THE PIGEON TALE
BY VIRGINIA BENNETT.
ILLUSTRATED BY E. STUART HARDY.
LONDON: NEW YORK: ERNEST NISTER. E. P. DUTTON & CO.
E.N. No. 2074.
The Pigeon Tale
Something unusual was about to happen—any one could see that; the tall pine trees swayed and nodded to each other as if whispering together, the leaves blew up against a corner of the fence as though they meant to sweep the old-fashioned brick path clean, and the gate swung to and fro on its hinges as in anticipation of a visitor.
In a far-away corner of the United States stood an old farm-house which had put on its company manners and quite left off being an every-day house, though it really never could be called an "every-day" house—it was too old for that.
Ever so many children had been born there, and had grown up under its sheltering roof, loved, married and had gone out into the world; it was a very old house, and could have told wonderful stories if any one had listened to them; no, it could not be called an every-day house at all, but to-day it had a look of expectancy quite different from its usual sleepy air.
The ancient box-hedge by the rose-garden stood like an old soldier at attention, so! The fresh muslin curtains at the window were stiff with starch, they would not stir an inch to the breeze blowing in. The old farm-house was trying to look young again, that was it! To look young again: how many of us can do that, eh! for it was expecting a visitor, a very young visitor indeed, a little boy was coming.
He was not an ordinary little boy, or at least the people at the farm-house (Aunt Laura and Uncle Sam) did not think so—because his mother when she was a little girl had gone there for a visit years and years ago, just as he was coming to-day, and she had loved every nook and cranny of the old house as they hoped he would love it, and to those two people, it seemed almost as if she were coming back again, which really couldn't happen, for that was ever so long ago.
But she had sent her little boy instead, hoping that the change of air would do him good after the winter months spent leaning over school books. So in the quaint low-ceiled bedroom upstairs, sheets that smelled of lavender, with beautiful hand-embroidered initials, made by some bride for her trousseau long ago, were spread on the tall four-poster bed with its curious starched valence and silk patch-work quilt; the pitcher on the wash-stand had been filled to the brim with cool clear spring water, queer knit towels in basket weave design hung ready for use, and a delicious odor of home-made bread floated up from the regions below.
It was the little boy's first journey, everything was new to him—when he got off at the station Uncle Sam met him and lifted him up to the front seat of the carriage with his hand bag tucked in behind, as he had lifted the little boy's mother up and seated her beside him, years ago. And so they drove out together along the broad country roads, past the green meadows, where quiet cows cropped the grass, until they came within sight of the farm and windmill and turned into the leafy lane under the spreading chestnut trees and stopped at the gate.
Aunt Laura was there to welcome him—the little boy's name was Laurie, he had been given the name out of compliment to Aunt Laura; somehow or other it was almost like "coming home" instead of "going away" he thought, it was so home-like; perhaps it was because everything was so very, very old, that their newness and strangeness had entirely worn off. Perhaps it was because his mother had so often told him about it all, that everything seemed so familiar.
He had to ask ever so many questions, polite questions you know, for he was not a rude little boy at all, but it seemed so wonderful to him to be here at last that he could not help exclaiming at everything.
There was the parlor just as he had imagined it, with the row of seashells across the mantle and the door opening into the porch and garden and beyond the library with its great deep fireplace, its old-fashioned andirons and red brick hearth.
Nothing was new in the old house, everything had been made years and years ago when there was no machinery, and chairs and furniture had to be turned by hand; for that reason people who made them took more pains than they do now, so that they would last a long time, and only the colours in the brocades had faded and the silk worn away in the cross-stitch work of the antimacassars.
Laurie went from room to room with Aunt Laura, looking at everything. "Will you show me the cow-pitcher, Aunt Laura?" he asked, and Aunt Laura laughed and opened a deep cupboard, where the best china was kept, and took the pitcher down from a high shelf. Such a curious pitcher, it was, a brown and white china cow—I'm sure it must have been very, very old, for I never see pitchers like it now-a-days. The tail was curved into a handle, and the mouth was the spout!
Aunt Laura said that she would keep it on the table every day, full of cream for his porridge, just as she had done for his mother, when she, as a little girl, had stayed at the farm.
When supper came, how good everything tasted! The home-cured ham, delicious butter made on the farm, great slices of fresh bread and schmeirkase—I don't believe many of you boys and girls know what "Schmeirkase" is, do you? Well, anyway, it is made somehow from thick sour cream, so thick that it is put in a bag and hung up in the dairy until it is time to be eaten—when I was a little girl and visited a farm they used to have schmeirkase for supper, and I always hoped they would offer me a second helping and they always did! There were strawberries too, and stewed rhubarb, and chocolate layer cake. And Aunt Laura put the cake away after supper in a round tin box, in a corner of the cupboard, and gave Laurie a great slice the next morning to eat, for fear he would grow hungry before dinner.
"I'm as glad as I can be that I've come," he said, and Uncle Sam and Aunt Laura smiled at each other. "So like his mother," said Aunt Laura and Laurie wondered how he could be like his mother, for his mother was ever so much taller then he, and ever so much more "grown up."
After supper, Laurie slipped his small hand inside Uncle Sam's big one, and they started out together to see the farm, the big collie dog "Shep" running along beside them.
"I've never seen so many animals in all my life," he exclaimed, as they came up to the great gate that shut in the barnyard, "except perhaps in the Zoo."
"Shall we stop here for a moment?" said Uncle Sam, lifting Laurie up and seating him on the gate-post, where he could see all over the yard at once.
"Oh, how fine!" exclaimed Laurie, "I feel just like a little bird that perches on a tree, and looks down on the cows underneath, and isn't a bit afraid of their horns!"
Uncle Sam laughed, for he knew the cows would not hurt him, nevertheless he kept his arm around Laurie to be sure, for he was a little city boy, and city boys only see pictures of cows in books, and Uncle Sam thought Laurie might be a weeny bit afraid. Bossie, Bonnie Bee, Lilian and Daisy, the cows, were standing around waiting to be milked, switching their tails and moo-oo-ing now and then; some would wander over to the wide horse trough, over which the water spilled, and bend their heads until their mouths touched the water, when they would drink in great gulps, then turn away with dripping chins.
Just then there was the sound of hoofs, and old "Sue," "Magic" and "Marvel" and the colt "Arbutus" raced up from the pasture, and into the barnyard.
Uncle Sam drew a handful of apples out of his capacious pockets, and the horses came whinneying and ate them out of his hand.
"I'm glad I'm up here," laughed Laurie, but Uncle Sam latched the gate, and lifted him down, for there was ever so much more to be seen.
Over in the pig-sty the old mother sow and her family of pigs were pushing each other out of the way to see who could get the most supper, some of them being impolite enough to stand with their feet in the trough, but of course that is considered correct in pig society.
The little pigs were cunning, with their bright eyes and curly tails, and even the old sow was admirable, for she would grunt as though to say "Did you ever see so fine a family; I have taught them that the best things in this world must be hunted for, and to look out for themselves, yes! they have been brought up properly, I have a right to be proud."
Laurie had never seen a real pump before, so they stopped and he had a drink of the cool well water. How refreshing it was! Next they peeped into the chicken house, deserted, except for a few old mother hens, sitting on their eggs, who, when they saw Laurie, set up such a fuss that he quickly came out again.
As they came near an old brown hen sitting in the grass, Laurie laughed with delight when she got up, and a whole brood of downy yellow chicks ran from under her wing.
Uncle Sam now took Laurie back to the barn to see the milking, and they threaded their way through the dim twilight of the stable, past the tired horses munching their oats, to the cow-shed, frightening an old hen off her nest, where she had laid her eggs away from prying eyes in a corner of the hay.
Laurie thought he had never smelt anything so delicious as the odor of the sweet clover grass that hung down between the boards of the flooring of the hay loft, and when a mouse would scurry away, he would laugh at its being afraid of him.
Outside in the gathering twilight, the pigeons were wheeling and circling overhead, and dipping to the ground for the corn that lay scattered among the pebbles.
High overhead, was the dove-cote on the wagon house. "Do the pigeons fly far away, Uncle Sam? and what are they always doing?" asked Laurie when he had watched them for some time. "They fly ever so far away, Laurie," answered Uncle Sam, "but always come back again. Some pigeons you know, the carrier pigeons, carry messages, but I do not think this kind is used for that purpose." Meantime Aunt Laura had come out to scatter corn to the chickens, who, seeing her approach, hurried to meet her on all sides, until she stood surrounded by the pretty feathered creatures. Laurie begged for a handful of corn to throw to them, but started back in dismay, when an old turkey-gobbler reached up and picked a grain out of his hand. "What a rude old bird," he said, "but I wasn't a bit afraid of him, he only surprised me," he explained to Aunt Laura quickly, for fear she would think him timid. Just then the turkey, who was a pompous sort of creature, cocked his head on one side, and looked at Laurie for a moment as though he understood, then turned away.
"I'm afraid you have hurt his feelings," said Aunt Laura, "you see he is not used to little boys calling him names"—"Well, I'll not do it any more, I'm sure I didn't know he minded," replied Laurie, "but still," he continued, "it's not as if he really understood, he couldn't unless he were a fairy—but turkeys, and cows and pigeons on farms are not fairies, are they, Aunt Laura?" "I can't tell you that, Laurie," said Aunt Laura, "for I've never seen any fairies—some animals are more sensible than others, and some like to be petted, and are fond of being with people—if that is what you mean." "No, that is not what I mean altogether, it's only part of what I mean," he answered; "if the turkey-gobbler wasn't a fairy, it ought not to make any difference to him, my calling him rude or not, for he couldn't understand, but he looked at me in such a funny way, with his head on one side, that he must have known what I was saying."
"I couldn't be a bit lonely here, Aunt Laura," he said, as he was sitting on the floor that night beside his bed, struggling to take off his shoes and stockings all by himself, "you see even when you and Uncle Sam are too busy for me to 'sturb you, I can just go out and play with the chickens, and talk to the little calf, and 'pretend.'
"It's lots of fun 'pretending,'" he continued, "I can pretend, oh! ever so many things—I learned to do it when I had the mumps, and had to stay in bed. It wasn't half so bad the having to stay in bed then. I used to pretend I was a magician sometimes, and could turn my toys into real soldiers, and real ships, and it used to be lots of fun."
"I don't think we shall ever be too busy for you to disturb us, Laurie," said Aunt Laura.
"Oh, may I peep into that funny little door?" Laurie exclaimed, as he caught sight of a tiny closet over the mantelpiece. "Where does it go to, does it go into the chimney?" Aunt Laura laughed, "No, it does not go into the chimney, though everybody who sees it thinks so at first." And indeed that seemed the only place that it could open into, for it was exactly over the fireplace, where the chimney must be. To be sure the fireplace had been boarded up and painted white, and was never used now; in its stead a great iron stove like a box, where corn cobs were burned, was used in winter, for that made the room much warmer, but certainly the little closet had been built at the same time as the house, when the fireplace and the chimney had been built.
"I don't exactly know where it goes to, Laurie," said Aunt Laura, "it has always been there. When I was a little girl I used to think it was a door into another part of the house, that I did not know about, where I had never been, and I used to stand on a chair and peep in, but it was too dark to see in all the way. I keep some of my jellies in it now," she added, and as she spoke, she opened the door, and showed him a tempting row of tumblers, filled with clear amber jelly, neatly covered with white paper.
Even after Aunt Laura had tucked him into bed, and given him a good-night kiss, Laurie kept wondering about all he had seen—there was so much to think about.
"I wonder why the pigeons keep flying about all day," he said to himself, "and what chickens and geese say to each other—after all, I don't believe they can talk at all," he continued, "for they do not seem to be really doing anything—they just fly around in a silly sort of way, picking up crumbs, I wonder what they would talk about if they could. I wonder if I could peep inside the dove-cote some day and see what it looks like." By this time he was almost asleep, but he kept repeating to himself, "I wonder—I wonder—I wonder," over and over again, until it sounded more like whirrder-whirrder-whirr—yes, Laurie was almost sure he had stopped saying "wonder" and something soft like whirr-whirr sounded close by, as if one of the pigeons themselves was flying about the room.
Laurie opened his eyes wide—"How could a pigeon be in this room," he thought; "they must surely be asleep in the dove-cote by this time." The room was quite dark, except for a little square of light high upon the wall, but he gradually made out the different objects in the room, and saw that the light came from the little cupboard on the mantlepiece. He heard the soft whirr again, this time close by, and looking up he saw a pigeon perched on one of the four posts of his bed. "So you don't believe we have any work to do," said the pigeon. "Would you like to see inside the dove-cote? If so, come with me." When he said this, he hovered about the bed for a moment, then fluttered over to the mantelpiece, and stood beside the little cupboard.
Laurie was about to say that he could not possibly get up to the door, when he remembered what Aunt Laura had said about climbing up on a chair to peep in, so he jumped out of bed, and pulling a chair close to the fireplace, stepped from it to the mantelpiece. It never occurred to him until afterwards, to think that he was ever so much too big to fit inside the cupboard, and it really did not matter after all, for somehow or other he did fit—whether he had grown suddenly quite small, or the cupboard was quite large when one got near enough to it, I do not know, but there he was inside, with the pigeon hopping along sedately ahead of him.
It was apparently a narrow passage, and very long, for they walked on for some time, turning corners now and then, as though it ran past certain rooms in the house, and Laurie could see that it was lit by hundreds of fireflies, making it almost as bright as day.
Suddenly the passageway came to an end, Laurie does not remember quite how it happened, but there he was up in the dove-cote, high above the farmyard, with the pigeons cooing and circling about him.
What a beautiful dove-cote it was, ever so much larger than one would have supposed: indeed it was like a real house.
It did not seem at all strange for the cooing to sound more and more like words, and presently Laurie found that the pigeons were inviting him to enter. Inside how beautiful it all was! Velvet carpets lay on the floor, with the most exquisite patterns traced on them; in each room the pattern was different, yet always changing, for they were made by the tiny feet of the pigeons as they moved about. Soft curtains hung at the doors. They were wonderful feather curtains; instead of having to push them to one side, all that one had to do was to move towards them, and they folded into wings. Exquisite music sounded in the rooms, that was the wind, and it sang of the countries and people it had seen in its travels. It sang of the waving corn, the ships at sea, the flames leaping in the fireplace, it crooned a lullaby it had heard a mother singing to her baby—now the voice of the wind was soft and low, that was when it remembered the places it had been in, where there was peace and happiness; now it was loud and harsh, for it had also been in terrible storms, and wild places, ah! they were wonderful stories. No one was idle in the dove-cote, some pigeons were kept busy writing the news that the wind brought, others flew here and there, for they were the messengers, and must carry the news over the farm.
One pigeon had a ring over his ankle: he was very important indeed, quite a personage in the dove-cote.
"They are going to dance for you," he said to Laurie, and seven pigeons stepped into the centre of the room. They began with a faint flutter of their wings, turning their heads from side to side, gradually growing swifter in their motion, until their brilliant colors blended and intermingled in a beautiful prismatic effect. It was like a wonderful rainbow dance, only the colors changed as the pigeons moved about, and they opened and closed their wings in such a way, that they seemed to ripple and flow as water does over the stones.
Their cooing gradually sounded more and more like water gurgling, and Laurie listened and listened, until he found his head nodding—he was almost asleep—no, he was not asleep, he opened his eyes wide, there was the pigeon still, with the ring about his ankle, but the dancing pigeons were no longer there; the blue sky shone between trunks of trees, and a real brook sparkled over the stones—somehow or other they were walking through a wood, the same wood on the edge of the fields, that they had driven past on their way to the farm: how quiet it was and how deliciously soft the moss underfoot, while a gentle breeze swayed the trees overhead.
"Now we will stop at the squirrel's house," said the pigeon, as they stopped at an old tree. "Rap-tap-rap" with his beak on a knot-hole in the trunk, and a fat squirrel opened the door. What a lot of chattering! he was inviting them to enter. "How delightful," thought Laurie as they stepped inside, "now I shall see what a squirrel's house is really like."
And indeed it was very different from what he had supposed an old tree to be like inside; instead, there was a real little staircase, carpeted with green moss, winding up through the hollow trunk, there were landings at the different branches, with tiny doors opening off them, and the branches themselves were all little rooms with knot-holes for windows, across which green leaves were hung for curtains.
The walls were papered with the most beautiful paper in the world; in one room it was all blossoms with the most delicate odor; in another the walls were hung with green leaves; in another room great red and yellow autumn leaves festooned the walls. "You see this is the inside out or rather the outside in of the tree," explained the squirrel; "this is where the blossoms and leaves are kept when not in use."
It was all a little confusing at first to Laurie, for the squirrels seemed to be in such haste, but they were so friendly, and chattered so pleasantly to him that somehow or other he understood everything they were saying, though they talked in squirrel language, and so by-and-by he felt more at home, and sat down while they brought him some refreshments.
Such delicious morsels, served in the most tempting manner! Puree of chestnuts, and hickory-nut cake—wonderful cherry cordial, made, the squirrels explained to Laurie, out of melted sap of the wild cherry tree—exquisite walnuts baked in acorn cups. Oh! I can't tell you half what there was, for Laurie did not know himself, but it was all very delicious, and the squirrels too seemed to think it an important occasion, for there was a great deal of whisking of tails, and the squirrel waiters sat up very stiffly with their little paws held up in front of them, as though they knew how much was expected of them and meant to do their share. Every now and then Laurie would see a pair of bright eyes peeping at him over the stair, then off would scurry a baby squirrel afraid of being caught, "for all the world," thought Laurie, "the way we do at home when we are forbidden to come down when mother is giving a party, so watch instead from a landing on the stair when nurse's back is turned."
After the refreshments, there was more bowing and waving of bushy tails and hand shaking or paw shaking, I do not know which—for it was time to be off; Laurie thanked them very much and said he would like to come again, which was very true indeed, and he said in his most "grown up way" that he had had a delightful time, and the squirrels seemed pleased and nodded again, and the same old squirrel, who must have been the door-keeper, for he kept jingling a great bunch of keys in his hands, now led the way down the winding stair again, until they reached what must have been the cellar part of the tree, where the squirrels kept their stores for the winter. It had grown so dark that their guide now took a lantern down from the wall and, fastening a glow worm inside to light the way, showed Laurie great piles of nuts and acorns stacked in the corners. After a while they came to a little door and, passing through it—the squirrel leading the way, after him the pigeon, and Laurie bringing up the rear—they found themselves in a long passage, smelling of earth and mould. "It surely must be underground," thought Laurie, "I wonder if the moles and mice have streets just as we do. Oh, dear! I do hope we don't meet that dreadful turkey-gobbler." Before he had time to think much about it, they came to another little door, on the other side of which was a stair that evidently led up into another tree.
Here the squirrel with the lantern bade them good-bye, and disappeared down the corridor. The pigeon led the way up the stair, at the top of which was a rough wooden door. "We must leave a message here," said he, tapping on the door, and after waiting some time, Laurie thought he heard a gruff voice say, "To-who-to-who?" "Why doesn't he come and see instead of asking?" thought Laurie, but just then the door opened, and an old owl put out his head.
The owl looked very sleepy, and blinked his eyes very hard. "He must have been asleep," said Laurie to himself, "owls always do sleep in the day-time I suppose."
"Who-oo!" screeched the owl, flapping his wings and ruffling up his feathers, and looking very hard at Laurie. "Oh, dear! I beg your pardon," said Laurie, feeling very much frightened indeed, "I didn't mean to be rude, but all the birds and animals on the farm here have such a curious way of knowing what I'm thinking." The owl paid no attention to him, however, but opened the door wider for them to enter, and Laurie, keeping close behind the pigeon, stepped in. The owl was evidently a bachelor, for his room was very untidy; books and papers lay piled about in the greatest confusion, and while he tried in a clumsy way to make room for them, every now and then he would upset something, as he was extremely near-sighted. He finally pushed a revolving globe on a stand toward Laurie, evidently thinking it a stool; it was very uncomfortable to sit on, and it had a way of turning round at the least little motion, and Laurie hoped that whatever the message was the pigeon would not remain long.
The pigeon now brought out a folded paper from a pocket underneath his wing, and handed it to the owl, who opened it, and said he would give it due consideration on reading it over. After listening to their conversation awhile Laurie learned that the owl, because of his wisdom, was the judge who decided the serious affairs and quarrels among the other birds and animals. The room was built in the hollow of a dead tree—it was quite snug, but not half so nice as the squirrel house, for there was no pretty wall paper, and a great spider-web instead hung across one corner of the room; on one side was an oval window, out of which could be seen wood and meadow, and on a peg against the wall hung a warm winter cloak of soft moleskin. The owl now gravely folded and sealed several legal-looking documents, and gave them to the pigeon, who, tucking them away in the same pocket, flapped his wings, and, nodding to Laurie to jump on his back, flew out into the sunshine. Laurie had hardly time to wonder where the pigeon was taking him to this time, when he saw the farm below them, and they alighted on the roof of the barn.
"Cock-a-doodle-doo," crowed the rooster on the weather-vane, but he really thought he was saying "How-de-do-de-do?" He was a splendid fellow, for he was pure gold and shone in the sunlight; he turned this way and that for everybody to see him, until the common fowls in the barn-yard envied him and wished themselves in his place, though if they had only known it they were far better off than he, for they could pick up corn and worms, while he was obliged to stand there always, which was not so pleasant on rainy days. He was terribly hoarse, too, from the damp weather, and it made his voice sound like a rusty hinge that needed oiling. "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" he said to Laurie, and Laurie bowed the best way he could, which was not very easy considering that he was standing on the top of the barn roof. "So you are the little boy who has come to visit at the farm-house; I saw you drive in. I see everything and everybody, people come and people go; it is a mistake to think that one must travel to see the world: I prefer to remain at home, but then every one is not as bright as I"—he certainly was conceited—"still I am never idle," he continued, "for I have my work to do; the farmer cannot do without me. I warn him of a change of weather, but not everyone who is changeable can be depended upon."
Here the pigeon interrupted him to tell him what the wind had said of a storm coming, and he promised to look toward the east for it. The wind had certainly got up, there was no doubting it; the weathercock and pigeon were right, it was going to rain, big drops were pattering down on the roof.
Laurie looked round to find the pigeon, but he had disappeared, no doubt for fear he would get his feathers wet. "Serves you right, serves you right!" sounded close to Laurie's ear, and beside him stood the turkey-gobbler. "So you thought the pigeons just flew round in a silly sort of way, picking up crumbs did you," he said—or gobbled I should say, his voice was so cross—"and you didn't suppose we had our work to do as well as the people on the farm, did you?" he really looked very alarming as he ruffled up his feathers and spread out his tail like a great fan. "Serves you right, to be left out in the rain this way," he went on, "next time you'll have better manners, I hope, than to call any one a rude bird." Laurie was very much frightened indeed—it was raining harder and harder; he started to run: patter, patter, patter, sounded the feet of the turkey behind him, "gobble, gobble,"—patter, patter,—no, it was only the rain drops this time, he was quite out of breath, where was he?
He looked about him, he was no longer in the barnyard—of course he knew where he was now, but—how frightened he had been; he rubbed his eyes, it was morning, the sun shone and there was Aunt Laura clapping her hands in the doorway to waken him. "Wake up, wake up, Laurie," she said—"why dear me," she added in a puzzled way, looking up at the mantelpiece, "how did I happen to forget to shut the cupboard door last night?"
Perhaps she forgot to shut it, or the pigeon forgot, I do not know; anyway that is the end of the Pigeon Story, children;—and maybe to-morrow, when the stockings are all darned, and the toys put neatly away, I shall tell you the Field Mouse Tale, or the Duck Tale or the Windmill Tale, for there are four altogether—would you like to hear them?
Printed in Bavaria.
[Transcriber's Note: The original varied spelling has been retained in this ebook. The following typo has been corrected:
p. 34: "How could a pigeon be in his room," -> this room
The Illustration descriptions have been added by the transcriber except those marked in italics.]