Feathers--and a Fine Bird

WHEN I was a small boy, a friend presented me with some very ancient bantams — quite past egg-work. Another friend fitted me out with some pigeons; but the latter were new to life and soon began to be interesting. After giving the bantams every chance, most of them were scrapped — they were of no use as table ornaments — and, finally, through the activities of a marauding cat, but one solitary bantam survived, He became rather a nuisance to himself by reason of his long spurs, but he was a great favorite with the household and especially with the gardener. Both were very busy when any digging and trenching was on hand, and the dear little old bird — who answered to the name of ’Chuck’ used to fill himself so full that he got very drowsy, and would retire betimes to the stable where, in his own fashion, he used to invite a favorite mare to lie down. As soon as she complied, he would fly upon her and go to sleep. I suppose he was afraid of rheumatism in the feet and appreciated the warmth of his friend’s body.

But Chuck had a strong sense of duty, and no fear of arthritis, or any other pains in his limbs, deterred him when once he had chosen his path. Elderly as he was, cock-bird as he was, he took complete and most, loving care of two motherless bantam chicks.

Their advent upon the scene occurred in this wise. I had had an inspiration— and four cents to spend. I went to the owner of some bantams and bought two eggs with the cents. I then went to one of my pigeons, who had that day laid her second egg and was preparing to be busy, and without by-your-leave or anything of the sort, I took away her own eggs and put the bantam eggs under her. And I watched her during a fairly long April day.

It was soon plain that something was bothering her. She kept looking underneath herself, and squirming in a most unladylike manner; but she said nothing of her troubles at the time that her husband came to relieve her, to allow her to get on with her other household cares while he held the fort. She mentioned the matter, however, when she came back, — after some considerable lapse of time. They were rather an extraordinary pair, these two. She — a responsible, matronly bird — had taken to herself a very young husband en secondes noces. Her first — an excellent disciplinarian to whom henpecking was as water to a duck — had been shot on his way home carrying a note for me, by what is termed a ‘sportsman.’ The widow felt his loss, I am sure; but it was nice weather — and no one wanted to look draggletailed that season. And besides, bright feathers were much worn just then. What else could you expect? Here was a widow, not inconsolable; and here was this young cock-bird, with nothing better to do. They got on very well; she had the experience, and he took the orders. As far as I can remember, the eggs I removed when substituting the bantams were a novelty to him. At any rate, he was very proud; and when his wife, on returning to the nest with a ‘ Well-I-suppose-I-’ve-got-to-take-on - this-job-again’ look on her face, began to talk to him, he answered back.

By now I’ve forgotten most of the pigeon-language that I then knew, but the gist of what was said was something like this: —

She. — Well — what do you think of sitting on eggs for your living?

_ He.(rather bashfully), Oh, it’s all right — why not ?

She. — Why not? Bless the boy! They’re the size of mountains.

He. — You must n’t flatter me so.

She. —Flatter you? I’m annoyed with you. How dare you!

By this time the young husband, visibly, was becoming annoyed. Actually he spoke up for himself.

‘Here —you come off your perch! Don’t you crow at me. I believe your record is twenty-three pairs of eggs — well, this is my first — and I think they’re splendid.’

This plain-speaking unquestionably did great good, for the lady, after flying away to get a drink of water which she did n ’t want, returned to her home quite unruffled. As her mate stepped off the eggs, he paused a moment to look at them. Now I can’t, swear that he smiled with satisfaction and pride, because even now I don’t know where to look for the smile of a pigeon; but he did look pleased. And whether it was that his lady relented, or was extremely diplomatic, it is impossible to say, but she too looked at them, with her head on one side, as she remarked, ‘They certainly are the finest I ever laid.’

Well, there was I, looking on, and I began to feel mean about it. If it went on there was going to be a strain for her and a swelled head for him. You could see it. And really it was getting too intimate for intrusion by a third party. But she solved it. Or rather she had solved it. She was a knowing old bird and her last remark had done the trick; for her young mate, turning round, snuggled down in the nest beside her and took one egg while she accounted for the other.

And so they used to sit, this worthy couple, until at the end of seventeen days and a half — in pigeon time — two dear bantams were hatched, and for two hours were left to parents whose bewilderment was the most comic thing ever seen in feathers.

But everything worked smoothly; for a hen, in a coop in the garden, with eleven babies of her own, obviously had room for two more. And another pair of pigeons who had hatched out that very day could easily afford to part with one baby for the bereaved pair who had been behaving so well.

And then two odd things happened. Whether it was that the old fowl with eleven babies despised the two smaller children, or whether she had some instinct about the whole business, or whether she saw inside the hand I so carefully put underneath her, I am unable to say. But she took precious little notice of the forlorn chicks who, huddled by themselves in a corner, would speedily have died but for dear old Chuck. He came down to the coop to have a look, —a thing he had never done before, he always had so much business on hand with the gardener. He appeared around the coop; and the gardener came indoors to tell this thing. Also the gardener said the wee bantam chicks were following around inside the coop as the old gentleman strutted around outside. Inspection revealed that it. was extremely probable that both banties would die if left in that coop. Inspiration said, ‘Give Chuck a chance.’ In a quick but careful moment, it was done, and the baby bantams were out on a wide lawn with only Chuck near them. Unhesitatingly and confidingly, they approached him. He arched his proud little neck and looked down. Through their foster mother’s neglect they were feeling chilled. They walked in under his radiant little body. The splendid gentleman shone out. Looking carefully underneath to see that those terrible spurs should not interfere, he squatted; and his new little friends disappeared among his feathers.

A careful watch was kept, and presently they reappeared, strengthened by their rest. A handful of ‘grits’ was thrown, and the foster father was as good as any mother in the way in which he invited his charges to ‘ fall to.’ By the end of the afternoon it was seen that all was quite well with the new family. Roosting also was left entirely to Chuck’s discretion. He deserted his friendly mare and camped in a cosy spot by a cucumber frame. Cats were shy of Chuck, for, in a thoughtless moment one had attacked him, long before. The surprise of that cat on finding a very long sharp spur in each whisker was sufficient to create a lasting impression in feline circles for miles around.

So, on the morrow, Chuck appeared upon the lawn with his babies. He made a most devoted mother. He even introduced his family to the gardener — and all four used to go ‘grubbing’ together. And, at the gardener’s dinner-time, when he withdrew to the harness-room to eat his meal, Chuck would lead his family in that direction and look expectantly and pleadingly at his old friend, in aid of his new ones. If there were a fire in the harness-room, a cosy party would settle, after crumbs, for a doze in front of it. Nothing, I think, but the passage of months, could have interfered with the harmony of the group. But months meant growth and strength to the juniors, and presently the old gentleman’s ‘Dear, dear — this will never do,’ was passed unheeded by the male twin and he began to scratch up seeds.

With the tears running down his face and his comb flopping like a Minorca hen’s, Chuck at last, perforce, had to bring it to the notice of the gardener; and he, good soul, saw it. from Chuck’s point of view. Another chance! — and, meanwhile, Chuck would talk to him. Chuck did so but, — it is regrettable to have to record that the youngster talked back.

As the gardener then said, ‘Of course — it’s no fault of yours, Chuck — you’ve done your little best; but we shall have to cage that young gentleman’s spirit or we shan’t get a brussels sprout left to us.’

So there came a day when Impudence and his sister were consigned to an enclosure and their worthy foster father spent long hours outside, conversing with them; and while the little lady was always loving, I regret exceedingly that Impudence behaved most grossly — flying one day in Chuck’s face in the most abandoned manner. And from that time the good parent and the bad little boy drifted further and further apart. Also the weather broke. And the rheumatism woke. And the mare’s back was warm. And — there is nothing more to be said.