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A Bird Story by WM. M. F. Round

 

Visible from my study-window, and less than a stone's throw away, is a cottage, all tree-embowered and vine-covered, which its owners call "The Nest." All over the house, wherever a bird-box can be placed, there you are sure to find one. These little homes nestle under the eaves among the supporting brackets; they hide under the nooks of the gables; they are perched above the windows; they are indeed to be found wherever you would be likely to look for them, and in a good many places where you would never think of looking. Besides these bird-boxes on the house, there are bird-boxes in the trees, bird-boxes airily placed on high poles—bird-boxes in all forms, from the plain four-sided salt-box to the elaborate Swiss chalet and the pretentious be-spired and be-columned meeting-house. Then there are bird-cages—pretty brass cages, with tarlatan petticoats to keep the seeds from flying out, and tied with such dainty bows of ribbon that one has no need to be told there is a woman in the house; there are capacious cages in which brown mocking-birds sit all day long echoing back the other birds' songs they hear; there are dainty glass cages from Venice, in which Java sparrows carry on their ceaseless love-making, billing and cooing for hours and hours, as if all life to them was an interminable honeymoon. There is also a great white parrot, who, perched in a brass ring, mutters and mutters to himself for hours, and hums snatches of tunes, and calls imaginary dogs and visionary cats; and when he sees a certain manly form coming up the garden-walk is wont to cry out in a miserable mockery of tenderness, "Oh, my darling! I'm so glad to see you!" and then smack his bill as near like a kiss as he can, and chuckle and laugh and turn somersaults, and otherwise disport himself as parrots do when they are pleased.

And while all this is going on there comes running out of the house a pretty little figure in a fresh muslin dress and with outstretched arms; and, strangely enough, she says just what Polly has said, and there is a kiss that is no imitation, and a responsive kiss that fairly puts Polly to shame; but the bird chuckles and laughs nevertheless.

When all this takes place—and it is no more of an event than the daily home-coming of our good neighbor and dear friend Arthur Sterling, Esq., barrister-at-law,—when this home-coming takes place, all the birds at The Nest break forth into a merrier song—get so enthusiastic in their pipings that you'd think, to hear them, that they would split their throats; and still gladder and sweeter and merrier than their song is the voice of our dear neighbor's wife, Mistress May Sterling, who pours forth, in a ceaseless chattering song, a whole day's accumulation of love—yes indeed, a whole lifetime's accumulation; and while the rippling flow goes on their two fond hearts sing louder with joy than any birds would ever dare to think of singing.

How they love the birds! And why not? Since but for a little bird they would not have been together in this sweet little nest, outbilling and outcooing the Java sparrows, dwelling in the land of Love's young dream, in the sunshine of each other's affection, and ready to declare upon oath that there is no night in their lives that isn't radiant with the sheen of the honeymoon.

And now I'll tell you the story of a little bird as Mistress May Sterling told it to me one evening while her Arthur and I smoked our cigars in the moonlight on The Nest's piazza. No: on the whole, Mistress Sterling shall tell the story herself: she tells it much better than I can.

"Why, yes," she says, "I'll tell it: why not? I love to tell it, for, taken altogether, it is the best story I ever heard of.—Kiss me, dear."

Arthur having done as he was bidden, Mrs. Sterling begins at once, and all you and I have to do is to listen:

"When I was young and giddy—ever and ever so long ago, of course: indeed I was quite a girl then, only eighteen—I was, as you may imagine, quite a pet with my father—don't laugh, Arthur: you know I was—and quite a belle too, I can assure you, with lots of young men flinging themselves at my feet and swearing all kinds of oaths about fidelity and everlasting affection, and all the other things that young and enthusiastic—"

"And inexperienced," put in Arthur.

"Don't interrupt me, sir. Where was I? Oh yes!—that young and enthusiastic and inexperienced people are accustomed to swear. And my father, who was very stern and had old-fashioned notions—and has now, for that matter, dear old papa!—said that, whatever befell, he would not on any account give the least encouragement or the slightest permission to any lover till I was past twenty years old. Not that I cared, only it was such fun to hear the men talk, and me looking unutterable things and saying softly, 'You must never say anything to me on this subject again till you have papa's consent: he would be very angry if he knew what you've said already'! You see, I knew papa's will—it is unchangeable as granite: at least I thought it was—and I felt perfectly safe.

"This was, you know—no, you don't know—but it was the year I came out in society. And I used to go to receptions and all sorts of things with papa, and receive his company, and sit at the head of the table, and keep house, just as my mother would have done if she'd been living. I hardly remember mamma: I was not four years old when she died. And society and people's admiration seemed so glorious! I declared I'd never marry, but go on to the end of my days saying 'No' to any man that asked me, and enjoying such a lot of pity for the poor fellows. I deliberately hardened my heart, as many a girl does at that age, and fairly pitied—yes, actually pitied—the girls that were so weak as to fall in love and get married. I think papa used to encourage me in the feeling, for he didn't like to think of losing me out of the house, and he a judge and a Congressman, and having ever so much company, and nobody but dear old-fashioned Aunt Jane to help him receive them if I was to leave him.

"When father was re-elected to Congress we had a glorious reception at our house in the country, and among others that came to it was a Mr. Sterling, the son of my father's college chum, and a promising young sprig of the law, father said. He came to stay a day or two in the house as a visitor before the reception, and was to leave the morning after it took place."

At this point in the narrative Mr. Arthur bethought him of a letter he must write, and begged to be excused for a time—a piece of rare good sense on his part, considering how much the story had to do with himself.

"During his stay we had been a good deal together. I had been his guide to all the famous spots in the neighborhood, and he had been chatty and bright, and amused me greatly. We had a little chat in the conservatory that evening of the reception, and I told him I was sorry to have him leave.

"'Thank you,' he said. 'I would rather hear you say that than anything you could have said, except one.'

"'What is that, pray?' I asked.

"'That you would like to see me here again.'

"'Oh,' I replied, 'I never give invitations: papa does that. Of course he'll be glad to see you again.'

"'And you?'

"'Why, since you insist upon my saying it, I shall be glad too: you amuse me greatly.'

"'So might a tight-rope performer or a performing dog, I suppose?'

"'No: I don't care for such amusements. I like to hear the talk of bright men, and you strike me as a very bright man.'

"'It is only the reflection of yourself, Miss Bronson,' he said in a cold society tone, which, strange to say, pained me, and I replied that I didn't care for compliments: I had plenty of them, and they palled on me.

"Then he said, 'Do you want me to tell you the truth, the out-and-out truth—the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God?'

"'That's an oath, Mr. Sterling,' I said: 'don't commit yourself.'

"'I do commit myself—I came here to commit myself. I want you to hear me out and believe that I realize fully the solemnity of what I am saying. I have sought this opportunity to tell you that I love you, Miss Bronson.'

"Strangely enough, I wasn't the least moved: I don't think my heart beat the least bit faster; and I said, 'Why, Mr. Sterling, how can you know anything about me? How can you love me, when you've known me only two days, and seen me always on my best behavior? I am a very unlovable person: if you only knew me well you'd soon find it out. Of course, if you love me, it is all very well for you to tell me so, but I can't understand why you should.'

"'Is that all you have to say to me, Miss Bronson?' he asked earnestly.

"'Why, what can I say? You don't know me, and I don't know you; and you think you love me, and I don't love you at all. I'm fond of you in a certain way, to be sure, but love is quite a different thing. I never shall love anybody very much except papa: I never intend to. I'm very kind to you, Mr. Sterling, to talk to you as I do. In a few weeks, when you've all but forgotten my existence, you'll think of me just enough to be grateful to me for talking to you as I have. Love isn't a mushroom to spring up in a night: it is an oak to grow and grow, and only come to perfection after years and years. You don't love me at all, Mr. Sterling: you only think you do.'

"All this time he stood silent, looking more awkward than I ever saw him before or have seen him since. Then he put out his hand and said, 'I'll bid you good-bye, Miss Bronson: I'm going early in the morning. I shall not see you then, so I'll say good-bye now. I am going abroad in a few days.'

"'Abroad! where?' I hadn't heard of it, and I felt a strange sort of pang—of surprise, I thought.

"'To Leipsic, to finish my studies. I shall be gone a considerable time—two years at least. When I return I shall come to you and repeat what I've said to-night.'

"'Oh no, you won't: you'll forget all about it. I'd much rather you would. Please don't feel bound to come back: I release you from your oath, and I shall not expect you.'

"I don't know what more we might have said, but there was a flutter among the vines by the door, and we thought some one was near us. We were just returning into the adjoining dining-room when a little brown bird flew out into the light, and, hopping about among the flowers, began chirping in a sad sort of way that caught our attention at once.

"'It is only the little widow,' I said.

"'Lost her mate, eh?' Arthur said carelessly. He wasn't Arthur then, you know, but Mr. Sterling.

"'Yes: he's deserted her. She built here in the vines last spring when the conservatory was all thrown open. They were such a pair of lovers, she and her mate! She raised two broods of little ones, and it was quite a domestic revelation for me to see them, they seemed so fond of each other, and so happy, and so loving. But a month ago, when the plants were brought in and the cold nights began to come on, he left her, and she has been sad and heartbroken ever since.'

"'Perhaps he'll come back to her by and by,' said Arthur.

"'Oh no: he'll no more come back to her than you'll come back to me.'

"'Then he's sure to come,' replied Arthur; and just then my father came to look for me and bid me join the other guests.

"I didn't see Arthur again that night, and the next day he was gone. I never missed anybody so much. Nobody and nothing seemed to fill his place. I went into the room he had occupied, and found there a glove that he had left behind. I took it to my room and said, 'I'll keep it for him till he comes back.' I tried to speak lightly, and was surprised and angry at myself that the trivial thought seemed to mean so much.

"The winter wore on, and the little forsaken bird remained in the conservatory, and sometimes would fly into the room, and I felt a lonely sort of sympathy with it. I used to take the bird in my hand sometimes and call it a poor thing, and talk to it, and tell it that it was no worse off than many a poor girl or many a young wife, for men were like her mate, and promised all sorts of things they didn't mean, and couldn't be faithful if they tried. After a while we went to Washington, and I saw a great many people and received a great deal of attention. The Prussian ambassador had a brother visiting him—a Baron Dumbkopf—very handsome, very rich, very distingué, and soon very attentive to me. He was constantly at our house, and he was agreeable enough and easy to talk to, and very obedient, and very seldom a bore. I rather liked him, and papa liked him exceedingly. I wasn't at all surprised when one day he suddenly became sentimental and ended by offering me his hand.

"'Have you spoken with my father on this subject?' I asked.

"He had not: would I give him permission to do so? I told him that I should not even consider his proposition for a moment till he had talked with my father; that I never intended to marry without my father's consent; and as for falling in love, I was sure I should never do that.

"So he went away to talk with my father, and I felt safe. I hadn't an idea papa would do as he did, you see; but the truth is, papas are not to be depended upon—at least, not always.

"The next day my father called me into the library and asked me if I loved Baron Dumbkopf.

"'No,' I said, 'I don't love him.'

"'Do you like him?'

"'No.'

"'Do you dislike him?'

"'No: I am quite indifferent to him.'

"'He is of a very good family and of excellent character,' said my father.

"'I know all that,' I replied. 'Do you wish me to marry him, papa?'

"'I can't say that I wish you to, my daughter, but if you loved him I should be pleased for you to have such a husband.'

"I was never more surprised in my life. Then he told me a great many things about the baron—how universally he was esteemed, what a position he held in society, how wealthy he was, how honorable and how good. These things I knew before. They certainly had weight with me in favor of the baron: I think they would have had with almost any girl. I asked my father if he had given the baron any encouragement, and he replied that he had left everything between the baron and myself for settlement.

"The next evening the German came again to woo me with my father's sanction. He became very earnest, and I told him that I would not, could not, give him any hope. He asked me if it might ever be otherwise, and I told him I thought not. 'Well,' he said, 'I shall certainly ask you again. I return to Germany in April, and I shall hope to carry home the tidings of my betrothal.'

"It was then late in the winter, and pretty soon we returned to the country, for father liked to be close to Nature when it burst into its new life.

"How nice it seemed to be once more in the old house! I soon found myself interested in my old occupations, and most of all in the care of the conservatory, which was then all abloom with azaleas and other spring-flowering plants. There too was the little widow, as sad as ever, but glad to see me back, and more than ready to resume the old friendship. We had hardly got into our old routine ways before my father announced one morning that the baron Dumbkopf was coming down to say good-bye before leaving for Germany. I knew very well what it all meant, and I began to think that as it was my father's wish that I should marry some time, and that as I could hardly find a husband more suited to his ideas, and that as I probably should never fall in love, I might as well accept him as anybody. Then I began to think of Arthur. Thoughts of the two men crossed and recrossed in my mind, closely woven like the threads in a cloth. I used to go and look at his glove and talk to the little bird-widow about him, and really was quite angry with myself for having him so much in my mind and he so long gone.

"At last the baron came. He was a splendid-looking man, and his manners were perfect. These things tell for so much with girls! He came, and one morning—I remember it well: it was a cold, blowy spring morning—he found me alone in the conservatory and renewed his suit. I was petting the little bird when he found me, and he said, 'Dear little bird! he is to be envied in having so much tenderness shown him.'

"'It is a female bird,' I said, 'and a forsaken bird, for its mate has flown away and left it broken-hearted;' and I began at once to think of Arthur, and fell into a reverie.

"The baron interpreted my little speech and my subsequent silence as favorable to himself. He really thought I was beginning to pity myself because he was going away. 'Ah,' he said, 'you know why I have come?'

"'To say good-bye,' I answered.

"'Perhaps, but to say first that I love you still, and to ask you to be my wife.'

"My heart beat rapidly now, and I think the little bird that I was holding to my bosom must have felt it, for it began to chirp in a low murmur as if it would comfort me.

"'Give me a little time to think,' I said; and, strangely enough, all my thinking was of Arthur and his going away, and his promised return; and then I said to myself, 'What folly! he has forgotten me. If he had loved me he wouldn't have gone till he had my word of love in return. He's forgotten all about me.'

"The baron was gaining ground with me: I was reasoning myself into something above esteem for him, and I turned to put my hand in his, when there was a tap at the window, and the little bird, struggling from my hand, burst into such a flood of singing that the whole place was drowned with melody.

"'Oh,' I cried, 'her mate has come back! her mate has come back! He is fluttering against the window. Do let him in, baron, the poor dear, happy little thing!' and I sat down among the azaleas and the budding Easter lilies and cried like a baby.

"The poor baron did let the little bird in, and side by side we witnessed the joy of their meeting, expressed in a hundred tender little caresses.

"At last the baron said, 'You forget, Miss Bronson, you haven't given me my answer.'

"'And I can't answer you now,' I said. 'Please forget me. Indeed, I don't know what to say to you: I believe I shall say No.'

"'Don't say anything,' he replied. 'I have done wrong. I have not given you time to think. I must go now, but a year from now I shall ask you the same question again, and then you must say Yes or No; and God grant it may be the first!'

"'You are very good,' I said; 'and a year hence I will tell you if I can be your wife or not.'

"So the baron went away, and he had hardly been gone a week when I was ashamed of having been so much affected by the bird's return. The idea of believing in omens! Then a little time further on there came a letter from a friend of mine in Leipsic which mentioned Arthur Sterling, spoke of him as a young man very popular in society—you know Arthur is most fascinating—and said that he was very attentive to a young American girl there, a beautiful blond: they were seen everywhere together, and report said he was to marry her.

"'It is a lie!' I said to myself: 'he promised to come back to me.' And then I said again, 'Why should I be angry? why should I believe him? I hardly knew him, and most men are false.' I was such a silly girl, I thought. Then father was always speaking of the baron: I could see that he was sorry I had not accepted him at once. And Aunt Jane, she had to talk to me about it, and say that she couldn't last long, and that father was getting old, and that I ought to think about getting married, and—Well, you know how women talk to each other about marrying. Considering that Aunt Jane had never thought of marrying herself, it oughtn't to have had much weight with me, but it did.

"The year wore on. Of course I thought a great deal about Arthur, but I thought a good deal about the baron too. The little bird was no longer lonesome; and as she and her mate had built themselves a nest, and had domestic duties to perform in rearing a brood of young ones, they were too much wrapped up in their own affairs to be very companionable. But when autumn came again, and the leaves were falling and the cold winds blew out of the north, that foolish little mate flew off to the south, and the little forsaken thing came back into the conservatory and wanted to be comforted. And we did comfort her as best we could. All the winter through she was in and out from the conservatory to the dining-room, becoming very friendly and answering to her name instantly: papa had named her Niobe.

"In due course of time the early spring came round again, and one April morning there came a letter from the baron. He asked me for my answer: should he come and take me with him to his German home? I showed the letter to papa, and all he said was, 'My daughter, he would make you an excellent husband—such a one as your poor mother would wish for you were she alive. I hope you'll consider the matter well before you say No.'

"I thought it all over. Why not? Yes, I would write to the baron and say Yes. Arthur was away; he'd never come back; he was in love with that pretty blond. Was it likely I was going to ruin my life for him? I had too much sense for that. I would just go and throw his old glove into the fire and all thoughts of him to the winds. So I went for the glove, and kissed it—foolish thing!—and put it back in my treasure-box, and went on thinking of Arthur more than ever. Then I remonstrated with myself for my foolishness, and took my writing-desk in my lap and sat down in the conservatory to write to the baron. I began my letter 'My dear Arthur,' and then had to begin again, and started fairly with 'My dear baron.' Then I tried to frame a proper sentence to start with, but that desolate little bird came flying to my shoulder, and chirped so sadly and so persistently that it put me all out.

"'Oh, you poor foolish little thing!' I said: 'anybody would think there were no other birds in the world but your faithless mate.'

"The bird fluttered and chirped and talked with a purring song, which I fancied to say, 'Oh, my poor heart! poor heart! poor broken heart! Alas!' and it was such a strong impression that I put my hand to my own heart and held on there, while I laid my head on one side till it touched the feathers of the bird on my shoulder; and so we sat silently musing.

"What do you think roused us? There was a quick fluttering in the bird's breast. She flew away from my shoulder: she flew to the top of the highest azalea, and she sung—oh, how she sung! Joy, victory over doubt, faith crowned, glimpses of heaven in the spring sunlight,—they were all in that song. I knew in a minute what had come. I threw open the sash, and out of the sunshine, borne in with the odors of the new grass and budding trees, came a little brown bird, tired as from a long journey, but with a song of greeting that overtopped even the song of welcome that awaited him.

"I watched them a moment, as if in a spell, and then I tore up my letter to the baron and tossed it among the flowers; and the tears came in my eyes, and I said aloud, 'Oh, Arthur, I do love you—I know I do! If you don't come back I shall die.'

"'Then, dear, you shall not die, for I am here;' and the foolish boy—for it was Arthur come back and stolen upon me to surprise me—put his dear strong arms about me, and I was ready to faint, and cried a little on his shoulder, and he kissed me, and we went in to papa and talked it all over; and he told me about his finishing his studies and hurrying home, and all about the blond, a cousin of his who was out in Leipsic with her mother studying music, and they'd made a home for him, and said I should know them and they should know me; and it was all lovely. And the result of it all is, here we are, and we love birds, and we love each other. And do you wonder at it? And here's Arthur, coming back from his letters. And, and—Come and kiss me, Arthur."

And so the little lady finished with a kiss, as she had begun, and the parrot moved uneasily on his perch at being disturbed with conversation at so late an hour, and the Java sparrows twittered a little; and I rose to go, only asking, "And the baron?"

"Oh! he's married since—such a lovely wife!—and I dare say is as grateful to the bird as Arthur and I. You see, he was only infatuated—Arthur and I were in love."

"Good-night," from me.

"Good-night, good-night," from them; and I heard another kiss as I went down the walk.

Wm. M.F. Round.