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Morning-Glories and Other Stories/What the Swallows Did

 

WHAT THE SWALLOWS DID.

 

 

A MAN lay on a pile of new-made hay, in a great barn, looking up at the swallows who darted and twittered above him. He envied the cheerful little creatures; for he wasn't a happy man, though he had many friends, much money, and the beautiful gift of writing songs that everybody loved to sing. He had lost his wife and little child, and would not be comforted; but lived alone, and went about with such a gloomy face that no one liked to speak to him. He took no notice of friends and neighbors; neither used his money for himself nor others; found no beauty in the world, no happiness anywhere; and wrote such sad songs it made one's heart ache to sing them.

As he lay alone on the sweet-smelling hay, with the afternoon sunshine streaming in, and the busy birds chirping overhead, he said sadly to himself,—

"Happy swallows, I wish I was one of you; for you have no pains nor sorrows, and your cares are very light. All summer you live gayly together; and, when winter comes, you fly away to the lovely South, unseparated still."

"Neighbors, do you hear what that lazy creature down there is saying?" cried a swallow, peeping over the edge of her nest, and addressing several others who sat on a beam near by.

"We hear, Mrs. Skim; and quite agree with you that he knows very little about us and our affairs," answered one of the swallows with a shrill chirp, like a scornful laugh. "We work harder than he does any day. Did he build his own house, I should like to know? Does he get his daily bread for himself? How many of his neighbors does he help? How much of the world does he see, and who is the happier for his being alive?"

"Cares indeed!" cried another: "I wish he'd undertake to feed and teach my brood. Much he knows about the anxieties of a parent." And the little mother bustled away to get supper for the young ones, whose bills were always gaping wide.

"Sorrows we have, too," softly said the fourth swallow. "He would not envy me, if he knew how my nest fell, and all my children were killed; how my dear husband was shot, and my old mother died of fatigue on our spring journey from the South."

"Dear Neighbor Dart, he would envy you, if he knew how patiently you bear your troubles; how tenderly you help us with our little ones; how cheerfully you serve your friends; how faithfully you love your lost mate; and how trustfully you wait to meet him again in a lovelier country than the South."

As Skim spoke, she leaned down from her nest to kiss her neighbor; and, as the little beaks met, the other birds gave a grateful and approving murmur, for Neighbor Dart was much beloved by all the inhabitants of Twittertown.

"I, for my part, don't envy him," said Gossip Wing, who was fond of speaking her mind. "Men and women call themselves superior beings; but, upon my word, I think they are vastly inferior to us. Now, look at that man, and see how he wastes his life. There never was any one with a better chance for doing good, and being happy; and yet he mopes and dawdles his time away most shamefully."

"Ah! he has had a great sorrow, and it is hard to be gay with a heavy heart, an empty home; so don't be too severe, Sister Wing." And the white tie of the little widow's cap was stirred by a long sigh as Mrs. Dart glanced up at the nook where her nest once stood.

"No, my dear, I won't; but really I do get out of patience when I see so much real misery which that man might help, if he'd only forget himself a little. It's my opinion he'd be much happier than he now is, wandering about with a dismal face and a sour temper."

"I quite agree with you; and I dare say he'd thank any one for telling him how he may find comfort. Poor soul! I wish he could understand me; for I sympathize with him, and would gladly help him if I could."

And, as she spoke, kind-hearted Widow Dart skimmed by him with a friendly chirp, which did comfort him for, being a poet, he could understand them, and lay listening, well pleased while the little gossips chattered on together.

"I am so tied at home just now, that I know nothing of what is going on, except the bits of news Skim brings me; so I enjoy your chat immensely. I'm interested in your views on this subject, and beg you'll tell me what you'd have that man do to better himself," said Mrs. Skim, settling herself on her eggs with an attentive air.

"Well, my dear, I'll tell you; for I've seen a deal of the world, and any one is welcome to my experience," replied Mrs. Wing, in an important manner; for she was proud of her "views," and very fond of talking. "In my daily flights about the place, I see a great deal of poverty and trouble, and often wish I could lend a hand. Now, this man has plenty of money and time; and he might do more good than I can tell, if he'd only set about it. Because he is what they call a poet is no reason he should go moaning up and down, as if he had nothing to do but make songs. We sing, but we work also; and are wise enough to see the neccessity of both, thank goodness!"

"Yes, indeed, we do," cried all the birds in a chorus for several more had stopped to hear what was going on.

"Now, what I say is this," continued Mrs. Wing impressively. "If I were that man, I'd make myself useful at once. There is poor little Will getting more and more lame every day, because his mother can't send him where he can be cured. A trifle of that man's money would do it, and he ought to give it. Old Father Winter is half starved, alone there in his miserable hovel; and no one thinks of the good old man. Why don't that lazy creature take him home, and care for him, the little while he has to live? Pretty Nell is working day and night, to support her father, and is too proud to ask help, though her health and courage are going fast. The man might make her's the gayest heart alive, by a little help. There in a lonely garret lives a young man studying his life away, longing for books and a teacher. The man has a library full, and might keep the poor boy from despair by a little help and a friendly word. He mourns for his own lost baby: I advise him to adopt the orphan whom nobody will own, and who lies wailing all day untended on the poor-house floor. Yes: if he wants to forget sorrow and find peace, let him fill his empty heart and home with such as these, and life won't seem dark to him any more."

"Dear me! how well you express yourself, Mrs. Wing! it's quite a pleasure to hear you; and I heartily wish some persons could hear you, it would do 'em a deal of good," said Mrs. Skim; while her husband gave an approving nod as he dived off the beam, and vanished through the open doors.

"I know it would comfort that man to do these things; for I have tried the same cure in my small way, and found great satisfaction in it," began little Madam Dart, in her soft voice; but Mrs. Wing broke in, saying with a pious expression of countenance:—

"I flew into church one day, and sat on the organ enjoying the music; for every one was singing, and I joined in, though I didn't know the air. Opposite me were two great tablets with golden letters on them. I can read a little, thanks to my friend, the learned raven; and so I spelt out some of the words. One was, "Love thy neighbor;" and as I sat there, looking down on the people, I wondered how they could see those words week after week, and yet pay so little heed to them. Goodness knows, I don't consider myself a perfect bird; far from it; for I know I am a poor, erring fowl but I believe I may say I do love my neighbor, though I am 'an inferior creature.'" And Mrs. Wing bridled up, as if she resented the phrase immensely.

"Indeed you do, gossip," cried Dart and Skim; for Wing was an excellent bird, in spite of the good opinion she had of herself.

"Thank you: well, then, such being the known fact, I may give advice on the subject as one having authority; and, if it were possible, I'd give that man a bit of my mind."

"You have, madam, you have; and I shall not forget it. Thank you, neighbors, and good night," said the man, as he left the barn, with the first smile on his face which it had worn for many days.

"Mercy on us! I do believe the creature heard every thing we said," cried Mrs. Wing, nearly tumbling off the beam, in her surprise.

"He certainly did; so I'm glad I was guarded in my remarks," replied Mrs. Skim, laughing at her neighbor's dismay.

"Dear me! dear me! what did I say?'* cried Mrs. Wing, in a great twitter.

"You spoke with more than your usual bluntness, and some of your expressions were rather strong, I must confess; but I don't think any harm will come of it. We are of too little consequence for our criticisms or opinions to annoy him," said Mrs. Dart consolingly.

"I don't know that, ma'am," returned Mrs. Wing, sharply; for she was much ruffled and out of temper. "A cat may look at a king; and a bird may teach a man, if the bird is the wisest. He may destroy my nest, and take my life; but I feel that I have done my duty, and shall meet affliction with a firmness which will be an example to that indolent, ungrateful man."

In spite of her boasted firmness, Mrs. Wing dropped her voice, and peeped over the beam, to be sure the man was gone before she called him names; and then flew away, to discover what he meant to do about it.

For several days, there was much excitement in Twittertown; for news of what had happened flew from nest to nest, and every bird was anxious to know what revenge the man would take for the impertinent remarks which had been made about him.

Mrs. Wing was in a dreadful state of mind, expecting an assault, and the destruction of her entire family. Every one blamed her. Her husband lectured; the young birds chirped, "Chatterbox, chatterbox," as she passed; and her best friends were a little cool. All this made her very meek for a time; and she scarcely opened her bill, except to eat.

A guard was set day and night, to see if any danger approached; and a row of swallows might be seen on the ridgepole at all hours. If any one entered the barn, dozens of little black heads peeped cautiously over the edges of the nests, and there was much flying to and fro with reports and rumors; for all the birds in the town soon knew that something had happened.

The day after the imprudent conversation, a chimney-swallow came to call on Mrs. Wing; and, the moment she was seated on the beam, she began:—

"My dear creature, I feel for you in your trying position,—indeed I do, and came over at once to warn you of your danger,"

"Mercy on us! what is coming?" cried Mrs. Wing, covering her brood with trembling wings, and looking quite wild with alarm.

"Be calm, my friend, and bear with firmness the consequences of your folly," replied Mrs. Sooty-back, who didn't like Mrs. Wing, because she prided herself on her family, and rather looked down on chimney-swallows. "You know, ma'am, I live at the great house, and am in the way of seeing and hearing all that goes on there. No fire is lit in the study now; but my landlord still sits on the hearth, and I can overhear every word he says. Last evening, after my darlings were asleep, and my husband gone out, I went down and sat on the andiron, as I often do; for the fireplace is full of oak boughs, and I can peep out unseen. My landlord sat there, looking a trifle more cheerful than usual, and I heard him say, in a very decided tone,—

"I'll catch them, one and all, and keep them here; that is better than pulling the place down, as I planned at first. Those swallows little know what they have done; but I'll show them I don't forget.'"

On hearing this a general wail arose, and Mrs. Wing fainted entirely away. Madam Sooty-back was quite satisfied with the effect she had produced, and departed, saying loftily,—

"I'm sorry for you, Mrs. Wing, and forgive your rude speech about my being related to chimney-sweeps. One can't expect good manners from persons brought up in mud houses, and entirely shut out from good society. If I hear any thing more, I'll let you know."

Away she flew; and poor Mrs. Wing would have had another fit, if they hadn't tickled her with a feather, and fanned her so violently that she was nearly blown off her nest by the breeze they raised.

"What shall we do?" she cried.

"Nothing, but wait. I dare say, Mrs. Sooty-back is mistaken; at any rate, we can't get away without leaving our children, for they can't fly yet. Let us wait, and see what happens. If the worst comes, we shall have done our duty, and will all die together."

As no one could suggest any thing better, Mrs. Dart's advice was taken, and they waited. On the afternoon of the same day, Dr. Banks, a sand-swallow, who lived in a subterranean village over by the great sand-bank, looked in to see Mrs. Wing, and cheered her by the following bit of news:—

"The man was down at the poor-house to-day, and took away little Nan, the orphan baby. I saw him carry her to Will's mother, and heard him ask her to take care of it for a time. He paid her well, and she seemed glad to do it; for Will needs help, and now he can have it. An excellent arrangement, I think. Bless me, ma'am! what's the matter? Your pulse is altogether too fast, and you look feverish."

No wonder the doctor looked surprised; for Mrs. Wing suddenly gave a skip, and flapped her wings, with a shrill chirp, exclaiming, as she looked about her triumphantly,—

"Now, who was right? Who has done good, not harm, by what you call 'gossip'? Who has been a martyr, and patiently borne all kinds of blame, injustice, and disrespect? Yes, indeed! the man saw the sense of my words; he took my advice; he will show his gratitude by some good turn yet; and, if half a dozen poor souls are helped, it will be my doing, and mine alone."

Here she had to stop for breath; and her neighbors all looked at one another, feeling undecided whether to own they were wrong, or to put Mrs. Wing down. Every one twittered and chirped, and made a great noise; but no one would give up, and all went to roost in a great state of uncertainty. But, the next day, it became evident that Mrs. Wing was right; for Major Bumble-bee came buzzing in to tell them that old Daddy Winter's hut was empty, and his white head had been seen in the sunny porch of the great house.

After this, the swallows gave in; and, as no harm came to them, they had a jubilee in honor of the occasion. Mrs. Wing was president, and received a vote of thanks for the good she had done, and the credit she had bestowed upon the town by her wisdom and courage. She was much elated by all this; but her fright had been of service, and she bore her honors more meekly than one would have supposed. To be sure, she cut Mrs. Sooty-back when they met; assumed an injured air, when some of her neighbors passed her; and said, "I told you so," a dozen times a day to her husband, who got so many curtain lectures that he took to sleeping on the highest rafter, pretending that the children's noise disturbed him.

All sorts of charming things happened after that, and such a fine summer never was known before; for not only did the birds rejoice, but people also. A good spirit seemed to haunt the town, leaving help and happiness wherever it passed. Some unseen hand scattered crumbs over the barn-floor, and left food at many doors. No dog or boy or gun marred the tranquillity of the birds, insects, and flowers who lived on the great estate. No want, care, or suffering, that love or money could prevent, befell the poor folk whose cottages stood near the old house. Sunshine and peace seemed to reign there; for its gloomy master was a changed man now, and the happiness he earned for himself, by giving it to others, flowed out in beautiful, blithe songs, and went singing away into the world, making him friends, and bringing him honor in high places as well as low.

He did not forget the wife and little child whom he had loved so well; but he mourned no longer, for cheerful daisies grew above their graves, and he knew that he should meet them in the lovely land where death can never come. So, while he waited for that happy time to come, he made his life a cheery song,—as every one may do, if they will; and went about dropping kind words and deeds as silently and sweetly as the sky drops sunshine and dew. Every one was his friend, but his favorites were the swallows. Every day he went to see them, carrying grain and crumbs, hearing their chat, sharing their joys and sorrows, and never tiring of their small friendship; for to them, he thought, he owed all the content now his.

When autumn leaves were red, and autumn winds blew cold, the inhabitants of Twittertown prepared for their journey to the South. They lingered longer than usual this year, feeling sorry to leave their friend. But the fields were bare, the frosts began to pinch, and the young ones longed to see the world; so they must go. The day they started, the whole flock flew to the great house, to say good-by. Some dived and darted round and round it, some hopped to and fro on the sere lawn, some perched on the chimney-tops, and some clung to the window ledges; all twittering a loving farewell.

Chirp, Dart, and Wing peeped everywhere, and everywhere found something to rejoice over. In a cosey room, by a bright fire, sat Daddy Winter and Nell's old father, telling stories of their youth, and basking in the comfortable warmth. In the study, surrounded by the books he loved, was the poor young man, happy as a king now, and learning many things which no book could teach him; for he had found a friend. Then, down below was Will's mother, working like a bee; for she was housekeeper, and enjoyed her tasks as much as any mother-bird enjoys filling the little mouths of her brood. Close by was pretty Nell, prettier than ever now; for her heavy care was gone, and she sung as she sewed, thinking of the old father, whom nothing could trouble any more.

But the pleasantest sight the three gossips saw was the man with Baby Nan on his arm and Will at his side, playing in the once dreary nursery. How they laughed and danced! for Will was up from his bed at last, and hopped nimbly on his crutches, knowing that soon even they would be unneeded. Little Nan was as plump and rosy as a baby should be, and babbled like a brook, as the man went to and fro, cradling her in his strong arms, feeling as if his own little daughter had come back when he heard the baby voice call him father.

"Ah, how sweet it is!" cried Mrs. Dart, glad to see that he had found comfort for his grief.

"Yes, indeed: it does one's heart good to see such a happy family," added Mrs. Skim, who was a very motherly bird.

"I don't wish to boast; but I will say that I am satisfied with my summer's work, and go South feeling that I leave an enviable reputation behind me." And Mrs. Wing plumed herself with an air of immense importance, as she nodded and bridled from her perch on the window-sill.

The man saw the three, and hastened to feed them for the last time, knowing that they were about to go. Gratefully they ate, and chirped their thanks; and then, as they flew away, the little gossips heard their friend singing his good-by:—

 

"Swallow, swallow, neighbor swallow,
Starting on your autumn flight,
Pause a moment at my window,
Twitter softly your good-night;
For the summer days are over,
All your duties are well done,
And the happy homes you builded

Have grown empty, one by one.


"Swallow, swallow, neighbor swallow,
Are you ready for your flight?
Are all the feather cloaks completed?
Are the little caps all right?
Are the young wings strong and steady
For the journey through the sky?
Come again in early spring-time;
And till then, good-by, good-by!"