The Song of the Cardinal
The Song of the Cardinal
by Gene Stratton-Porter
IN LOVING TRIBUTE
TO THE MEMORY OF MY FATHER
"For him every work of God manifested a new and heretofore
"Good cheer! Good cheer!" exulted the Cardinal
He darted through the orange orchard searching for slugs for his
breakfast, and between whiles he rocked on the branches and rang
over his message of encouragement to men. The song of the
Cardinal was overflowing with joy, for this was his holiday, his
playtime. The southern world was filled with brilliant sunshine,
gaudy flowers, an abundance of fruit, myriads of insects, and
never a thing to do except to bathe, feast, and be happy. No
wonder his song was a prophecy of good cheer for the future, for
happiness made up the whole of his past.
The Cardinal was only a yearling, yet his crest flared high, his
beard was crisp and black, and he was a very prodigy in size and
colouring. Fathers of his family that had accomplished many
migrations appeared small beside him, and coats that had been
shed season after season seemed dull compared with his. It was
as if a pulsing heart of flame passed by when he came winging
through the orchard.
Last season the Cardinal had pipped his shell, away to the north,
in that paradise of the birds, the Limberlost. There thousands
of acres of black marsh-muck stretch under summers' sun and
winters' snows. There are darksome pools of murky water, bits of
swale, and high morass. Giants of the forest reach skyward, or,
coated with velvet slime, lie decaying in sun-flecked pools,
while the underbrush is almost impenetrable.
The swamp resembles a big dining-table for the birds. Wild
grape-vines clamber to the tops of the highest trees, spreading
umbrella-wise over the branches, and their festooned floating
trailers wave as silken fringe in the play of the wind. The
birds loll in the shade, peel bark, gather dried curlers for nest
material, and feast on the pungent fruit. They chatter in swarms
over the wild-cherry trees, and overload their crops with red
haws, wild plums, papaws, blackberries and mandrake. The alders
around the edge draw flocks in search of berries, and the marsh
grasses and weeds are weighted with seed hunters. The muck is
alive with worms; and the whole swamp ablaze with flowers, whose
colours and perfumes attract myriads of insects and butterflies.
Wild creepers flaunt their red and gold from the treetops, and
the bumblebees and humming-birds make common cause in rifling the
honey-laden trumpets. The air around the wild-plum and redhaw
trees is vibrant with the beating wings of millions of wild bees,
and the bee-birds feast to gluttony. The fetid odours of the
swamp draw insects in swarms, and fly-catchers tumble and twist
in air in pursuit of them.
Every hollow tree homes its colony of bats. Snakes sun on the
bushes. The water folk leave trails of shining ripples in their
wake as they cross the lagoons. Turtles waddle clumsily from the
logs. Frogs take graceful leaps from pool to pool. Everything
native to that section of the country-underground, creeping, or
a-wing--can be found in the Limberlost; but above all the birds.
Dainty green warblers nest in its tree-tops, and red-eyed vireos
choose a location below. It is the home of bell-birds, finches,
and thrushes. There are flocks of blackbirds, grackles, and
crows. Jays and catbirds quarrel constantly, and marsh-wrens
keep up never-ending chatter. Orioles swing their pendent purses
from the branches, and with the tanagers picnic on mulberries and
insects. In the evening, night-hawks dart on silent wing;
whippoorwills set up a plaintive cry that they continue far into
the night; and owls revel in moonlight and rich hunting. At
dawn, robins wake the echoes of each new day with the admonition,
"Cheer up! Cheer up!" and a little later big black vultures go
wheeling through cloudland or hang there, like frozen splashes,
searching the Limberlost and the surrounding country for food.
The boom of the bittern resounds all day, and above it the
rasping scream of the blue heron, as he strikes terror to the
hearts of frogdom; while the occasional cries of a lost loon,
strayed from its flock in northern migration, fill the swamp with
sounds of wailing.
Flashing through the tree-tops of the Limberlost there are birds
whose colour is more brilliant than that of the gaudiest flower
lifting its face to light and air. The lilies of the mire are
not so white as the white herons that fish among them. The
ripest spray of goldenrod is not so highly coloured as the
burnished gold on the breast of the oriole that rocks on it. The
jays are bluer than the calamus bed they wrangle above with
throaty chatter. The finches are a finer purple than the
ironwort. For every clump of foxfire flaming in the Limberlost,
there is a cardinal glowing redder on a bush above it. These may
not be more numerous than other birds, but their brilliant
colouring and the fearless disposition make them seem so.
The Cardinal was hatched in a thicket of sweetbrier and
blackberry. His father was a tough old widower of many
experiences and variable temper. He was the biggest, most
aggressive redbird in the Limberlost, and easily reigned king of
his kind. Catbirds, king-birds, and shrikes gave him a wide
berth, and not even the ever-quarrelsome jays plucked up enough
courage to antagonize him. A few days after his latest
bereavement, he saw a fine, plump young female; and she so filled
his eye that he gave her no rest until she permitted his
caresses, and carried the first twig to the wild rose. She was
very proud to mate with the king of the Limberlost; and if deep
in her heart she felt transient fears of her lordly master, she
gave no sign, for she was a bird of goodly proportion and fine
She chose her location with the eye of an artist, and the
judgment of a nest builder of more experience. It would be
difficult for snakes and squirrels to penetrate that briery
thicket. The white berry blossoms scarcely had ceased to attract
a swarm of insects before the sweets of the roses recalled them;
by the time they had faded, luscious big berries ripened within
reach and drew food hunters. She built with far more than
ordinary care. It was a beautiful nest, not nearly so carelessly
made as those of her kindred all through the swamp. There was a
distinct attempt at a cup shape, and it really was neatly lined
with dried blades of sweet marsh grass. But it was in the laying
of her first egg that the queen cardinal forever distinguished
herself. She was a fine healthy bird, full of love and happiness
over her first venture in nest-building, and she so far surpassed
herself on that occasion she had difficulty in convincing any one
that she was responsible for the result.
Indeed, she was compelled to lift beak and wing against her mate
in defense of this egg, for it was so unusually large that he
could not be persuaded short of force that some sneak of the
feathered tribe had not slipped in and deposited it in her
absence. The king felt sure there was something wrong with the
egg, and wanted to roll it from the nest; but the queen knew her
own, and stoutly battled for its protection. She further
increased their prospects by laying three others. After that the
king made up his mind that she was a most remarkable bird, and
went away pleasure-seeking; but the queen settled to brooding, a
picture of joyous faith and contentment.
Through all the long days, when the heat became intense, and the
king was none too thoughtful of her appetite or comfort, she
nestled those four eggs against her breast and patiently waited.
The big egg was her treasure. She gave it constant care. Many
times in a day she turned it; and always against her breast there
was the individual pressure that distinguished it from the
others. It was the first to hatch, of course, and the queen felt
that she had enough if all the others failed her; for this egg
pipped with a resounding pip, and before the silky down was
really dry on the big terracotta body, the young Cardinal arose
and lustily demanded food.
The king came to see him and at once acknowledged subjugation.
He was the father of many promising cardinals, yet he never had
seen one like this. He set the Limberlost echoes rolling with
his jubilant rejoicing. He unceasingly hunted for the ripest
berries and seed. He stuffed that baby from morning until night,
and never came with food that he did not find him standing a-top
the others calling for more. The queen was just as proud of him
and quite as foolish in her idolatry, but she kept tally and gave
the remainder every other worm in turn. They were unusually fine
babies, but what chance has merely a fine baby in a family that
possesses a prodigy? The Cardinal was as large as any two of the
other nestlings, and so red the very down on him seemed tinged
with crimson; his skin and even his feet were red.
He was the first to climb to the edge of the nest and the first
to hop on a limb. He surprised his parents by finding a slug,
and winged his first flight to such a distance that his adoring
mother almost went into spasms lest his strength might fail, and
he would fall into the swamp and become the victim of a hungry
old turtle. He returned safely, however; and the king was so
pleased he hunted him an unusually ripe berry, and perching
before him, gave him his first language lesson. Of course, the
Cardinal knew how to cry "Pee" and "Chee" when he burst his
shell; but the king taught him to chip with accuracy and
expression, and he learned that very day that male birds of the
cardinal family always call "Chip," and the females "Chook." In
fact, he learned so rapidly and was generally so observant, that
before the king thought it wise to give the next lesson, he found
him on a limb, his beak closed, his throat swelling, practising
his own rendering of the tribal calls, "Wheat! Wheat! Wheat!"
"Here! Here! Here!" and "Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!" This so delighted
the king that he whistled them over and over and helped the
youngster all he could.
He was so proud of him that this same night he gave him his first
lesson in tucking his head properly and going to sleep alone. In
a few more days, when he was sure of his wing strength, he gave
him instructions in flying. He taught him how to spread his
wings and slowly sail from tree to tree; how to fly in short
broken curves, to avoid the aim of a hunter; how to turn abruptly
in air and make a quick dash after a bug or an enemy. He taught
him the proper angle at which to breast a stiff wind, and that he
always should meet a storm head first, so that the water would
run as the plumage lay.
His first bathing lesson was a pronounced success. The Cardinal
enjoyed water like a duck. He bathed, splashed, and romped until
his mother was almost crazy for fear he would attract a
watersnake or turtle; but the element of fear was not a part of
his disposition. He learned to dry, dress, and plume his
feathers, and showed such remarkable pride in keeping himself
immaculate, that although only a youngster, he was already a bird
of such great promise, that many of the feathered inhabitants of
the Limberlost came to pay him a call.
Next, the king took him on a long trip around the swamp, and
taught him to select the proper places to hunt for worms; how to
search under leaves for plant-lice and slugs for meat; which
berries were good and safe, and the kind of weeds that bore the
most and best seeds. He showed him how to find tiny pebbles to
grind his food, and how to sharpen and polish his beak.
Then he took up the real music lessons, and taught him how to
whistle and how to warble and trill. "Good Cheer! Good Cheer!"
intoned the king. "Coo Cher! Coo Cher!" imitated the Cardinal.
These songs were only studied repetitions, but there was a depth
and volume in his voice that gave promise of future greatness,
when age should have developed him, and experience awakened his
emotions. He was an excellent musician for a youngster.
He soon did so well in caring for himself, in finding food and in
flight, and grew so big and independent, that he made numerous
excursions alone through the Limberlost; and so impressive were
his proportions, and so aggressive his manner, that he suffered
no molestation. In fact, the reign of the king promised to end
speedily; but if he feared it he made no sign, and his pride in
his wonderful offspring was always manifest. After the Cardinal
had explored the swamp thoroughly, a longing for a wider range
grew upon him; and day after day he lingered around the borders,
looking across the wide cultivated fields, almost aching to test
his wings in one long, high, wild stretch of flight.
A day came when the heat of the late summer set the marsh
steaming, and the Cardinal, flying close to the borders, caught
the breeze from the upland; and the vision of broad fields
stretching toward the north so enticed him that he spread his
wings, and following the line of trees and fences as much as
possible, he made his first journey from home. That day was so
delightful it decided his fortunes. It would seem that the
swamp, so appreciated by his kindred, should have been sufficient
for the Cardinal, but it was not. With every mile he winged his
flight, came a greater sense of power and strength, and a keener
love for the broad sweep of field and forest. His heart bounded
with the zest of rocking on the wind, racing through the
sunshine, and sailing over the endless panorama of waving corn
fields, and woodlands.
The heat and closeness of the Limberlost seemed a prison well
escaped, as on and on he flew in straight untiring flight.
Crossing a field of half-ripened corn that sloped to the river,
the Cardinal saw many birds feeding there, so he alighted on a
tall tree to watch them. Soon he decided that he would like to
try this new food. He found a place where a crow had left an ear
nicely laid open, and clinging to the husk, as he saw the others
do, he stretched to his full height and drove his strong sharp
beak into the creamy grain. After the stifling swamp hunting,
after the long exciting flight, to rock on this swaying corn and
drink the rich milk of the grain, was to the Cardinal his first
taste of nectar and ambrosia. He lifted his head when he came to
the golden kernel, and chipping it in tiny specks, he tasted and
approved with all the delight of an epicure in a delicious new
Perhaps there were other treats in the next field. He decided to
fly even farther. But he had gone only a short distance when he
changed his course and turned to the South, for below him was a
long, shining, creeping thing, fringed with willows, while
towering above them were giant sycamore, maple, tulip, and elm
trees that caught and rocked with the wind; and the Cardinal did
not know what it was. Filled with wonder he dropped lower and
lower. Birds were everywhere, many flying over and dipping into
it; but its clear creeping silver was a mystery to the Cardinal.
The beautiful river of poetry and song that the Indians first
discovered, and later with the French, named Ouabache; the
winding shining river that Logan and Me-shin-go-me-sia loved; the
only river that could tempt Wa-ca-co-nah from the Salamonie and
Mississinewa; the river beneath whose silver sycamores and giant
maples Chief Godfrey pitched his campfires, was never more
beautiful than on that perfect autumn day.
With his feathers pressed closely, the Cardinal alighted on a
willow, and leaned to look, quivering with excitement and
uttering explosive "chips"; for there he was, face to face with a
big redbird that appeared neither peaceful nor timid. He uttered
an impudent "Chip" of challenge, which, as it left his beak, was
flung back to him. The Cardinal flared his crest and half lifted
his wings, stiffening them at the butt; the bird he was facing
did the same. In his surprise he arose to his full height with a
dexterous little side step, and the other bird straightened and
side-stepped exactly with him. This was too insulting for the
Cardinal. Straining every muscle, he made a dash at the impudent
He struck the water with such force that it splashed above the
willows, and a kingfisher, stationed on a stump opposite him,
watching the shoals for minnows, saw it. He spread his beak and
rolled forth rattling laughter, until his voice reechoed from
point to point down the river. The Cardinal scarcely knew how he
got out, but he had learned a new lesson. That beautiful,
shining, creeping thing was water; not thick, tepid, black marsh
water, but pure, cool, silver water. He shook his plumage,
feeling a degree redder from shame, but he would not be laughed
into leaving. He found it too delightful. In a short time he
ventured down and took a sip, and it was the first real drink of
his life. Oh, but it was good!
When thirst from the heat and his long flight was quenched, he
ventured in for a bath, and that was a new and delightful
experience. How he splashed and splashed, and sent the silver
drops flying! How he ducked and soaked and cooled in that
rippling water, in which he might remain as long as he pleased
and splash his fill; for he could see the bottom for a long
distance all around, and easily could avoid anything attempting
to harm him. He was so wet when his bath was finished he
scarcely could reach a bush to dry and dress his plumage.
Once again in perfect feather, he remembered the bird of the
water, and returned to the willow. There in the depths of the
shining river the Cardinal discovered himself, and his heart
swelled big with just pride. Was that broad full breast his?
Where had he seen any other cardinal with a crest so high it
waved in the wind? How big and black his eyes were, and his
beard was almost as long and crisp as his father's. He spread
his wings and gloated on their sweep, and twisted and flirted his
tail. He went over his toilet again and dressed every feather on
him. He scoured the back of his neck with the butt of his wings,
and tucking his head under them, slowly drew it out time after
time to polish his crest. He turned and twisted. He rocked and
paraded, and every glimpse he caught of his size and beauty
filled him with pride. He strutted like a peacock and chattered
like a jay.
When he could find no further points to admire, something else
caught his attention. When he "chipped" there was an answering
"Chip" across the river; certainly there was no cardinal there,
so it must be that he was hearing his own voice as well as seeing
himself. Selecting a conspicuous perch he sent an incisive
"Chip!" across the water, and in kind it came back to him. Then
he "chipped" softly and tenderly, as he did in the Limberlost to
a favourite little sister who often came and perched beside him
in the maple where he slept, and softly and tenderly came the
answer. Then the Cardinal understood. "Wheat! Wheat! Wheat!"
He whistled it high, and he whistled it low. "Cheer! Cheer!
Cheer!" He whistled it tenderly and sharply and imperiously.
"Here! Here! Here!" At this ringing command, every bird, as far
as the river carried his voice, came to investigate and remained
to admire. Over and over he rang every change he could invent.
He made a gallant effort at warbling and trilling, and then, with
the gladdest heart he ever had known, he burst into ringing song:
"Good Cheer! Good Cheer! Good Cheer!"
As evening came on he grew restless and uneasy, so he slowly
winged his way back to the Limberlost; but that day forever
spoiled him for a swamp bird. In the night he restlessly ruffled
his feathers, and sniffed for the breeze of the meadows. He
tasted the corn and the clear water again. He admired his image
in the river, and longed for the sound of his voice, until he
began murmuring, "Wheat! Wheat! Wheat!" in his sleep. In the
earliest dawn a robin awoke him singing, "Cheer up! Cheer up!"
and he answered with a sleepy "Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!" Later the
robin sang again with exquisite softness and tenderness: "Cheer
up, Dearie! Cheer up, Dearie! Cheer up! Cheer up! Cheer!" The
Cardinal, now fully awakened, shouted lustily, "Good Cheer! Good
Cheer!" and after that it was only a short time until he was on
his way toward the shining river. It was better than before, and
every following day found him feasting in the corn field and
bathing in the shining water; but he always returned to his
family at nightfall.
When black frosts began to strip the Limberlost, and food was
almost reduced to dry seed, there came a day on which the king
marshalled his followers and gave the magic signal. With dusk he
led them southward, mile after mile, until their breath fell
short, and their wings ached with unaccustomed flight; but
because of the trips to the river, the Cardinal was stronger than
the others, and he easily kept abreast of the king. In the early
morning, even before the robins were awake, the king settled in
the Everglades. But the Cardinal had lost all liking for swamp
life, so he stubbornly set out alone, and in a short time he had
found another river. It was not quite so delightful as the
shining river; but still it was beautiful, and on its gently
sloping bank was an orange orchard. There the Cardinal rested,
and found a winter home after his heart's desire.
The following morning, a golden-haired little girl and an old man
with snowy locks came hand in hand through the orchard. The
child saw the redbird and immediately claimed him, and that same
day the edict went forth that a very dreadful time was in store
for any one who harmed or even frightened the Cardinal. So in
security began a series of days that were pure delight. The
orchard was alive with insects, attracted by the heavy odours,
and slugs infested the bark. Feasting was almost as good as in
the Limberlost, and always there was the river to drink from and
to splash in at will.
In those days the child and the old man lingered for hours in the
orchard, watching the bird that every day seemed to grow bigger
and brighter. What a picture his coat, now a bright cardinal
red, made against the waxy green leaves! How big and brilliant
he seemed as he raced and darted in play among the creamy
blossoms! How the little girl stood with clasped hands
worshipping him, as with swelling throat he rocked on the highest
spray and sang his inspiring chorus over and over: "Good Cheer!
Good Cheer!" Every day they came to watch and listen. They
scattered crumbs; and the Cardinal grew so friendly that he
greeted their coming with a quick "Chip! Chip!" while the
delighted child tried to repeat it after him. Soon they became
such friends that when he saw them approaching he would call
softly "Chip! Chip!" and then with beady eyes and tilted head
await her reply.
Sometimes a member of his family from the Everglades found his
way into the orchard, and the Cardinal, having grown to feel a
sense of proprietorship, resented the intrusion and pursued him
like a streak of flame. Whenever any straggler had this
experience, he returned to the swamp realizing that the Cardinal
of the orange orchard was almost twice his size and strength, and
so startlingly red as to be a wonder.
One day a gentle breeze from the north sprang up and stirred the
orange branches, wafting the heavy perfume across the land and
out to sea, and spread in its stead a cool, delicate, pungent
odour. The Cardinal lifted his head and whistled an inquiring
note. He was not certain, and went on searching for slugs, and
predicting happiness in full round notes: "Good Cheer! Good
Cheer!" Again the odour swept the orchard, so strong that this
time there was no mistaking it. The Cardinal darted to the
topmost branch, his crest flaring, his tail twitching nervously.
"Chip! Chip!" he cried with excited insistence, "Chip! Chip!"
The breeze was coming stiffly and steadily now, unlike anything
the Cardinal ever had known, for its cool breath told of
ice-bound fields breaking up under the sun. Its damp touch was
from the spring showers washing the face of the northland. Its
subtle odour was the commingling of myriads of unfolding leaves
and crisp plants, upspringing; its pungent perfume was the pollen
Up in the land of the Limberlost, old Mother Nature, with
strident muttering, had set about her annual house cleaning.
With her efficient broom, the March wind, she was sweeping every
nook and cranny clean. With her scrub-bucket overflowing with
April showers, she was washing the face of all creation, and if
these measures failed to produce cleanliness to her satisfaction,
she gave a final polish with storms of hail. The shining river
was filled to overflowing; breaking up the ice and carrying a
load of refuse, it went rolling to the sea. The ice and snow had
not altogether gone; but the long-pregnant earth was mothering
her children. She cringed at every step, for the ground was
teeming with life. Bug and worm were working to light and
warmth. Thrusting aside the mold and leaves above them, spring
beauties, hepaticas, and violets lifted tender golden-green
heads. The sap was flowing, and leafless trees were covered with
swelling buds. Delicate mosses were creeping over every stick of
decaying timber. The lichens on stone and fence were freshly
painted in unending shades of gray and green. Myriads of flowers
and vines were springing up to cover last year's decaying leaves.
"The beautiful uncut hair of graves" was creeping over meadow,
spreading beside roadways, and blanketing every naked spot.
The Limberlost was waking to life even ahead of the fields and
the river. Through the winter it had been the barest and
dreariest of places; but now the earliest signs of returning
spring were in its martial music, for when the green hyla pipes,
and the bullfrog drums, the bird voices soon join them. The
catkins bloomed first; and then, in an incredibly short time,
flags, rushes, and vines were like a sea of waving green, and
swelling buds were ready to burst. In the upland the smoke was
curling over sugar-camp and clearing; in the forests animals were
rousing from their long sleep; the shad were starting anew their
never-ending journey up the shining river; peeps of green were
mantling hilltop and valley; and the northland was ready for its
dearest springtime treasures to come home again.
From overhead were ringing those first glad notes, caught nearer
the Throne than those of any other bird, "Spring o' year! Spring
o' year!"; while stilt-legged little killdeers were scudding
around the Limberlost and beside the river, flinging from
cloudland their "Kill deer! Kill deer!" call. The robins in the
orchards were pulling the long dried blades of last year's grass
from beneath the snow to line their mud-walled cups; and the
bluebirds were at the hollow apple tree. Flat on the top rail,
the doves were gathering their few coarse sticks and twigs
together. It was such a splendid place to set their cradle. The
weatherbeaten, rotting old rails were the very colour of the busy
dove mother. Her red-rimmed eye fitted into the background like
a tiny scarlet lichen cup. Surely no one would ever see her!
The Limberlost and shining river, the fields and forests, the
wayside bushes and fences, the stumps, logs, hollow trees, even
the bare brown breast of Mother Earth, were all waiting to cradle
their own again; and by one of the untold miracles each would
return to its place.
There was intoxication in the air. The subtle, pungent,
ravishing odours on the wind, of unfolding leaves, ice-water
washed plants, and catkin pollen, were an elixir to humanity.
The cattle of the field were fairly drunk with it, and herds,
dry-fed during the winter, were coming to their first grazing
with heads thrown high, romping, bellowing, and racing like wild
The north wind, sweeping from icy fastnesses, caught this odour
of spring, and carried it to the orange orchards and Everglades;
and at a breath of it, crazed with excitement, the Cardinal went
flaming through the orchard, for with no one to teach him, he
knew what it meant. The call had come. Holidays were over.
It was time to go home, time to riot in crisp freshness, time to
go courting, time to make love, time to possess his own, time for
mating and nest-building. All that day he flashed around,
nervous with dread of the unknown, and palpitant with delightful
expectation; but with the coming of dusk he began his journey
When he passed the Everglades, he winged his way slowly, and
repeatedly sent down a challenging "Chip," but there was no
answer. Then the Cardinal knew that the north wind had carried a
true message, for the king and his followers were ahead of him on
their way to the Limberlost. Mile after mile, a thing of pulsing
fire, he breasted the blue-black night, and it was not so very
long until he could discern a flickering patch of darkness
sweeping the sky before him. The Cardinal flew steadily in a
straight sweep, until with a throb of triumph in his heart, he
arose in his course, and from far overhead, flung down a boastful
challenge to the king and his followers, as he sailed above them
and was lost from sight.
It was still dusky with the darkness of night when he crossed the
Limberlost, dropping low enough to see its branches laid bare, to
catch a gleam of green in its swelling buds, and to hear the
wavering chorus of its frogs. But there was no hesitation in his
flight. Straight and sure he winged his way toward the shining
river; and it was only a few more miles until the rolling waters
of its springtime flood caught his eye. Dropping precipitately,
he plunged his burning beak into the loved water; then he flew
into a fine old stag sumac and tucked his head under his wing for
a short rest. He had made the long flight in one unbroken sweep,
and he was sleepy. In utter content he ruffled his feathers and
closed his eyes, for he was beside the shining river; and it
would be another season before the orange orchard would ring
again with his "Good Cheer! Good Cheer!"
"Wet year! Wet year!" prophesied the Cardinal
The sumac seemed to fill his idea of a perfect location from the
very first. He perched on a limb, and between dressing his
plumage and pecking at last year's sour dried berries, he sent
abroad his prediction. Old Mother Nature verified his wisdom by
sending a dashing shower, but he cared not at all for a wetting.
He knew how to turn his crimson suit into the most perfect of
water-proof coats; so he flattened his crest, sleeked his
feathers, and breasting the April downpour, kept on calling for
rain. He knew he would appear brighter when it was past, and he
seemed to know, too, that every day of sunshine and shower would
bring nearer his heart's desire.
He was a very Beau Brummel while he waited. From morning until
night he bathed, dressed his feathers, sunned himself, fluffed
and flirted. He strutted and "chipped" incessantly. He claimed
that sumac for his very own, and stoutly battled for possession
with many intruders. It grew on a densely wooded slope, and the
shining river went singing between grassy banks, whitened with
spring beauties, below it. Crowded around it were thickets of
papaw, wild grape-vines, thorn, dogwood, and red haw, that
attracted bug and insect; and just across the old snake fence was
a field of mellow mould sloping to the river, that soon would be
plowed for corn, turning out numberless big fat grubs.
He was compelled almost hourly to wage battles for his location,
for there was something fine about the old stag sumac that
attracted homestead seekers. A sober pair of robins began laying
their foundations there the morning the Cardinal arrived, and a
couple of blackbirds tried to take possession before the day had
passed. He had little trouble with the robins. They were easily
conquered, and with small protest settled a rod up the bank in a
wild-plum tree; but the air was thick with "chips," chatter, and
red and black feathers, before the blackbirds acknowledged
defeat. They were old-timers, and knew about the grubs and the
young corn; but they also knew when they were beaten, so they
moved down stream to a scrub oak, trying to assure each other
that it was the place they really had wanted from the first.
The Cardinal was left boasting and strutting in the sumac, but in
his heart he found it lonesome business. Being the son of a
king, he was much too dignified to beg for a mate, and besides,
it took all his time to guard the sumac; but his eyes were wide
open to all that went on around him, and he envied the blackbird
his glossy, devoted little sweetheart, with all his might. He
almost strained his voice trying to rival the love-song of a
skylark that hung among the clouds above a meadow across the
river, and poured down to his mate a story of adoring love and
sympathy. He screamed a "Chip" of such savage jealousy at a pair
of killdeer lovers that he sent them scampering down the river
bank without knowing that the crime of which they stood convicted
was that of being mated when he was not. As for the doves that
were already brooding on the line fence beneath the maples, the
Cardinal was torn between two opinions.
He was alone, he was love-sick, and he was holding the finest
building location beside the shining river for his mate, and her
slowness in coming made their devotion difficult to endure when
he coveted a true love; but it seemed to the Cardinal that he
never could so forget himself as to emulate the example of that
dove lover. The dove had no dignity; he was so effusive he was a
nuisance. He kept his dignified Quaker mate stuffed to
discomfort; he clung to the side of the nest trying to help brood
until he almost crowded her from the eggs. He pestered her with
caresses and cooed over his love-song until every chipmunk on the
line fence was familiar with his story. The Cardinal's temper
was worn to such a fine edge that he darted at the dove one day
and pulled a big tuft of feathers from his back. When he had
returned to the sumac, he was compelled to admit that his anger
lay quite as much in that he had no one to love as because the
dove was disgustingly devoted.
Every morning brought new arrivals--trim young females fresh from
their long holiday, and big boastful males appearing their
brightest and bravest, each singer almost splitting his throat in
the effort to captivate the mate he coveted. They came flashing
down the river bank, like rockets of scarlet, gold, blue, and
black; rocking on the willows, splashing in the water, bursting
into jets of melody, making every possible display of their
beauty and music; and at times fighting fiercely when they
discovered that the females they were wooing favoured their
rivals and desired only to be friendly with them.
The heart of the Cardinal sank as he watched. There was not a
member of his immediate family among them. He pitied himself as
he wondered if fate had in store for him the trials he saw others
suffering. Those dreadful feathered females! How they coquetted!
How they flirted! How they sleeked and flattened their plumage,
and with half-open beaks and sparkling eyes, hopped closer and
closer as if charmed. The eager singers, with swelling throats,
sang and sang in a very frenzy of extravagant pleading, but just
when they felt sure their little loves were on the point of
surrender, a rod distant above the bushes would go streaks of
feathers, and there was nothing left but to endure the bitter
disappointment, follow them, and begin all over. For the last
three days the Cardinal had been watching his cousin,
rose-breasted Grosbeak, make violent love to the most exquisite
little female, who apparently encouraged his advances, only to
see him left sitting as blue and disconsolate as any human lover,
when he discovers that the maid who has coquetted with him for a
season belongs to another man.
The Cardinal flew to the very top of the highest sycamore and
looked across country toward the Limberlost. Should he go there
seeking a swamp mate among his kindred? It was not an endurable
thought. To be sure, matters were becoming serious. No bird
beside the shining river had plumed, paraded, or made more music
than he. Was it all to be wasted? By this time he confidently
had expected results. Only that morning he had swelled with
pride as he heard Mrs. Jay tell her quarrelsome husband that she
wished she could exchange him for the Cardinal. Did not the
gentle dove pause by the sumac, when she left brooding to take
her morning dip in the dust, and gaze at him with unconcealed
admiration? No doubt she devoutly wished her plain pudgy husband
wore a scarlet coat. But it is praise from one's own sex that is
praise indeed, and only an hour ago the lark had reported that
from his lookout above cloud he saw no other singer anywhere so
splendid as the Cardinal of the sumac. Because of these things
he held fast to his conviction that he was a prince indeed; and
he decided to remain in his chosen location and with his physical
and vocal attractions compel the finest little cardinal in the
fields to seek him.
He planned it all very carefully: how she would hear his splendid
music and come to take a peep at him; how she would be captivated
by his size and beauty; how she would come timidly, but come, of
course, for his approval; how he would condescend to accept her
if she pleased him in all particulars; how she would be devoted
to him; and how she would approve his choice of a home, for the
sumac was in a lovely spot for scenery, as well as nest-building.
For several days he had boasted, he had bantered, he had
challenged, he had on this last day almost condescended to
coaxing, but not one little bright-eyed cardinal female had come
to offer herself.
The performance of a brown thrush drove him wild with envy. The
thrush came gliding up the river bank, a rusty-coated, sneaking
thing of the underbrush, and taking possession of a thorn bush
just opposite the sumac, he sang for an hour in the open. There
was no way to improve that music. It was woven fresh from the
warp and woof of his fancy. It was a song so filled with the joy
and gladness of spring, notes so thrilled with love's pleading
and passion's tender pulsing pain, that at its close there were a
half-dozen admiring thrush females gathered around. With care
and deliberation the brown thrush selected the most attractive,
and she followed him to the thicket as if charmed.
It was the Cardinal's dream materialized for another before his
very eyes, and it filled him with envy. If that plain brown bird
that slinked as if he had a theft to account for, could, by
showing himself and singing for an hour, win a mate, why should
not he, the most gorgeous bird of the woods, openly flaunting his
charms and discoursing his music, have at least equal success?
Should he, the proudest, most magnificent of cardinals, be
compelled to go seeking a mate like any common bird? Perish the
He went to the river to bathe. After finding a spot where the
water flowed crystal-clear over a bed of white limestone, he
washed until he felt that he could be no cleaner. Then the
Cardinal went to his favourite sun-parlour, and stretching on a
limb, he stood his feathers on end, and sunned, fluffed and
prinked until he was immaculate.
On the tip-top antler of the old stag sumac, he perched and
strained until his jetty whiskers appeared stubby. He poured out
a tumultuous cry vibrant with every passion raging in him. He
caught up his own rolling echoes and changed and varied them. He
improvised, and set the shining river ringing, "Wet year! Wet
He whistled and whistled until all birdland and even mankind
heard, for the farmer paused at his kitchen door, with his pails
of foaming milk, and called to his wife:
"Hear that, Maria! Jest hear it! I swanny, if that bird doesn't
stop predictin' wet weather, I'll get so scared I won't durst put
in my corn afore June. They's some birds like killdeers an'
bobwhites 'at can make things pretty plain, but I never heard a
bird 'at could jest speak words out clear an' distinct like that
fellow. Seems to come from the river bottom. B'lieve I'll jest
step down that way an' see if the lower field is ready for the
"Abram Johnson," said his wife, "bein's you set up for an honest
man, if you want to trapse through slush an' drizzle a half-mile
to see a bird, why say so, but don't for land's sake lay it on to
plowin' 'at you know in all conscience won't be ready for a week
yet 'thout pretendin' to look."
Abram grinned sheepishly. "I'm willin' to call it the bird if
you are, Maria. I've been hearin' him from the barn all day, an'
there's somethin' kind o' human in his notes 'at takes me jest a
little diffrunt from any other bird I ever noticed. I'm really
curious to set eyes on him. Seemed to me from his singin' out to
the barn, it 'ud be mighty near like meetin' folks."
"Bosh!" exclaimed Maria. "I don't s'pose he sings a mite better
'an any other bird. It's jest the old Wabash rollin' up the
echoes. A bird singin' beside the river always sounds twicet as
fine as one on the hills. I've knowed that for forty year.
Chances are 'at he'll be gone 'fore you get there."
As Abram opened the door, "Wet year! Wet year!" pealed the
He went out, closing the door softly, and with an utter disregard
for the corn field, made a bee line for the musician.
"I don't know as this is the best for twinges o' rheumatiz," he
muttered, as he turned up his collar and drew his old hat lower
to keep the splashing drops from his face. "I don't jest rightly
s'pose I should go; but I'm free to admit I'd as lief be dead as
not to answer when I get a call, an' the fact is, I'm CALLED down
beside the river."
"Wet year! Wet year!" rolled the Cardinal's prediction.
"Thanky, old fellow! Glad to hear you! Didn't jest need the
information, but I got my bearin's rightly from it! I can about
pick out your bush, an' it's well along towards evenin', too, an'
must be mighty near your bedtime. Looks as if you might be
stayin' round these parts! I'd like it powerful well if you'd
settle right here, say 'bout where you are. An' where are you,
Abram went peering and dodging beside the fence, peeping into the
bushes, searching for the bird. Suddenly there was a whir of
wings and a streak of crimson.
"Scared you into the next county, I s'pose," he muttered.
But it came nearer being a scared man than a frightened bird, for
the Cardinal flashed straight toward him until only a few yards
away, and then, swaying on a bush, it chipped, cheered, peeked,
whistled broken notes, and manifested perfect delight at the
sight of the white-haired old man. Abram stared in astonishment.
"Lord A'mighty!" he gasped. "Big as a blackbird, red as a live
coal, an' a-comin' right at me. You are somebody's pet, that's
what you are! An' no, you ain't either. Settin' on a sawed
stick in a little wire house takes all the ginger out of any
bird, an' their feathers are always mussy. Inside o' a cage
never saw you, for they ain't a feather out o' place on you. You
are finer'n a piece o' red satin. An' you got that way o'
swingin' an' dancin' an' high-steppin' right out in God
A'mighty's big woods, a teeterin' in the wind, an' a dartin'
'crost the water. Cage never touched you! But you are somebody's
pet jest the same. An' I look like the man, an' you are tryin'
to tell me so, by gum!"
Leaning toward Abram, the Cardinal turned his head from side to
side, and peered, "chipped," and waited for an answering "Chip"
from a little golden-haired child, but there was no way for the
man to know that.
"It's jest as sure as fate," he said. "You think you know me,
an' you are tryin' to tell me somethin'. Wish to land I knowed
what you want! Are you tryin' to tell me `Howdy'? Well, I don't
'low nobody to be politer 'an I am, so far as I know."
Abram lifted his old hat, and the raindrops glistened on his
white hair. He squared his shoulders and stood very erect.
"Howdy, Mr. Redbird! How d'ye find yerself this evenin'? I
don't jest riccolict ever seein' you before, but I'll never meet
you agin 'thout knowin' you. When d'you arrive? Come through by
the special midnight flyer, did you? Well, you never was more
welcome any place in your life. I'd give a right smart sum this
minnit if you'd say you came to settle on this river bank. How
do you like it? To my mind it's jest as near Paradise as you'll
strike on earth.
"Old Wabash is a twister for curvin' and windin' round, an' it's
limestone bed half the way, an' the water's as pretty an' clear
as in Maria's springhouse. An' as for trimmin', why say, Mr.
Redbird, I'll jest leave it to you if she ain't all trimmed up
like a woman's spring bunnit. Look at the grass a-creepin' right
down till it's a trailin' in the water! Did you ever see jest
quite such fine fringy willers? An' you wait a little, an' the
flowerin' mallows 'at grows long the shinin' old river are fine
as garden hollyhocks. Maria says 'at thy'd be purtier 'an hers
if they were only double; but, Lord, Mr. Redbird, they are! See
'em once on the bank, an' agin in the water! An' back a little
an' there's jest thickets of papaw, an' thorns, an' wild
grape-vines, an' crab, an' red an' black haw, an' dogwood, an'
sumac, an' spicebush, an' trees! Lord! Mr. Redbird, the
sycamores, an' maples, an' tulip, an' ash, an' elm trees are so
bustin' fine 'long the old Wabash they put 'em into poetry books
an' sing songs about 'em. What do you think o' that? Jest back
o' you a little there's a sycamore split into five trunks, any
one o' them a famous big tree, tops up 'mong the clouds, an'
roots diggin' under the old river; an' over a little farther's a
maple 'at's eight big trees in one. Most anything you can name,
you can find it 'long this ole Wabash, if you only know where to
hunt for it.
"They's mighty few white men takes the trouble to look, but the
Indians used to know. They'd come canoein' an' fishin' down the
river an' camp under these very trees, an' Ma 'ud git so mad at
the old squaws. Settlers wasn't so thick then, an' you had to be
mighty careful not to rile 'em, an' they'd come a-trapesin' with
their wild berries. Woods full o' berries! Anybody could get
'em by the bushel for the pickin', an' we hadn't got on to
raisin' much wheat, an' had to carry it on horses over into Ohio
to get it milled. Took Pa five days to make the trip; an' then
the blame old squaws 'ud come, an' Ma 'ud be compelled to hand
over to 'em her big white loaves. Jest about set her plumb
crazy. Used to get up in the night, an' fix her yeast, an' bake,
an' let the oven cool, an' hide the bread out in the wheat bin,
an' get the smell of it all out o' the house by good daylight,
so's 'at she could say there wasn't a loaf in the cabin. Oh! if
it's good pickin' you're after, they's berries for all creation
'long the river yet; an' jest wait a few days till old April gets
done showerin' an' I plow this corn field!"
Abram set a foot on the third rail and leaned his elbows on the
top. The Cardinal chipped delightedly and hopped and tilted
"I hadn't jest 'lowed all winter I'd tackle this field again.
I've turned it every spring for forty year. Bought it when I was
a young fellow, jest married to Maria. Shouldered a big debt on
it; but I always loved these slopin' fields, an' my share of this
old Wabash hasn't been for sale nor tradin' any time this past
forty year. I've hung on to it like grim death, for it's jest
that much o' Paradise I'm plumb sure of. First time I plowed
this field, Mr. Redbird, I only hit the high places. Jest
married Maria, an' I didn't touch earth any too frequent all that
summer. I've plowed it every year since, an' I've been 'lowin'
all this winter, when the rheumatiz was gettin' in its work, 'at
I'd give it up this spring an' turn it to medder; but I don't
know. Once I got started, b'lieve I could go it all right an'
not feel it so much, if you'd stay to cheer me up a little an'
post me on the weather. Hate the doggondest to own I'm worsted,
an' if you say it's stay, b'lieve I'll try it. Very sight o' you
kinder warms the cockles o' my heart all up, an' every skip you
take sets me a-wantin' to be jumpin', too.
"What on earth are you lookin' for? Man! I b'lieve it's grub!
Somebody's been feedin' you! An' you want me to keep it up?
Well, you struck it all right, Mr. Redbird. Feed you? You bet I
will! You needn't even 'rastle for grubs if you don't want to.
Like as not you're feelin' hungry right now, pickin' bein' so
slim these airly days. Land's sake! I hope you don't feel
you've come too soon. I'll fetch you everything on the place
it's likely a redbird ever teched, airly in the mornin' if you'll
say you'll stay an' wave your torch 'long my river bank this
summer. I haven't a scrap about me now. Yes, I have, too!
Here's a handful o' corn I was takin' to the banty rooster; but
shucks! he's fat as a young shoat now. Corn's a leetle big an'
hard for you. Mebby I can split it up a mite."
Abram took out his jack-knife, and dotting a row of grains along
the top rail, he split and shaved them down as fine as possible;
and as he reached one end of the rail, the Cardinal, with a
spasmodic "Chip!" dashed down and snatched a particle from the
other, and flashed back to the bush, tested, approved, and
chipped his thanks.
"Pshaw now!" said Abram, staring wide-eyed. "Doesn't that beat
you? So you really are a pet? Best kind of a pet in the whole
world, too! Makin' everybody, at sees you happy, an' havin' some
chance to be happy yourself. An' I look like your friend? Well!
Well! I'm monstrous willin' to adopt you if you'll take me; an',
as for feedin', from to-morrow on I'll find time to set your
little table 'long this same rail every day. I s'pose Maria 'ull
say 'at I'm gone plumb crazy; but, for that matter, if I ever get
her down to see you jest once, the trick's done with her, too,
for you're the prettiest thing God ever made in the shape of a
bird, 'at I ever saw. Look at that topknot a wavin' in the wind!
Maybe praise to the face is open disgrace; but I'll take your
share an' mine, too, an' tell you right here an' now 'at you're
the blamedest prettiest thing 'at I ever saw.
"But Lord! You ortn't be so careless! Don't you know you ain't
nothin' but jest a target? Why don't you keep out o' sight a
little? You come a-shinneyin' up to nine out o' ten men 'long
the river like this, an' your purty, coaxin', palaverin' way
won't save a feather on you. You'll get the little red heart
shot plumb outen your little red body, an' that's what you'll
get. It's a dratted shame! An' there's law to protect you, too.
They's a good big fine for killin' such as you, but nobody seems
to push it. Every fool wants to test his aim, an' you're the
brightest thing on the river bank for a mark.
"Well, if you'll stay right where you are, it 'ull be a sorry day
for any cuss 'at teches you; 'at I'll promise you, Mr. Redbird.
This land's mine, an' if you locate on it, you're mine till time
to go back to that other old fellow 'at looks like me. Wonder if
he's any willinger to feed you an' stand up for you 'an I am?"
"Here! Here! Here!" whistled the Cardinal.
"Well, I'm mighty glad if you're sayin' you'll stay! Guess it
will be all right if you don't meet some o' them Limberlost hens
an' tole off to the swamp. Lord! the Limberlost ain't to be
compared with the river, Mr. Redbird. You're foolish if you go!
Talkin' 'bout goin', I must be goin' myself, or Maria will be
comin' down the line fence with the lantern; an', come to think
of it, I'm a little moist, not to say downright damp. But then
you WARNED me, didn't you, old fellow? Well, I told Maria seein'
you 'ud be like meetin' folks, an' it has been. Good deal more'n
I counted on, an' I've talked more'n I have in a whole year.
Hardly think now 'at I've the reputation o' being a mighty quiet
fellow, would you?"
Abram straightened and touched his hat brim in a trim half
military salute. "Well, good-bye, Mr. Redbird. Never had more
pleasure meetin' anybody in my life 'cept first time I met Maria.
You think about the plowin', an', if you say `stay,' it's a go!
Good-bye; an' do be a little more careful o' yourself. See you
in the mornin', right after breakfast, no count taken o' the
"Wet year! Wet year!" called the Cardinal after his retreating
Abram turned and gravely saluted the second time. The Cardinal
went to the top rail and feasted on the sweet grains of corn
until his craw was full, and then nestled in the sumac and went
to sleep. Early next morning he was abroad and in fine toilet,
and with a full voice from the top of the sumac greeted the
day--"Wet year! Wet year!"
Far down the river echoed his voice until it so closely resembled
some member of his family replying that he followed, searching
the banks mile after mile on either side, until finally he heard
voices of his kind. He located them, but it was only several
staid old couples, a long time mated, and busy with their
nest-building. The Cardinal returned to the sumac, feeling a
degree lonelier than ever.
He decided to prospect in the opposite direction, and taking
wing, he started up the river. Following the channel, he winged
his flight for miles over the cool sparkling water, between the
tangle of foliage bordering the banks. When he came to the long
cumbrous structures of wood with which men had bridged the river,
where the shuffling feet of tired farm horses raised clouds of
dust and set the echoes rolling with their thunderous hoof beats,
he was afraid; and rising high, he sailed over them in short
broken curves of flight. But where giant maple and ash, leaning,
locked branches across the channel in one of old Mother Nature's
bridges for the squirrels, he knew no fear, and dipped so low
beneath them that his image trailed a wavering shadow on the
silver path he followed.
He rounded curve after curve, and frequently stopping on a
conspicuous perch, flung a ringing challenge in the face of the
morning. With every mile the way he followed grew more
beautiful. The river bed was limestone, and the swiftly flowing
water, clear and limpid. The banks were precipitate in some
places, gently sloping in others, and always crowded with a
tangle of foliage.
At an abrupt curve in the river he mounted to the summit of a big
ash and made boastful prophecy, "Wet year! Wet year!" and on all
sides there sprang up the voices of his kind. Startled, the
Cardinal took wing. He followed the river in a circling flight
until he remembered that here might be the opportunity to win the
coveted river mate, and going slower to select the highest branch
on which to display his charms, he discovered that he was only a
few yards from the ash from which he had made his prediction.
The Cardinal flew over the narrow neck and sent another call,
then without awaiting a reply, again he flashed up the river and
circled Horseshoe Bend. When he came to the same ash for the
third time, he understood.
The river circled in one great curve. The Cardinal mounted to
the tip-top limb of the ash and looked around him. There was
never a fairer sight for the eye of man or bird. The mist and
shimmer of early spring were in the air. The Wabash rounded
Horseshoe Bend in a silver circle, rimmed by a tangle of foliage
bordering both its banks; and inside lay a low open space covered
with waving marsh grass and the blue bloom of sweet calamus.
Scattered around were mighty trees, but conspicuous above any, in
the very center, was a giant sycamore, split at its base into
three large trees, whose waving branches seemed to sweep the face
of heaven, and whose roots, like miserly fingers, clutched deep
into the black muck of Rainbow Bottom.
It was in this lovely spot that the rainbow at last materialized,
and at its base, free to all humanity who cared to seek, the
Great Alchemist had left His rarest treasures--the gold of
sunshine, diamond water-drops, emerald foliage, and sapphire sky.
For good measure, there were added seeds, berries, and insects
for the birds; and wild flowers, fruit, and nuts for the
children. Above all, the sycamore waved its majestic head.
It made a throne that seemed suitable for the son of the king;
and mounting to its topmost branch, for miles the river carried
his challenge: "Ho, cardinals! Look this way! Behold me! Have you
seen any other of so great size? Have you any to equal my grace?
Who can whistle so loud, so clear, so compelling a note? Who will
fly to me for protection? Who will come and be my mate?"
He flared his crest high, swelled his throat with rolling notes,
and appeared so big and brilliant that among the many cardinals
that had gathered to hear, there was not one to compare with him.
Black envy filled their hearts. Who was this flaming dashing
stranger, flaunting himself in the faces of their females? There
were many unmated cardinals in Rainbow Bottom, and many jealous
males. A second time the Cardinal, rocking and flashing,
proclaimed himself; and there was a note of feminine approval so
strong that he caught it. Tilting on a twig, his crest flared to
full height, his throat swelled to bursting, his heart too big
for his body, the Cardinal shouted his challenge for the third
time; when clear and sharp arose a cry in answer, "Here! Here!
Here!" It came from a female that had accepted the caresses of
the brightest cardinal in Rainbow Bottom only the day before, and
had spent the morning carrying twigs to a thicket of red haws.
The Cardinal, with a royal flourish, sprang in air to seek her;
but her outraged mate was ahead of him, and with a scream she
fled, leaving a tuft of feathers in her mate's beak. In turn the
Cardinal struck him like a flashing rocket, and then red war
waged in Rainbow Bottom. The females scattered for cover with
all their might. The Cardinal worked in a kiss on one poor
little bird, too frightened to escape him; then the males closed
in, and serious business began. The Cardinal would have enjoyed
a fight vastly with two or three opponents; but a half-dozen made
discretion better than valour. He darted among them, scattering
them right and left, and made for the sycamore. With all his
remaining breath, he insolently repeated his challenge; and then
headed down stream for the sumac with what grace he could
There was an hour of angry recrimination before sweet peace
brooded again in Rainbow Bottom. The newly mated pair finally
made up; the females speedily resumed their coquetting, and
forgot the captivating stranger--all save the poor little one
that had been kissed by accident. She never had been kissed
before, and never had expected that she would be, for she was a
creature of many misfortunes of every nature.
She had been hatched from a fifth egg to begin with; and every
one knows the disadvantage of beginning life with four sturdy
older birds on top of one. It was a meager egg, and a feeble
baby that pipped its shell. The remainder of the family stood
and took nearly all the food so that she almost starved in the
nest, and she never really knew the luxury of a hearty meal until
her elders had flown. That lasted only a few days; for the
others went then, and their parents followed them so far afield
that the poor little soul, clamouring alone in the nest, almost
perished. Hunger-driven, she climbed to the edge and exercised
her wings until she managed some sort of flight to a neighbouring
bush. She missed the twig and fell to the ground, where she lay
cold and shivering.
She cried pitifully, and was almost dead when a brown-faced,
barefoot boy, with a fishing-pole on his shoulder, passed and
"Poor little thing, you are almost dead," he said. "I know what
I'll do with you. I'll take you over and set you in the bushes
where I heard those other redbirds, and then your ma will feed
The boy turned back and carefully set her on a limb close to one
of her brothers, and there she got just enough food to keep her
So her troubles continued. Once a squirrel chased her, and she
saved herself by crowding into a hole so small her pursuer could
not follow. The only reason she escaped a big blue racer when
she went to take her first bath, was that a hawk had his eye on
the snake and snapped it up at just the proper moment to save the
poor, quivering little bird. She was left so badly frightened
that she could not move for a long time.
All the tribulations of birdland fell to her lot. She was so
frail and weak she lost her family in migration, and followed
with some strangers that were none too kind. Life in the South
had been full of trouble. Once a bullet grazed her so closely
she lost two of her wing quills, and that made her more timid
than ever. Coming North, she had given out again and finally had
wandered into Rainbow Bottom, lost and alone.
She was such a shy, fearsome little body, the females all flouted
her; and the males never seemed to notice that there was material
in her for a very fine mate. Every other female cardinal in
Rainbow Bottom had several males courting her, but this poor,
frightened, lonely one had never a suitor; and she needed love so
badly! Now she had been kissed by this magnificent stranger!
Of course, she knew it really was not her kiss. He had intended
it for the bold creature that had answered his challenge, but
since it came to her, it was hers, in a way, after all. She hid
in the underbrush for the remainder of the day, and was never so
frightened in all her life. She brooded over it constantly, and
morning found her at the down curve of the horseshoe, straining
her ears for the rarest note she ever had heard. All day she hid
and waited, and the following days were filled with longing, but
he never came again.
So one morning, possessed with courage she did not understand,
and filled with longing that drove her against her will, she
started down the river. For miles she sneaked through the
underbrush, and watched and listened; until at last night came,
and she returned to Rainbow Bottom. The next morning she set out
early and flew to the spot from which she had turned back the
night before. From there she glided through the bushes and
underbrush, trembling and quaking, yet pushing stoutly onward,
straining her ears for some note of the brilliant stranger's.
It was mid-forenoon when she reached the region of the sumac, and
as she hopped warily along, only a short distance from her, full
and splendid, there burst the voice of the singer for whom she
was searching. She sprang into air, and fled a mile before she
realized that she was flying. Then she stopped and listened, and
rolling with the river, she heard those bold true tones. Close
to earth, she went back again, to see if, unobserved, she could
find a spot where she might watch the stranger that had kissed
her. When at last she reached a place where she could see him
plainly, his beauty was so bewildering, and his song so enticing
that she gradually hopped closer and closer without knowing she
High in the sumac the Cardinal had sung until his throat was
parched, and the fountain of hope was almost dry. There was
nothing save defeat from overwhelming numbers in Rainbow Bottom.
He had paraded, and made all the music he ever had been taught,
and improvised much more. Yet no one had come to seek him. Was
it of necessity to be the Limberlost then? This one day more he
would retain his dignity and his location. He tipped, tilted,
and flirted. He whistled, and sang, and trilled. Over the
lowland and up and down the shining river, ringing in every
change he could invent, he sent for the last time his prophetic
message, "Wet year! Wet year!"
"Come here! Come here!" entreated the Cardinal
He felt that his music was not reaching his standard as he burst
into this new song. He was almost discouraged. No way seemed
open to him but flight to the Limberlost, and he so disdained the
swamp that love-making would lose something of its greatest charm
if he were driven there for a mate. The time seemed ripe for
stringent measures, and the Cardinal was ready to take them; but
how could he stringently urge a little mate that would not come
on his imploring invitations? He listlessly pecked at the
berries and flung abroad an inquiring "Chip!" With just an atom
of hope, he frequently mounted to his choir-loft and issued an
order that savoured far more of a plea, "Come here! Come here!"
and then, leaning, he listened intently to the voice of the
river, lest he fail to catch the faintest responsive "Chook!" it
He could hear the sniffling of carp wallowing beside the bank. A
big pickerel slashed around, breakfasting on minnows. Opposite
the sumac, the black bass, with gamy spring, snapped up, before
it struck the water, every luckless, honey-laden insect that fell
from the feast of sweets in a blossom-whitened wild crab. The
sharp bark of the red squirrel and the low of cattle, lazily
chewing their cuds among the willows, came to him. The hammering
of a woodpecker on a dead sycamore, a little above him, rolled to
his straining ears like a drum beat.
The Cardinal hated the woodpecker more than he disliked the dove.
It was only foolishly effusive, but the woodpecker was a
veritable Bluebeard. The Cardinal longed to pull the feathers
from his back until it was as red as his head, for the woodpecker
had dressed his suit in finest style, and with dulcet tones and
melting tenderness had gone acourting. Sweet as the dove's had
been his wooing, and one more pang the lonely Cardinal had
suffered at being forced to witness his felicity; yet scarcely
had his plump, amiable little mate consented to his caresses and
approved the sycamore, before he turned on her, pecked her
severely, and pulled a tuft of plumage from her breast. There
was not the least excuse for this tyrannical action; and the
sight filled the Cardinal with rage. He fully expected to see
Madam Woodpecker divorce herself and flee her new home, and he
most earnestly hoped that she would; but she did no such thing.
She meekly flattened her feathers, hurried work in a lively
manner, and tried in every way to anticipate and avert her mate's
displeasure. Under this treatment he grew more abusive, and now
Madam Woodpecker dodged every time she came within his reach. It
made the Cardinal feel so vengeful that he longed to go up and
drum the sycamore with the woodpecker's head until he taught him
how to treat his mate properly.
There was plently of lark music rolling with the river, and that
morning brought the first liquid golden notes of the orioles.
They had arrived at dawn, and were overjoyed with their
homecoming, for they were darting from bank to bank singing
exquisitely on wing. There seemed no end to the bird voices that
floated with the river, and yet there was no beginning to the one
voice for which the Cardinal waited with passionate longing.
The oriole's singing was so inspiring that it tempted the
Cardinal to another effort, and perching where he gleamed crimson
and black against the April sky, he tested his voice, and when
sure of his tones, he entreatingly called: "Come here! Come
Just then he saw her! She came daintily over the earth, soft as
down before the wind, a rosy flush suffusing her plumage, a coral
beak, her very feet pink--the shyest, most timid little thing
alive. Her bright eyes were popping with fear, and down there
among the ferns, anemones and last year's dried leaves, she
tilted her sleek crested head and peered at him with frightened
wonder and silent helplessness.
It was for this the Cardinal had waited, hoped, and planned for
many days. He had rehearsed what he conceived to be every point
of the situation, and yet he was not prepared for the thing that
suddenly happened to him. He had expected to reject many
applicants before he selected one to match his charms; but
instantly this shy little creature, slipping along near earth,
taking a surreptitious peep at him, made him feel a very small
bird, and he certainly never before had felt small. The crushing
possibility that somewhere there might be a cardinal that was
larger, brighter, and a finer musician than he, staggered him;
and worst of all, his voice broke suddenly to his complete
Half screened by the flowers, she seemed so little, so shy, so
delightfully sweet. He "chipped" carefully once or twice to
steady himself and clear his throat, for unaccountably it had
grown dry and husky; and then he tenderly tried again. "Come
here! Come here!" implored the Cardinal. He forgot all about his
dignity. He knew that his voice was trembling with eagerness and
hoarse with fear. He was afraid to attempt approaching her, but
he leaned toward her, begging and pleading. He teased and
insisted, and he did not care a particle if he did. It suddenly
seemed an honour to coax her. He rocked on the limb. He
side-stepped and hopped and gyrated gracefully. He fluffed and
flirted and showed himself to every advantage. It never occurred
to him that the dove and the woodpecker might be watching, though
he would not have cared in the least if they had been; and as for
any other cardinal, he would have attacked the combined forces of
the Limberlost and Rainbow Bottom.
He sang and sang. Every impulse of passion in his big, crimson,
palpitating body was thrown into those notes; but she only turned
her head from side to side, peering at him, seeming sufficiently
frightened to flee at a breath, and answered not even the
faintest little "Chook!" of encouragement.
The Cardinal rested a second before he tried again. That
steadied him and gave him better command of himself. He could
tell that his notes were clearing and growing sweeter. He was
improving. Perhaps she was interested. There was some
encouragement in the fact that she was still there. The Cardinal
felt that his time had come.
"Come here! Come here!" He was on his mettle now. Surely no
cardinal could sing fuller, clearer, sweeter notes! He began at
the very first, and rollicked through a story of adventure,
colouring it with every wild, dashing, catchy note he could
improvise. He followed that with a rippling song of the joy and
fulness of spring, in notes as light and airy as the wind-blown
soul of melody, and with swaying body kept time to his rhythmic
measures. Then he glided into a song of love, and tenderly,
pleadingly, passionately, told the story as only a courting bird
can tell it. Then he sang a song of ravishment; a song quavering
with fear and the pain tugging at his heart. He almost had run
the gamut, and she really appeared as if she intended to flee
rather than to come to him. He was afraid to take even one timid
little hop toward her.
In a fit of desperation the Cardinal burst into the passion song.
He arose to his full height, leaned toward her with outspread
quivering wings, and crest flared to the utmost, and rocking from
side to side in the intensity of his fervour, he poured out a
perfect torrent of palpitant song. His cardinal body swayed to
the rolling flood of his ecstatic tones, until he appeared like a
flaming pulsing note of materialized music, as he entreated,
coaxed, commanded, and pled. From sheer exhaustion, he threw up
his head to round off the last note he could utter, and
breathlessly glancing down to see if she were coming, caught
sight of a faint streak of gray in the distance. He had planned
so to subdue the little female he courted that she would come to
him; he was in hot pursuit a half day's journey away before he
No other cardinal ever endured such a chase as she led him in the
following days. Through fear and timidity she had kept most of
her life in the underbrush. The Cardinal was a bird of the open
fields and tree-tops. He loved to rock with the wind, and speed
arrow-like in great plunges of flight. This darting and twisting
over logs, among leaves, and through tangled thickets, tired,
tried, and exasperated him more than hundreds of miles of open
flight. Sometimes he drove her from cover, and then she wildly
dashed up-hill and down-dale, seeking another thicket; but
wherever she went, the Cardinal was only a breath behind her, and
with every passing mile his passion for her grew.
There was no time to eat, bathe, or sing; only mile after mile of
unceasing pursuit. It seemed that the little creature could not
stop if she would, and as for the Cardinal, he was in that chase
to remain until his last heart-beat. It was a question how the
frightened bird kept in advance. She was visibly the worse for
this ardent courtship. Two tail feathers were gone, and there
was a broken one beating from her wing. Once she had flown too
low, striking her head against a rail until a drop of blood came,
and she cried pitifully. Several times the Cardinal had cornered
her, and tried to hold her by a bunch of feathers, and compel her
by force to listen to reason; but she only broke from his hold
and dashed away a stricken thing, leaving him half dead with
longing and remorse.
But no matter how baffled she grew, or where she fled in her
headlong flight, the one thing she always remembered, was not to
lead the Cardinal into the punishment that awaited him in Rainbow
Bottom. Panting for breath, quivering with fear, longing for
well-concealed retreats, worn and half blinded by the disasters
of flight through strange country, the tired bird beat her
aimless way; but she would have been torn to pieces before she
would have led her magnificent pursuer into the wrath of his
Poor little feathered creature! She had been fleeing some kind
of danger all her life. She could not realize that love and
protection had come in this splendid guise, and she fled on and
Once the Cardinal, aching with passion and love, fell behind that
she might rest, and before he realized that another bird was
close, an impudent big relative of his, straying from the
Limberlost, entered the race and pursued her so hotly that with a
note of utter panic she wheeled and darted back to the Cardinal
for protection. When to the rush of rage that possessed him at
the sight of a rival was added the knowledge that she was seeking
him in her extremity, such a mighty wave of anger swept the
Cardinal that he appeared twice his real size. Like a flaming
brand of vengeance he struck that Limberlost upstart, and sent
him rolling to earth, a mass of battered feathers. With beak and
claw he made his attack, and when he so utterly demolished his
rival that he hopped away trembling, with dishevelled plumage
stained with his own blood, the Cardinal remembered his little
love and hastened back, confidently hoping for his reward.
She was so securely hidden, that although he went searching,
calling, pleading, he found no trace of her the remainder of that
day. The Cardinal almost went distracted; and his tender
imploring cries would have moved any except a panic-stricken
bird. He did not even know in what direction to pursue her.
Night closed down, and found him in a fever of love-sick fear,
but it brought rest and wisdom. She could not have gone very
far. She was too worn. He would not proclaim his presence.
Soon she would suffer past enduring for food and water.
He hid in the willows close where he had lost her, and waited
with what patience he could; and it was a wise plan. Shortly
after dawn, moving stilly as the break of day, trembling with
fear, she came slipping to the river for a drink. It was almost
brutal cruelty, but her fear must be overcome someway; and with a
cry of triumph the Cardinal, in a plunge of flight, was beside
her. She gave him one stricken look, and dashed away. The chase
began once more and continued until she was visibly breaking.
There was no room for a rival that morning. The Cardinal flew
abreast of her and gave her a caress or attempted a kiss whenever
he found the slightest chance. She was almost worn out, her
flights were wavering and growing shorter. The Cardinal did his
utmost. If she paused to rest, he crept close as he dared, and
piteously begged: "Come here! Come here!"
When she took wing, he so dexterously intercepted her course that
several time she found refuge in his sumac without realizing
where she was. When she did that, he perched just as closely as
he dared; and while they both rested, he sang to her a soft
little whispered love song, deep in his throat; and with every
note he gently edged nearer. She turned her head from him, and
although she was panting for breath and palpitant with fear, the
Cardinal knew that he dared not go closer, or she would dash away
like the wild thing she was. The next time she took wing, she
found him so persistently in her course that she turned sharply
and fled panting to the sumac. When this had happened so often
that she seemed to recognize the sumac as a place of refuge, the
Cardinal slipped aside and spent all his remaining breath in an
exultant whistle of triumph, for now he was beginning to see his
way. He dashed into mid-air, and with a gyration that would have
done credit to a flycatcher, he snapped up a gadfly that should
have been more alert.
With a tender "Chip!" from branch to branch, slowly, cautiously,
he came with it. Because he was half starved himself, he knew
that she must be almost famished. Holding it where she could
see, he hopped toward her, eagerly, carefully, the gadfly in his
beak, his heart in his mouth. He stretched his neck and legs to
the limit as he reached the fly toward her. What matter that she
took it with a snap, and plunged a quarter of a mile before
eating it? She had taken food from him! That was the beginning.
Cautiously he impelled her toward the sumac, and with untiring
patience kept her there the remainder of the day. He carried her
every choice morsel he could find in the immediate vicinity of
the sumac, and occasionally she took a bit from his beak, though
oftenest he was compelled to lay it on a limb beside her. At
dusk she repeatedly dashed toward the underbrush; but the
Cardinal, with endless patience and tenderness, maneuvered her to
the sumac, until she gave up, and beneath the shelter of a
neighbouring grapevine, perched on a limb that was the Cardinal's
own chosen resting-place, tucked her tired head beneath her wing,
and went to rest. When she was soundly sleeping, the Cardinal
crept as closely as he dared, and with one eye on his little gray
love, and the other roving for any possible danger, he spent a
night of watching for any danger that might approach.
He was almost worn out; but this was infinitely better than the
previous night, at any rate, for now he not only knew where she
was, but she was fast asleep in his own favourite place. Huddled
on the limb, the Cardinal gloated over her. He found her beauty
perfect. To be sure, she was dishevelled; but she could make her
toilet. There were a few feathers gone; but they would grow
speedily. She made a heart-satisfying picture, on which the
Cardinal feasted his love-sick soul, by the light of every
straying moonbeam that slid around the edges of the grape leaves.
Wave after wave of tender passion shook him. In his throat half
the night he kept softly calling to her: "Come here! Come here!"
Next morning, when the robins announced day beside the shining
river, she awoke with a start; but before she could decide in
which direction to fly, she discovered a nice fresh grub laid on
the limb close to her, and very sensibly remained for breakfast.
Then the Cardinal went to the river and bathed. He made such
delightful play of it, and the splash of the water sounded so
refreshing to the tired draggled bird, that she could not resist
venturing for a few dips. When she was wet she could not fly
well, and he improved the opportunity to pull her broken quills,
help her dress herself, and bestow a few extra caresses. He
guided her to his favourite place for a sun bath; and followed
the farmer's plow in the corn field until he found a big sweet
beetle. He snapped off its head, peeled the stiff wing shields,
and daintily offered it to her. He was so delighted when she
took it from his beak, and remained in the sumac to eat it, that
he established himself on an adjoining thorn-bush, where the
snowy blossoms of a wild morning-glory made a fine background for
his scarlet coat. He sang the old pleading song as he never had
sung it before, for now there was a tinge of hope battling with
the fear in his heart.
Over and over he sang, rounding, fulling, swelling every note,
leaning toward her in coaxing tenderness, flashing his brilliant
beauty as he swayed and rocked, for her approval; and all that he
had suffered and all that he hoped for was in his song. Just
when his heart was growing sick within him, his straining ear
caught the faintest, most timid call a lover ever answered. Only
one imploring, gentle "Chook!" from the sumac! His song broke in
a suffocating burst of exultation. Cautiously he hopped from
twig to twig toward her. With tender throaty murmurings he
slowly edged nearer, and wonder of wonders! with tired eyes and
quivering wings, she reached him her beak for a kiss.
At dinner that day, the farmer said to his wife:
"Maria, if you want to hear the prettiest singin', an' see the
cutest sight you ever saw, jest come down along the line fence
an' watch the antics o' that redbird we been hearin'"
"I don't know as redbirds are so scarce 'at I've any call to wade
through slush a half-mile to see one," answered Maria.
"Footin's pretty good along the line fence," said Abram, "an' you
never saw a redbird like this fellow. He's as big as any two
common ones. He's so red every bush he lights on looks like it
was afire. It's past all question, he's been somebody's pet, an'
he's taken me for the man. I can get in six feet of him easy.
He's the finest bird I ever set eyes on; an' as for singin', he's
dropped the weather, an' he's askin' folks to his housewarmin'
to-day. He's been there alone for a week, an' his singin's been
first-class; but to-day he's picked up a mate, an' he's as
tickled as ever I was. I am really consarned for fear he'll
"Course, don't come if you're tired, honey," said the farmer. "I
thought maybe you'd enjoy it. He's a-doin' me a power o' good.
My joints are limbered up till I catch myself pretty near
runnin', on the up furrow, an' then, down towards the fence, I go
slow so's to stay near him as long as I can."
Maria stared. "Abram Johnson, have you gone daft?" she demanded.
Abram chuckled. "Not a mite dafter'n you'll be, honey, once you
set eyes on the fellow. Better come, if you can. You're
invited. He's askin' the whole endurin' country to come."
Maria said nothing more; but she mentally decided she had no time
to fool with a bird, when there were housekeeping and spring
sewing to do. As she recalled Abram's enthusiastic praise of the
singer, and had a whiff of the odour-laden air as she passed from
kitchen to spring-house, she was compelled to admit that it was a
temptation to go; but she finished her noon work and resolutely
sat down with her needle. She stitched industriously, her thread
straightening with a quick nervous sweep, learned through years
of experience; and if her eyes wandered riverward, and if she
paused frequently with arrested hand and listened intently, she
did not realize it. By two o'clock, a spirit of unrest that
demanded recognition had taken possession of her. Setting her
lips firmly, a scowl clouding her brow, she stitched on. By half
past two her hands dropped in her lap, Abram's new hickory shirt
slid to the floor, and she hesitatingly arose and crossed the
room to the closet, from which she took her overshoes, and set
them by the kitchen fire, to have them ready in case she wanted
"Pshaw!" she muttered, "I got this shirt to finish this
afternoon. There's butter an' bakin' in the mornin', an' Mary
Jane Simms is comin' for a visit in the afternoon."
She returned to the window and took up the shirt, sewing with
unusual swiftness for the next half-hour; but by three she
dropped it, and opening the kitchen door, gazed toward the river.
Every intoxicating delight of early spring was in the air. The
breeze that fanned her cheek was laden with subtle perfume of
pollen and the crisp fresh odour of unfolding leaves. Curling
skyward, like a beckoning finger, went a spiral of violet and
gray smoke from the log heap Abram was burning; and scattered
over spaces of a mile were half a dozen others, telling a story
of the activity of his neighbours. Like the low murmur of
distant music came the beating wings of hundreds of her bees,
rimming the water trough, insane with thirst. On the wood-pile
the guinea cock clattered incessantly: "Phut rack! Phut rack!"
Across the dooryard came the old turkey-gobbler with fan tail and
a rasping scrape of wing, evincing his delight in spring and
mating time by a series of explosive snorts. On the barnyard
gate the old Shanghai was lustily challenging to mortal combat
one of his kind three miles across country. From the river arose
the strident scream of her blue gander jealously guarding his
harem. In the poultry-yard the hens made a noisy cackling party,
and the stable lot was filled with cattle bellowing for the
freedom of the meadow pasture, as yet scarcely ready for grazing.
It seemed to the little woman, hesitating in the doorway, as if
all nature had entered into a conspiracy to lure her from her
work, and just then, clear and imperious, arose the demand of the
Cardinal: "Come here! Come here!"
Blank amazement filled her face. "As I'm a livin' woman!" she
gasped. "He's changed his song! That's what Abram meant by me
bein' invited. He's askin' folks to see his mate. I'm goin'."
The dull red of excitement sprang into her cheeks. She hurried
on her overshoes, and drew an old shawl over her head. She
crossed the dooryard, followed the path through the orchard, and
came to the lane. Below the barn she turned back and attempted
to cross. The mud was deep and thick, and she lost an overshoe;
but with the help of a stick she pried it out, and replaced it.
"Joke on me if I'd a-tumbled over in this mud," she muttered.
She entered the barn, and came out a minute later, carefully
closing and buttoning the door, and started down the line fence
toward the river.
Half-way across the field Abram saw her coming. No need to
recount how often he had looked in that direction during the
afternoon. He slapped the lines on the old gray's back and came
tearing down the slope, his eyes flashing, his cheeks red, his
hands firmly gripping the plow that rolled up a line of black
mould as he passed.
Maria, staring at his flushed face and shining eyes, recognized
that his whole being proclaimed an inward exultation.
"Abram Johnson," she solemnly demanded, "have you got the power?"
"Yes," cried Abram, pulling off his old felt hat, and gazing into
the crown as if for inspiration. "You've said it, honey! I got
the power! Got it of a little red bird! Power o' spring! Power
o' song! Power o' love! If that poor little red target for some
ornery cuss's bullet can get all he's getting out o' life to-day,
there's no cause why a reasonin' thinkin' man shouldn't realize
some o' his blessings. You hit it, Maria; I got the power. It's
the power o' God, but I learned how to lay hold of it from that
little red bird. Come here, Maria!"
Abram wrapped the lines around the plow handle, and cautiously
led his wife to the fence. He found a piece of thick bark for
her to stand on, and placed her where she would be screened by a
big oak. Then he stood behind her and pointed out the sumac and
the female bird.
"Jest you keep still a minute, an' you'll feel paid for comin'
all right, honey," he whispered, "but don't make any sudden
"I don't know as I ever saw a worse-lookin' specimen 'an she is,"
"She looks first-class to him. There's no kick comin' on his
part, I can tell you," replied Abram.
The bride hopped shyly through the sumac. She pecked at the
dried berries, and frequently tried to improve her plumage, which
certainly had been badly draggled; and there was a drop of blood
dried at the base of her beak. She plainly showed the effects of
her rough experience, and yet she was a most attractive bird; for
the dimples in her plump body showed through the feathers, and
instead of the usual wickedly black eyes of the cardinal family,
hers were a soft tender brown touched by a love-light there was
no mistaking. She was a beautiful bird, and she was doing all in
her power to make herself dainty again. Her movements clearly
indicated how timid she was, and yet she remained in the sumac as
if she feared to leave it; and frequently peered expectantly
among the tree-tops.
There was a burst of exultation down the river. The little bird
gave her plumage a fluff, and watched anxiously. On came the
Cardinal like a flaming rocket, calling to her on wing. He
alighted beside her, dropped into her beak a morsel of food, gave
her a kiss to aid digestion, caressingly ran his beak the length
of her wing quills, and flew to the dogwood. Mrs. Cardinal
enjoyed the meal. It struck her palate exactly right. She liked
the kiss and caress, cared, in fact, for all that he did for her,
and with the appreciation of his tenderness came repentance for
the dreadful chase she had led him in her foolish fright, and an
impulse to repay. She took a dainty hop toward the dogwood, and
the invitation she sent him was exquisite. With a shrill whistle
of exultant triumph the Cardinal answered at a headlong rush.
The farmer's grip tightened on his wife's shoulder, but Maria
turned toward him with blazing, tear-filled eyes. "An' you call
yourself a decent man, Abram Johnson?"
"Decent?" quavered the astonished Abram. "Decent? I believe I
"I believe you ain't," hotly retorted his wife. "You don't know
what decency is, if you go peekin' at them. They ain't birds!
"Maria," pled Abram, "Maria, honey."
"I am plumb ashamed of you," broke in Maria. "How d'you s'pose
she'd feel if she knew there was a man here peekin' at her?
Ain't she got a right to be lovin' and tender? Ain't she got a
right to pay him best she knows? They're jest common human
bein's, an' I don't know where you got privilege to spy on a
female when she's doin' the best she knows."
Maria broke from his grasp and started down the line fence.
In a few strides Abram had her in his arms, his withered cheek
with its springtime bloom pressed against her equally withered,
"Maria," he whispered, waveringly, "Maria, honey, I wasn't
meanin' any disrespect to the sex."
Maria wiped her eyes on the corner of her shawl. "I don't s'pose
you was, Abram," she admitted; "but you're jest like all the rest
o' the men. You never think! Now you go on with your plowin'
an' let that little female alone."
She unclasped his arms and turned homeward.
"Honey," called Abram softly, "since you brought 'em that
pocketful o' wheat, you might as well let me have it."
"Landy!" exclaimed Maria, blushing; "I plumb forgot my wheat! I
thought maybe, bein' so early, pickin' was scarce, an' if you'd
put out a little wheat an' a few crumbs, they'd stay an' nest in
the sumac, as you're so fond o' them."
"Jest what I'm fairly prayin' they'll do, an' I been carryin'
stuff an' pettin' him up best I knowed for a week," said Abram,
as he knelt, and cupped his shrunken hands, while Maria guided
the wheat from her apron into them. "I'll scatter it along the
top rail, an' they'll be after it in fifteen minutes. Thank you,
Maria. 'T was good o' you to think of it."
Maria watched him steadily. How dear he was! How dear he always
had been! How happy they were together! "Abram," she asked,
hesitatingly, "is there anything else I could do for--your
They were creatures of habitual repression, and the inner
glimpses they had taken of each other that day were surprises
they scarcely knew how to meet. Abram said nothing, because he
could not. He slowly shook his head, and turned to the plow, his
eyes misty. Maria started toward the line fence, but she paused
repeatedly to listen; and it was no wonder, for all the redbirds
from miles down the river had gathered around the sumac to see if
there were a battle in birdland; but it was only the Cardinal,
turning somersaults in the air, and screaming with bursting
exuberance: "Come here! Come here!"
"So dear! So dear!" crooned the Cardinal
She had taken possession of the sumac. The location was her
selection and he loudly applauded her choice. She placed the
first twig, and after examining it carefully, he spent the day
carrying her others just as much alike as possible. If she used
a dried grass blade, he carried grass blades until she began
dropping them on the ground. If she worked in a bit of wild
grape-vine bark, he peeled grape-vines until she would have no
more. It never occurred to him that he was the largest cardinal
in the woods, in those days, and he had forgotten that he wore a
red coat. She was not a skilled architect. Her nest certainly
was a loose ramshackle affair; but she had built it, and had
allowed him to help her. It was hers; and he improvised a paean
in its praise. Every morning he perched on the edge of the nest
and gazed in songless wonder at each beautiful new egg; and
whenever she came to brood she sat as if entranced, eyeing her
treasures in an ecstasy of proud possession.
Then she nestled them against her warm breast, and turned adoring
eyes toward the Cardinal. If he sang from the dogwood, she faced
that way. If he rocked on the wild grape-vine, she turned in her
nest. If he went to the corn field for grubs, she stood astride
her eggs and peered down, watching his every movement with
unconcealed anxiety. The Cardinal forgot to be vain of his
beauty; she delighted in it every hour of the day. Shy and timid
beyond belief she had been during her courtship; but she made
reparation by being an incomparably generous and devoted mate.
And the Cardinal! He was astonished to find himself capable of so
much and such varied feeling. It was not enough that he brooded
while she went to bathe and exercise. The daintiest of every
morsel he found was carried to her. When she refused to swallow
another particle, he perched on a twig close by the nest many
times in a day; and with sleek feathers and lowered crest, gazed
at her in silent worshipful adoration.
Up and down the river bank he flamed and rioted. In the sumac he
uttered not the faintest "Chip!" that might attract attention.
He was so anxious to be inconspicuous that he appeared only half
his real size. Always on leaving he gave her a tender little
peck and ran his beak the length of her wing--a characteristic
caress that he delighted to bestow on her.
If he felt that he was disturbing her too often, he perched on
the dogwood and sang for life, and love, and happiness. His
music was in a minor key now. The high, exultant, ringing notes
of passion were mellowed and subdued. He was improvising cradle
songs and lullabies. He was telling her how he loved her, how he
would fight for her, how he was watching over her, how he would
signal if any danger were approaching, how proud he was of her,
what a perfect nest she had built, how beautiful he thought her
eggs, what magnificent babies they would produce. Full of
tenderness, melting with love, liquid with sweetness, the
Cardinal sang to his patient little brooding mate: "So dear! So
The farmer leaned on his corn-planter and listened to him
intently. "I swanny! If he hasn't changed his song again, an'
this time I'm blest if I can tell what he's saying!" Every time
the Cardinal lifted his voice, the clip of the corn-planter
ceased, and Abram hung on the notes and studied them over.
One night he said to his wife: "Maria, have you been noticin' the
redbird of late? He's changed to a new tune, an' this time I'm
completely stalled. I can't for the life of me make out what
he's saying. S'pose you step down to-morrow an' see if you can
catch it for me. I'd give a pretty to know!"
Maria felt flattered. She always had believed that she had a
musical ear. Here was an opportunity to test it and please Abram
at the same time. She hastened her work the following morning,
and very early slipped along the line fence. Hiding behind the
oak, with straining ear and throbbing heart, she eagerly
listened. "Clip, clip," came the sound of the planter, as
Abram's dear old figure trudged up the hill. "Chip! Chip!" came
the warning of the Cardinal, as he flew to his mate.
He gave her some food, stroked her wing, and flying to the
dogwood, sang of the love that encompassed him. As he trilled
forth his tender caressing strain, the heart of the listening
woman translated as did that of the brooding bird.
With shining eyes and flushed cheeks, she sped down the fence.
Panting and palpitating with excitement, she met Abram half-way
on his return trip. Forgetful of her habitual reserve, she threw
her arms around his neck, and drawing his face to hers, she
cried: "Oh, Abram! I got it! I got it! I know what he's
saying! Oh, Abram, my love! My own! To me so dear! So dear!"
"So dear! So dear!" echoed the Cardinal.
The bewilderment in Abram's face melted into comprehension. He
swept Maria from her feet as he lifted his head.
"On my soul! You have got it, honey! That's what he's saying,
plain as gospel! I can tell it plainer'n anything he's sung yet,
now I sense it."
He gathered Maria in his arms, pressed her head against his
breast with a trembling old hand, while the face he turned to the
morning was beautiful.
"I wish to God," he said quaveringly, "'at every creature on
earth was as well fixed as me an' the redbird!" Clasping each
other, they listened with rapt faces, as, mellowing across the
corn field, came the notes of the Cardinal: "So dear! So dear!"
After that Abram's devotion to his bird family became a mild
mania. He carried food to the top rail of the line fence every
day, rain or shine, with the same regularity that he curried and
fed Nancy in the barn. From caring for and so loving the
Cardinal, there grew in his tender old heart a welling flood of
sympathy for every bird that homed on his farm.
He drove a stake to mark the spot where the killdeer hen brooded
in the corn field, so that he would not drive Nancy over the
nest. When he closed the bars at the end of the lane, he always
was careful to leave the third one down, for there was a chippy
brooding in the opening where it fitted when closed. Alders and
sweetbriers grew in his fence corners undisturbed that spring if
he discovered that they sheltered an anxious-eyed little mother.
He left a square yard of clover unmowed, because it seemed to him
that the lark, singing nearer the Throne than any other bird, was
picking up stray notes dropped by the Invisible Choir, and with
unequalled purity and tenderness, sending them ringing down to
his brooding mate, whose home and happiness would be despoiled by
the reaping of that spot of green. He delayed burning the
brush-heap from the spring pruning, back of the orchard, until
fall, when he found it housed a pair of fine thrushes; for the
song of the thrush delighted him almost as much as that of the
lark. He left a hollow limb on the old red pearmain apple-tree,
because when he came to cut it there was a pair of bluebirds
twittering around, frantic with anxiety.
His pockets were bulgy with wheat and crumbs, and his heart was
big with happiness. It was the golden springtime of his later
life. The sky never had seemed so blue, or the earth so
beautiful. The Cardinal had opened the fountains of his soul;
life took on a new colour and joy; while every work of God
manifested a fresh and heretofore unappreciated loveliness. His
very muscles seemed to relax, and new strength arose to meet the
demands of his uplifted spirit. He had not finished his day's
work with such ease and pleasure in years; and he could see the
influence of his rejuvenation in Maria. She was flitting around
her house with broken snatches of song, even sweeter to Abram's
ears than the notes of the birds; and in recent days he had
noticed that she dressed particularly for her afternoon's sewing,
putting on her Sunday lace collar and a white apron. He
immediately went to town and bought her a finer collar than she
ever had owned in her life.
Then he hunted a sign painter, and came home bearing a number of
pine boards on which gleamed in big, shiny black letters:
| NO HUNTING ALLOWED |
| ON THIS FARM |
He seemed slightly embarrassed when he showed them to Maria. "I
feel a little mite onfriendly, putting up signs like that 'fore
my neighbours," he admitted, "but the fact is, it ain't the
neighbours so much as it's boys that need raising, an' them town
creatures who call themselves sportsmen, an' kill a hummin'-bird
to see if they can hit it. Time was when trees an' underbrush
were full o' birds an' squirrels, any amount o' rabbits, an' the
fish fairly crowdin' in the river. I used to kill all the quail
an' wild turkeys about here a body needed to make an appetizing
change, It was always my plan to take a little an' leave a
little. But jest look at it now. Surprise o' my life if I get a
two-pound bass. Wild turkey gobblin' would scare me most out of
my senses, an', as for the birds, there are jest about a fourth
what there used to be, an' the crops eaten to pay for it. I'd do
all I'm tryin' to for any bird, because of its song an' colour,
an' pretty teeterin' ways, but I ain't so slow but I see I'm paid
in what they do for me. Up go these signs, an' it won't be a
happy day for anybody I catch trespassin' on my birds."
Maria studied the signs meditatively. "You shouldn't be forced
to put 'em up," she said conclusively. "If it's been decided 'at
it's good for 'em to be here, an' laws made to protect 'em,
people ought to act with some sense, an' leave them alone. I
never was so int'rested in the birds in all my life; an' I'll
jest do a little lookin' out myself. If you hear a spang o' the
dinner bell when you're out in the field, you'll know it means
there's some one sneakin' 'round with a gun."
Abram caught Maria, and planted a resounding smack on her cheek,
where the roses of girlhood yet bloomed for him. Then he filled
his pockets with crumbs and grain, and strolled to the river to
set the Cardinal's table. He could hear the sharp incisive
"Chip!" and the tender mellow love-notes as he left the barn; and
all the way to the sumac they rang in his ears.
The Cardinal met him at the corner of the field, and hopped over
bushes and the fence only a few yards from him. When Abram had
scattered his store on the rail, the bird came tipping and
tilting, daintily caught up a crumb, and carried it to the sumac.
His mate was pleased to take it; and he carried her one morsel
after another until she refused to open her beak for more. He
made a light supper himself; and then swinging on the grape-vine,
he closed the day with an hour of music. He repeatedly turned a
bright questioning eye toward Abram, but he never for a moment
lost sight of the nest and the plump gray figure of his little
mate. As she brooded over her eggs, he brooded over her; and
that she might realize the depth and constancy of his devotion,
he told her repeatedly, with every tender inflection he could
throw into his tones, that she was "So dear! So dear!"
The Cardinal had not known that the coming of the mate he so
coveted would fill his life with such unceasing gladness, and
yet, on the very day that happiness seemed at fullest measure,
there was trouble in the sumac. He had overstayed his time,
chasing a fat moth he particularly wanted for his mate, and she,
growing thirsty past endurance, left the nest and went to the
river. Seeing her there, he made all possible haste to take his
turn at brooding, so he arrived just in time to see a pilfering
red squirrel starting away with an egg.
With a vicious scream the Cardinal struck him full force. His
rush of rage cost the squirrel an eye; but it lost the father a
birdling, for the squirrel dropped the egg outside the nest. The
Cardinal mournfully carried away the tell-tale bits of shell, so
that any one seeing them would not look up and discover his
treasures. That left three eggs; and the brooding bird mourned
over the lost one so pitifully that the Cardinal perched close to
the nest the remainder of the day, and whispered over and over
for her comfort that she was "So dear! So dear!"
"See here! See here!" demanded the Cardinal
The mandate repeatedly rang from the topmost twig of the thorn
tree, and yet the Cardinal was not in earnest. He was beside
himself with a new and delightful excitement, and he found it
impossible to refrain from giving vent to his feelings. He was
commanding the farmer and every furred and feathered denizen of
the river bottom to see; then he fought like a wild thing if any
of them ventured close, for great things were happening in the sumac.
In past days the Cardinal had brooded an hour every morning while
his mate went to take her exercise, bathe, and fluff in the sun
parlour. He had gone to her that morning as usual, and she
looked at him with anxious eyes and refused to move. He had
hopped to the very edge of the nest and repeatedly urged her to
go. She only ruffled her feathers, and nestled the eggs she was
brooding to turn them, but did not offer to leave. The Cardinal
reached over and gently nudged her with his beak, to remind her
that it was his time to brood; but she looked at him almost
savagely, and gave him a sharp peck; so he knew she was not to be
bothered. He carried her every dainty he could find and hovered
near her, tense with anxiety.
It was late in the afternoon before she went after the drink for
which she was half famished. She scarcely had reached a willow
and bent over the water before the Cardinal was on the edge of
the nest. He examined it closely, but he could see no change.
He leaned to give the eggs careful scrutiny, and from somewhere
there came to him the faintest little "Chip!" he ever had heard.
Up went the Cardinal's crest, and he dashed to the willow. There
was no danger in sight; and his mate was greedily dipping her
rosy beak in the water. He went back to the cradle and listened
intently, and again that feeble cry came to him. Under the nest,
around it, and all through the sumac he searched, until at last,
completely baffled, he came back to the edge. The sound was so
much plainer there, that he suddenly leaned, caressing the eggs
with his beak; then the Cardinal knew! He had heard the first
faint cries of his shell-incased babies!
With a wild scream he made a flying leap through the air. His
heart was beating to suffocation. He started in a race down the
river. If he alighted on a bush he took only one swing, and
springing from it flamed on in headlong flight. He flashed to
the top of the tallest tulip tree, and cried cloudward to the
lark: "See here! See here!" He dashed to the river bank and told
the killdeers, and then visited the underbrush and informed the
thrushes and wood robins. Father-tender, he grew so delirious
with joy that he forgot his habitual aloofness, and fraternized
with every bird beside the shining river. He even laid aside his
customary caution, went chipping into the sumac, and caressed his
mate so boisterously she gazed at him severely and gave his wing
a savage pull to recall him to his sober senses.
That night the Cardinal slept in the sumac, very close to his
mate, and he shut only one eye at a time. Early in the morning,
when he carried her the first food, he found that she was on the
edge of the nest, dropping bits of shell outside; and creeping to
peep, he saw the tiniest coral baby, with closed eyes, and little
patches of soft silky down. Its beak was wide open, and though
his heart was even fuller than on the previous day, the Cardinal
knew what that meant; and instead of indulging in another
celebration, he assumed the duties of paternity, and began
searching for food, for now there were two empty crops in his
family. On the following day there were four. Then he really
worked. How eagerly he searched, and how gladly he flew to the
sumac with every rare morsel! The babies were too small for the
mother to leave; and for the first few days the Cardinal was
constantly on wing.
If he could not find sufficiently dainty food for them in the
trees and bushes, or among the offerings of the farmer, he
descended to earth and searched like a wood robin. He forgot he
needed a bath or owned a sun parlour; but everywhere he went,
from his full heart there constantly burst the cry:
"See here! See here!"
His mate made never a sound. Her eyes were bigger and softer
than ever, and in them glowed a steady lovelight. She hovered
over those three red mites of nestlings so tenderly! She was so
absorbed in feeding, stroking, and coddling them she neglected
herself until she became quite lean.
When the Cardinal came every few minutes with food, she was a
picture of love and gratitude for his devoted attention, and once
she reached over and softly kissed his wing. "See here! See
here!" shrilled the Cardinal; and in his ecstasy he again forgot
himself and sang in the sumac. Then he carried food with greater
activity than ever to cover his lapse.
The farmer knew that it lacked an hour of noon, but he was so
anxious to tell Maria the news that he could not endure the
suspense another minute. There was a new song from the sumac.
He had heard it as he turned the first corner with the shovel
plow. He had listened eagerly, and had caught the meaning almost
at once--"See here! See here!" He tied the old gray mare to the
fence to prevent her eating the young corn, and went immediately.
By leaning a rail against the thorn tree he was able to peer into
the sumac, and take a good look at the nest of handsome
birdlings, now well screened with the umbrella-like foliage. It
seemed to Abram that he never could wait until noon. He
critically examined the harness, in the hope that he would find a
buckle missing, and tried to discover a flaw in the plow that
would send him to the barn for a file; but he could not invent an
excuse for going. So, when he had waited until an hour of noon,
he could endure it no longer.
"Got news for you, Maria," he called from the well, where he was
making a pretense of thirst.
"Oh I don't know," answered Maria, with a superior smile. "If
it's about the redbirds, he's been up to the garden three times
this morning yellin', 'See here!' fit to split; an' I jest
figured that their little ones had hatched. Is that your news?"
"Well I be durned!" gasped the astonished Abram.
Mid-afternoon Abram turned Nancy and started the plow down a row
that led straight to the sumac. He intended to stop there, tie
to the fence, and go to the river bank, in the shade, for a visit
with the Cardinal. It was very warm, and he was feeling the heat
so much, that in his heart he knew he would be glad to reach the
end of the row and the rest he had promised himself.
The quick nervous strokes of the dinner bell, "Clang! Clang!"
came cutting the air clearly and sharply. Abram stopped Nancy
with a jerk. It was the warning Maria had promised to send him
if she saw prowlers with guns. He shaded his eyes with his hand
and scanned the points of the compass through narrowed lids with
concentrated vision. He first caught a gleam of light playing on
a gun-barrel, and then he could discern the figure of a man clad
in hunter's outfit leisurely walking down the lane, toward the
Abram hastily hitched Nancy to the fence. By making the best
time he could, he reached the opposite corner, and was nibbling
the midrib of a young corn blade and placidly viewing the
landscape when the hunter passed.
"Howdy!" he said in an even cordial voice.
The hunter walked on without lifting his eyes or making audible
reply. To Abram's friendly oldfashioned heart this seemed the
rankest discourtesy; and there was a flash in his eye and a
certain quality in his voice he lifted a hand for parley.
"Hold a minute, my friend," he said. "Since you are on my
premises, might I be privileged to ask if you have seen a few
signs 'at I have posted pertainin' to the use of a gun?"
"I am not blind," replied the hunter; "and my education has been
looked after to the extent that I can make out your notices.
From the number and size of them, I think I could do it, old man,
if I had no eyes."
The scarcely suppressed sneer, and the "old man" grated on
Abram's nerves amazingly, for a man of sixty years of peace. The
gleam in his eyes grew stronger, and there was a perceptible lift
of his shoulders as he answered:
"I meant 'em to be read an' understood! From the main road
passin' that cabin up there on the bank, straight to the river,
an' from the furthermost line o' this field to the same, is my
premises, an' on every foot of 'em the signs are in full force.
They're in a little fuller force in June, when half the bushes
an' tufts o' grass are housin' a young bird family, 'an at any
other time. They're sort o' upholdin' the legislature's act,
providing for the protection o' game an' singin' birds; an' maybe
it 'ud be well for you to notice 'at I'm not so old but I'm able
to stand up for my right to any livin' man."
There certainly was an added tinge of respect in the hunter's
tones as he asked: "Would you consider it trespass if a man
simply crossed your land, following the line of the fences to
reach the farm of a friend?"
"Certainly not!" cried Abram, cordial in his relief. "To be sure
not! Glad to have you convenience yourself. I only wanted to
jest call to your notice 'at the BIRDS are protected on this
"I have no intention of interfering with your precious birds, I
assure you," replied the hunter. "And if you require an
explanation of the gun in June, I confess I did hope to be able
to pick off a squirrel for a very sick friend. But I suppose for
even such cause it would not be allowed on your premises."
"Oh pshaw now!" said Abram. "Man alive! I'm not onreasonable.
O' course in case o' sickness I'd be glad if you could run across
a squirrel. All I wanted was to have a clear understandin' about
the birds. Good luck, an' good day to you!"
Abram started across the field to Nancy, but he repeatedly turned
to watch the gleam of the gun-barrel, as the hunter rounded the
corner and started down the river bank. He saw him leave the
line of the fence and disappear in the thicket.
"Goin' straight for the sumac," muttered Abram. "It's likely I'm
a fool for not stayin' right beside him past that point. An'
yet--I made it fair an' plain, an' he passed his word 'at he
wouldn't touch the birds."
He untied Nancy, and for the second time started toward the
sumac. He had been plowing carefully, his attention divided
between the mare and the corn; but he uprooted half that row, for
his eyes wandered to the Cardinal's home as if he were
fascinated, and his hands were shaking with undue excitement as
he gripped the plow handles. At last he stopped Nancy, and stood
gazing eagerly toward the river.
"Must be jest about the sumac," he whispered. "Lord! but I'll be
glad to see the old gun-barrel gleamin' safe t'other side o' it."
There was a thin puff of smoke, and a screaming echo went rolling
and reverberating down the Wabash. Abram's eyes widened, and a
curious whiteness settled on his lips. He stood as if incapable
of moving. "Clang! Clang!" came Maria's second warning.
The trembling slid from him, and his muscles hardened. There was
no trace of rheumatic stiffness in his movements. With a bound
he struck the chain-traces from the singletree at Nancy's heels.
He caught the hames, leaped on her back, and digging his heels
into her sides, he stretched along her neck like an Indian and
raced across the corn field. Nancy's twenty years slipped from
her as her master's sixty had from him. Without understanding
the emergency, she knew that he required all the speed there was
in her; and with trace-chains rattling and beating on her heels,
she stretched out until she fairly swept the young corn, as she
raced for the sumac. Once Abram straightened, and slipping a
hand into his pocket, drew out a formidable jack-knife, opening
it as he rode. When he reached the fence, he almost flew over
Nancy's head. He went into a fence corner, and with a few
slashes severed a stout hickory withe, stripping the leaves and
topping it as he leaped the fence.
He grasped this ugly weapon, his eyes dark with anger as he
appeared before the hunter, who supposed him at the other side of
"Did you shoot at that redbird?" he roared.
As his gun was at the sportman's shoulder, and he was still
peering among the bushes, denial seemed useless. "Yes, I did,"
he replied, and made a pretense of turning to the sumac again.
There was a forward impulse of Abram's body. "Hit 'im?" he
demanded with awful calm.
"Thought I had, but I guess I only winged him."
Abram's fingers closed around his club. At the sound of his
friend's voice, the Cardinal came darting through the bushes a
wavering flame, and swept so closely to him for protection that a
wing almost brushed his cheek.
"See here! See here!" shrilled the bird in deadly panic. There
was not a cut feather on him.
Abram's relief was so great he seemed to shrink an inch in
"Young man, you better thank your God you missed that bird," he
said solemnly, "for if you'd killed him, I'd a-mauled this stick
to ribbons on you, an' I'm most afraid I wouldn't a-knowed when
He advanced a step in his eagerness, and the hunter, mistaking
his motive, levelled his gun.
"Drop that!" shouted Abram, as he broke through the bushes that
clung to him, tore the clothing from his shoulders, and held him
back. "Drop that! Don't you dare point a weapon at me; on my
own premises, an' after you passed your word.
"Your word!" repeated Abram, with withering scorn, his white,
quivering old face terrible to see. "Young man, I got a couple
o' things to say to you. You'r' shaped like a man, an' you'r'
dressed like a man, an' yet the smartest person livin' would
never take you for anything but an egg-suckin' dog, this minute.
All the time God ever spent on you was wasted, an' your mother's
had the same luck. I s'pose God's used to having creatures 'at
He's made go wrong, but I pity your mother. Goodness knows a
woman suffers an' works enough over her children, an' then to
fetch a boy to man's estate an' have him, of his own free will
an' accord, be a liar! Young man, truth is the cornerstone o'
the temple o' character. Nobody can put up a good buildin'
without a solid foundation; an' you can't do solid character
buildin' with a lie at the base. Man 'at's a liar ain't fit for
anything! Can't trust him in no sphere or relation o' life; or
in any way, shape, or manner. You passed out your word like a
man, an' like a man I took it an' went off trustin' you, an' you
failed me. Like as not that squirrel story was a lie, too! Have
you got a sick friend who is needin' squirrel broth?"
The hunter shook his head.
"No? That wasn't true either? I'll own you make me curious.
'Ud you mind tellin' me what was your idy in cookin' up that
The hunter spoke with an effort. "I suppose I wanted to do
something to make you feel small," he admitted, in a husky voice.
"You wanted to make me feel small," repeated Abram, wonderingly.
"Lord! Lord! Young man, did you ever hear o' a boomerang? It's
a kind o' weapon used in Borneo, er Australy, er some o' them
furrin parts, an' it's so made 'at the heathens can pitch it, an'
it cuts a circle an' comes back to the fellow, at throwed. I
can't see myself, an' I don't know how small I'm lookin'; but I'd
rather lose ten year o' my life 'an to have anybody catch me
lookin' as little as you do right now. I guess we look about the
way we feel in this world. I'm feelin' near the size o' Goliath
at present; but your size is such 'at it hustles me to see any
MAN in you at all. An' you wanted to make me feel small! My,
oh, my! An' you so young yet, too!
"An' if it hadn't a-compassed a matter o' breakin' your word,
what 'ud you want to kill the redbird for, anyhow? Who give you
rights to go 'round takin' such beauty an' joy out of the world?
Who do you think made this world an' the things 'at's in it?
Maybe it's your notion 'at somebody about your size whittled it
from a block o' wood, scattered a little sand for earth, stuck a
few seeds for trees, an' started the oceans with a waterin' pot!
I don't know what paved streets an' stall feedin' do for a man,
but any one 'at's lived sixty year on the ground knows 'at this
whole old earth is jest teemin' with work 'at's too big for
anything but a God, an' a mighty BIG God at that!
"You don't never need bother none 'bout the diskivries o'
science, for if science could prove 'at the earth was a red hot
slag broken from the sun, 'at balled an' cooled flyin' through
space until the force o' gravity caught an' held it, it doesn't
prove what the sun broke from, or why it balled an' didn't cool.
Sky over your head, earth under foot, trees around you, an' river
there--all full o' life 'at you ain't no mortal right to touch,
'cos God made it, an' it's His! Course, I know 'at He said
distinct 'at man was to have `dominion over the beasts o' the
field, an' the fowls o' the air' An' that means 'at you're free
to smash a copperhead instead of letting it sting you. Means 'at
you better shoot a wolf than to let it carry off your lambs.
Means, at it's right to kill a hawk an' save your chickens; but
God knows 'at shootin' a redbird just to see the feathers fly
isn't having dominion over anything; it's jest makin' a plumb
beast o' YERSELF. Passes me, how you can face up to the
Almighty, an' draw a bead on a thing like that! Takes more gall'n
"God never made anything prettier 'an that bird, an' He must
a-been mighty proud o' the job. Jest cast your eyes on it there!
Ever see anything so runnin' over with dainty, pretty, coaxin'
ways? Little red creatures, full o' hist'ry, too! Ever think o'
that? Last year's bird, hatched hereabout, like as not. Went
South for winter, an' made friends 'at's been feedin', an'
teachin' it to TRUST mankind. Back this spring in a night, an'
struck that sumac over a month ago. Broke me all up first time I
ever set eyes on it.
"Biggest reddest redbird I ever saw; an' jest a master hand at
king's English! Talk plain as you can! Don't know what he said
down South, but you can bank on it, it was sumpin' pretty fine.
When he settled here, he was discoursin' on the weather, an' he
talked it out about proper. He'd say, `Wet year! Wet year!' jest
like that! He got the `wet' jest as good as I can, an', if he
drawed the `ye-ar' out a little, still any blockhead could a-told
what he was sayin', an' in a voice pretty an' clear as a bell.
Then he got love-sick, an' begged for comp'ny until he broke me
all up. An' if I'd a-been a hen redbird I wouldn't a-been so
long comin'. Had me pulverized in less'n no time! Then a little
hen comes 'long, an' stops with him; an' 'twas like an organ
playin' prayers to hear him tell her how he loved her. Now
they've got a nest full o' the cunningest little topknot babies,
an' he's splittin' the echoes, calling for the whole
neighbourhood to come see 'em, he's so mortal proud.
"Stake my life he's never been fired on afore! He's pretty near
wild with narvousness, but he's got too much spunk to leave his
fam'ly, an' go off an' hide from creatures like you. They's no
caution in him. Look at him tearin' 'round to give you another
"I felt most too rheumaticky to tackle field work this spring
until he come 'long, an' the fire o' his coat an' song got me
warmed up as I ain't been in years. Work's gone like it was
greased, an' my soul's been singin' for joy o' life an' happiness
ev'ry minute o' the time since he come. Been carryin' him grub
to that top rail once an' twice a day for the last month, an' I
can go in three feet o' him. My wife comes to see him, an'
brings him stuff; an' we about worship him. Who are you, to come
'long an' wipe out his joy in life, an' our joy in him, for jest
nothin'? You'd a left him to rot on the ground, if you'd a hit
him; an' me an' Maria's loved him so!
"D'you ever stop to think how full this world is o' things to
love, if your heart's jest big enough to let 'em in? We love to
live for the beauty o' the things surroundin' us, an' the joy we
take in bein' among 'em. An' it's my belief 'at the way to make
folks love us, is for us to be able to 'preciate what they can
do. If a man's puttin' his heart an' soul, an' blood, an'
beef-steak, an' bones into paintin' picters, you can talk farmin'
to him all day, an' he's dumb; but jest show him 'at you see what
he's a-drivin' at in his work, an' he'll love you like a brother.
Whatever anybody succeeds in, it's success 'cos they so love it
'at they put the best o' theirselves into it; an' so, lovin' what
they do, is lovin' them.
"It 'ud 'bout kill a painter-man to put the best o' himself into
his picture, an' then have some fellow like you come 'long an'
pour turpentine on it jest to see the paint run; an' I think it
must pretty well use God up, to figure out how to make an' colour
a thing like that bird, an' then have you walk up an' shoot the
little red heart out of it, jest to prove 'at you can! He's the
very life o' this river bank. I'd as soon see you dig up the
underbrush, an' dry up the river, an' spoil the picture they make
against the sky, as to hev' you drop the redbird. He's the red
life o' the whole thing! God must a-made him when his heart was
pulsin' hot with love an' the lust o' creatin' in-com-PAR-able
things; an' He jest saw how pretty it 'ud be to dip his
featherin' into the blood He was puttin' in his veins.
"To my mind, ain't no better way to love an' worship God, 'an to
protect an' 'preciate these fine gifts He's given for our joy an'
use. Worshipin' that bird's a kind o' religion with me. Getting
the beauty from the sky, an' the trees, an' the grass, an' the
water 'at God made, is nothin' but doin' Him homage. Whole
earth's a sanctuary. You can worship from sky above to grass
"Course, each man has his particular altar. Mine's in that cabin
up at the bend o' the river. Maria lives there. God never did
cleaner work, 'an when He made Maria. Lovin, her's sacrament.
She's so clean, an' pure, an' honest, an' big-hearted! In forty
year I've never jest durst brace right up to Maria an' try to put
in words what she means to me. Never saw nothin' else as
beautiful, or as good. No flower's as fragrant an' smelly as her
hair on her pillow. Never tapped a bee tree with honey sweet as
her lips a-twitchin' with a love quiver. Ain't a bird 'long the
ol' Wabash with a voice up to hers. Love o' God ain't broader'n
her kindness. When she's been home to see her folks, I've been
so hungry for her 'at I've gone to her closet an' kissed the hem
o' her skirts more'n once. I've never yet dared kiss her feet,
but I've always wanted to. I've laid out 'at if she dies first,
I'll do it then. An' Maria 'ud cry her eyes out if you'd a-hit
the redbird. Your trappin's look like you could shoot. I guess
'twas God made that shot fly the mark. I guess--"
"If you can stop, for the love of mercy do it!" cried the hunter.
His face was a sickly white, his temples wet with sweat, and his
body trembling. "I can't endure any more. I don't suppose you
think I've any human instincts at all; but I have a few, and I
see the way to arouse more. You probably won't believe me, but
I'll never kill another innocent harmless thing; and I will never
lie again so long as I live."
He leaned his gun against the thorn tree, and dropped the
remainder of his hunter's outfit beside it on the ground.
"I don't seem a fit subject to `have dominion,'" he said. "I'll
leave those thing for you; and thank you for what you have done
There was a crash through the bushes, a leap over the fence, and
Abram and the Cardinal were alone.
The old man sat down suddenly on a fallen limb of the sycamore.
He was almost dazed with astonishment. He held up his shaking
hands, and watched them wonderingly, and then cupped one over
each trembling knee to steady himself. He outlined his dry lips
with the tip of his tongue, and breathed in heavy gusts. He
glanced toward the thorn tree.
"Left his gun," he hoarsely whispered, "an' it's fine as a
fiddle. Lock, stock, an' barrel just a-shinin'. An' all that
heap o' leather fixin's. Must a-cost a lot o' money. Said he
wasn't fit to use 'em! Lept the fence like a panther, an' cut
dirt across the corn field. An' left me the gun! Well! Well!
Well! Wonder what I said? I must a-been almost FIERCE."
"See here! See here!" shrilled the Cardinal.
Abram looked him over carefully. He was quivering with fear, but
in no way injured.
"My! but that was a close call, ol' fellow" said, Abram. "Minute
later, an' our fun 'ud a-been over, an' the summer jest spoiled.
Wonder if you knew what it meant, an' if you'll be gun-shy after
this. Land knows, I hope so; for a few more such doses 'ull jest
lay me up."
He gathered himself together at last, set the gun over the fence,
and climbing after it, caught Nancy, who had feasted to plethora
on young corn. He fastened up the trace-chains, and climbing to
her back, laid the gun across his lap and rode to the barn. He
attended the mare with particular solicitude, and bathed his face
and hands in the water trough to make himself a little more
presentable to Maria. He started to the house, but had only gone
a short way when he stopped, and after standing in thought for a
time, turned back to the barn and gave Nancy another ear of corn.
"After all, it was all you, ol' girl," he said, patting her
shoulder, "I never on earth could a-made it on time afoot."
He was so tired he leaned for support against her, for the
unusual exertion and intense excitement were telling on him
sorely, and as he rested he confided to her: "I don't know as I
ever in my life was so riled, Nancy. I'm afraid I was a little
He exhibited the gun, and told the story very soberly at supper
time; and Maria was so filled with solicitude for him and the
bird, and so indignant at the act of the hunter, that she never
said a word about Abram's torn clothing and the hours of patching
that would ensue. She sat looking at the gun and thinking
intently for a long time; and then she said pityingly:
"I don't know jest what you could a-said 'at 'ud make a man go
off an' leave a gun like that. Poor fellow! I do hope, Abram,
you didn't come down on him too awful strong. Maybe he lost his
mother when he was jest a little tyke, an' he hasn't had much
Abram was completely worn out, and went early to bed. Far in the
night Maria felt him fumbling around her face in an effort to
learn if she were covered; and as he drew the sheet over her
shoulder he muttered in worn and sleepy tones: "I'm afraid they's
no use denyin' it, Maria, I WAS JEST MORTAL FIERCE."
In the sumac the frightened little mother cardinal was pressing
her precious babies close against her breast; and all through the
night she kept calling to her mate, "Chook! Chook!" and was
satisfied only when an answering "Chip!" came. As for the
Cardinal, he had learned a new lesson. He had not been under
fire before. Never again would he trust any one carrying a
shining thing that belched fire and smoke. He had seen the
hunter coming, and had raced home to defend his mate and babies,
thus making a brilliant mark of himself; and as he would not have
deserted them, only the arrival of the farmer had averted a
tragedy in the sumac. He did not learn to use caution for
himself; but after that, if a gun came down the shining river, he
sent a warning "Chip!" to his mate, telling her to crouch low in
her nest and keep very quiet, and then, in broken waves of
flight, and with chirp and flutter, he exposed himself until he
had lured danger from his beloved ones.
When the babies grew large enough for their mother to leave them
a short time, she assisted in food hunting, and the Cardinal was
not so busy. He then could find time frequently to mount to the
top of the dogwood, and cry to the world, "See here! See here!"
for the cardinal babies were splendid. But his music was broken
intermittent vocalizing now, often uttered past a beakful of
food, and interspersed with spasmodic "chips" if danger
threatened his mate and nestlings.
Despite all their care, it was not so very long until trouble
came to the sumac; and it was all because the first-born was
plainly greedy; much more so than either his little brother or
his sister, and he was one day ahead of them in strength. He
always pushed himself forward, cried the loudest and longest, and
so took the greater part of the food carried to the nest; and one
day, while he was still quite awkward and uncertain, he climbed
to the edge and reached so far that he fell. He rolled down the
river bank, splash! into the water; and a hungry old pickerel,
sunning in the weeds, finished him at a snap. He made a morsel
so fat, sweet, and juicy that the pickerel lingered close for a
week, waiting to see if there would be any more accidents.
The Cardinal, hunting grubs in the corn field, heard the
frightened cries of his mate, and dashed to the sumac in time to
see the poor little ball of brightly tinted feathers disappear in
the water and to hear the splash of the fish. He called in
helpless panic and fluttered over the spot. He watched and
waited until there was no hope of the nestling coming up, then he
went to the sumac to try to comfort his mate. She could not be
convinced that her young one was gone, and for the remainder of
the day filled the air with alarm cries and notes of wailing.
The two that remained were surely the envy of Birdland. The male
baby was a perfect copy of his big crimson father, only his
little coat was gray; but it was so highly tinged with red that
it was brilliant, and his beak and feet were really red; and how
his crest did flare, and how proud and important he felt, when he
found he could raise and lower it at will. His sister was not
nearly so bright as he, and she was almost as greedy as the lost
brother. With his father's chivalry he allowed her to crowd in
and take the most of the seeds and berries, so that she
continually appeared as if she could swallow no more, yet she was
constantly calling for food.
She took the first flight, being so greedy she forgot to be
afraid, and actually flew to a neighbouring thorn tree to meet
the Cardinal, coming with food, before she realized what she had
done. For once gluttony had its proper reward. She not only
missed the bite, but she got her little self mightily well
scared. With popping eyes and fear-flattened crest, she clung to
the thorn limb, shivering at the depths below; and it was the
greatest comfort when her brother plucked up courage and came
sailing across to her. But, of course, she could not be expected
to admit that. When she saw how easily he did it, she flared her
crest, turned her head indifferently, and inquired if he did not
find flying a very easy matter, once he mustered courage to try
it; and she made him very much ashamed indeed because he had
allowed her to be the first to leave the nest. From the thorn
tree they worked their way to the dead sycamore; but there the
lack of foliage made them so conspicuous that their mother almost
went into spasms from fright, and she literally drove them back
to the sumac.
The Cardinal was so inordinately proud, and made such a brave
showing of teaching them to fly, bathe, and all the other things
necessary for young birds to know, that it was a great mercy they
escaped with their lives. He had mastered many lessons, but he
never could be taught how to be quiet and conceal himself. With
explosive "chips" flaming and flashing, he met dangers that sent
all the other birds beside the shining river racing to cover.
Concealment he scorned; and repose he never knew.
It was a summer full of rich experience for the Cardinal. After
these first babies were raised and had flown, two more nests were
built, and two other broods flew around the sumac. By fall the
Cardinal was the father of a small flock, and they were each one
neat, trim, beautiful river birds.
He had lived through spring with its perfumed air, pale flowers,
and burning heart hunger. He had known summer in its golden
mood, with forests pungent with spicebush and sassafras;
festooned with wild grape, woodbine, and bittersweet; carpeted
with velvet moss and starry mandrake peeping from beneath green
shades; the never-ending murmur of the shining river; and the
rich fulfilment of love's fruition.
Now it was fall, and all the promises of spring were
accomplished. The woods were glorious in autumnal tints. There
were ripened red haws, black haws, and wild grapes only waiting
for severe frosts, nuts rattling down, scurrying squirrels, and
the rabbits' flash of gray and brown. The waysides were bright
with the glory of goldenrod, and royal with the purple of asters
and ironwort. There was the rustle of falling leaves, the
flitting of velvety butterflies, the whir of wings trained
southward, and the call of the king crow gathering his followers.
Then to the Cardinal came the intuition that it was time to lead
his family to the orange orchard. One day they flamed and rioted
up and down the shining river, raced over the corn field, and
tilted on the sumac. The next, a black frost had stripped its
antlered limbs. Stark and deserted it stood, a picture of
O bird of wonderful plumage and human-like song! W hat a precious
thought of Divinity to create such beauty and music for our
pleasure! Brave songster of the flaming coat, too proud to hide
your flashing beauty, too fearless to be cautious of the many
dangers that beset you, from the top of the morning we greet you,
and hail you King of Birdland, at your imperious command: "See
here! See here!"
Back to Full Books