An Idyll of the Wood by Juliana H. Ewing

The children want to hear a story and so here it is, a sad one. A voyage out to sea with humans and birds turns into uncertain adventure.

“Tell us a story,” said the children, “a sad one, if you please, and a little true. But, above all, let it end badly, for we are tired of people who live happily ever after.”

“I heard one lately,” said the old man who lived in the wood; “it is founded on fact, and is a sad one also; but whether it ends badly or no I cannot pretend to say. That is a matter of taste: what is a bad ending?”

“A story ends badly,” said the children with authority, “when people die, and nobody marries anybody else, especially if it is a prince and princess.”

“A most lucid explanation,” said the old man. “I think my story will do, for the principal character dies, and there is no wedding.”

“Tell it, tell it!” cried his hearers, “and tell us also where you got it from.”

“Who knows the riches of a wood in summer?” said the old man. “In summer, do I say? In spring, in autumn, or in winter either. Who knows them? You, my children? Well, well. Better than some of your elders, perchance. You know the wood where I live; the hollow tree that will hold five children, and Queen Mab knows how many fairies. (What a castle it makes! And if it had but another floor put into it, with a sloping ladder—like one of the round towers of Ireland—what a house for children to live in! With no room for lesson-books, grown-up people, or beds!)

“You know the way to the hazel copse, and the place where the wild strawberries grow. You know where the wren sits on her eggs, and, like good children, pass by with soft steps and hushed voices, that you may not disturb that little mother. You know (for I have shown you) where the rare fern grows—a habitat happily yet unnoted in scientific pages. We never add its lovely fronds to our nosegays, and if we move a root it is but to plant it in another part of the wood, with as much mystery and circumspection as if we were performing some solemn druidical rite. It is to us as a king in hiding, and the places of its abode we keep faithfully secret. It will be thus held sacred by us until, with all the seed its untouched fronds have scattered, and all the offshoots we have propagated, it shall have become as plentiful as Heaven intends all beautiful things to be. Every one is not so scrupulous. There are certain ladies and gentlemen who picnic near my cottage in the hot weather, and who tell each other that they love a wood. Most of these good people have nevertheless neither eyes nor ears for what goes on around them, except that they hear each other, and see the cold collation. They will picnic there summer after summer, and not know whether they sit under oaks or ashes, beeches or elms. All birds sing for them the same song. Tell them that such a plant is rare in the neighbourhood, that there are but few specimens of it, and it will not long be their fault if there are any. Does any one direct them to it, they tear it ruthlessly up and carry it away. If by any chance a root is left, it is left so dragged and pulled and denuded of earth, that there is small chance that it will survive. Probably, also, the ravished clump dies in the garden or pot to which it is transplanted, either from neglect, or from ignorance of the conditions essential to its life; and the rare plant becomes yet rarer. Oh! without doubt they love a wood. It gives more shade than the largest umbrella, and is cheaper for summer entertainment than a tent: there you get canopy and carpet, fuel and water, shade and song, and beauty—all gratis; and these are not small matters when one has invited a large party of one’s acquaintance. There are insects, it is true, which somewhat disturb our friends; and as they do not know which sting, and which are harmless, they kill all that come within their reach, as a safe general principle. The town boys, too! They know the wood—that is to say, they know where the wild fruits grow, and how to chase the squirrel, and rob the birds’ nests, and snare the birds. Well, well, my children; to know and love a wood truly, it may be that one must live in it as I have done; and then a lifetime will scarcely reveal all its beauties, or exhaust its lessons. But even then, one must have eyes that see, and ears that hear, or one misses a good deal. It was in the wood that I heard this story that I shall tell you.”

“How did you hear it?” asked the children.

“A thrush sang it to me one night.”

“One night?” said the children. “Then you mean a nightingale.”

“I mean a thrush,” said the old man. “Do I not know the note of one bird from another? I tell you that pine-tree by my cottage has a legend of its own, and the topmost branch is haunted. Must all legends be about the loves and sorrows of our self-satisfied race alone?”

“But did you really and truly hear it?” they asked. “I heard it,” said the old man. “But, as I tell you, one hears and one hears. I don’t say that everybody would have heard it, merely by sleeping in my chamber; but, for the benefit of the least imaginative, I will assure you that it is founded on fact.”

“Begin! begin!” shouted the children.

“Once upon a time,” said the old man, “there was a young thrush, who was born in that beautiful dingle where we last planted the —— fern. His home-nest was close to the ground, but the lower one is, the less fear of falling; and in woods, the elevation at which you sleep is a matter of taste, and not of expense or gentility. He awoke to life when the wood was dressed in the pale fresh green of early summer; and believing, like other folk, that his own home was at least the principal part of the world, earth seemed to him so happy and so beautiful an abode, that his heart felt ready to burst with joy. The ecstasy was almost pain, till wings and a voice came to him. Then, one day, when, after a grey morning, the sun came out at noon, drawing the scent from the old pine that looks in at my bedroom window, his joy burst forth, after long silence, into song, and flying upwards, he sat on the topmost branch of the pine, and sang as loud as he could sing to the sun and the blue sky.

“‘Joy! joy!’ he sang. ‘Fresh water and green woods, ambrosial sunshine and sunflecked shade, chattering brooks and rustling leaves, glade, and sward, and dell. Lichens and cool mosses, feathered ferns and flowers. Green leaves! Green leaves! Summer! summer! summer!’

“It was monotonous, but every word came from the singer’s heart, which is not always the case. Thenceforward, though he slept near the ground, he went up every day to this pine, as to some sacred high place, and sang the same song, of which neither he nor I were ever weary.

“Let one be ever so inoffensive, however, one is not long left in peace in this world, even in a wood. The thrush sang too loudly of his simple happiness, and some boys from the town heard him and snared him, and took him away in a dirty cloth cap, where he was nearly smothered. The world is certainly not exclusively composed of sunshine, and green woods, and odorous pines. He became almost senseless during the hot dusty walk that led to the town. It was a seaport town, about two miles from the wood, a town of narrow, steep streets, picturesque old houses, and odours compounded of tar, dead fish, and many other scents less agreeable than forest perfumes. The thrush was put into a small wicker-cage in an upper room, in one of the narrowest and steepest of the streets. “‘I shall die to-night,’ he piped. But he did not. He lived that night, and for several nights and days following. The boys took small care of him, however. He was often left without food, without water, and always with too little air. Two or three times they tried to sell him, but he was not bought, for no one could hear him sing. One day he was hung outside the window, and partly owing to the sun and fresh air, and partly because a woman was singing in the street, he began to carol his old song.

“The woman was a street singer. She was even paler, thinner, and more destitute-looking than such women usually are. In some past time there had been beauty and feeling in her face, but the traces of both were well-nigh gone. An indifference almost amounting to vacancy was there now, and, except that she sang, you might almost have fancied her a corpse. In her voice, also, there had once been beauty and feeling, and here again the traces were small indeed. From time to time, she was stopped by fits of coughing, when an ill-favoured hunchback, who accompanied her on a tambourine, swore and scowled at her. She sang a song of sentiment, with a refrain about

‘Love and truth,
And joys of youth—’
on which the melody dwelt and quavered as if in mockery. As she sang, a sailor came down the street. His collar was very large, his trousers were very wide, his hat hung on the back of his head more as an ornament than for shelter; and he had one of the roughest faces and the gentlest hearts that ever went together since Beauty was entertained by the Beast. His hands were in his pockets, where he could feel one shilling and a penny, all the spare cash that remained to him after a friendly stroll through the town. When he saw the street singer, he stopped, pulled off his hat, and scratched his head, as was his custom when he was puzzled or interested.

“‘It’s no good keeping an odd penny,’ he said to himself; ‘poor thing, she looks bad enough!’ And, bringing the penny to the surface out of the depths of his pocket, he gave it to the woman. The hunchback came forward to take it, but the sailor passed him with a shove of his elbow, and gave it to the singer, who handed it over to her companion without moving a feature, and went on with her song.

“‘I’d like to break every bone in your ugly body,’ muttered the sailor, with a glance at the hunchback, who scowled in return.

“‘I shall die of this close street, and of all I have suffered,’ thought the thrush.

“‘Green leaves! green leaves!’ he sang, for it was the only song he knew.

“‘My voice is gone,’ thought the hunchback’s companion. ‘He’ll beat me again to-night; but it can’t last long:

“Love and truth,
And joys of youth”‘—
she sang, for that was the song she had learned; and it was not her fault that it was inappropriate.

“But the ballad-singer’s captivity was nearly at an end. When the hunchback left her that evening to spend the sailor’s penny with the few others which she had earned, he swore that when he came back he would make her sing louder than she had done all day. Her face showed no emotion, less than it did when he saw it hours after, when beauty and feeling seemed to have returned to it in the peace of death, when he came back and found the cage empty, and that the long-prisoned spirit had flown away to seek the face of love and truth indeed.

“But how about the thrush?

“The sailor had scarcely swallowed the wrath which the hunchback had stirred in him, when his ear was caught by the song of the thrush above him.

“‘You sing uncommon well, pretty one,’ he said, stopping and putting his hat even farther back than usual to look up. He was one of those good people who stop a dozen times in one street, and look at everything as they go along; whereby you may see three times as much of life as other folk, but it is a terrible temptation to spend money. It was so in this instance. The sailor looked till his kindly eye perceived that the bird was ill-cared for.

“‘It should have a bit of sod, it should,’ he said emphatically, taking his hat off, and scratching his head again; ‘and there’s not a crumb of food on board. Maybe, they don’t understand the ways of birds here. It would be a good turn to mention it.’

“With this charitable intention he entered the house, and when he left it, his pocket was empty, and the thrush was carried tenderly in his handkerchief.

“‘The canary died last voyage,’ he muttered apologetically to himself, ‘and the money always does go somehow or other.’

“The sailor’s hands were about three times as large and coarse as those of the boy who had carried the thrush before, but they seemed to him three times more light and tender—they were handy and kind, and this goes farther than taper fingers.

“The thrush’s new home was not in the narrow streets. It was in a small cottage in a small garden at the back of the town. The canary’s old cage was comparatively roomy, and food, water, and fresh turf were regularly supplied to him. He could see green leaves too. There was an apple-tree in the garden, and two geraniums, a fuchsia, and a tea-rose in the window. Near the tea-rose an old woman sat in the sunshine. She was the sailor’s mother, and looked very like a tidily-kept window-plant herself. She had a little money of her own, which gave her a certain dignity, and her son was very good to her; and so she dwelt in considerable comfort, dividing her time chiefly between reading in the big Bible, knitting socks for Jack, and raising cuttings in bottles of water. She had heard of hothouses and forcing-frames, but she did not think much of them. She believed a bottle of water to be the most natural, because it was the oldest method she knew of, and she thought no good came of new-fangled ways, and trying to outdo Nature.

“‘Slow and sure is best,’ she said, and stuck to her own system.

“‘What’s that, my dear?’ she asked, when the sailor came in and held up the handkerchief. He told her.

“‘You’re always a-laying out your money on something or other,’ said the old lady, who took the privilege of her years to be a little testy. ‘What did you give for that?’

“‘A shilling, ma’am.’

“‘Tst! tst! tst!’ said the old lady, disapprovingly.

“‘Now, Mother, don’t shake that cap of yours off your head,’ said the sailor. ‘What’s a shilling? If I hadn’t spent it, I should have changed it; and once change a shilling, and it all dribbles away in coppers, and you get nothing for it. But spend it in the lump, and you get something you want. That’s what I say.’

“‘I want no more pets,’ said the old lady, stiffly.

“‘Well, you won’t be troubled with this one long,’ said her son; ‘it’ll go with me, and that’s soon enough.’

“Any allusion to his departure always melted the old lady, as Jack well knew. She became tearful, and begged him to leave the thrush with her.

“‘You know, my dear, I’ve always looked to your live things as if they were Christians; and loved them too (unless it was that monkey that I never could do with!). Leave it with me, my dear. I’d never bother myself with a bird on board ship, if I was you.’

“‘That’s because you’ve got a handsome son of your own, old lady,’ chuckled the sailor; ‘I’ve neither chick nor child, ma’am, remember, and a man must have something to look to. The bird’ll go with me.’

“And so it came to pass that just when the thrush was becoming domesticated, and almost happy at the cottage, one morning the sailor brought him fresh turf and groundsel, besides his meal-cake, and took the cage down. And the old woman kissed the wires, and bade the bird good-bye, and blessed her son, and prayed Heaven to bring him safe home again; and they went their way.

“The forecastle of a steam-ship (even of a big one) is a poor exchange for a snug cottage to any one but a sailor. To Jack, the ship was home. He had never lived in a wood, and carolled in tree-tops. He preferred blue to green, and pine masts to pine trees; and he smoked his pipe very comfortably in the forecastle, whilst the ship rolled to and fro, and swung the bird’s cage above his head. To the thrush it was only an imprisonment that grew worse as time went on. Each succeeding day made him pine more bitterly for his native woods—for fresh air and green leaves, and the rest and quiet, and sweet perfumes, and pleasant sounds of country life. His turf dried up, his groundsel withered, and no more could be got. He longed even to be back with the old woman—to see the apple-tree, and the window-plants, and be still. The shudder of the screw, the blasts of hot air from the engine and cook’s galley, the ceaseless jangling, clanging, pumping noises, and all the indescribable smells which haunt a steam-ship, became more wearisome day by day. Even when the cage was hung outside, the, sea breeze seemed to mock him with its freshness. The rich blue of the waters gave him no pleasure, his eyes failed with looking for green, the bitter, salt spray vexed him, and the wind often chilled him to the bone, whilst the sun shone, and icebergs gleamed upon the horizon.

“The sailor had been so kind a master, that the thrush had become deeply attached to him, as birds will; and while at the cottage he had scarcely fretted after his beloved wood. But with every hour of the voyage, home-sickness came more strongly upon him, and his heart went back to the nest, and the pine-top, and the old home. When one sleeps soundly, it is seldom that one remembers one’s dreams; but when one is apt to be roused by an unexpected lurch of the ship, by the moan of a fog-whistle, or the scream of an engine, one becomes a light sleeper, and the visions of the night have a strange reality, and are easily recalled. And now the thrush always dreamt of home.

“One day he was hung outside. It was not a very fine day, but he looked drooping, and the pitying sailor brought him out, to get some air. His heart was sore with home-sickness, and he watched the sea-birds skimming up and down with envious eyes. It seemed all very well for poor men, who hadn’t so much as a wing to carry them over the water, to build lumbering sea-nests, with bodies to float in the water like fish, and wings of canvas to carry them along, and to help it out with noisy steam-engines—and to endure it all. But for him, who could fly over a hundred tree-tops before a man could climb to one, it was hard to swing outside a ship, and to watch other birds use their wings, when his, which quivered to fly homewards, could only flutter against the bars. As he thought, a roll of the ship threw him forward, the wind shook the wires of the cage, and loosened the fastening; and, when the vessel righted, the cage-door swung slowly open.

“At this moment, a ray of sunshine streaked the deep blue water, and a gleaming sea bird, which had been sitting like a tuft of foam upon a wave, rose with outstretched pinions, and soared away. It was too much. With one shrill pipe of hope, the thrush fluttered from his cage, spread his wings, and followed him.

“When the sailor found that the wind was getting up, he came to take the cage down, and then his grief was sore indeed.

“‘The canary died last voyage,’ he said, sadly. ‘The cage was bought on a Friday, and I knew ill luck would come of it. I said so to Mother; but the old lady says there’s no such thing as luck, and she’s Bible-learned, if ever a woman was. “That’s very true,” says I, “but if I’d the money for another cage, I wouldn’t use this;” and I never will again. Poor, bird! it was a sweet singer.’ And he turned his face aside.

“‘It may have the sense to come back,’ said one of the crew. The sailor scratched his head, and shook it sadly.

“‘Noah’s bird came back to him, when she found no rest,’ he said, ‘but I don’t think mine will, Tom.’

“He was right. The thrush returned no more. He did not know how wide was the difference between his own strength and that of the bird he followed. The sea-fowl cut the air with wings of tenfold power: he swooped up and down, he stooped to fish, he rested on the ridges of the dancing waves, and then, with one steady flight, he disappeared, and the thrush was left alone. Other birds passed him, and flew about him, and fished, and rocked upon the waters near him, but he held steadily on. Ships passed him also, but too far away for him to rest upon; whales spouted in the distance, and strange fowl screamed; but not a familiar object broke the expanse of the cold sea. He did not know what course he was taking. He hoped against hope that he was going home. Although he was more faint and weary than he had ever yet been, he felt no pain. The intensity of his hope to reach the old wood made everything seem light; even at the last, when his wings were almost powerless, he believed that they would bear him home, and was happy. Already he seemed to rest upon the trees, the waters sounded in his ears like the rustling of leaves, and the familiar scent of the pine-tree seemed to him to come upon the breeze.

“In this he was not wrong. A country of pine-woods was near; and land was in sight, though too far away for him to reach it now. Not home, but yet a land of wondrous summer beauty; of woods, and flowers, and sun-flecked leaves—of sunshine more glowing than he had ever known—of larger ferns, and deeper mosses, and clearer skies—a land, of balmy summer nights, where the stars shine brighter than with us, and where fireflies appear and vanish, like stars of a lower firmament, amid the trees. As the sun broke out, the scent of pines came strong upon the land breeze. A strange land, but the thrush thought it was his own.

“‘I smell woods,’ he chirped faintly; ‘I see the sun. This is home!’

“All round him, the noisy crests of the fresh waves seemed to carol the song he could no longer sing—’Home, home! fresh water and green woods, ambrosial sunshine and sun-flecked shade, chattering brooks and rustling leaves, glade and sward and dell, lichens and cool mosses, feathered ferns and flowers. Green leaves! green leaves! Summer! summer! summer!’

“The slackened wings dropped, the dying eyes looked landward, and then closed. But even as he fell, he believed himself sinking to rest on Mother Earth’s kindly bosom, and he did not know it, when the cold waves buried him at sea.”

“Oh, then, he did die!” cried the children, who, though they were tired of stories that end happily, yet, when they heard it, liked a sad ending no better than other children do (in which, by the bye, we hold them to be in the right, and can hardly forgive ourselves for chronicling this “ower true tale”).

“Yes,” said the old man, “he died; but it is said that the sweet dingle which was his home—forsaken by the nightingale—is regarded by birds as men regard a haunted house; for that at still summer midnight, when other thrushes sleep, a shadowy form, more like a skeleton leaf than a living bird, swings upon the tall tree-tops where he sat of old, and, rapt in a happy ecstasy, sings a song more sweet and joyous than thrush ever sang by day.”

“Have you heard it?” asked the children.

The old man nodded. But not another word would he say. The children, however, forthwith began to lay plans for getting into the wood some mid-summer night, to test with their own ears the truth of his story, and to hear the spectre thrush’s song. Whether the authorities permitted the expedition, and if not, whether the young people baffled their vigilance—whether they heard the song, and if so, whether they understood it—we are not empowered to tell here.