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- Nature's Serial Story - 20/78 -


gives it value, without knowing it."

"But what's a man to do?" asked the squire, with a look of helpless perplexity. "How is one to know when his land needs nitrogen or ammonia and all the other kinds of plant food, as you call it, and how must he go to work to get and apply it?"

"You are asking large questions, squire," Webb replied, with a quiet smile. "In the course of a year you decide a number of legal questions, and I suppose read books, consult authorities, and use considerable judgment. It certainly never would do for people to settle these questions at hap-hazard or according to their own individual notions. Their decisions might be reversed. Whatever the courts may do, Nature is certain to reverse our decisions and bring to naught our action unless we comply with her laws and requirements."

The squire's experience coincided so truly with Webb's words that he urged no further objections against accurate agricultural knowledge, even though the information must be obtained in part at least from books and journals.

CHAPTER XVI

GOSSIP ABOUT BIRD-NEIGHBORS

"Doctor," said Mrs. Leonard, "Amy and I have been indulging in some surmises over a remark you made the other day about the bluebirds. You said the female was a cold, coy beauty, and that her mate would soon be overburdened with family cares. Indeed, I think you rather reflected on our sex as represented by Mrs. Bluebird."

"I fear I cannot retract. The female bluebird is singularly devoid of sentiment, and takes life in the most serious and matter-of-fact way. Her nest and her young are all in all to her. John Burroughs, who is a very close observer, says she shows no affection for the male and no pleasure in his society, and if he is killed she goes in quest of another mate in the most business-like manner, as one would go to a shop on an errand."

"The heartless little jade!" cried Maggie, with a glance at Leonard which plainly said that such was not her style at all.

"Nevertheless," continued the doctor, "she awakens a love in her husband which is blind to every defect. He is gallantry itself, and at the same time the happiest and most hilarious of lovers. Since she insists on building her nest herself, and having everything to her own mind, he does not shrug his blue shoulders and stand indifferently or sullenly aloof. He goes with her everywhere, flying a little in advance as if for protection, inspects her work with flattering minuteness, applauds and compliments continually. Indeed, he is the ideal French beau very much in love."

"In other words, the counterpart of Leonard," said Burt, at which they all laughed.

"But you spoke of his family cares," Webb remarked: "he contributes something more than compliments, does he not?"

"Indeed he does. He settles down into the most devoted of husbands and fathers. The female usually hatches three broods, and as the season advances he has his hands, or his beak rather, very full of business. I think Burroughs is mistaken in saying that he is in most cases the ornamental member of the firm. He feeds his wife as she sits on the nest, and often the first brood is not out of the way before he has another to provide for. Therefore he is seen bringing food to his wife and two sets of children, and occasionally taking her place on the nest. Nor does he ever get over his delusion that his mate is delighted with his song and little gallantries, for he kepps them up also to the last. So he has to be up early and late, and altogether must be a very tired little bird when he gets a chance to put his head under his wing."

"Poor little fellow! and to think that she doesn't care for him!" sighed Amy, pityingly; and they all laughed so heartily that she bent her head over her work to hide the rich color that stole into her face--all laughed except Mr. Alvord, who, as usual, was an attentive and quiet listener, sitting a little in the background, so that his face was in partial shadow. Keen-eyed Maggie, whose sympathies were deeply enlisted in behalf of her sad and taciturn neighbor, observed that he regarded Amy with a close, wistful scrutiny, as if he were reading her thoughts. Then an expression of anguish, of something like despair, flitted across his face. "He has lavished the best treasures of his heart and life on some one who did not care," was her mental comment.

"You won't be like our little friend in blue, eh, Amy?" said old Mr. Clifford; but with girlish shyness she would not reply to any such question.

"Don't take it so to heart, Miss Amy. Mr. B. is never disenchanted," the doctor remarked.

"I don't like Mrs. B. at all," said Maggie, decidedly; "and it seems to me that I know women of whom she is a type--women whose whole souls are engrossed with their material life. Human husbands are not so blind as bluebirds, and they want something more than housekeepers and nurses in their wives."

"Excellent!" cried Rev. Mr. Barkdale; "you improve the occasion better than I could. But, doctor, how about our callous widow bluebird finding another mate after the mating season is over?"

"There are always some bachelors around, unsuccessful wooers whose early blandishments were vain."

"And are there no respectable spinsters with whom they might take up as a last resort?" Leonard queried.

"No, none at all. Think of that, ye maiden of New England, where the males are nearly all migrants and do not return! The only chance for a bird-bachelor is to console some widow whom accident has bereaved of her mate. Widowers also are ready for an immediate second marriage. Birds and beasts of prey and boys--hey, Alf--bring about a good many step-parents."

"Alf don't kill any little birds, do you, Alf?" asked his mother.

"Well, not lately. You said they felt so bad over it But if they get over it so easy as the doctor says--"

"Now, doctor, you see the result of your scientific teaching."

"Why, Mrs. Leonard, are you in sympathy with the priestcraft that would keep people virtuous through ignorance?" said the minister, laughing. "Alf must learn to do right, knowing all the facts. I don't believe he will shy a stone at a bird this coming year unless it is in mischief."

"Well," said Squire Bartley, who had relapsed into a half-doze as the conversation lost its practical bent, "between the birds and boys I don't see as we shall be able to raise any fruit before long. If our boys hadn't killed about all the robins round our house last summer, I don't think we'd 'a had a cherry or strawberry."

"I'm afraid, squire," put in Webb, quietly, "that if all followed your boys' example, insects would soon have the better of us. They are far worse than the birds. I've seen it stated on good authority that a fledgling robin eats forty per cent more than its own weight every twenty-four hours, and I suppose it would be almost impossible to compute the number of noxious worms and moths destroyed by a family of robins in one season. They earn their share of fruit."

"Webb is right, squire," added the doctor, emphatically. "Were it not for the birds, the country would soon be as bare as the locusts left Egypt. Even the crow, against which you are so vindictive, is one of your best friends."

"Oh, now, come, I can't swallow that. Crows pull up my corn, rob hens' nests', carry off young chickens. They even rob the nests of the other birds you're so fond of. Why, some state legislatures give a bounty for their destruction."

"If there had only been a bounty for killing off the legislators, the states would have fared better," replied the doctor, with some heat. "It can be proved beyond a doubt that the crow is unsurpassed by any other bird in usefulness. He is one of the best friends you have."

"Deliver me from my friends, then," said the squire, rising; and he departed, with his prejudices against modern ideas and methods somewhat confirmed.

Like multitudes of his class, he observed in nature only that which was forced upon his attention through the medium of immediate profit and loss. The crows pulled up his corn, and carried off an occasional chicken; the robins ate a little fruit; therefore death to crows and robins. They all felt a certain sense of relief at his departure, for while their sympathies touched his on the lower plane of mere utility and money value, it would be bondage to them to be kept from other and higher considerations. Moreover, in his own material sphere his narrow prejudices were ever a jarring element that often exasperated Webb, who had been known to mutter, "Such clods of earth bring discredit on our calling."

Burt, with a mischievous purpose illuminating his face, remarked: "I'll try to put the squire into a dilemma. If I can catch one of his boys shooting robins out of season, I will lodge a complaint with him, and insist on the fine;" and his design was laughingly applauded.

"I admit," said Mr. Clifford, "that Webb has won me over to a toleration of crows, but until late years I regarded them as unmitigated pests."

"Undeserved enmity comes about in this way," Webb replied. "We see a crow in mischief occasionally, and the fact is laid up against him. If we sought to know what he was about when not in mischief, our views would soon change. It would be far better to have a little corn pulled up than to be unable to raise corn at all. Crows can be kept from the field during the brief periods when they do harm, but myriads of grasshoppers cannot be managed. Moreover, the crow destroys very many field-mice and other rodents, but chief of all he is the worst enemy of the May-beetle and its larvae. In regions of the country where the crow has been almost exterminated by poison and other means, this insect has left the meadows brown and sear, while grasshoppers have partially destroyed the most valuable crops. Why can't farmers get out of their plodding, ox-like ways, and learn to co-work with Nature like men?"

"Hurrah for Webb!" cried Burt. "Who would have thought that the squire and a crow could evoke such a peroration? That flower of eloquence surely grew from a rank, dark soil."

"Squire Bartley amuses me very much," said Mrs. Clifford, from the sofa, with a low laugh. "He seems the only one who has the power to ruffle Webb."


Nature's Serial Story - 20/78

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