The Courier of Spring

IN the latter part of February, I become restless. The days drag, and work is more than usually tiresome. A longing tugs and strains. A call comes. From marshland, bay, and creek, it loudly summons. The longing is inherited from our ancestors, the Britons. Autumn was not the only hunting-season of those skin-clad warriors. Spring, also, summoned to a threefold harvest. Then the brown bears, stirring from a four-months’ lethargy, roused and came, grumbling, from their musky caverns; the red deer were less wary; over-night, the deserted marshes roared with wild-fowl; the tidal rivers boiled with fishes. All was fighting, mating, eating, and being eaten. It was a time of fatness again, after the winter’s dearth.

The longing becomes stronger, especially, when I see the first robins, strange and shy, on the new-burned fields. That pungent, woodsy scent of the leaf-burning! Why do not men distil it for the exiles, in the city?

One morning, on the way to the railroad station, I hear wild geese honking. Rabbit-tracks, on the sandy roadside, look suspiciously crowded. Paired crows, stalking on barren hill-tops, evince symptoms of unbecoming levity— one might: call it flirting. Sparrows, reckless of flood and man, tenant the spouting gutter. Spring? Not yet. Next day, everything is glazed with sleet, ribbed in ice; then snow on top of all. The plumbing goes on a strike; one washes in a tin bucket, backed against an icy radiator. The fires respond only to coaxing and kerosene. The negro servants, looking numb and ashy, drift in, about half-past eight, kick mounds of snow from burlapbound feet, remove their wraps, and condescend to sit down to their breakfast in the kitchen. The early robins, now tame and wretched, hug the holly bush, by the dining-room window. The mockingbird, guardian of the portals, returns to winter quarters in the porch wistaria. Jays and cardinals feed at the kitchen door. Chickadees try to enter the house. The wild geese return to the South. Feeling my way from tree to tree, in blinding snow-swirls, I spend half an hour going half a mile, and, reaching the station, spend half a day waiting for non-existent trains. Then comes a loosening. The wind puffs, gusting from the east. In the night, the thunder rumbles in the hills. The rain comes down. Away goes the hated ice.

Then comes a morning when the alarm-clock rings at five. I rise, dress by candle-light, start a spirit-lamp, boil some tea and make toast, pull on my boots, and take my gun from its case. I handle it lovingly. As soon as I have left the house, I begin aiming at imaginary snipe. It is warm and still. It is raining, but not hard.

On the way, across the great riverviaduct, I stop to watch the yellow floods roaring seaward, sending before them logs and harried cross-ties. They bound and dive, tossing endwise, like porpoises strayed from the ocean reaches. Busy waves, sent shoreward as sappers, are toiling at undermining the huge slabs of discolored ice, — old Winter’s visiting-cards, — which so long have lain, announcing his cumulative visits. Good work! There goes a rusty mountain of them, all at once, crumpling and rumbling into the triumphant torrent. In the lowlands, all a-steam, thin fog-smoke shrouds the sloppy desolation.

Better go back. What sport is here, struggling, knee-deep, in mud? Go back? No. Yonder is the willow, marking a little marsh. And there ’s a flock of bluebirds—a gentle, gracious swarm. In the rain, they flit lightly from the fence-posts earthward. One is singing. That means nothing. They are sometimes absent-minded in January. But that cheery, persistent little sound, which the rising breeze checks and turns on, as if in sport: ‘Krex-kex-kexkex! Krex-kex-kex-kex! ’ — an æolian ‘hylaphone,’ albeit somewhat rusty. Has spring really come? They are called Spring’s harbingers — the hylas, hidden, past finding out, in the withered sedges of the shallow pond. But they are absent-minded, too, sometimes, on warm days of December.

I approach the marsh. From the top twig of the willow, comes a trill, a fluty Onk-a-lee! Onk-a-lee! Onk-a-lee!’ Downward, in halting, ecstatic flight, floats a marsh-blackbird. He, too, knows the little marsh, and has picked it out for his start in housekeeping — that is, if she’ll have him. She has n’t made up her capricious mind yet. But he has made up his mind. Insane with the fire of love, he sings, unseeing, unregarding. Nothing exists but the One.

That muddy, rubber-coated thing with the gun? Oh, it’s not there at all! Down he comes, glittering, his breast puffed, tail spread, and scarlet epaulets quivering, and alights beside the drabgowned coquette, who is pecking so enthusiastically at a pebble. One would think that she had found something particularly good to eat, and was wondering why the handsome idiot, in the stunning dress-coat, was making all the fuss. There! Too ardent. She’s flown away. Gallant, red-winged beauty, you wear your heart on your sleeve. Try flying away yourself. She will break her frantic wing-tips following.

At my tread, the hylas stop. The blackbirds fly up the meadow. I see, among the cat-tails, the sullen gleam of lingering ice, and the faint awakening of green along the sodden margin. There are the pale spear-points of the splatterdocks, piercing the mould.

Mark! A lift of curving wings across the pond. A snipe — the Courier of Spring! He lighted beside that alderclump. Steady. Why does my heart beat fast and my face grow red ? Closer, now Careful. Don’t dare miss. ‘Scaip! Scaip!’ Off he darts. Confound it! He kept behind the alders, and I could n’t shoot. Hear those derisive ‘Scaips!’ high in the sky. Whirling round and round the horizon, he melts from sight, bound, apparently, for the Mexican Gulf. But while I am ‘cussing,’ he darts from directly overhead, and, with a flash of gray-speckled feathers and a flick of sharp wings, he checks his plunge, drops his legs, and pitches, almost at my feet. Up he whirls. ‘ Bang! ’ Got him, that time, for all his twistings. There he lies, floating in the little pond, neck curved, wings outstretched, and saucy fan-tail spread.

What are rain, mud, and five miles, with heels rubbed raw by heavy boots? It is Spring. And the first shot of the year.