T HE Robins who nested on the west-side second-story window-ledge had four as good children as you would care to see. They were healthy nestlings, brought up to mind and to eat what was given to them without fussing. If, for any reason there came a time when they had to go without for a while, they were good-natured then also. Their parents had raised other broods the year before, and had learned that it is not really kind to children to spoil them.
"You must never forget," Mrs. Robin used to say, "that your father is your father and your mother is your mother. If it were not for us, you would not be here at all, and if it were not for us you would have nothing to eat now that you are here. Little birds should be very thoughtful of their parents."
When it was bedtime, and the young Robins wanted to play instead of going to sleep, their father would often leave the high branch where he was singing his evening song and come over to talk to them. When he did this he did not scold, but he looked so grave that each child listened to every word. "Your mother," he would say, "has been busy all day, hunting Worms for you and flying up to the nest with them. Now she is tired, and would enjoy perching on a branch and sleeping alone, but because that would leave you cold and lonely she is willing to sleep in the nest and cover you with her soft feathers. Do you think it is fair for you to keep her awake?"
Then all the little Robins would hang their heads and murmur, "No, Father."
What are you going to do about it?" would be the next question. And then the little Robins never failed to raise their heads and answer, "We will be good and not say a word."
Mrs. Robin often said that there would be more happy mothers in the world if their children took as good care of them as her nestlings took of her. "They have to be reminded," she said, "because they are so young, but when they have been told the right thing to do, they always do it." The Catbird, however, who was a very shrewd fellow, said he thought it was not so much what their father said to them that made them good, as what they saw him do. He was always kind to Mrs. Robin himself, you know, and spoke gently, and left the biggest Worms for her to eat, so his children felt sure that this was the right way.
Mrs. Robin, too, was always polite to her husband. She spoke pleasantly of him to the children, and if he had any faults she did not talk about them. The little Robins were certain that they had the finest father in the world, and meant to be exactly like him when they grew up. That is, the sons did. The daughters meant to be like their mother.
When the little Robins' tail-feathers were about as long as fir needles, they were surprised to find a beautiful blue egg in the nest beside them. "Is it for us to play with?" they asked their mother. "Did we come out of eggs like that? Why is this here?"
Then their wise and gentle mother stood on the ledge beside the nest and talked to them. She was a busy bird, you know, but she always said that it took no longer to answer children's questions than it did to tell them over and over again to keep still.
"Each of you came out of just such an egg as that," she said. "This one is here because I had it ready to lay, and there was no other good place to put it. You may play with it very carefully, and be sure not to push it out of the nest, for then it would fall on the porch roof and break. You may take turns lying next to it, and before long I will lay another, so you can all be next to an egg at the same time."
"What are you going to do with them?" asked the Oldest Nestling. "What will become of them when we are old enough to leave the nest?"
"That is the loveliest part of it," answered their mother. "I shall hatch these eggs, too, and then you can have baby brothers and sisters, perhaps both."
"But who will take care of us?" asked the Youngest Nestling, and she looked as though she wanted to cry when she spoke.
"Don't you worry, little Robin," said her mother cheerfully. "There are always enough people to do the things which have to be done, if they will only keep sweet and not make a fuss. We will all help each other and everything will come out beautifully. This is the first time I ever laid the eggs for the second brood before the first brood was out of the nest, but we shall manage. Besides," she added, "I believe you are the first little Robins I ever knew who had a chance to help hatch eggs before being grown up. Won't that be fine?"
Mrs. Robin looked so bright and happy as she spoke that her children were sure it was going to be great fun, and one and all chirped back, "Oh, let's! We'll hatch them just as hard as we can."
Mrs. Robin fixed them with the new egg in the middle of the nest, and went off to help their father find dinner for them. After they had been fed with about fifteen Worms, she laid the second egg. "That will be all for this brood," she said, "and perhaps it is just as well. Too many eggs would crowd the nest."
Then she told them what wonderful things eggs are; how what is going to be the young bird is at first only a tiny, soft, stringy thing, floating around inside the shell, with a ball of yellow food-stuff in the middle of the shell and clear white stuff all around it. She told them, too, how this little thing which is to be a bird floats on top of the other stuff, and so is always next to the mother's breast as she sits over it on the nest. "It is the being warm for a long time and all the time that changes it into a bird strong enough to break the shell. You will remember that, won't you," said she, "and keep the top side of the eggs warm when I am not here?"
All the little birds were sure that they could, and very proud to think that she would trust them so. Perhaps if she had said, "Now, don't you let me catch you leaving those eggs uncovered!" they might have murmured to each other, "What do we care about her old eggs? Let them get cold!" It is a great pity, you know, when people in families get to talking in that way. And the worst of it is that every time one person speaks so, another is almost sure to answer in the same way.
Now that Robin family were all caretakers, and when Mrs. Robin flew up with choice Worms for her children, she gave them loving glances, and said, "You are such helpers! I don't know how I could get along without you."
Mr. Robin, too, remarked every now and then that it made him happy to see how thoughtful they were of their mother. After he had said these things, the children always stretched themselves, so that they might look as big as they felt.
With four growing children besides the two eggs in the nest, it soon became very much crowded. Mr. and Mrs. Robin talked it over while hunting in the garden, where the Hired Man was spading. After they had fed the children whole billfuls of Worms, which they had found wriggling there on top of the ground, Mr. Robin said: "Now, if you will keep very still and not interrupt, I will tell you some good news."
When all was quiet, he said: "I shall take you out into the great world tomorrow. I shall teach you to fly, to perch on branches, and to hunt for yourselves."
"Oh, goody!" cried all the little Robins together. Then they remembered how stubby their wings and tails still were, and wondered how they could ever get to the ground. "Won't we tumble some?" they asked doubtfully.
"You may tumble some," answered their father, "but is n't it worth a tumble to get out into the world? Mother will stay up here and finish hatching the eggs while I am with you, and we will stay near enough for her to see how fast you learn."
You can imagine how excited the young Robins were then. They talked so much that day that not one of them took a nap, and if their mother had not insisted upon it, they would not have quieted down at sunset.
Early the next morning their parents helped them to the ground. First they tumbled, fluttered, and sprawled to the porch roof below the nest. Then when they had rested, they tumbled, fluttered, and sprawled to the tops of the sweet briar bushes underneath. There they clung until after breakfast, while their father hunted for them and their mother sat on the eggs above. If they had not been taught to mind, it would have been much harder. As it was, when their parents said, "Flutter your wings! Get ready! Fly!" they did the very best they could at once. And that is exactly the way children must do if they wish to grow strong and help themselves.
There never were such plump, cheerful, and obedient little Robins as these. Their father had them stay in the lower branches of the fir tree, within sight of the nest, and the mother watched them while he was hunting, and called down comforting things to them. When they had tumbles in trying to fly, she would say: "Never mind! Pick yourselves up! Robins must tumble before they can fly. After awhile, when I have finished hatching these eggs, you can come right up to this window ledge and see the babies."
Then the little Robins would try harder than ever, for they were already proud of the babies to be hatched, since they had helped keep the eggs warm.
Sometimes Silvertip would stroll around the corner of the house, and Mrs. Robin would be so scared that she could hardly scream "Cat!" Yet she always managed to do it in some way, and all the other Robins would help her. Then the Lady, who was almost always writing or sewing at the sitting-room window, within sight of the nest, would drop her work and run out the nearest door, pick up Silvertip, and carry him inside. There he would stand, with his nose pressed against the screen and his tail switching angrily.
The Lady seemed to understand Robins. When they only cried "Trouble!" she did not move, knowing it was something she could not help, but when they cried, "Cat! Cat!" she always hurried out. Sometimes, though, it was the Gentleman who came, and sometimes the Little Boy. Mrs. Robin often said that she was sure she could never raise children so well in any other place as here, in spite of Silvertip's being around.
Every day the young Robins were larger and stronger, and their tail-feathers were better grown. When at last the joyful time came for the two babies to chip the shell, every one of the four children managed to get up to the window ledge to see them. It was a hard trip, and they had to try and try again, and rest between times. They were not all there at once, but oh, it was a happy, happy time!
The mother told the babies how their big brothers and sisters had helped hatch them, and the father told the mother how beautifully she had managed everything. Then the mother told him how faithfully he had worked, and they both told the older children how proud they were of them. Everybody said lovely things to everybody else, and the best part of it was that all these lovely things were true.
The babies were too little to talk much, but they stretched their necks up lovingly and sleepily to all the family, and acted as though they really understood how many people had been loving and working for them, even before they were hatched.