by MAZO DE LA ROCHE
HE HAD had his eye on her for some time. Each time he looked at her something deep inside him thrilled in sudden joy. There was that about her which made her unlike all other young females. An observer might have discovered nothing different in her. Nothing to cause that vibration through his nerves. But even in the far South, where they had wintered, she had had an attraction for him and in some subtle way he had been able to communicate this to her. So now after the long flight northward, during which he had had only occasional glimpses of her, he awaited her coming with confidence. He and a group of other swallows had sought out the breeding place of last year, a country home in the southern part of Ontario.
He had been hatched in one of the tall chimneys of this stone house on the hill and he now circled with unerring instinct about it. If any of the other swallows were his kin, he was unaware of the fact. His vibrant little being was held by only one bond, the bond between him and the one whom he awaited. For three days he awaited her.
Then suddenly he saw her.
There was no mistaking her! The instinct that had guided him to this home of his desire had guided her to him. Between them there passed a joyous tremor of recognition.
But she did not fly to his side. Instead she alighted on a gable of the house. She was tired after her long and hazardous journey, during which she had encountered gales and driving rain. Now in the warm spring sunshine she shook out her plumage and sank contentedly to her breast. She left the next move in their courtship to him.
He had but one thought, to delight her by the marvel of his flight and by his beauty. Back and forth he darted in front of her, his forked tail, his long, pointed wings etched in myriad gestures against the sky. He circled, he wheeled, he soared, he turned from side to side, so that she might be dazzled by the beauty of his throat and the underside of his wings. She did not move. She looked almost indifferent and began to preen the feathers of her breast which she had neglected on the journey.
His new spring plumage, glittering with health, shone in the sunshine. Now he swam close above her. He picked up an imaginary straw and flew into the chimney with it, in a symbolic gesture of nest-building. When at last he alighted not far from her she remained motionless, accepting his nearness.
Other birds were circling skyward, delighting in the warmth and the ardor of the mating season. The gardener was digging in the perennial border and several full-breasted robins were drawing sleek worms from the freshly turned soil. Beyond a lattice fence the lawn fell steeply down to a stream. On this lower level there was a great elm tree where a pair of orioles were already building their nest. Like a small flame miraculously detached from a heavenly conflagration, the male darted in and out of the elm’s foliage, beating the air with his bright wings in the haste of construction.
The two on the gable of the house sat motionless, held by the fragile but exquisite bond of this new experience. They were so young, yet nature’s ritual lay open before them. Another male swallow approached them. In graceful swoops and glides he displayed his power and beauty. She looked not illpleased but presently, as though to show her unconcern, she spread her own wings and flew over the roof and beyond, into the wood. The newcomer was disconcerted but he who had awaited her coming flew close behind her, and, when she alighted on the branch of a wild cherry tree, he dropped there beside her.
In this small wood they spent the night perched quite near each other. At sunrise he again wooed her with all the ardor that was in him.
Away she flew and he after her! But in her flight she uttered a sharp, clear note. They sped above the dark pines, above the house-top and, when she sank to the lawn, the mating rite took place.
In wild delight he now led, now pursued her, through the sunny air but always his flight drew them toward the chimney. He would dart into it, making the symbolic gestures of nest-building, then up again to her side, fluttering about her, urging her to the descent. At last she flew down into the chimney with him.
Together they perched on the very smoke-blackened ledge where he had been hatched. Remnants of the nest still clung to it though the chimney had been cleaned. She looked about her and was satisfied.
Now began their joyful work of building a home. In and out of the chimney they sped carrying morsels of clay or strands of dry grass in their beaks. Squatting in it they smoothed and rounded it with their breasts. She was the more expert at this. Indeed she now became the leader. Like the wind she sped from field or stream’s edge to nest, never tiring of her task. But at times he led her to fly with him for the mere pleasure of flying. Then, in an abandon of delight they soared upward till they were no more than two shimmering specks against the blue, or skimmed low to the stream and without resting sipped to quench their thirst, or even ruffled the surface of the water with their wings and sped on, bathed and refreshed.
Then she would bethink herself of her unlaid eggs and how she must conserve her vitality for them. More than once the marital rite had been accomplished while in full flight.
The nest was lined with feathers and down and there rested finally in it seven white eggs flecked with brown.
All this had not been completed without interference. During the time of nest-building her other suitor had followed them enviously, sometimes darting between them. The mated birds had borne this tolerantly but, when another female had approached and even entered the chimney, she had been driven off in a frenzy of anger by the little wife. Beneath the eave the sparrows were already feeding their young.
Now the oriole’s nest was complete and hung with its hidden treasures high in the elm. All day the oriole sent forth his challenging song. At eventide his voice was the last to be heard, in a grave sweet cadence. The stream rustled on among its reeds. The dim shape of an owl drifted across the fields. In the nest in the chimney the little wife felt the eggs quicken beneath her breast.
AT THE bottom of the chimney there was a deep fireplace in a long, dark-paneled study. This room was cool, though outdoors the weather was very hot. The little girl came in quietly, not quite knowing what to do with herself. She came softly in her sandals, making no noise.
Then she saw that she was not alone. A young bird, fully fledged but still not able to fly, sat on the hearth. When he saw her he spread his pointed wings and hopped toward her. He did not seem to be afraid but came as though he sought her help.
She gave a little cry of delight and caught him up in her hands. She ran with him to her aunt who was drying rose petals for potpourri.
“Look!” she cried. “A fledgling! He has fallen from the nest in the chimney.”
They had known from the twittering of the young that there was a nest in the chimney. For that reason they had not been able to have a fire in the study all that summer.
“Poor little thing,” said the aunt, dropping a handful of rose petals. “If only we could put him back!”
Now the child’s mother appeared and, holding the fledgling to her breast, mourned over him. She ran with him to the fireplace and, crouching in the aperture, held him as far up as she could, urging his parents to notice him. But they were intent on feeding those which were left in the nest. Excited twitterings came from the young ones and when the one in her hands heard this he strained upward with his beak wide open.
“There is nothing for it,” said the child’s mother, “but to bring him up by hand.”
“We have tried that before,” said the aunt, laying some bright blue larkspur flowerettes among the rose petals, “and failed.”
“But they were miserable little fledglings!” cried the mother. “See how strong and beautiful he is! See how long his wings and his forked tail! He’s sure to live if we feed him properly.”
“ He is a pet,” said the little girl. “ Shall we name him Arthur?”
“Oh, I don’t know. But it seems to suit him.”
Arthur very much wanted to live. Whatever they brought him he eagerly swallowed. But now came the difficulty. Of a sudden flies and moths had almost disappeared from the scene. There had been a long drought. The dry earth refused to give up more than an occasional worm. The little girl had to abandon her play, the mother her work, the aunt her potpourri, in order to find food for Arthur.
He knew no fear. He fluttered to them with little cries of joy when they came to him. The next day he was stronger. He spread his long pointed wings and sought to raise himself from the floor. He looked from face to face without fear. The great thing was to find food for him. He was always hungry. They searched the lawn, the shrubbery, the orchard, and whenever they found insect or worm they flew with it to Arthur.
On the third day they went out to lunch, though with misgivings.
“I should not go,” said the mother. “I should stay at home and feed Arthur.”
“We must give him a good meal before we leave,” said the aunt, “and come home early.”
The little girl, all in white and wearing her best gloves, hung over Arthur in his nest of cotton wool, promised to return soon. But they went off with anxious hearts.
They could scarcely enjoy the luncheon party for their anxiety over Arthur, and hastened home. They hurried out of the car and into the house.
A change had come over the fledgling. He was ravenous but he was weak. He no longer fluttered or t ried to fly but sat quite still.
“There now!” cried the mother. “What did I tell you? I should not have gone out to lunch. I have killed him!”
“No, no,” said the little aunt. “He is just hungry. We must give him warm milk.” She hurried to inspect her rose petals which she had left in a copper kettle on the terrace to dry. “Oh, my potpourri!” she said distractedly. “The wind has blown half of it away.”
The child and she set about picking up the innumerable petals while the mother warmed the milk.
Arthur took it eagerly. They began then to search for food for him. But no insects were to be found. They heaved up heavy stones to see what might be beneath but those wriggling hairy worms were too repulsive to offer Arthur.
“At the bottom of the ravine,” said the little girl, “the earth is damp. We might find worms.”
They scrambled through the undergrowth down beneath the bridge. They had brought a trowel but the earth, though damp, was hard. They had a time of it to dig up half a dozen thin worms. Arthur ate them as though famished. Then with his tiny crop distended he slept. They had not realized that, being a swallow, insects and not worms should be his only food. But there were no insects.
The next morning the little girl hurried to peep into Arthur’s box. She saw at once that he was dead. She said nothing but ran to the swing and swung as hard as she could.
After a while she decided to give Arthur a beautiful funeral. She lined a small box with rose petals and gently laid him on them. Then she made a little coverlet of pansies. He looked sweet and peaceful in there.
She took a sheet of her best drawing paper, cut a square from it and carefully inscribed his memorial notice.
In Memory Of
A little fledgling which
fell down the Chimney
August the 7th, 1940
On the oak chest in the hall she set his bier with the notice above it. All day he lay in state. Everyone who passed through the hall stopped to look.
In the evening she buried him in the flower border. She placed forget-me-nots in a little jar on the grave and the memorial at its head. A gentle rain began to fall.
Now the nest was empty. The young birds had been taught to fly. Now in the evening they circled and swooped with their parents in search of insects. At night all perched in a row on a secluded branch of one of the pines. Once more the mates were free of care. Still they were held in the bond of their love. Sometimes they forgot the young ones and rode the summer breeze together as in the first rapture of their mating. They had seen the orchard bloom. Now they looked down on the golden fields of the harvest. The orioles too had reared their young and the song of the male rang out bold and free. The sparrows beneath the eave were rearing a second brood. As the swallows darted past they could hear the cheeping of the young ones.
Perhaps it was this that gave her the idea. Certainly it was no wish of his. When he peered down into the chimney and saw her on the nest he was astonished. When she uttered her sharp love cry and swept before him above the lawn he followed, almost reluctant. But she had her will.
The first time she had laid seven eggs. This time she laid five. She showed almost fierce absorption in the brooding over them. Storms came and the sparrows’ fledglings were swept from their nest and washed in a torrent of rain down the veranda roof. Their naked blue bodies lay scattered in the morning sun. But her nest was safe. In due time she hatched out five lusty young ones.
He did his share of the feeding without enthusiasm. Often he was restive and longed to fly, with her winging at his side. But he was loyal. The fledglings throve and began to grow their feathers. This was well because a chill was now in the air. At night they were thankful to snuggle beneath her comforting breast.
One morning when the reeds by the river were whispering and a golden mist hung on the horizon, he fed the young ones with no help from her. She did not come. He flew in wide circles above the house-top and the trees, looking for her.
Suddenly he saw her perched on the chimney. He flew joyfully to her side. She darted away and he after her. They flew for a space, then he sought to turn her back. In cajoling circles she led him on. But the thought of the fledglings held him. He pressed back to them with strong strokes of his wings. On the way he captured a plump moth and flew with it down to the nest. Five upward straining beaks greeted him. He thrust the moth into the throat of the nearest and flew up and looked anxiously about for his mate.
What he saw was his grown-up brood, perched with two score of other swallows on the telegraph wire. There they sat, like as beads on a necklace, and she was fluttering above! She was urging him to join them!
He tried to drive her, to harry her back to the fledglings, but she would have none of them. The flock rose and moved swiftly southward, their forked tails etched against the sky. He hesitated, torn between love and fatherhood, then spread his wings and flew away with her.