Wondrous anthropomorphic, allegorical tales written c1887. The author has clearly
observed the habits of many different English birds from Sparrow to
Falcon and made witty interpretation of their behaviour.
239 Printed Pages, not including the many illustrations which are printed as additional single-sided sheets. Out of print.
The flyleaf bears the handwritten dedication: "C. B. Moss, from his mother, Easter 1899."
TALES OF THE BIRDS
W. WARD FOWLER
AUTHOR OF "A YEAR WITH THE BIRDS"
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY BRYAN HOOK
MACMILLAN AND CO.
AND NEW YORK
Richard Clay and Sons, Limited,
London and Bungay.
First Edition, 1888.
Second Edition, 1889. Reprinted 1891.
CHAPTER SIX (pp132)
A TRAGEDY IN ROOK-LIFE
It was a fine day early in February, and the rooks, after roosting on the elm-trees in the village, and surveying the remnants of the nests of last year, were assembled, some on the moist pastures, some on the ploughed land, hard at work searching for grubs and worms. The bachelor rooks were also looking out for partners, and some of them were already settled in lifefor that season at least.
....Deep in meditation on the problems which occupied his mind.
From an engraved plate by Brian Hook
That morning the billing and cooing (or rather cawing) of the lovers was very distasteful to him; they played such silly games, and talked such amorous rubbish. No one took any notice of him, until at last a flirting pair came in playful pursuit of each other close up to the railing on which he sat disconsolate, and he heard the young lady ask her lover not to take her near that horrid Jetsom.
"He's got an evil eye," she said, "and if I marry you (which I probably sha'n't), depend on it all the eggs will be addled." And off she flew, with her admirer after her.
This was too much for Jetsom; he also took flight to escape further insult; and flying straight ahead while he meditated on his wrongs, he passed over several miles of open country before he found himself hungry, and descended on a juicy-looking meadow to look about for food. He had not been there long when, happening to look round, he saw that there was another rook in the field; only one, walking slowly about in a far corner. Flying quietly a little nearer, he perceived by her ways that she was a young maiden of scarce a year old. Every moment he expected to hear the caws of her companions, and prepared to fly for his life; but none came, and she continued to walk about with a pensive air, turning her head from side to side, and wholly unconscious of his presence. But forced by curiosity, he came nearer and nearer, and now she could not help noticing that she was not alone.
"Oblige me, sir," she said, "by retiring from this corner. I have not the honour of your acquaintance, and am at present engaged in reflecting on the problems of life."
"So," said Jetsom, "am I; allow me to ask what you make of them?"
"I can make nothing of them," she replied; "I run my bill against a pebble everywhere, and cannot get hold of a single worm. Perhaps you have been more fortunate. For my part, I find the ground everywhere hard frozen; I can make no impression on it. Excuse my putting my ideas in this vulgar way."
"Your field of thought may be hard," he said, "but your words are soft and sweet as the juiciest grubs. I am an outcast, because I think; and I find comfort in listening to an alien voice. But destiny surrounds us, as the hedge surrounds this field; we rooks are bound by eternal and immutable laws; and one of them forbids us, as you have reminded me, to have anything to do with an alien. I must apologize for my intrusion, and retire to my life of misery."
"Stay," said she; "we are alone and unseen. Your presence is not disagreeable to me. Destiny, if it keeps aliens apart, has at least brought you to me. Day changes to night, summer to winter; old trees wear out (so my grandmother tells me) and we are obliged to take to new ones. Can it be that the nature of our race never changes too? Is there not a future to be realized when the narrowing bonds of our society may be relaxed, and when in ever-widening circles our race may stir the world with a new life? And may it not be youyou the outcast and philosopherwho are destined to lead the van in this glorious movement?"
"I!" he replied. "Can it be so? but not alonenot alone." And he glanced at her curiously.
"Hush," she hurriedly whispered; "I heard a distant caw. Meet me here again to-morrow when the sun is at its highest." And so they parted, to meditate on the destinies of the ages, and the enfranchisement of rook-society.
When Jetsom returned to his rookery he found that his absence had not been noticed, so occupied was every one with the business of wooing and stick-collecting; and he kept his appointment next day without much misgiving. What fears he had were easily overcome by the thought that there might be a great and happy future in store for him if he could induce his new acquaintance to become his partner, and to help him to carry out in practice the ideas that were floating through their minds. He little knew, poor bird, what was really in store for him. Though he had not been aware of it, one eye had all this time been upon him. Old Gaffer, who was always on the look-out for his chance of revenge, had seen him leave the meadow, and noticed his late return; and when he made quietly off again the next day, Gaffer as quietly followed him. From a tree near the trysting-place he saw Jetsom meet his friend, and knew in a twinkling that his chance had come. He watched them for a while as they walked about the meadow together, deep in philosophic converse; but when they flew up into a tree (luckily it was not Gaffer's) with some little serious attempt to play with each other, he felt he might go home safely and consider what was the best plan to bring this wilful pair to shame and ruin.
Slipping warily out of his tree he flew slowly homewards, and before he reached the rookery had made up his mind as to what should be done. He mentioned to a few old friends, the ancient dignitaries of the settlement, that he wished to consult them at once on an important matter; and a meeting was accordingly held in a tree hard by. An aged and highly respected bird, with two white feathers in his wing, was voted into the chair, who, taking his perch on a prominent bough, requested Gaffer to open his mind.
"My friends," said Gaffer, turning his one eye with an evil look round and round upon the assembly, "you will perhaps remember that last spring I was asked advice about a certain egg, and that my advice was not taken. I will ask you whether that egg has been a credit to our rookery?"
A chorus of cawing encouraged him to proceed.
"I will not allude," said he, "to painful circumstances connected with that egg, and to personal insults which I suffered on account of that egg. I may feel that I hardly received at that time the support which I might have looked for from the older and wiser among us. But let bygones be bygones. I have to tell you that the bird which was the ill-omened result of that egg is about to bring home a wife who is not one of our community. (Great disturbance, lasting several minutes.) I have watched, and I have seen the guilty pair but an hour since, and we may expect them at any moment. This is painful news to have to tell you, but I must sacrifice my own feelings. I wish to know what line of action you would propose that we should take?"
Almost before he had finished speaking, such a hubbub of indignation arose, that the president had the utmost difficulty in restoring order.
"Friends," said he at length, "let us take a flight to calm our spirits after the terrible news which has been sprung upon us; then we will deliberate on the case."
Agreed. They all sailed about above the tree for a few minutes, and then descended again, cawing so loud that a passing wayfarer looked up at the tree in astonishment. The president then called on the oldest rook in company to give his opinion.
"Kill her," he said; "it's the shortest way and the least trouble. As for him, he'll soon get over it."
This proposal was received with a round of cawing, in which Gaffer did not join. When it came to an end the President asked whether any one else had a plan to propose. A worthy old rook flapped her wings and said,
"I object to killing. It excites the young birds. When they have done it once they want to do it again. We might be breaking up the very foundations of society by encouraging this kind of punishment. Let them build in a tree by themselves. Live and let live, I say.
This plan found a few supporters, but more assailants: Gaffer prudently held his tongue. Every one began to give his own opinion, and the two opposing parties got so angry that the president felt obliged to order another flight. When they returned, Gaffer spoke as follows:
"I hope my worthy friends who have made their proposals, will not take it amiss if I state my opinion that they are both open to serious objection. If we kill this upstart's bride, surely we shall be leaving the real criminal unpunished. (Loud caws of approval.) If on the other hand we let them build in a tree by themselves, they will bring up their young, and instead of having two rebellious birds to deal with, we shall have a whole family to keep aloof from. I ask you, is it likely, is it possible, that we should be able to keep our young birds from associating with them? Now what I propose is this: let them come and try to build in our trees, as I know they will; let us tell our younger birds, who will be very glad of the job, to take away every stick they bring, and worry them till they are sick of it. If they get a few bruises, or a broken leg or wing, so much the better; if they give up the attempt, and go elsewhere, we shall have got rid of bad rubbish (applause), and they won't get on better anywhere else, depend upon it. If any rook here thinks that I have a personal grudge against this young Jetsom, I trust that the moderation of this proposal will undeceive him. I request the President to put my motion to the vote without delay." (Much cawing.)
The President did as he was desired; and the motion was carried by a large majority. Each old bird was then directed to tell his younger friends that they might freely take any nesting materials collected by Jetsom and his spouse; and the meeting broke up.
The victim of these hard-minded old birds brought his wife home that night, and they roosted in one of the trees without being molested or even noticed. Next morning early they set about choosing a place for a nest, and while they were looking about, Gaffer sent a polite message, by a lively young bird, that an excellent position was vacant in his tree. The wily old gentleman wished to witness the success of his plot, without taking part in the proceedings himself. Jetsom began to think he was getting into Gaffer's good books again, and gladly accepted the offer. "That old fellow, he said to his wife, "is a great authority here, and if we can enlist him in the great cause, it will be the best thing that could happen to us. Now, my dear, we will begin our labours cheerfully."
All that day they went backwards and forwards bringing sticks to lay the foundation of the nest; and Gaffer sat on a high bough and looked down on them benignly with his one eye. He even condescended once or twice to give them a little advice as to how the sticks should be placed. In the evening they went off to rest, bathe, and enjoy a little conversation about the happy future of the race of rooks; and a happier or more loving pair of birds were not to be found in all that large rookery. How their hearts sank within them on their return when they found that every stick they had laid had been taken away!
Gaffer was still sitting there, looking very wise: and Jetsom asked him who had done them this bad turn, and why.
"My dear young friend," said Gaffer, with an ill-concealed leer, "these are little troubles that we have all had to go through. It's only fun, you may be sure. Some of those idle young birds have been amusing themselves at your expense. Don't be disheartened: begin again."
"Thank you, you dear, kind old bird," said Jetsom's wife. " How good of you to take such an interest in us. May I have a little talk with you some day about the problems of life?"
Gaffer was overpoweringly polite. "My dear," he said, "you do me great honour. I shall be delighted to discuss them with you. But perhaps you will solve them for yourselves. And he seemed to leer at her with his vacant eye, while he winked the other at a friend in a tree hard by.
The work began again next day; the same thing happened again, and again Gaffer encouraged them to persevere. Next day Jetsom stayed on guard, while his wife collected sticks. Seeing this, Gaffer took himself off, and only returned to find, to his extreme delight, his victim in a very ruffled state, the other rooks in possession of all his sticks, and his wife in very low spirits. She appealed to him to protect them.
"My dear," said Gaffer, "this is one of the problems of life. You are now beginning to face the facts of the world. Go on, persevere, and sooner or later you will solve the problems."
The luckless pair took his advice once more, and day after day went on collecting their sticks, only to find them stolen directly their backs were turned. If one remained on guard, battles ensued; and Gaffer could hardly repress his delight when he saw Jetsom's feathers begin to fall off in these fights. Several times he had to retire by himself to a distant tree, to enjoy his revenge in solitude.
At last the younger birds began to get tired of this game, and having finished their own nests, were no longer in want of the sticks that Jetsom collected. Gaffer began to get sulky and anxious. He sat on his bough and saw the nest beginning to rise at last: something must be done at once. He waited till both birds were away together; then down he went on the nest and began to pull it all to pieces. But it was a long job for one bill, and before he had done, back came the owners. Gaffer was surprised, and was quite unable to persuade them that he was only helping to arrange the sticks; it was all too plain. Jetsom fell into a fury that frightened his poor wife out of her wits, and before Gaffer could stammer out something about "the problems of life," he was attacked, pecked, driven from one tree to another, worried, pushed, flapped at, till his one eye closed for ever, and he fell to the ground lifeless. But the problems of life had been too much for Jetsom. He felt a moment of glorious triumph as his enemy fell, and was just returning to his wife and nest with pride and honour, with heart swelling with joy and hope: when his senses gave way, his bill opened, his eyes grew dim, and in the moment of victory he expired, falling to the ground by the side of his conquered foe. He had solved his problem.
Half an hour later a gentleman walking down the road, stopped to watch a strange assembly of rooks in an adjoining meadow. They were standing in a large circle, making a great noise; in the centre of the circle stood a single rook, ruffled and miserable-looking. As he watched, the noise gradually ceased, and after a moment's silence, the whole company rose on their wings and rushed upon the victim in the middle. The noise again became deafening, and nothing could be seen but a mêlée of wings, tails, and beaks, on the spot where the solitary bird had been seen a moment before. The gentleman scrambled over the hedge, waving his stick and shouting: the rooks flew away with loud cawings. When he reached the spot, he found nothing but a mangled mass of feathersthe lifeless body of one miserable bird.
It was the body of Jetsom's widow. She too had solved the problem of her life, and the rookery was no longer troubled with revolutionary ideas.