"I WISH your cheerfulness were a little better timed, my friend," remarked a Tortoise, who for many years had inhabited the garden of a suburban villa, to a Robin Redbreast, who was trilling a merry note from a thorn-tree in the shrubbery. "What in the world are you singing about at this time of year, when I, and everybody else of any sense, are trying to go to sleep, and forget ourselves?"
"I beg your pardon, I am sure," replied the Robin; "I did not know it would have disturbed you."
"You must be gifted with very small powers of observation then, my friend," rejoined the Tortoise. "Here have I been grubbing my head under the leaves and sticks half the morning, to make myself a comfortable hole to take a nap in; and always, just as I am dropping off, you set up one of your senseless pipes."
"You are not over-troubled with politeness, good sir, I think," observed the Robin; "to call my performance by such an offensive name, and to find fault with me for want of observation, is the most unreasonable thing in the world. This is the first season I have lived in the garden, and all through the spring and summer you have never objected to my singing at all. How was I to know you would dislike it now?"
"Your own sense might have told you as much, without my giving myself the trouble of explanation," persisted the Tortoise. "Of course, it's natural enough, and not disagreeable, to hear you little birds singing round the place, when there is something to sing about. It rather raises one's spirits than otherwise. For instance, when the weather becomes mild in the early year, and the plants begin to grow and get juicy, and it is about time for me to get up from my winter's sleep, I have no objection to be awakened by your voices. But now, in this miserable season, when the fruits and flowers are gone, and when even the leaves that are left are tough and dry, and there is not a dandelion that I care to eat; and when it gets colder and colder, and damper and damper every day, this affectation of merriment on your part is both ridiculous and hypocritical. It is impossible that you can feel happy yourself, and you have no business to pretend to it."
"But, begging your pardon once more, good sir, I do feel happy, whatever you may think to the contrary," answered the Robin.
"What, do you mean to say that you like cold, and damp, and bare trees, with scarcely a berry upon them?"
"I like warm sunny days the best, perhaps," replied the Robin, "if I am obliged to think about it and make comparisons. But why should I do so? I am quite comfortable as it is. If there is not so much variety of food as there has been, there is, at any rate, enough for every day, and everybody knows that enough is as good as a feast. For my part, I don't see how I can help being contented."
"Contented! what a dull idea, to be just contented! I am contented myself, after a fashion; but you are trying to seem happy, and that is a very different sort of thing."
"Well, but happy; I am happy, too," insisted the Robin.
"That must be then because you know nothing of what is coming," suggested the Tortoise. "As yet, while the open weather lasts, you can pick up your favourite worms, and satisfy your appetite. But, when the ground has become so hard that the worms cannot come through, or your beak get at them, what will you do?"
"Are you sure that will ever happen?" enquired the Robin.
"Oh! certainly, in the course of the winter, at some time or another; and, indeed, it may happen any day now, which makes me anxious to be asleep and out of the way."
"Oh, well, if it happens now, I shall not mind a bit," cried the Robin; "there are plenty of berries left!"
"But supposing it should happen when all the berries are gone?" said the Tortoise, actually teased at not being able to frighten the Robin out of his singing propensities.
"Nay, but if it comes to supposing," exclaimed the Robin, "I shall suppose it won't, and so I shall be happy still."
"But I say it may happen," shouted the Tortoise.
"And I ask will it?" rejoined the Robin, in quite as determined a manner.
"Which you know I cannot answer," retorted the Tortoise again. "Nobody knows exactly either about the weather or the berries beforehand."
"Then let nobody trouble themselves beforehand," persisted the Robin. "If there was anything to be done to prevent or provide, it would be different. But as it is, we have nothing to do but to be happy in the comfort each day brings." Here the Robin trilled out a few of his favourite notes, but the Tortoise soon interrupted him.
"Allow other people to be happy, then, as well as yourself, and cease squalling out of that tree. I could have forgiven you, had the branches been full of haws; but, as they are all withered or eaten, you have no particular excuse for singing in that particular bush, rather than elsewhere, so let me request you at once to go."
"Of course I will do so," answered the Robin, politely. "It is the same thing to me exactly, so I wish you a good morning, and, if you desire it, a refreshing sleep."
So saying, the Robin flew from the thorn-tree to another part of the grounds, where he could amuse himself without interruption; and the Tortoise began to hustle under the leaves and rubbish again, with a view to taking his nap.
But, by-and-by, as the morning wore away, the frosty feeling and autumnal mists cleared off; and when the sun came out, which it did for three or four hours in the early afternoon, the day became really fine.
The old Tortoise did not fail to discover the fact; and not having yet scratched himself a hole completely to his mind, he came out of the shrubbery and took a turn in the sunshine.
"This is quite a surprise, indeed," said he to himself. "It is very pleasant, but I am afraid it will not last. The more's the pity; but, however, I shall not go to bed just yet."
With these words, he waddled slowly along to the kitchen garden, where he was in the habit of occasionally basking under the brick wall; and now, tilting himself up sideways against it, he passed an hour, much to his satisfaction, in exposing his horny coat to the rays of the sun; a feat which he never dared to perform during the heats of summer.
Meanwhile, the poor little Robin continued his songs in a retired corner of the grounds, where no one objected to his cheerful notes. A tiny grove it was, with a grassy circle in the middle of it, where a pretty fountain played night and day.
During the pauses of his music, and especially after the sun came out, he wondered much to himself about all the strange uncomfortable things the Tortoise had said. Oh, to think of his having wanted to go to sleep and be out of the way; and now here was the sunshine making all the grove as warm as spring itself. If he had not been afraid the Tortoise might consider him intrusive, he would have gone back and told him how warm and pleasant it was, but absolutely he durst not.
Still, he could not, on reflection, shut his eyes to the fact, that there were no other songsters in the grove just now beside himself, and he wondered what was the reason. Time was, when the nightingale was to be heard every night in this very spot; but, now he came to think of it, that beautiful pipe of his had ceased for months, and where the bird himself was, nobody seemed to know.
The Robin became thoughtful, and perhaps a little uneasy.
There was the Blackbird, too;—what was he about that he also was silent? Was it possible that all the world was really as the Tortoise said, thinking it wise to go to sleep and be out of the way?
The Robin got almost alarmed. So much so, that he flew about, until he met with a Blackbird, whom he might question on the subject, and of him he made the enquiry, why he had left off singing?
The Blackbird glanced at him with astonishment.
"Who does sing in the dismal autumn and winter?" said he. "Really, I know of scarcely any who are bold and thoughtless enough to do so except yourself. The Larks may, to be sure, but they lead such strange lives in the sky, or in seclusion, that they are no rule for any one else. Your own persevering chirruping is (in my humble judgment) so out of character with a season, in which every wise creature must be apprehensive for the future, that I can only excuse it on the ground of an ignorance and levity, which you have had no opportunity of correcting."
"It would be kinder to attribute it to a cheerful contentment with whatever comes to pass," cried the Robin, ruffling his feathers as he spoke. "I rejoice in each day's blessing as it comes, and never wish for more than does come. You, who are wishing the present to be better than it is, and fearing that the future may be worse, are meanwhile losing all enjoyment of the hour that now is. You think this wise. To me it seems as foolish as it is ungrateful!"
With these words the Robin flew away as fast as he could, for, to say the truth, he felt conscious of having been a little impertinent in his last remark. He was rather a young bird to be setting other people right; but a Robin is always a bold fellow, and has moreover rather a hot temper of his own, though he is a kind creature at the bottom. He had been insulted, too, there was no doubt; but when people feel themselves in the right, what need is there of ruffling feathers and being saucy?
And the Robin did honestly feel himself in the right; but, oh! how hard it is to resist the influence of evil suggestions, even when one knows them to be such, and turns aside from them. They are so apt to steal back into the heart unawares, and undermine the principle that seemed so steady before.
To a certain extent, this was the case with our poor little friend; and those who are disposed to judge harshly of his weakness, must remember that he was very young and could not be expected to go on right always without a mistake.
Certain it is, that he drooped awhile in spirits, as the winter advanced. He sang every day, it is true, and would still have maintained his own opinions against any one who should have opposed them; but he was decidedly disturbed in mind, and thought sadly too much, for his own peace and comfort, of what both the Tortoise and Blackbird had said.
The colder the days became, the more he became depressed; not that there was any cold then that he really cared about, but he was fidgeting about the much greater cold which he had been told was coming; and, as he hopped about on the grass round the fountain, picking up worms and food, he was ready to drop a tear out of his bright black eye at the thought of the days when the ground was to be so hard that the worms could not come out, or his beak reach them.
Had this state of things gone on long, the Robin would have begun to wish to go to sleep, like the Tortoise; and no more singing would have been heard in the plantation of the suburban villa that year.
But Robins are brave-hearted little fellows, as well as bold and saucy; and one bright day our friend bethought himself that he would go and talk the matter over with an old Woodlark, whom he had heard frequented a thicket at a considerable distance off.
On his way thither, he heard several larks singing high up in the sky over the fields; and by the time he reached the thicket he was in excellent spirits himself, and seemed to have left all his megrims behind.
It was fortunate such was the case, for when, as he approached the thicket, he heard the Woodlark's note, it was so plaintive and low, that it would have made anybody cry to listen to it. And when the Robin congratulated him on his singing, the Woodlark did not seem to care much for the compliment, but confided to his new acquaintance, that although he thought it right to sing and be thankful, as long as there was a bit of comfort left, he was not so happy as he seemed to be, since in reality he was always expecting to die some day of having nothing at all to eat.
"For," said he, "when the snow is on the ground, it is a perfect chance if one finds a morsel of food all day long."
"But I thought you had lived here several seasons," suggested the Robin, who in his braced condition of mind was getting quite reasonable again.
"So I have," murmured the Woodlark, heaving his breast with a touching sigh.
"Yet you did not die of having nothing to eat, last winter?" observed the Robin.
"It appears not," ejaculated the Woodlark, as gravely as possible, and with another sigh; whereat the Robin's eye actually twinkled with mirth, for he had a good deal of fun in his composition, and could not but smile to himself at the Woodlark's solemn way of admitting that he was alive.
"Nor the winter before?" asked he.
"No," murmured the Woodlark again.
"Nor the winter before that?" persisted the saucy Robin.
"Well, no; of course not," answered the Woodlark, somewhat impatiently, "because I am here, as you see."
"Then how did you manage when the snow came, and there was no food?" enquired the Robin.
"I never told you there was actually no food in those other winters," answered the Woodlark somewhat peevishly, for he did not want to be disturbed in his views. "Little bits of things did accidentally turn up always. But there is no proof that it will ever happen again. It was merely chance!"
"Ah, my venerable friend," cried the Robin; "have you no confidence in the kind chance that has befriended you so often before?"
"I can never be sure it will do so again," murmured the Woodlark despondingly.
"But when that kind chance brings you one comfortable day after another, why should you sadden them all by these fears for by and by?"
"It is a weakness, I believe," responded the Woodlark. "I will see what I can do towards enjoying myself more. You are very wise, little Robin; and it is a wisdom that will keep you happy all the year round."
Here the Woodlark rose into the air, and performed several circling flights, singing vigorously all the time. The old melancholy pervaded the tone, but that might be mere habit. The song was, at any rate, more earnest and strong.
"That is better already," cried the Robin gaily; "and for my part, if I am ever disposed to be dull myself, I shall think of what you told me just now of all the past winters; namely, that little bits of things did always accidentally turn up. What a comforting fact!"
"To think of my ever having been able to comfort anybody!" ejaculated the Woodlark. "I must try to take comfort myself."
"Aye, indeed," cried the Robin earnestly; "it is faithless work to give advice which you will not follow yourself."
So saying, the Robin trilled out a pleasant farewell, and returned to the shrubbery grounds, where, in an ivy-covered wall, he had found for himself a snug little winter's home.
It was during the ensuing week, and while the Robin was in his blithest mood, and singing away undisturbed by megrims of any kind, but rejoicing in the comforts of each day as it came, that the Tortoise once more accosted him.
When Robin first heard his voice he was startled, and feared another scolding, but he was quite mistaken. The old Tortoise was sitting by the side of an opening in the ground, which he had scratched out very cleverly with his claws. It was in a corner among some stones which had lain there for years; and there was one large one in particular overhung the entrance of the hole. The wind had drifted a vast quantity of leaves in that direction, and some of them had been blown into the hole, so that it looked like a warm underground bed.
"Hop down to me, little bird!" was the Tortoise's address, in a quite friendly voice; an order with which the Robin at once complied. "Ah, you need not be afraid," continued he, as the Robin alighted by his side. "I am quite happy now. See what a comfortable place I have made myself here in the earth. There, there, put your head in and peep. Did you ever see anything so snug in your life?"
The Robin peered in with his sharp little eye, and really admired the Tortoise's ingenious labour very much.
"Hop in," cried the Tortoise gaily; "there's room enough and to spare, is there not?"
Robin hopped in, and looked round. He was surprised at the size and convenience of the place, and admitted that a more roomy and comfortable winter's bed could not be wished for.
"Who wouldn't go to sleep?" cried the Tortoise; "what say you, my little friend? But you need not say; I see it in your eye. You are not for sleep yourself. Well, well, we have all our different ways of life, and yours is a pleasant folly, after all, when it doesn't disturb other people. And you won't disturb me any more this year, for I have made my arrangements at last, and shall soon be so sound asleep, that I shall hear no more of your singing for the present. It's a nice bed, isn't it? Not so nice, perhaps, as the warm sands of my native land; but the ground, even here, is much warmer inside it than people think, who know nothing of it but the cold damp surface. Ah, if it wasn't, how would the snowdrop and crocus live through the winter? Well, I called you here to say good-bye, and show you where I am, and to ask you to remember me in the spring; if—that is, of course,—you survive the terrible weather that is coming. You don't mind my having been somewhat cross the other day, do you? I am apt to get testy now and then, and you disturbed me in my nap, which nobody can bear. But you will forgive and forget, won't you, little bird?"
The kind-hearted Robin protested his affectionate feeling in a thousand pretty ways.
"Then you won't forget me in the Spring," added the
Tortoise; "but come here and sit on the laurel bush,
and sing me awake. Not till the days are mild, and the
plants get juicy, of course, but as soon as you please
then. And now, good-bye. There's a strange feeling in
Hereupon the old Tortoise huddled away into the interior of his hole, where he actually disappeared from sight; and as soon afterwards the drifting leaves completely choked up the entrance of the place, no one could have suspected what was there, but those who knew the secret beforehand.
He had been right in his prognostication of the weather. A thick, gloomy, raw evening was succeeded by a bitterly cold night, and towards the morning the over-weighted clouds began to discharge themselves of some of their snow; and as the day wore on, the flakes got heavier and heavier; and as no sunshine came out to melt them, and a biting frost set in, the country was soon covered with a winding-sheet of white. And now, indeed, began a severe trial of the Robin's patience and hope. It is easy to boast while the sun still shines, if ever so little; but it is not till the storm comes, that the mettle of principle is known.
"There are berries left yet," said he, with cheerful composure, as he went out to seek for food, and found a holly-tree by the little gate of the plantation, red with its beautiful fruit. And, after he had eaten, he poured out a song of joy and thankfulness into the cold wintry sky, and finally retreated under his ivy bush at night, happy and contented as before.
But that terrible storm lasted for weeks without intermission; or, if it did intermit, it was but to a partial thaw, which the night of frost soon bound up again, as firmly, or more firmly, than ever.
Many other birds besides himself came to the holly-tree for berries, and it was wonderful how they disappeared, first from one branch, and then from another: but still the Robin sang on. He poured out his little song of thanks after every meal. That was his rule.
Other birds would jeer at him sometimes, but he could not be much moved by jeers. He had brought his bravery, and his patience, and his hope into the field against whatever troubles might arise, and a few foolish jests would not trouble a spirit so strung up to cheerful endurance.
"I will sing the old Tortoise awake yet," said he, many and many a time, when, after chanting his little thanksgiving in the holly-tree, he would hover about the spot where his friend lay asleep in the ground, and think of the spring that would one day come, bringing its mild days and its juicy plants, and its thousand pleasant delights.
I do not say, but what it was a great trial to our friend, when, after dreaming all these things in his day-dreams, he was roused up at last by feeling himself unusually cold and stiff; and was forced to hurry to his ivy home to recover himself at all.
The alternations, too, of winter, are very trying. The long storm of many weeks ceased at last, and a fortnight of open weather ensued, which, although wet and cold, gave much more liberty to the birds, and allowed of greater plenty of food. The Robin could now hop once more on the grass round the fountain, and get at a few worms, and pick up a few seeds. And he was so delighted with the change, that he half hoped the winter was over; and he sat in the laurel tree by the Tortoise's cave, and poured out long ditties of anticipative delight. But the bitterest storm of all was yet in store,—the storm of disappointed hope.
Oh, heavy clouds, why did you hang so darkly over the earth just before the Christmas season? Oh, why did the fields become so white again, and the trees so laden with snow wreaths, and the waters so frozen and immovable, just when all human beings wanted to rejoice and be glad?
Did you come—perhaps you did!—to rouse to tender pity and compassionate love, the hearts of all who wished to welcome their Saviour with hosannas of joy? but who cannot forget, if they read the gospel of love, that whosoever does a kindness to one of the least of His disciples, does it unto Him. Surely, thus may the bitter cold, and the trying weather of a biting, snowy Christmas, be read. Surely, it calls aloud to every one, that now is the moment for clothing the naked, for feeding the hungry, and for comforting the afflicted.
Heavily, heavily, heavily, it came down. There were two days in which the Robin never left his ivy-covered hole, but hunger took him at last to the holly-tree by the little gate. Its prickly leaves were loaded with snow, and on one side the stem could not be seen at all.
Was it his fancy, or was the tree really much less than before? He hopped from one white branch to another, and fancied that large pieces were gone. He peered under and over, picked at the leaves, and shook down little morsels of snow; but nowhere, nowhere, nowhere, could a single berry be found!
The Robin flew about in distress, and in so doing caught sight of a heap of holly, laurel, and bay branches that were laid aside together to be carried up to the house to decorate its walls. He picked two or three of the berries from them as they lay there,—ripe, red berries, such as he had gathered but lately from the tree; and then came the gardener by, who carried the whole away. He flew after the man as he walked, and never left him until he disappeared with his load into the house. Its unfriendly doors closed against the little wanderer, and no one within knew of the wistful eyes which had watched the coveted food out of sight.
"I have eaten; let me be thankful," was the Robin's resolute remark, as he flew away from the house and returned to the holly-tree, which had so lately been his storehouse of hope, and from its now stripped and barren branches, poured out, as before, his lay of glad thanksgiving for what he had had.
Not a breath of wind was blowing, not a leaf stirred; not a movement of any kind took place, save when some overloaded branch dropped part of its weight of snow on the ground below; as the sweet carol of the still hungry little bird rose through the air on that dark, still winter's afternoon.
What did it tell of? Oh, surely, that clear bell-like melody, that musical tone, that exquisite harmonious trill, told of something—of something, I mean, besides the tale of a poor little desolate bird, whose food had been snatched away before his eyes, and who might be thought to have eaten his last meal.
Surely, those solitary notes of joy, poured into the midst of a gloom so profound, were as an angel's message, coming with a promise of peace and hope, at a moment when both seemed dead and departed.
Homeward from his day's work of business, there passed by, at that moment, the owner and inhabitant of the little suburban villa. It had been a melancholy day to him, for it was saddened by painful recollections. It was the anniversary of the day on which his wife had been laid in her churchyard grave, and since that event two sons had sailed for the far-off land of promise, which puts a hemisphere between the loved and loving on earth. So that far-distant land held them, whilst one—not so distant, perhaps, but more unattainable for the present—held the other.
No wonder, therefore, that on that owner's face, as he approached his home, there hung a cloud of suffering and care, which not even the thought of the Christmas-day at hand, and the children yet spared to his hearth, could prevent or dispel.
Verily the autumn of man's life comes down upon him as the autumn season descends upon the earth. Clouds and tears mixed with whatever brightness may remain.
All at once, however, the abstracted look of sorrow is startled. What is it that he hears? He is passing outside the little plantation which skirts the grounds. He is close to the little gate near which the holly-tree grows. He pauses,—he stops—he lifts up those troubled eyes. Surely, a wholesome tear is stealing over the cheek. Beautiful, tender, affecting, as the voice of the cuckoo in spring, there swept over the listener's heart, the autumnal song of the Robin.
Sing on, sing on, from the top of your desolate tree, oh, little bird of cheerfulness and hope! Pour out again that heaven-taught music of contentment with the hour that now is. Shalt thou be confident of protection, and man destitute of hope! Shalt thou, in the depth of thy winter's trial, have joy and peace, and man never look beyond the cloud?
Poor little innocent bird, he sang his pretty song to an end, and then he flew away. Quarrel not with him, if in painful recollection of the holly-berries that had been carried into the house, he hovered round its windows and doors, with anxious and curious stealth. Whether across the middle of one window he observed a tempting red cluster hanging down inside, no one can say. But the tantalising pain of such a sight, if he felt it, was soon over, for just then the window was opened, and along its outside ledge something was strewn by a careful hand. The window was closed again immediately, and, whoever it was within, retreated backwards into the room.
From a standard rose-bush, whither he had flown, when the window was opened, our little friend watched the affair.
Presently a fragrant odour seemed to steal towards him,—something unknown yet pleasant, something tempting and very nice. Was there any risk to be feared? All seemed quiet and still. Should he venture? Ah, that odour again! it was irresistible.
In another minute he was on the ledge, and boldly, as if a dozen invitations had bidden him welcome to the feast, he was devouring crumb after crumb of the scattered bread.
A burst of delighted laughter from within broke upon his elysium of joy for a moment, and sent him back with sudden flight to the rose-bush. But no disaster ensued, and he was tempted again and again.
The children within might well laugh at the saucy bird, whom their father had, by his gift of bread-crumbs, tempted to the place. They laughed at the bold hop,—the eager pecking,—the brilliant bead-like eye of their new guest,—and at the bright red of his breast; but it was a laugh that told of nothing but kind delight.
"Little bits of things do accidentally turn up always, indeed!" said the Robin to himself, as he crept into his ivy hole that evening to sleep; and he dreamt half the night of the wonderful place and the princely fare. And next morning, long before anybody was awake and up, he was off to the magical window-ledge again, but neither children nor bread-crumbs were there. (How was he to know about breakfast hours, and the customs of social life?) So it almost seemed to him as if his evening meal had been a dream, too good a thing to be true, or if it had ever been true, too good to return. Yet a sweeter song was never heard on a summer eve, than that with which the Robin greeted that early day, the Christmas morning of the year.
Perched in the laurel bush near the Tortoise's retreat, he told his sleeping friend a long, marvellous tale of his yesterday's adventures, and promised him more news against the time when he should return to wake him up in the spring.
Nor did he promise in vain; for whether the Tortoise would be patient enough to listen or not, there was no doubt the Robin had plenty to tell. He had to tell of the daily meal that was spread for him, by those suddenly raised up friends—that daily meal that had never failed; of the curious tiny house that was erected for him at the end of the ledge, which, carpeted as it was with cotton-wool and hay, formed almost too warm a roosting-place for his hardy little frame.
But even to the Tortoise he could never tell all he had felt during that wonderful winter; for he could never explain to any one the mysterious friendship which grew up between himself and his protectors. He could never describe properly the friendly faces that sat round the breakfast-table on which at last he was allowed to hop about at will.
He told, however, how he used to sing on the rose-tree outside, every morning of every day, to welcome the waking of his friends, and how, in the late afternoons, the father would sometimes open the window, and sit there alone by himself, listening to his song.
"Come, come, my little friend," remarked the Tortoise, when he did awake at last, and had come out of his cavern-bed, and heard the account; "I have been asleep for a long time, and I dare say have been dreaming all manner of fine things myself, if I could but think of them. Now, I suspect you have had a nap, as well. However, I am very glad to see you alive, and not so half-starved looking as I expected. But as to your having sung every day, and had plenty to eat every day, and been so happy all the time,—take my advice, don't try to cram older heads than your own with travellers' tales!"