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Edmund Selous

Chapter IX

The Woodpigeon

"The woodpigeon greets Tommy Smith with a coo,

Which he modifies slightly to 'How do you do?' "

What could be more beautiful that the woods that fine spring morning on which Tommy Smith walked through them? The sky was blue, and the air was soft, and the birds were singing everywhere. There was a concert surely; the trees had given it. That is what came into Tommy Smith's head, and perhaps he was right. It is in spring that the season begins. Then ladies and gentlemen dress themselves finely, and come and stand together in a crowd, and there is talking, and laughing, and singing. And here in the woods the trees had all put on fine new dresses of bright green, for their  season of spring had come, and green was the fashionable colour. They  stood together too,—ever so many of them,—and bent their heads towards each other, and seemed to be whispering. Then their leaves rustled, which was a much pleasanter sound than ladies' and gentlemen's talking and laughing (though perhaps it did not mean quite  as much); and, oh! what beautiful sounds came from their midst. Tommy Smith knew that it was not the trees who were singing, but the birds in them. "But it seems as if it were the trees," he thought, "because I can't see the birds. But perhaps the trees ask the birds to sing for them, as we ask people to play and sing for us. That is how they give their concerts and parties, perhaps. The large ones are like rich people who can afford to hire a whole band, but the little ones and the bushes are the people who are not so well off, and they  can only have a bird or two." Tommy Smith thought all this, because he was a little boy, and liked to pretend things, but a long time afterwards, when he was much wiser, he used to remember those walks of his in the woods, and sometimes he would say to himself, "Yes, those were the best seasons; those were the concerts and parties most worth going to."

A fallen tree lay across Tommy Smith's path. It had once been a tall, stately oak, now it made a nice mossy seat for a little boy. We are not all of us so useful when we grow old. "I will sit down on it," thought Tommy Smith, "and listen to the birds singing, and pretend they are people, and not birds at all." So Tommy Smith sat down and listened. A thrush was sitting on the very tip-top of a high fir tree, and soon he began to fill the whole air with his beautiful, clear, joyous notes. "I like that as well as the piano," said Tommy Smith, "and I don't think I know any lady who could sing such a beautiful song." Then the robin began. "That is lower and sweeter," he thought. "People  make a great deal more noise when they sing, but it doesn't seem to mean so much, or, if it does, I don't like the meaning so well. Then a jay screamed, and some starlings began to chatter. "Oh, there!" cried Tommy Smith, clapping his hands. "That is much more like people. Ladies talk and sing just like that. But not like that," he continued; for now another sound began to mingle with the rest, such a pretty, such a very  pretty sound, so  soft, and so tender and sleepy, "like a lullaby," Tommy Smith thought. And, as he listened to it, all the woods seemed to grow hushed and still, as if they were listening too. "Oh," said Tommy Smith, "it is no use pretending any more. That couldn't be people. No men, and no women either, have such a pretty voice as that."

"Coo-oo-oo-oo, coo-oo-oo-oo," said the voice. It had been some way off before, but now it sounded much nearer. "Coo-oo-oo-oo, coo-oo-oo-oo." Why, surely it was in that tree, only just a little way from where Tommy Smith was sitting. "I will go and look," he thought. "I know who it is. It is the woodpigeon. Perhaps he will stay and talk to me."

So he got up, and walked towards the tree. But was it not strange? As he came to it, the voice seemed to change just a little—only just a little. It had still the same pretty, soft sound, and the end part was just the same, but, instead of "Coo-oo-oo-oo, coo-oo-oo-oo," which it had been saying before, now it was saying—yes, and quite distinctly too—"How do you do-oo-oo-oo? How do you do-oo-oo-oo?" Yes, there could be no doubt of it, and as Tommy Smith came quite up to the tree, there was the woodpigeon sitting on one of the lowest branches, bowing to him quite politely, and asking him how he was.

"Oh, I am quite well, Mr. Woodpigeon," answered Tommy Smith. "I hope you are."

"Oh, I am quite well too-oo-oo-oo," cooed the woodpigeon, bobbing his head up and down all the while.

"Why do you move your head up and down like that whilst you speak?" asked Tommy Smith.

"Why, because it is the proper thing to do-oo-oo-oo," replied the woodpigeon.

"But I  don't do it when I  speak," said Tommy Smith.

"Oh no; but then I  am not you-oo-oo-oo," said the woodpigeon.

Tommy Smith didn't know how to answer this, so he thought he would change the subject. "What have you been doing this morning, Mr. Woodpigeon?" he said.

"Why, sitting here in the woo-oo-oo-oods and coo-oo-oo-ing," the woodpigeon answered.

"Oh, but not all the morning, have you?" said Tommy Smith.

"Oh no," said the woodpigeon. "From about six to nine I was having my breakfast in the fields."

Tommy Smith thought that three hours was a very long time to take over one's breakfast, and he said so. "I don't take half an hour over mine," he added.

"That is all very well," said the woodpigeon; "but your breakfast is brought to you, whilst I have to find mine for myself. What you eat is put down before you on a table, but my  table is the whole country, and it is so large and broad that it takes me a long while to find what is on it, and to eat as much of it as I want."

"I wonder what your breakfast is like, Mr. Woodpigeon," said Tommy Smith. "I suppose it is very different to mine."

"Let me see," cooed the woodpigeon. "This morning I had a few peas and beans, besides some oats and barley. I got those in the fields, and I found some green clover there too, as well as some wild mustard, and some ragweed and charlock, and a few other seeds and roo-oo-oo-oots."

"Oh dear, Mr. Woodpigeon," said Tommy Smith; "why, what a lot you do eat."

"I don't call that much," said the woodpigeon. "When I was tired of looking about in the fields, I went to the woods again, and got a few acorns, and some beechnuts, and"—

"Oh! but look here, Mr. Woodpigeon," said Tommy Smith. "You couldn't have eaten all those this morning, because they are not all ripe now, and"—

"I didn't say they were ripe," said the woodpigeon; "and if I didn't eat them this morning, then I did on some other morning, so it's all the same. Those are the things I eat, at any rate, and I can't be expected to remember exactly when I eat them. I had a few stones though, of course. They are always to be had, whatever time of year it is. Stones  are always  in season."

"Stones!" cried Tommy Smith in great surprise. "Oh, come now; I know you don't eat them."

"Oh, don't I?" said the woodpigeon. "I should be very sorry if I couldn't get any,—I know that. It would be a nice thing, indeed, if one couldn't have a few stones to eat with one's meals. That would be a good joke."

Tommy Smith thought that he  wouldn't think it a joke to have  to eat stones, and he could hardly believe that the woodpigeon was speaking the truth. But he was such an innocent-looking bird, and seemed so very respectable, that he thought he must be. "Are they very large stones?" he asked at last.

"Oh no," answered the woodpigeon. "They are not large, but very small—just the right size to go into my mill."

"Into your mill?" said Tommy Smith.

"Yes," said the woodpigeon; "the little mill which is inside me."

Tommy Smith was getting more and more puzzled. What could the woodpigeon mean? "And yet he is such a nice bird," he said to himself. "I don't think he would tell stories."

"I see that you don't understand me," said the woodpigeon; "so, if you like, I will explain it all to you."

"Oh, I should so like to know!" said Tommy Smith.

So the woodpigeon gave a gentle coo, and began to tell him all about it. "Yes," he said, "I have a mill inside me, and everything that I eat goes into it to get ground up."

"Why, then are you a miller?" said Tommy Smith.

"In a way, I am," said the woodpigeon; "for I own a mill. But then, you know, a miller lives inside his  mill, but my  mill is inside me."

"I should so like to see it," said Tommy Smith.

"You never can do that," said the woodpigeon in an alarmed tone of voice; "for you would have to kill me first, and that would be a most shocking thing to do. But it is there, all the same, though you can't see it, and it is called the gizzard."

"Oh, the gizzard!" said Tommy Smith. "I know what that is, because I have"—and then he stopped all of a sudden. He was going to say that he had tasted it sometimes when there was fowl for dinner, but he thought he had better not. It didn't seem quite delicate to talk to a woodpigeon about eating a fowl.

"The gizzard is the mill that I am talking about," said the woodpigeon. "All the food that we eat goes into it, and then it is ground up, just as corn is ground between two hard stones. But though our gizzard is very hard, it is not quite so hard as stones are, so we swallow some small sharp stones, which go into our gizzard, and are rolled about with the grain and seeds there, and help to crush them. Then, when they are nice and soft, they are ready to go on into the stomach. So now you know what sort of a thing a gizzard is, and why we swallow stones."

"But don't the stones hurt you?" asked Tommy Smith.

"Do you think we would swallow them if they did?" answered the woodpigeon. "What a foolish question to ask!"

Tommy Smith stood for a little while thinking about it, and wondering if he  had a mill inside him, till at last the woodpigeon said, "Perhaps you would like to ask me a sensible  question."

"Oh yes," said Tommy Smith, and he tried to think what was a sensible question. He had thought of a good many questions to ask, and they had seemed sensible at the time, but now he began to feel afraid that the woodpigeon would think them foolish. At last he said, "Please, Mr. Woodpigeon, where do you live?"

"Oh, in this tree," said the woodpigeon, "half-way up on the seventeenth story."

"I suppose you mean the seventeenth branch," said Tommy Smith.

"Of course I do," said the woodpigeon. "I have my nest there, and my wife is sitting on the eggs now."

"Oh, do let me see them," cried Tommy Smith.

"Oh no," said the woodpigeon. "They are too high up for that. You would not be able to climb so far, and you cannot fly as we birds do, for you are only a poor boy, and have no wings."

"I wish I had wings," said Tommy Smith. "Is it very nice to fly, Mr. Woodpigeon?"

"It is nicer than anything else in the whole world," the woodpigeon answered. "Just fancy floating along high above everything, as if the air were water, and you were a boat. Only you go so much quicker than a boat does, and sometimes you need not use the oars at all."

"Your wings are the oars, I suppose," said Tommy Smith.

"Yes, indeed," said the woodpigeon, "and how fast they row me along. Swish! swish! swish! and when I am tired I just spread them out and float along without using them. That is delightful. I call it resting on my wings."

"It must be something like swinging, I think," said Tommy Smith.

"Yes," said the woodpigeon; "only you swing upon nothing, and you only swing forwards. Oh, how cool and fresh the air is, even on the hottest day in summer! The sun seems shining quite near to me, and the sky is like a great blue sea that I am swimming through; but oh, so quickly! quicker than any fish can swim. When I look up, I see great white ships with all their sails set. They are the clouds, and sometimes I am quite near them. How fast we go! We seem to be chasing each other. And when I look down, I see green islands far below me. Those are the tops of trees that I am flying over. My nest is in one of them, and I always know which one it is. When I am above it, I pause as a boat pauses on the crest of a wave, and then, down, down, down I go, such a deep, cool, delicious plunge, till at last the leaves rustle round me, and I am sitting amongst the branches again, and cooing."

"By your nest?" asked Tommy Smith.

"Oh yes; when I have one," said the woodpigeon. "I have now, you know, because it is the springtime."

"I wish I could see it with the eggs in it," said Tommy Smith. But it was no use wishing, he hadn't wings, and he couldn't climb the tree. "How many eggs are there?" he asked.

"Two-oo-oo-oo," said a voice, higher up amongst the foliage; and Tommy Smith knew that the mother woodpigeon was sitting there on her nest, and looking down at him all the while.

"Only two eggs!" he said. "I don't call that many."

"It may not be many," said the mother woodpigeon," but it is the right quantity. Three would be too  many, and one would not be enough. Two is the only possible number."

"Oh no, indeed it isn't," said Tommy Smith eagerly. "Fowls lay a dozen eggs sometimes, and pheasants"—

"Possible for a woodpigeon, I  meant," said the mother woodpigeon. "With fowls, no doubt, anything may take place, but large families are considered vulgar amongst us."

"Fowls may do what they please," said the father woodpigeon. "They are lazy birds, and don't feed their young ones."

"That is why they lay so many eggs," said the mother woodpigeon. "They don't mind having a herd of children, because they know they won't have to support them."

Tommy Smith was surprised to hear the woodpigeons talk like this of the poor fowls, for he had often seen the good mother hen walking about with her brood of children, calling to them when she found a worm, and taking care of them so nicely. "It seems to me," he thought, "that every animal thinks itself better than every other animal; and they all think whatever they do right, just because they do it, and the others don't. But I suppose that  is because they are  animals, and not human beings." Then he said out loud, "But I am sure the mother hen feeds her chickens, because I have seen her scratching up worms for them out of the ground, and"—

"Yes, that is a nice way to feed one's little ones," said the mother woodpigeon. "A raw, live worm! Why, what could be nastier? No wonder they are forced to pick up things for themselves.

"If they waited till their parents put a worm into their mouths, they would starve," said the father woodpigeon. "It is quite dreadful to think of."

"But I think the little chickens like picking up their own food," said Tommy Smith. "They look so pretty running about."

"They would look much prettier sitting in a warm nest, as ours do," said the mother woodpigeon.

"And they would feel much more comfortable with you feeding them, my dear," said the father.

"And with you helping me, you know," said the mother bird, and she stretched her neck over the branch, and cooed softly to her husband, who looked up at her, and cooed again.

"Then do you both feed them?" asked Tommy Smith.

"Yes," said the father woodpigeon; "and we take it in turns. You would not find many cocks who would do that, I think."

"No; or help to hatch the eggs," said the mother woodpigeon. "He does that too. Oh, he is  so good!"

"Nonsense!" said the father woodpigeon. "It is what all birds ought to do-oo-oo-oo."

"Yes; but it isn't what they all do do-oo-oo-oo," said the mother woodpigeon.

"More shame for those who do not," said the father woodpigeon; "but I hope there are not many." And then they both waited for Tommy Smith to ask them another question.

"Please, Mrs. Woodpigeon," said Tommy Smith, "what do you feed your young ones with?"

"We feed them with whatever we eat ourselves," said the mother woodpigeon, "and we always swallow it first, to be sure that it is quite good."

This surprised Tommy Smith very much indeed, for it seemed to him almost as wonderful as eating stones. "Oh! but if you swallow the food yourselves," he said, "how can your young ones have it?"

"They don't have it till we bring it up again," said the father woodpigeon. "They put their beaks inside ours, and then it comes up into our mouths all ready for them to swallow."

"Isn't that rather nasty?" said Tommy Smith.

"You had better ask them  about that," said the mother woodpigeon. "They  will tell you whether it is nasty or not."

"They  think it nice," said the father woodpigeon.

"And no wonder," said the mother woodpigeon. "When we  swallow it, it is hard and cold, but when it comes up again for them  to swallow, it is soft and warm, and very like milk. It is not every bird who feeds its young ones like that."

"Oh no," said Tommy Smith; "most birds fly to them with a worm or a caterpillar in their beaks, and give it to them just as it is."

"That is the old-fashioned way," said the mother woodpigeon; "but we are more civilized, and have learnt to prepare  our children's food."

"Besides," said the father woodpigeon, "we eat seeds and grains, and little things like that, and it would take us a very long time to carry a sufficient number of them to the nest. Our young ones would be so hungry, and we should not be able to bring them enough to satisfy them, and then they would starve. So we have thought of this way of managing it, and I think it is one of the cleverest things in the whole world."

"Yes, indeed," cooed the mother woodpigeon, as she looked down from the branch where she sat on her nest; "one of the cleverest things in the whole world."

"Is it only pigeons that do that?" asked Tommy Smith.

"I won't say that," answered the mother woodpigeon. "There are some other birds, I believe, who have followed our example."

"Yes, they imitate us," said the father woodpigeon; "but they can never be pigeons, however much they try to be."

"Never," said the mother woodpigeon. "They don't drink water as we do. That is the test."

"Why, how do you drink water?" asked Tommy Smith. "Don't you drink it like other birds?"

"I should think not," said the father woodpigeon. "Other birds take a little in their bills, and then lift their heads up and let it run down their throats, but we pigeons would be ashamed to drink in such a way as that. We keep our beaks in the water all the time, and suck it up into our throats. That is how we drink, and nothing could make us do it differently. We don't lift our heads up."

"But why shouldn't you lift them up?" said Tommy Smith; for he thought to himself, "If all the other birds drink like that, it ought to be the right way."

"Why shouldn't we?" said the father woodpigeon. "Why, because it would be stupid,—and wrong, too," he added after a pause, during which he seemed to be thinking.

"There is a still stronger reason," said the mother woodpigeon, "the strongest of all  reasons; at least, I  cannot imagine one stronger. It would be unpigeonly." And from the tone in which she said this, Tommy Smith felt that it would be no use to say anything more on the subject.

"If there was any water here," said the father woodpigeon, "I would drink a little just to show you, but the nearest is some way off. However, you can watch some tame pigeons the next time they are drinking, for we all belong to one great family, and have the same ideas upon important points. Now I am going for a short fly, but if you like to stay and talk to my wife, I shall be back again in an hour."

But Tommy Smith had to go too, for his lessons began at eleven o'clock, and of course it would not do to miss them, though it seemed to him that he was getting a much better lesson from the woodpigeons. "But I wish," he said, "before you fly away, Mr. Woodpigeon, you would just tell me what you do all day." But as Tommy Smith said this, there was a rustle and a clapping of wings, and the father woodpigeon was gone.

"He is so impetuous," said the mother woodpigeon. "There is no stopping him when he wants to do anything. But I  will tell you what we do all day, so listen. We rise early, of course, and fly down to breakfast at about six. After three or four hours we come back to the woods again, and coo and talk to each other there for about an hour. Then we go off to drink and to bathe, which is the nicest part of the whole day. After that we feel a little tired and sleepy, so we sit quietly in the woods till about two. Then it is quite time for dinner, so off we go again and feed till about five. After dinner it is best to sit quiet and coo a little. A quiet coo aids digestion. Then we have a nice refreshing drink in the cool of the evening, and after that we go straight to tree."

"Do you mean to bed?" said Tommy Smith.

"Of course I do," said the mother woodpigeon. "We sleep in trees. They are the only beds we should care to trust ourselves to."

"Aren't they rather hard?" said Tommy Smith.

"Not at all," said the woodpigeon. "You see, we have our own feathers, so that makes them feather-beds. They are soft enough and warm enough for us, you may be quite sure."

"But it must be very windy up in the trees," said Tommy Smith.

"That is the great advantage of the situation," said the mother woodpigeon. "Our beds are always well aired, so we need never feel anxious about that. However much it rains they can never be damp, for how can a bed be damp and well-aired at the same time?"

Tommy Smith couldn't think of the right answer to this, and the woodpigeon went on, "So, now, I have told you how we pass the day. What a happy, happy life! He must have a cruel heart who could put an end to it." (And Tommy Smith thought so too.)

"But is that what you always do?" he asked.

"Of course, when there are eggs and young ones it makes a difference," said the mother woodpigeon; "and in winter we keep different hours. But that is our usual summer life, and I  think it is a very pleasant one."

"Oh, so do I!" said Tommy Smith. "Thank you, Mrs. Woodpigeon, for telling me. Now I must go to my lessons, and I will tell them all about it at home."

"If you come back afterwards, I will tell you some more," said the mother woodpigeon.

Tommy Smith said he would, and then he ran away as fast as he could to his lessons, for he was a little late. And as he ran, he could hear the mother woodpigeon saying, "Come back soo-oo-oo-oon! Come back soo-oo-oo-oon!"