"P EE-WEE-EET! Pee-wee-eet!" That is what a bird kept saying as he flew in circles round Tommy Smith. Sometimes he flew quite a long way off, and sometimes he came so near him that it seemed as if he would settle on his head. "Pee-wee-eet! Pee-wee-eet!" And what a pretty bird this was! How his white breast glanced in the sun, and how the glossy green feathers of his back shone in it. He kept turning about in the air as he flew, so that Tommy Smith could see every part of him.
In fact, this bird was playing the strangest antics. Sometimes he would clap his wings together above his back, at least Tommy Smith thought he did; and then he would make such a swishing and whizzing with them, that really it was quite a loud noise—almost like a steam-engine. Then, all at once, he would turn sideways and make a dive down towards the ground, and sometimes (this was the funniest trick of all) he would tumble right over in the air, as if he had lost his balance and was really falling. If Tommy Smith had ever seen a tumbler pigeon it would have reminded him of one, but he never had. And all the while this bird kept on calling out, "Pee-wee-eet! pee-wee-eet!" as if he wanted Tommy Smith to speak to him, as, perhaps, he did.
"I know what bird you are," said Tommy Smith. "I have often seen you flying over the fields, but you have never come so close to me before. I think your name is"—
"Pee-wee-eet! pee-wee-eet! That is my name. They call me the peewit."
"Yes," said Tommy Smith; "because you say"—
"Pee-wee-eet! pee-wee-eet!" screamed the bird. "Yes, that is why. It is because I say 'Pee-wee-eet' "; and as the peewit said this, he made a sweep down and settled on the ground just in front of Tommy Smith. So close! Tommy Smith could almost have touched him with his hand. He was a handsome bird! Now he could see that, besides his beautiful green back and his white breast, he had a handsome black crest at the back of his head, that stuck out a long way behind it—as if his hair had been brushed up behind, Tommy Smith thought, only, of course, it was not hair, but feathers.
The peewit was not at all afraid, but looked up at Tommy Smith, with his head on one side, and said, "Yes, that is my name. A name isn't sensible if it hasn't a meaning. Some people call me the lapwing, but I don't know what that means. I would rather you called me the peewit. I like that name best. Well, now you may ask me some questions if you like." Tommy Smith would rather have listened to what the peewit had to tell him about himself first, and then asked him some questions afterwards, for, just then, he didn't quite know what questions to ask. But, of course, he had to say something, or it would have seemed rude, so he began with, "Please, Mr. Peewit, will you tell me why you say 'pee-weet' so often?"
"Why shouldn't I say it?" said the peewit. "It is my song, and I think it is a very good one too."
"But I don't call it a song at all," said Tommy Smith.
"Donít you?" said the peewit.
"No," said Tommy Smith. "It is not at all like what the lark or the nightingale sings. That is what I call singing."
"If all birds were to sing as well as each other," the peewit said, "perhaps you would not care to listen to any of them half so much. Now you say, 'How sweetly the lark sings,' or 'How beautifully the nightingale sings,' because they sing better than other birds. But if every bird was as clever at singing as they are, then to sing well would be such a common thing, that you would hardly notice it at all. As it is, you don't think about the lark nearly so much as the nightingale, because you hear him much oftener. So perhaps, after all, it is better that some birds should sing more sweetly than other birds. Don't you agree with me?"
"I don't know," said Tommy Smith. "I should never have thought of that, myself."
"There are a number of things that little boys would never have thought of," said the peewit. "Besides," he went on, "however well a bird may sing, all he means by his singing is that he is very happy. That is what the lark means when he sings high up in the blue sky; and it is what the nightingale means when he sings all night long by his nest. And that is what I mean, too, when I sing, 'Pee-wee-eet! pee-wee-eet!' So if you look at it in that way, my song is just as good as theirs, or any other bird's."
Tommy Smith did not think the peewit was right in this opinion of his, but he thought that he had better not contradict him so early in the conversation. So he only said, "Then, I suppose, you must always be happy, Mr. Peewit, for you are always saying 'Pee-wee-eet'?"
"I am always happy as long as people don't shoot me, or take away my eggs," said the peewit. "Why should I not be? It is very pleasant to be alive."
"And the grass-snake said he was happy too," thought Tommy Smith. "Then, are all animals happy, Mr. Peewit?" he asked.
"Oh yes," the peewit answered, "they all enjoy their life. That is why it is so wrong to kill them. For when you kill an animal, you take some of the happiness that was in the world out of it, and you can never put it back there again, however much you try."
"I never will kill animals any more," said Tommy Smith. "But now, Mr. Peewit, won't you tell me something about yourself? Do you do any clever things as well as the other animals that I have spoken to?"
"Why, haven't you seen the way I tumble about in the air?" said the peewit. "And don't you think that that is very clever? You couldn't do it yourself, however much you were to try."
"No," said Tommy Smith, "but then I have not got wings, you know. Perhaps if I had got wings, I would be able to do it as well as you."
"Do you think so?" said the peewit. "That is only because you are very conceited. Why, even the swallow can't do it. He is a splendid flier, and goes very fast. But, though you were to watch him for a whole day, you would not see him do such funny things in the air as I do. As for the other birds—well, look at the cuckoo. What do you think of the way in which he flies? Why, he just goes along without doing anything at all. Do you think he could turn head over heels or make the noise with his wings that I do? If he can, then why doesn't he? I should just like to know that."
"Are you playing a game in the air when you fly like that, Mr. Peewit?" asked Tommy Smith.
"Yes," answered the peewit; "that is just what I am doing. Sometimes I play it by myself, but I like it better when there are some other peewits to play it with me. We do it to amuse ourselves, and because we are so happy and have such good spirits. But it is only in the springtime that we play such games, for we are happier then than at any other time of the year. In the autumn and winter we fly about in great flocks over the fields and marshes, or come down upon them and look for worms and slugs and caterpillars, for those are the things we eat. We are happy then, too, but not quite so happy as we are in the springtime, and you won't see us playing such pranks then, although there are a great many more of us together. Oh yes! it is a game, but it is a very useful kind of game, I can tell you."
"How is it useful?" asked Tommy Smith.
"Why, it prevents people from finding our eggs," answered the peewit. "I have told you that we only fly like this in the spring. Well, that is just the time when we lay our eggs. Now whilst the mother peewit is sitting quietly on her eggs, the father peewit keeps flying and tumbling about in the air. When you go for a walk over the fields, you do not notice the mother peewit on her eggs, for she sits quite still and never moves. But you can't help noticing the father peewit, and you only think of him. If you happen to go too near the place where the eggs are, the father peewit comes quite close to you, and flies round and round your head, as I did just now. You think that is very funny, and so you keep looking at him up in the air, and never think of looking on the ground where the eggs are."
"Are the eggs laid on the ground?" said Tommy Smith.
"Of course," said the peewit. "But let me go on. When the father peewit sees you are looking at him, he flies a little farther away from the eggs, and, of course, you follow him. Then he flies a little farther off still, and in this way he keeps leading you farther and farther away from the eggs, till he thinks they are safe, and then off he flies altogether."
"That is very clever," said Tommy Smith. "But supposing you didn't follow the father peewit, but kept walking towards where the eggs were, what would the mother peewit do?"
"Why she would fly away before you got to her," said the peewit. "And you would find it very difficult to find the eggs even then."
"Then, is it only the father peewit that tumbles over in the air?" said Tommy Smith.
"It is he who does it most," said the peewit. "He has more time, and besides it would not be thought right for a mother peewit to throw herself about in that way whilst she has a family to attend to. When the mother peewit goes up from her eggs, she flies quietly away till she is a long way off. Then she settles somewhere on the ground, and waits for you to go away, and when you have gone away, she comes back to her eggs again."
"Then I suppose you are a father peewit?" said Tommy Smith.
"Oh yes," the peewit answered. "You have seen how I can tumble. And besides, look how long my crest is. The crest of the mother peewit is not nearly so long."
"Where is the mother peewit?" asked Tommy Smith—for he thought he would like to see her too.
"She is not far off," the peewit answered, "and she is sitting on her eggs."
"Oh! I should so like to see them," cried Tommy Smith. "May I?"
"If I show you them," said the peewit, "will you promise not to take them away?"
"Oh yes, I promise not to," said Tommy Smith. "I will only look at them—unless you would be so kind as to give me one," he added.
"Give you one!" cried the peewit. "I would rather give you the bright green feathers from my back, or the beautiful crest that is on my head. Give you one, indeed! No, no; they are not things to be given away. But come along. You have promised that you will not take them, and I know you will not break your word." Then the peewit spread his wings, and rose into the air again, and began to fly along in front of Tommy Smith, who had to run to keep up with him. "Pee-wee-eet! pee-wee-eet!" he cried. "Come along. Come along."
"Oh, but you go so fast!" said Tommy Smith, panting. "I wish I had wings like you."
"I don't wonder at your wishing that," the peewit said. "I should think it dreadful if I could only walk and run." All at once the peewit flew down on to the ground again. "Here they are," he said, as Tommy Smith came up; "and what do you think? Why, one of them has hatched already; a day earlier than I expected."
"But where are the eggs?" asked Tommy Smith. "I don't see them, and I don't see any nest either. But what—Oh! there is the mother peewit sitting on the ground," he cried out suddenly. And so she was, with her eggs underneath her. This time she did not fly away, for the father peewit had told her not to be uneasy.
"Oh, but there is no nest," said Tommy Smith. "She is sitting on the bare ground."
"Bare, indeed!" exclaimed the mother peewit. "There is plenty of sand on the ground, and what more can one want? Just look!" and as she spoke she moved a little to one side, and there, in a slight hollow, Tommy Smith saw four—no, three eggs, and something else, something that was soft and fluffy, so it could not be an egg, although it was the same size, and the same sort of colour, yellowish, with black spots. Why, could that be a little baby peewit? Yes, indeed it was, for it moved a little, and made a little chirping noise.
"Don't touch him," cried the father peewit. "He is too young for that."
"And little boys are so rough," said the mother peewit.
"But you may look at him," said the father peewit.
"Oh yes, do," said the mother peewit; "and tell me what you think of him. Isn't he the prettiest little fluffy thing in the whole world?"
"Until the others are hatched," said the father peewit. "Then there will be three more, you know."
"To be sure there will," said the mother peewit, looking very proud; "and they will all be as pretty as each other. But I think this one will be the cleverest," she added. "There was a certain something in the way he chipped the shell, and he has lain in a thoughtful attitude ever since he came out."
"I am glad to hear it," said the father peewit. And then they both looked up at Tommy Smith, as if they expected him to say something.
But Tommy Smith was too busy to say anything just then. He had gone down on his hands and knees, and was looking at the eggs, for they interested him more even than the little peewit that had just been hatched. They were such funny-shaped eggs, large at one end and pointed at the other, something like a small pear, Tommy Smith thought, and they lay in the little hollow with their pointed ends all meeting together in the middle of it. They were of a greenish yellow colour, with great black splotches upon them. Of course they were much smaller than the eggs that a hen lays, but still, Tommy Smith thought, they were large eggs for a peewit to lay. A peewit is hardly so large as a pigeon, but these eggs were a good deal larger than a pigeon's egg. "Yes, they are very nice eggs," he said at last, as he got up from his hands and knees. "Are they good to eat?"
"Yes," said the father peewit, "they are"; and as he said this he looked very, very sad.
"Yes, they are good to eat," said the mother peewit, as she nestled down on her eggs again. "Oh, how I wish they were not!"
"Why?" said Tommy Smith. (He was only a little boy, or he would not have asked such questions.)
"I will tell you why," said the mother peewit. "There are bad men who come and take our eggs because they are so good to eat, and then they sell them to greedy wretches, who are still worse than themselves. Oh, how wicked men are! Just fancy! They eat our poor little children whilst they are still in their cradles."
"Yes," said the father peewit, "for the mere pleasure of eating, they will ruin thousands of families."
"Is it so very wicked to eat eggs?" asked Tommy Smith. "I have eaten a great many myself."
"What! peewits' eggs?" cried both the birds together.
"Oh no," said Tommy Smith feeling very uncomfortable. "But I have often eaten fowl's eggs."
"That is different," said the mother peewit. "We will say nothing about that."
"No, no," said the father peewit. "We do not wish to be censorious."
"What does that mean?" asked Tommy Smith, for it was a long word, and he did not remember having heard it before.
"I mean," said the father peewit, "that if people only ate fowl's eggs, peewits' eggs would be let alone, and that would be a very good thing. Fowls, you know, are accustomed to it, but we peewits have finer feelings."
"Yes," said the mother peewit; "we are more sensitive than common poultry."
Tommy Smith couldn't help remembering what the rat had said to him about asking the hen, and he thought he would ask her some day. But now he was talking to peewits. "You told me it was very difficult to find your eggs," he said.
"So it is," said the father peewit; "but it is not impossible."
"I wish it were," said the mother peewit. "But there are wicked men who learn how to do it, and then they can find them quite easily. Oh, what a wicked world it is!"
Tommy Smith didn't know what to say to comfort the poor peewits, until all at once an idea occurred to him. "Why do you lay eggs at all?" he said. "You know, if you didn't lay them, nobody could take them away from you."
"Not lay eggs?" cried the mother peewit. "Why, it is our duty to lay them. We have our duties to perform, of course."
"If we did not lay eggs," said the father peewit (he looked very grave as he spoke), "there would soon be no more peewits in the world, and what do you suppose would happen then?"
Tommy Smith didn't know, so he said, "What would happen, Mr. Peewit?"
"It is too dreadful to think about," the peewit said. "The very idea of it makes one shudder. A world without peewits! Oh dear! a nice sort of world that would be!"
The mother peewit shook her head. "It could hardly go on, dear; could it?" she said.
"It might," answered the father peewit, "but there would be very little meaning in it."
Tommy Smith certainly thought the world might go on without peewits, but he didn't quite understand the last part of the sentence. "But it seems to me," he said to himself, "that animals think themselves very important." "And are you a useful animal?" he said aloud to the father peewit,—for the mother peewit was busy again with her eggs and the young one.
"Useful!" exclaimed the peewit. "Why, we are sometimes put into gardens to eat the slugs and the insects there. I suppose that is being useful."
"Oh yes," said Tommy Smith; "if you don't eat the cherries or the strawberries or the asparagus, or"—
"We are not vegetarians," said the peewit, "we prefer an animal diet, and we only eat things that do harm."
"But don't you eat worms?" said Tommy Smith.
"Of course we do," said the peewit.
"But I don't think worms do harm."
"If they don't, it is because we eat them," the peewit retorted. "If we didn't eat them, there would be too many of them, and then, of course, they would do harm."
"Well, when I grow up," said Tommy Smith, "I will have peewits in my garden as well as frogs, and—Oh! but do you agree with frogs?" he asked, for this was an important point.
"Young frogs agree very well with us," said the peewit. "So it comes to the same thing, doesn't it?"
"I don't know," said Tommy Smith. "Not if the old ones don't."
"As for the old ones," said the peewit, "we leave them alone. They are too big to be interfered with. So, you see, that's all right too."
Tommy Smith didn't feel quite so sure about this. He couldn't help thinking that perhaps the peewits ate the little frogs. But, just as he was going to ask them this, he remembered that if he didn't make haste home, he would be late for dinner. Of course, as soon as he began to think about his own dinner, he forgot all about the peewits', and said good-bye at once. So off he ran. The mother peewit just nodded to him as she sat on her eggs, but the father peewit rose up into the air again, and flew round him, and swished his wings, and tumbled about, and cried, "Pee-wee-eet! pee-wee-eet!" and Tommy Smith felt quite sure that he meant "Good-bye, good-bye."