant faces were all turned skyward, and, finally, on a great pink bird which was wheeling and turning in the water.

There was a sudden small splash.

“Oh, oh!” shrieked a child's voice, in tones of distress, “my dolly's fallen in! Mamma, Mamma, that was my dolly that fell in. She'll be all drowned! Oh, my dolly!” Then the voice changed to one of amazement and joy: “Oh, Mamma, see that bird! He has got her!”

Coco had spied the doll as it fell, and, true to his early training, dived after it as a matter of course, and came up with the doll in his bill.

“Oh, you good birdie! you dear birdie!” cried the little one, stretching her arms over the parapet. “Let me have Dolly again, please, dear birdie!”

Coco understood only Flamingo, and had no idea what the little girl was saying; but as a nibble or two had showed that the doll was not edible, he made no resistance when a gentleman reached over from the edge of a gondola and took it from his beak. It was handed back to its little owner amid a great clapping and laughing, and Coco was given an Albert biscuit instead, which he liked much better, and speedily disposed of. He knew that the applause was meant for him, and, puffed up with pride, sailed vain-gloriously to and fro, waiting another chance to distinguish himself.

It came! There was another and much louder splash as a small red-capped figure toppled over into the water. It was Hassan, who, leaning over to watch the wonderful bird, had lost his balance.

No one laughed this time, and there was a general cry of “Oh, it was a child! A child has fallen in! Save him, some one!” People shouted for “a boat;” men pulled off their coats, making ready for a plunge; women began to cry; then, all at once, there was a general exclamation of astonishment and admiration.

“The bird has got him” cried a hundred voices.

It was again Coco! To dive after Hassan, to seize the drab skirt in his beak, and bring the child again to the surface of the water, was an easy feat to him; but to the excited multitudes upon the banks it seemed well-nigh a miracle.

“Never saw such a thing in my life!” declared a man on the bridge. “Don't tell me that bird hasn't an intellect. No, sir! There ain't a man here could have done that better, nor so well as that there pelican. He is smart enough to vote, he is!”

“Too smart,” remarked his next neighbor. “He'd never stick to the regular ticket; he'd have a mind of his own. That ain't the sort we want over here. We want voters that don't have independent ideas, but just do as the boss tells 'em.”

“That's pretty true, I reckon,” replied the first man.

Meanwhile, Hassan was safe on shore. It had been for only one moment that the flamingo had needed to support his burden; then it was lifted from him by a man in a boat, who took time to tell him that he was a “first-rate fellow, a famous fellow, and ought to have a medal from the Humane Society.”

“He shall have one!” declared an enthusiastic lady in the crowd. “I will see to it myself.” And the next morning she bought a souvenir half-dollar, had “For a Brave Bird” engraved upon it, and a hole bored in its rim, through which she ran a pink ribbon. This she carried over to the Wooded Island, and, with the assistance of two Columbian guards, captured Coco, and tied the ribbon firmly round his neck. He resisted strenuously, and spent much time in trying to peck the decoration off; but as time went on, and he became accustomed to it, and found that wherever he went it made him conspicuous, and that the other birds envied him the notice he attracted, he rather learned to like his “medal;” and he wore it to the very end of the Columbian Exposition.

Meanwhile, as Fate willed it, the dripping Hassan was handed ashore precisely at that point of the esplanade where stood his father and mother! They had not seen the accident, nor understood that it was a boy who had fallen in and been rescued by a bird; so when a wet little object was set to drip almost at their feet, and they recognized in it their own offspring, whom they supposed to be safely asleep at home, it will be easily imagined that their wrath and astonishment knew no bounds.

“Ahi! child of sin, contaminated by the unbeliever, is it indeed thou?” cried the irate Mustapha. “What djinnee, what imp of Eblis hath brought thee here?”

“He hath been in the water, Allah preserve us!” cried the more tender-hearted mother. “He might have been drowned.”

“In the water! Nay, then; wherefore is he not in bed where we left him? We will see if this imp of evil be not taught to avoid the water in the future. On my head be it if he is not, Inshallah!”

So the weeping Hassan was led home by his family, his garments leaving a trail of drip on the concrete all the way up the long distance; and in the seclusion of the temporary harem he was caused to see the error of his way.

“Thou shalt be made to remember,” declared his irate parent in the pauses of discipline. “I will not have thee as the sons of these infidels who despise correction, saying 'I will' and 'I will not,' and are as a blemish and a darkening to the faces of their parents. The Prophet rebuke me if I do! Inshallah!”

But Coco, when the lights were put out and the great crowd streamed away, leaving the Fair Grounds to silence and loneliness, and the lagoons became again a soft land of shadows broken by reaches of moonlight, sailed back to his perch among the sedges with a calm and satisfied mind. He had a right to be pleased with himself. Had he not saved two “people,” one very small and hard, and the other very big and soft? Nothing whispered of that dreadful half-dollar which was coming on the morrow to vex his spirit. No one said to him “Inshallah.” He tucked his head under his wing and went to sleep, a peaceful and contented flamingo; and the moral is, “Be virtuous and you will be happy.”