THE FIRST FLIGHT OF THE NESTLINGS.
Early in the morning the hen redbreast awakened her young brood. "Come, my little ones," said she, "shake off your drowsiness; remember, this is the day fixed for your entrance into the world. I desire that each of you will dress your feathers before you go out, for a slovenly bird is my aversion, and neatness is a great advantage to the appearance of every one."
The father bird was upon the wing betimes, that he might give each of his young ones a breakfast before they attempted to leave the nest. When he had fed them he desired his mate to accompany him as usual to Mrs. Benson's, where he found the parlour window open, and his young friends sitting with their mamma. Crumbs had been, according to custom, strewed before the window, which the other birds had nearly devoured; but the red-breasts took their usual post on the tea-table, and the father bird sang his morning lay; after which they returned with all possible speed to the nest, for, having so important an affair to manage, they could not be long absent. Neither could their young benefactors pay so much attention to them as usual, for they were impatient to fetch the birds from Miss Jenkins's; therefore, as soon as breakfast was ended, they set out upon their expedition. Harriet carried a basket large enough to hold two nests, and Frederick a smaller one for the other: thus equipped, with a servant attending them, they set off.
Mr. Jenkins's house was about a mile from Mr. Benson's; it was delightfully situated; there was a beautiful lawn and canal before it, and a charming garden behind; on one side were corn-fields, and on the other a wood In such a retreat as this it was natural to expect to find a great many birds; but to Harriet's surprise, they saw only a few straggling ones here and there, which flew away the moment she and her brother appeared. On this Harriet observed to Frederick that she supposed Edward Jenkins's practice of taking birds' nests had made them so shy. She said a great deal to him about the cruelties which that naughty boy had boasted of the evening before, which Frederick promised to remember.
As soon as they arrived at the house, Lucy ran out to receive them, but her brother had gone to school.
"We are come, my dear Lucy," said Harriet, "to fetch the birds you promised us."
"Oh, I know not what to say to you, my dear," said Lucy. "I have very bad news to tell you, and I fear you will blame me exceedingly, though not more than I blame myself. I heartily wish I had returned home immediately after the kind lecture your mamma favoured me with yesterday which showed me the cruelty of my behaviour, though I was then ashamed to own it. I walked as fast as I could all the way from your house, and determined to give each of the little creatures a good supper, for which purpose I had an egg boiled and nicely chopped; I mixed up some bread and water very smooth, and put a little seed with the chopped egg amongst it, and then carried it to the room where I left the nests. But what was my concern when I found that my care was too late for the greatest part of them! Every sparrow lay dead; they seemed to have killed each other. In the nest of linnets, which were very young, I found one dead, two just expiring, and the other almost exhausted, but still able to swallow; to him, therefore, I immediately gave some of the food I had prepared, which greatly revived him; and as I thought he would suffer with cold in the nest by himself, I covered him over with wool, and had this morning the pleasure of finding him quite recovered."
"What, all the sparrows and three linnets dead!" said Frederick, whose little eyes swam with tears at the melancholy tale; "and pray, Miss Jenkins, have you starved all the blackbirds too?"
"Not all, my little friend," answered Lucy, "but I must confess that some of them have fallen victims to my neglect: however, there are two fine ones alive, which I shall, with the surviving linnet, cheerfully resign to the care of my dear Harriet, whose tenderness will, I hope, be rewarded by the pleasure of hearing them sing when they are old enough. But I beg you will stay and rest your selves after your walk."
"Let me see the birds first," said Frederick. "That you shall do," answered Lucy; and taking him by the hand, she conducted him to the room in which she kept them, accompanied hy Harriet. Lucy then fed the birds, and gave particular instructions for making their food, and declared that she would never be a receiver of birds' nests any more; but expressed her apprehensions that it would be difficult to wean Edward from his propensity for taking them.
Lucy then took her young friends into the parlour to her governess (for her mamma was dead), who received them very kindly, and gave each of them a piece of cake and some fruit; after which Lucy led them again into the room where the birds were, and very carefully put the nest with the poor solitary linnet into one basket, and that with the two blackbirds into the other. Frederick was very urgent to carry the latter, which his sister consented to; and then bidding adieu to their friend, they set off on their way home, attended by the maid as before.
Let us now return to the redbreasts, whom we left on the wing flying back to the ivy wall, in order to take their young ones abroad.
As the father entered the nest he cried out with a cheerful voice, "Well, my nestlings, are you all ready?" "Yes," they replied. The mother then advanced, and desired that each of them would get upon the edge of the nest. Robin and Pecksy sprang up in an instant, but Dicky and Flapsy, being timorous, were not so expeditious.
The hearts of the parents felt great delight at the view they now had of their young family, which appeared to be strong, vigorous, and lively, and, in a word, endowed with every gift of nature requisite to their success in the world.
"Now," said the father, "stretch your wings, Robin, and flutter them a little in this manner" (showing him the way), "and be sure to observe my directions exactly. Very well," said he: "do not attempt to fly yet, for here is neither air nor space enough for that purpose. Walk gently after me to the wall; then follow me to the tree that stands close to it, and hop on from branch to branch as you will see me do: then rest yourself; and as soon as you see me fly away, spread your wings, and exert all the strength you have to follow me."
Robin acquitted himself to admiration, and alighted very safely on the ground. "Now stand still," said the father, "till the rest join us." Then going back, he called upon Dicky to do the same as his brother had done; but Dicky was very fearful of fluttering his wings, for he was a little coward, and expressed many apprehensions that he should not reach the ground without falling, as they were such a great height from it. His father, who was a very courageous bird, was quite angry with him.
"Why, you foolish little thing!" said he, "do you mean to stay in the nest by yourself and starve? I shall leave off bringing you food, I assure you. Do you think your wings were given you to be always folded by your sides, and that the whole employment of your life is to dress your feathers and make yourself look pretty? Without exercise you cannot long enjoy health; besides, you will soon have your livelihood to earn, and therefore idleness would in you be the height of folly. Get up this instant."
Dicky, intimidated by his father's displeasure, got up, and advanced as far as the branch from which he was to descend; but here his fears returned, and instead of making an effort to fly, he stood flapping his wings in a most irresolute manner, and suffered his father to lead the way twice without following him. This good parent, finding he would not venture to fly, took a circuit unperceived by Dicky, and watching the opportunity when his wings were a little spread, came suddenly behind him and pushed him off the branch. Dicky, finding himself in actual danger of falling, now gladly stretched his pinions, and upborne by the air, he gently descended to the ground, so near the spot where Robin stood, that the latter easily reached him by hopping.
The mother now undertook to conduct Flapsy and Pecksy, whilst the father stayed to take care of the two already landed. Flapsy made a thousand difficulties, but at length yielded to her mother's persuasions, and flew safely down. Pecksy, without the least hesitation, accompanied her, and by exactly following the directions given, found the task much easier than she expected.
As soon as they had a little recovered from the fatigue and fright of their first essay at flying, they began to look around them with astonishment. Every object on which they turned their eyes excited their curiosity and wonder. They were no longer confined to a little nest built in a small hole, but were now at full liberty in the open air. The orchard itself appeared to them to be a world. For some time each remained silent, gazing round, first at one thing, then at another; at length Flapsy cried out, What a charming place the world is! I had no conception that it was half so big!" "And do you suppose then, my dear," replied the mother, "that you now behold the whole of the world? I have seen but a small part of it myself, and yet have flown over so large a space, that what is at present within our view appears to me a little inconsiderable spot; and I have conversed with several foreign birds, who informed me that the countries they came from were so distant that they were many days on their journey hither, though they flew the nearest way, and scarcely allowed themselves any resting-time."
"Come," said the father, "let us proceed to business; we did not leave the nest merely to look about us. You are now, my young ones, safely landed on the ground; let me instruct you what you are to do on it. Every living creature that comes into the world has something allotted him to perform, therefore he should not stand an idle spectator of what others are doing. We small birds have a very easy task, in comparison of many animals I have had an opportunity of observing, being only required to seek food for ourselves, build nests, and provide for our young ones till they are able to procure their own livelihood. We have indeed enemies to dread; hawks and other birds of prey will catch us up if we are not upon our guard; but the worst foes we have are those of the human race, though even among them we redbreasts have a better chance than many other birds, on account of a charitable action which two of our species are said to have performed towards a little boy and girl, who were lost in a wood, where they were starved to death. The redbreasts saw the affectionate pair, hand in hand, stretched on the cold ground, and would have fed them had they been capable of receiving nourishment; but finding the poor babies quite dead, and being unable to bury them, they resolved to cover them with leaves. This was an arduous task, but many a redbreast has since shared the reward of it; and I believe that those who do good to others always meet with a recompence some way or other. But I declare I am doing the very thing I was reproving you for—chattering away when I should be minding business. Come, hop after me, and we shall soon find something worth having. Fear nothing, for you are now in a place of security; there is no hawk near, and I have never seen any of the human race enter this orchard but the monsters who paid you visits in the nest, and others equally inoffensive."
The father then hopped away, followed by Robin and Dicky, while his mate conducted the female part of the family. The parents instructed their young ones in what manner to seek for food, and they proved very successful, for there were many insects just at hand.
- Alluding to the ballad of the Children in the Wood.