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- My Robin - 1/3 -
MY ROBIN BY FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT
ILLUSTRATED BY ALFRED BRENNAN
There came to me among the letters I received last spring one which touched me very closely. It was a letter full of delightful things but the delightful thing which so reached my soul was a question. The writer had been reading "The Secret Garden" and her question was this: "Did you own the original of the robin? He could not have been a mere creature of fantasy. I feel sure you owned him." I was thrilled to the centre of my being. Here was some one who plainly had been intimate with robins-- English robins. I wrote and explained as far as one could in a letter what I am now going to relate in detail.
I did not own the robin--he owned me--or perhaps we owned each other. He was an English robin and he was a PERSON--not a mere bird. An English robin differs greatly from the American one. He is much smaller and quite differently shaped. His body is daintily round and plump, his legs are delicately slender. He is a graceful little patrician with an astonishing allurement of bearing. His eye is large and dark and dewy; he wears a tight little red satin waistcoat on his full round breast and every tilt of his head, every flirt of his wing is instinct with dramatic significance. He is fascinatingly conceited--he burns with curiosity--he is determined to engage in social relations at almost any cost and his raging jealousy of attention paid to less worthy objects than himself drives him at times to efforts to charm and distract which are irresistible. An intimacy with a robin--an English robin--is a liberal education.
This particular one I knew in my rose-garden in Kent. I feel sure he was born there and for a summer at least believed it to be the world. It was a lovesome, mystic place, shut in partly by old red brick walls against which fruit trees were trained and partly by a laurel hedge with a wood behind it. It was my habit to sit and write there under an aged writhen tree, gray with lichen and festooned with roses. The soft silence of it-- the remote aloofness--were the most perfect ever dreamed of. But let me not be led astray by the garden. I must be firm and confine myself to the Robin. The garden shall be another story. There were so many people in this garden--people with feathers, or fur--who, because I sat so quietly, did not mind me in the least, that it was not a surprising thing when I looked up one summer morning to see a small bird hopping about the grass a yard or so away from me. The surprise was not that he was there but that he STAYED there--or rather he continued to hop--with short reflective-looking hops and that while hopping he looked at me-- not in a furtive flighty way but rather as a person might tentatively regard a very new acquaintance. The absolute truth of the matter I had reason to believe later was that he did not know I was a person. I may have been the first of my species he had seen in this rose-garden world of his and he thought I was only another kind of robin. I was too-- though that was a secret of mine and nobody but myself knew it. Because of this fact I had the power of holding myself STILL--quite STILL and filling myself with softly alluring tenderness of the tenderest when any little wild thing came near me. "What do you do to make him come to you like that?" some one asked me a month or so later. "What do you DO?" "I don't know what I do exactly," I said. "Except that I hold myself very still and feel like a robin."
You can only do that with a tiny wild thing by being so tender of him-- of his little timidities and feelings--so adoringly anxious not to startle him or suggest by any movement the possibility of your being a creature who COULD HURT--that your very yearning to understand his tiny hopes and fears and desires makes you for the time cease to be quite a mere human thing and gives you another and more exquisite sense which speaks for you without speech.
As I sat and watched him I held myself softly still and felt just that. I did not know he was a robin. The truth was that he was too young at that time to look like one, but I did not know that either. He was plainly not a thrush, or a linnet or a sparrow or a starling or a blackbird. He was a little indeterminate-colored bird and he had no red on his breast. And as I sat and gazed at him he gazed at me as one quite without prejudice unless it might be with the slightest tinge of favor-- and hopped--and hopped--and hopped.
That was the thrill and wonder of it. No bird, however evident his acknowledgement of my harmlessness, had ever hopped and REMAINED. Many had perched for a moment in the grass or on a nearby bough, had trilled or chirped or secured a scurrying gold and green beetle and flown away. But none had stayed to inquire--to reflect--even to seem--if one dared be so bold as to hope such a thing--to make mysterious, almost occult advances towards intimacy. Also I had never before heard of such a thing happening to any one howsoever bird loving. Birds are creatures who must be wooed and it must be delicate and careful wooing which allures them into friendship.
I held my soft stillness. Would he stay? Could it be that the last hop was nearer? Yes, it was. The moment was a breathless one. Dare one believe that the next was nearer still--and the next--and the next--and that the two yards of distance had become scarcely one--and that within that radius he was soberly hopping round my very feet with his quite unafraid eye full upon me. This was what was happening. It may not seem exciting but it was. That a little wild thing should come to one unasked was of a thrillingness touched with awe.
Without stirring a muscle I began to make low, soft, little sounds to him--very low and very caressing indeed--softer than one makes to a baby. I wanted to weave a spell--to establish mental communication--to make Magic. And as I uttered the tiny sounds he hopped nearer and nearer.
"Oh! to think that you will come as near as that!" I whispered to him. "You KNOW. You know that nothing in the world would make me put out my hand or startle you in the least tiniest way. You know it because you are a real person as well as a lovely--lovely little bird thing. You know it because you are a soul."
Because of this first morning I knew--years later--that this was what Mistress Mary thought when she bent down in the Long Walk and "tried to make robin sounds."
I said it all in a whisper and I think the words must have sounded like robin sounds because he listened with interest and at last--miracle of miracles as it seemed to me--he actually fluttered up on to a small shrub not two yards away from my knee and sat there as one who was pleased with the topic of conversation.
I did not move of course, I sat still and waited his pleasure. Not for mines of rubies would I have lifted a finger.
I think he stayed near me altogether about half an hour. Then he disappeared. Where or even exactly when I did not know. One moment he was hopping among some of the rose bushes and then he was gone.
This, in fact, was his little mysterious way from first to last. Through all the months of our delicious intimacy he never let me know where he lived. I knew it was in the rose-garden--but that was all. His extraordinary freedom from timorousness was something to think over. After reflecting upon him a good deal I thought I had reached an explanation. He had been born in the rose-garden and being of a home- loving nature he had declined to follow the rest of his family when they had made their first flight over the wall into the rose-walk or over the laurel hedge into the pheasant cover behind. He had stayed in the rose world and then had felt lonely. Without father or mother or sisters or brothers desolateness of spirit fell upon him. He saw a creature--I insist on believing that he thought it another order of robin--and approached to see what it would say.
Its whole bearing was confidence inspiring. It made softly alluring--if unexplainable--sounds. He felt its friendliness and affection. It was curious to look at and far too large for any ordinary nest. It plainly could not fly. But there was not a shadow of inimical sentiment in it. Instinct told him that. It admired him, it wanted him to remain near, there was a certain comfort in its caressing atmosphere. He liked it and felt less desolate. He would return to it again.
The next day summer rains kept me in the house. The next I went to the rose-garden in the morning and sat down under my tree to work. I had not been there half an hour when I felt I must lift my eyes and look. A little indeterminate-colored bird was hopping quietly about in the grass--quite aware of me as his dew-bright eye manifested. He had come again--of intention--because we were mates.
It was the beginning of an intimacy not to be described unless one filled a small volume. From that moment we never doubted each other for one second. He knew and I knew. Each morning when I came into the rose- garden he came to call on me and discover things he wanted to know concerning robins of my size and unusual physical conformation. He did not understand but he was attracted by me. Each day I held myself still and tried to make robin sounds expressive of adoring tenderness and he came each day a little nearer. At last arrived a day when as I softly left my seat and moved about the garden he actually quietly hopped after me.
I wish I could remember exactly what length of time elapsed before I knew he was really a robin. An ornithologist would doubtless know but I do not. But one morning I was bending over a bed of Laurette Messimy roses and I became aware that he had arrived in his usual mysterious way without warning. He was standing in the grass and when I turned my eyes upon him I only just saved myself from starting--which would have meant disaster. I saw upon his breast the first dawning of a flush of color-- more tawny than actual red at that stage--but it hinted at revelations.
"Further subterfuge is useless," I said to him. "You are betrayed. You are a robin."
And he did not attempt to deny it either then or at any future time. In less than two weeks he revealed a tight, glossy little bright red satin waistcoat and with it a certain youthful maturity such as one beholds in the wearer of a first dress suit. His movements were more brisk and certain. He began to make little flights and little sounds though for some time he made no attempt to sing. Instead of appearing suddenly in the grass at my feet, a heavenly little rush of wings would
[Illustration: A HEAVENLY RUSH OF WINGS]
bring him to a bough over my head or a twig quite near me where he would tilt daintily, taking his silent but quite responsive part in the
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