The Song of the Cardinal by Gene Stratton-Porter
"Come here! Come here!" entreated the Cardinal
He felt that his music was not reaching his standard as he burst into this new song. He was almost discouraged. No way seemed open to him but flight to the Limberlost, and he so disdained the swamp that love-making would lose something of its greatest charm if he were driven there for a mate. The time seemed ripe for stringent measures, and the Cardinal was ready to take them; but how could he stringently urge a little mate that would not come on his imploring invitations? He listlessly pecked at the berries and flung abroad an inquiring "Chip!" With just an atom of hope, he frequently mounted to his choir-loft and issued an order that savoured far more of a plea, "Come here! Come here!" and then, leaning, he listened intently to the voice of the river, lest he fail to catch the faintest responsive "Chook!" it might bear.
He could hear the sniffling of carp wallowing beside the bank. A big pickerel slashed around, breakfasting on minnows. Opposite the sumac, the black bass, with gamy spring, snapped up, before it struck the water, every luckless, honey-laden insect that fell from the feast of sweets in a blossom-whitened wild crab. The sharp bark of the red squirrel and the low of cattle, lazily chewing their cuds among the willows, came to him. The hammering of a woodpecker on a dead sycamore, a little above him, rolled to his straining ears like a drum beat.
The Cardinal hated the woodpecker more than he disliked the dove.
It was only foolishly effusive, but the woodpecker was a veritable Bluebeard. The Cardinal longed to pull the feathers from his back until it was as red as his head, for the woodpecker had dressed his suit in finest style, and with dulcet tones and melting tenderness had gone acourting. Sweet as the dove's had been his wooing, and one more pang the lonely Cardinal had suffered at being forced to witness his felicity; yet scarcely had his plump, amiable little mate consented to his caresses and approved the sycamore, before he turned on her, pecked her severely, and pulled a tuft of plumage from her breast. There was not the least excuse for this tyrannical action; and the sight filled the Cardinal with rage. He fully expected to see Madam Woodpecker divorce herself and flee her new home, and he most earnestly hoped that she would; but she did no such thing. She meekly flattened her feathers, hurried work in a lively manner, and tried in every way to anticipate and avert her mate's displeasure. Under this treatment he grew more abusive, and now Madam Woodpecker dodged every time she came within his reach. It made the Cardinal feel so vengeful that he longed to go up and drum the sycamore with the woodpecker's head until he taught him how to treat his mate properly.
There was plently of lark music rolling with the river, and that morning brought the first liquid golden notes of the orioles. They had arrived at dawn, and were overjoyed with their homecoming, for they were darting from bank to bank singing exquisitely on wing. There seemed no end to the bird voices that floated with the river, and yet there was no beginning to the one voice for which the Cardinal waited with passionate longing.
The oriole's singing was so inspiring that it tempted the Cardinal to another effort, and perching where he gleamed crimson and black against the April sky, he tested his voice, and when sure of his tones, he entreatingly called: "Come here! Come here!"
Just then he saw her! She came daintily over the earth, soft as down before the wind, a rosy flush suffusing her plumage, a coral beak, her very feet pink--the shyest, most timid little thing alive. Her bright eyes were popping with fear, and down there among the ferns, anemones and last year's dried leaves, she tilted her sleek crested head and peered at him with frightened wonder and silent helplessness.
It was for this the Cardinal had waited, hoped, and planned for many days. He had rehearsed what he conceived to be every point of the situation, and yet he was not prepared for the thing that suddenly happened to him. He had expected to reject many applicants before he selected one to match his charms; but instantly this shy little creature, slipping along near earth, taking a surreptitious peep at him, made him feel a very small bird, and he certainly never before had felt small. The crushing possibility that somewhere there might be a cardinal that was larger, brighter, and a finer musician than he, staggered him; and worst of all, his voice broke suddenly to his complete embarrassment.
Half screened by the flowers, she seemed so little, so shy, so delightfully sweet. He "chipped" carefully once or twice to steady himself and clear his throat, for unaccountably it had grown dry and husky; and then he tenderly tried again. "Come here! Come here!" implored the Cardinal. He forgot all about his dignity. He knew that his voice was trembling with eagerness and hoarse with fear. He was afraid to attempt approaching her, but he leaned toward her, begging and pleading. He teased and insisted, and he did not care a particle if he did. It suddenly seemed an honour to coax her. He rocked on the limb. He side-stepped and hopped and gyrated gracefully. He fluffed and flirted and showed himself to every advantage. It never occurred to him that the dove and the woodpecker might be watching, though he would not have cared in the least if they had been; and as for any other cardinal, he would have attacked the combined forces of the Limberlost and Rainbow Bottom.
He sang and sang. Every impulse of passion in his big, crimson, palpitating body was thrown into those notes; but she only turned her head from side to side, peering at him, seeming sufficiently frightened to flee at a breath, and answered not even the faintest little "Chook!" of encouragement.
The Cardinal rested a second before he tried again. That steadied him and gave him better command of himself. He could tell that his notes were clearing and growing sweeter. He was improving. Perhaps she was interested. There was some encouragement in the fact that she was still there. The Cardinal felt that his time had come.
"Come here! Come here!" He was on his mettle now. Surely no cardinal could sing fuller, clearer, sweeter notes! He began at the very first, and rollicked through a story of adventure, colouring it with every wild, dashing, catchy note he could improvise. He followed that with a rippling song of the joy and fulness of spring, in notes as light and airy as the wind-blown soul of melody, and with swaying body kept time to his rhythmic measures. Then he glided into a song of love, and tenderly, pleadingly, passionately, told the story as only a courting bird can tell it. Then he sang a song of ravishment; a song quavering with fear and the pain tugging at his heart. He almost had run the gamut, and she really appeared as if she intended to flee rather than to come to him. He was afraid to take even one timid little hop toward her.
In a fit of desperation the Cardinal burst into the passion song.
He arose to his full height, leaned toward her with outspread quivering wings, and crest flared to the utmost, and rocking from side to side in the intensity of his fervour, he poured out a perfect torrent of palpitant song. His cardinal body swayed to the rolling flood of his ecstatic tones, until he appeared like a flaming pulsing note of materialized music, as he entreated, coaxed, commanded, and pled. From sheer exhaustion, he threw up his head to round off the last note he could utter, and breathlessly glancing down to see if she were coming, caught sight of a faint streak of gray in the distance. He had planned so to subdue the little female he courted that she would come to him; he was in hot pursuit a half day's journey away before he remembered it.
No other cardinal ever endured such a chase as she led him in the following days. Through fear and timidity she had kept most of her life in the underbrush. The Cardinal was a bird of the open fields and tree-tops. He loved to rock with the wind, and speed arrow-like in great plunges of flight. This darting and twisting over logs, among leaves, and through tangled thickets, tired, tried, and exasperated him more than hundreds of miles of open flight. Sometimes he drove her from cover, and then she wildly dashed up-hill and down-dale, seeking another thicket; but wherever she went, the Cardinal was only a breath behind her, and with every passing mile his passion for her grew.
There was no time to eat, bathe, or sing; only mile after mile of unceasing pursuit. It seemed that the little creature could not stop if she would, and as for the Cardinal, he was in that chase to remain until his last heart-beat. It was a question how the frightened bird kept in advance. She was visibly the worse for this ardent courtship. Two tail feathers were gone, and there was a broken one beating from her wing. Once she had flown too low, striking her head against a rail until a drop of blood came, and she cried pitifully. Several times the Cardinal had cornered her, and tried to hold her by a bunch of feathers, and compel her by force to listen to reason; but she only broke from his hold and dashed away a stricken thing, leaving him half dead with longing and remorse.
But no matter how baffled she grew, or where she fled in her headlong flight, the one thing she always remembered, was not to lead the Cardinal into the punishment that awaited him in Rainbow Bottom. Panting for breath, quivering with fear, longing for well-concealed retreats, worn and half blinded by the disasters of flight through strange country, the tired bird beat her aimless way; but she would have been torn to pieces before she would have led her magnificent pursuer into the wrath of his enemies.
Poor little feathered creature! She had been fleeing some kind of danger all her life. She could not realize that love and protection had come in this splendid guise, and she fled on and on.
Once the Cardinal, aching with passion and love, fell behind that she might rest, and before he realized that another bird was close, an impudent big relative of his, straying from the Limberlost, entered the race and pursued her so hotly that with a note of utter panic she wheeled and darted back to the Cardinal for protection. When to the rush of rage that possessed him at the sight of a rival was added the knowledge that she was seeking him in her extremity, such a mighty wave of anger swept the Cardinal that he appeared twice his real size. Like a flaming brand of vengeance he struck that Limberlost upstart, and sent him rolling to earth, a mass of battered feathers. With beak and claw he made his attack, and when he so utterly demolished his rival that he hopped away trembling, with dishevelled plumage stained with his own blood, the Cardinal remembered his little love and hastened back, confidently hoping for his reward.
She was so securely hidden, that although he went searching, calling, pleading, he found no trace of her the remainder of that day. The Cardinal almost went distracted; and his tender imploring cries would have moved any except a panic-stricken bird. He did not even know in what direction to pursue her. Night closed down, and found him in a fever of love-sick fear, but it brought rest and wisdom. She could not have gone very far. She was too worn. He would not proclaim his presence. Soon she would suffer past enduring for food and water.
He hid in the willows close where he had lost her, and waited with what patience he could; and it was a wise plan. Shortly after dawn, moving stilly as the break of day, trembling with fear, she came slipping to the river for a drink. It was almost brutal cruelty, but her fear must be overcome someway; and with a cry of triumph the Cardinal, in a plunge of flight, was beside her. She gave him one stricken look, and dashed away. The chase began once more and continued until she was visibly breaking.
There was no room for a rival that morning. The Cardinal flew abreast of her and gave her a caress or attempted a kiss whenever he found the slightest chance. She was almost worn out, her flights were wavering and growing shorter. The Cardinal did his utmost. If she paused to rest, he crept close as he dared, and piteously begged: "Come here! Come here!"
When she took wing, he so dexterously intercepted her course that several time she found refuge in his sumac without realizing where she was. When she did that, he perched just as closely as he dared; and while they both rested, he sang to her a soft little whispered love song, deep in his throat; and with every note he gently edged nearer. She turned her head from him, and although she was panting for breath and palpitant with fear, the Cardinal knew that he dared not go closer, or she would dash away like the wild thing she was. The next time she took wing, she found him so persistently in her course that she turned sharply and fled panting to the sumac. When this had happened so often that she seemed to recognize the sumac as a place of refuge, the Cardinal slipped aside and spent all his remaining breath in an exultant whistle of triumph, for now he was beginning to see his way. He dashed into mid-air, and with a gyration that would have done credit to a flycatcher, he snapped up a gadfly that should have been more alert.
With a tender "Chip!" from branch to branch, slowly, cautiously, he came with it. Because he was half starved himself, he knew that she must be almost famished. Holding it where she could see, he hopped toward her, eagerly, carefully, the gadfly in his beak, his heart in his mouth. He stretched his neck and legs to the limit as he reached the fly toward her. What matter that she took it with a snap, and plunged a quarter of a mile before eating it? She had taken food from him! That was the beginning. Cautiously he impelled her toward the sumac, and with untiring patience kept her there the remainder of the day. He carried her every choice morsel he could find in the immediate vicinity of the sumac, and occasionally she took a bit from his beak, though oftenest he was compelled to lay it on a limb beside her. At dusk she repeatedly dashed toward the underbrush; but the Cardinal, with endless patience and tenderness, maneuvered her to the sumac, until she gave up, and beneath the shelter of a neighbouring grapevine, perched on a limb that was the Cardinal's own chosen resting-place, tucked her tired head beneath her wing, and went to rest. When she was soundly sleeping, the Cardinal crept as closely as he dared, and with one eye on his little gray love, and the other roving for any possible danger, he spent a night of watching for any danger that might approach.
He was almost worn out; but this was infinitely better than the previous night, at any rate, for now he not only knew where she was, but she was fast asleep in his own favourite place. Huddled on the limb, the Cardinal gloated over her. He found her beauty perfect. To be sure, she was dishevelled; but she could make her toilet. There were a few feathers gone; but they would grow speedily. She made a heart-satisfying picture, on which the Cardinal feasted his love-sick soul, by the light of every straying moonbeam that slid around the edges of the grape leaves.
Wave after wave of tender passion shook him. In his throat half the night he kept softly calling to her: "Come here! Come here!"
Next morning, when the robins announced day beside the shining river, she awoke with a start; but before she could decide in which direction to fly, she discovered a nice fresh grub laid on the limb close to her, and very sensibly remained for breakfast. Then the Cardinal went to the river and bathed. He made such delightful play of it, and the splash of the water sounded so refreshing to the tired draggled bird, that she could not resist venturing for a few dips. When she was wet she could not fly well, and he improved the opportunity to pull her broken quills, help her dress herself, and bestow a few extra caresses. He guided her to his favourite place for a sun bath; and followed the farmer's plow in the corn field until he found a big sweet beetle. He snapped off its head, peeled the stiff wing shields, and daintily offered it to her. He was so delighted when she took it from his beak, and remained in the sumac to eat it, that he established himself on an adjoining thorn-bush, where the snowy blossoms of a wild morning-glory made a fine background for his scarlet coat. He sang the old pleading song as he never had sung it before, for now there was a tinge of hope battling with the fear in his heart.
Over and over he sang, rounding, fulling, swelling every note, leaning toward her in coaxing tenderness, flashing his brilliant beauty as he swayed and rocked, for her approval; and all that he had suffered and all that he hoped for was in his song. Just when his heart was growing sick within him, his straining ear caught the faintest, most timid call a lover ever answered. Only one imploring, gentle "Chook!" from the sumac! His song broke in a suffocating burst of exultation. Cautiously he hopped from twig to twig toward her. With tender throaty murmurings he slowly edged nearer, and wonder of wonders! with tired eyes and quivering wings, she reached him her beak for a kiss.
At dinner that day, the farmer said to his wife:
"Maria, if you want to hear the prettiest singin', an' see the cutest sight you ever saw, jest come down along the line fence an' watch the antics o' that redbird we been hearin'"
"I don't know as redbirds are so scarce 'at I've any call to wade through slush a half-mile to see one," answered Maria.
"Footin's pretty good along the line fence," said Abram, "an' you never saw a redbird like this fellow. He's as big as any two common ones. He's so red every bush he lights on looks like it was afire. It's past all question, he's been somebody's pet, an' he's taken me for the man. I can get in six feet of him easy. He's the finest bird I ever set eyes on; an' as for singin', he's dropped the weather, an' he's askin' folks to his housewarmin' to-day. He's been there alone for a week, an' his singin's been first-class; but to-day he's picked up a mate, an' he's as tickled as ever I was. I am really consarned for fear he'll burst himself."
"Course, don't come if you're tired, honey," said the farmer. "I thought maybe you'd enjoy it. He's a-doin' me a power o' good. My joints are limbered up till I catch myself pretty near runnin', on the up furrow, an' then, down towards the fence, I go slow so's to stay near him as long as I can."
Maria stared. "Abram Johnson, have you gone daft?" she demanded.
Abram chuckled. "Not a mite dafter'n you'll be, honey, once you set eyes on the fellow. Better come, if you can. You're invited. He's askin' the whole endurin' country to come."
Maria said nothing more; but she mentally decided she had no time to fool with a bird, when there were housekeeping and spring sewing to do. As she recalled Abram's enthusiastic praise of the singer, and had a whiff of the odour-laden air as she passed from kitchen to spring-house, she was compelled to admit that it was a temptation to go; but she finished her noon work and resolutely sat down with her needle. She stitched industriously, her thread straightening with a quick nervous sweep, learned through years of experience; and if her eyes wandered riverward, and if she paused frequently with arrested hand and listened intently, she did not realize it. By two o'clock, a spirit of unrest that demanded recognition had taken possession of her. Setting her lips firmly, a scowl clouding her brow, she stitched on. By half past two her hands dropped in her lap, Abram's new hickory shirt slid to the floor, and she hesitatingly arose and crossed the room to the closet, from which she took her overshoes, and set them by the kitchen fire, to have them ready in case she wanted them.
"Pshaw!" she muttered, "I got this shirt to finish this afternoon. There's butter an' bakin' in the mornin', an' Mary Jane Simms is comin' for a visit in the afternoon."
She returned to the window and took up the shirt, sewing with unusual swiftness for the next half-hour; but by three she dropped it, and opening the kitchen door, gazed toward the river. Every intoxicating delight of early spring was in the air. The breeze that fanned her cheek was laden with subtle perfume of pollen and the crisp fresh odour of unfolding leaves. Curling skyward, like a beckoning finger, went a spiral of violet and gray smoke from the log heap Abram was burning; and scattered over spaces of a mile were half a dozen others, telling a story of the activity of his neighbours. Like the low murmur of distant music came the beating wings of hundreds of her bees, rimming the water trough, insane with thirst. On the wood-pile the guinea cock clattered incessantly: "Phut rack! Phut rack!" Across the dooryard came the old turkey-gobbler with fan tail and a rasping scrape of wing, evincing his delight in spring and mating time by a series of explosive snorts. On the barnyard gate the old Shanghai was lustily challenging to mortal combat one of his kind three miles across country. From the river arose the strident scream of her blue gander jealously guarding his harem. In the poultry-yard the hens made a noisy cackling party, and the stable lot was filled with cattle bellowing for the freedom of the meadow pasture, as yet scarcely ready for grazing.
It seemed to the little woman, hesitating in the doorway, as if all nature had entered into a conspiracy to lure her from her work, and just then, clear and imperious, arose the demand of the Cardinal: "Come here! Come here!"
Blank amazement filled her face. "As I'm a livin' woman!" she gasped. "He's changed his song! That's what Abram meant by me bein' invited. He's askin' folks to see his mate. I'm goin'."
The dull red of excitement sprang into her cheeks. She hurried on her overshoes, and drew an old shawl over her head. She crossed the dooryard, followed the path through the orchard, and came to the lane. Below the barn she turned back and attempted to cross. The mud was deep and thick, and she lost an overshoe; but with the help of a stick she pried it out, and replaced it.
"Joke on me if I'd a-tumbled over in this mud," she muttered.
She entered the barn, and came out a minute later, carefully closing and buttoning the door, and started down the line fence toward the river.
Half-way across the field Abram saw her coming. No need to recount how often he had looked in that direction during the afternoon. He slapped the lines on the old gray's back and came tearing down the slope, his eyes flashing, his cheeks red, his hands firmly gripping the plow that rolled up a line of black mould as he passed.
Maria, staring at his flushed face and shining eyes, recognized that his whole being proclaimed an inward exultation.
"Abram Johnson," she solemnly demanded, "have you got the power?"
"Yes," cried Abram, pulling off his old felt hat, and gazing into the crown as if for inspiration. "You've said it, honey! I got the power! Got it of a little red bird! Power o' spring! Power o' song! Power o' love! If that poor little red target for some ornery cuss's bullet can get all he's getting out o' life to-day, there's no cause why a reasonin' thinkin' man shouldn't realize some o' his blessings. You hit it, Maria; I got the power. It's the power o' God, but I learned how to lay hold of it from that little red bird. Come here, Maria!"
Abram wrapped the lines around the plow handle, and cautiously led his wife to the fence. He found a piece of thick bark for her to stand on, and placed her where she would be screened by a big oak. Then he stood behind her and pointed out the sumac and the female bird.
"Jest you keep still a minute, an' you'll feel paid for comin' all right, honey," he whispered, "but don't make any sudden movement."
"I don't know as I ever saw a worse-lookin' specimen 'an she is," answered Maria.
"She looks first-class to him. There's no kick comin' on his part, I can tell you," replied Abram.
The bride hopped shyly through the sumac. She pecked at the dried berries, and frequently tried to improve her plumage, which certainly had been badly draggled; and there was a drop of blood dried at the base of her beak. She plainly showed the effects of her rough experience, and yet she was a most attractive bird; for the dimples in her plump body showed through the feathers, and instead of the usual wickedly black eyes of the cardinal family, hers were a soft tender brown touched by a love-light there was no mistaking. She was a beautiful bird, and she was doing all in her power to make herself dainty again. Her movements clearly indicated how timid she was, and yet she remained in the sumac as if she feared to leave it; and frequently peered expectantly among the tree-tops.
There was a burst of exultation down the river. The little bird gave her plumage a fluff, and watched anxiously. On came the Cardinal like a flaming rocket, calling to her on wing. He alighted beside her, dropped into her beak a morsel of food, gave her a kiss to aid digestion, caressingly ran his beak the length of her wing quills, and flew to the dogwood. Mrs. Cardinal enjoyed the meal. It struck her palate exactly right. She liked the kiss and caress, cared, in fact, for all that he did for her, and with the appreciation of his tenderness came repentance for the dreadful chase she had led him in her foolish fright, and an impulse to repay. She took a dainty hop toward the dogwood, and the invitation she sent him was exquisite. With a shrill whistle of exultant triumph the Cardinal answered at a headlong rush.
The farmer's grip tightened on his wife's shoulder, but Maria turned toward him with blazing, tear-filled eyes. "An' you call yourself a decent man, Abram Johnson?"
"Decent?" quavered the astonished Abram. "Decent? I believe I am."
"I believe you ain't," hotly retorted his wife. "You don't know what decency is, if you go peekin' at them. They ain't birds! They're folks!"
"Maria," pled Abram, "Maria, honey."
"I am plumb ashamed of you," broke in Maria. "How d'you s'pose she'd feel if she knew there was a man here peekin' at her? Ain't she got a right to be lovin' and tender? Ain't she got a right to pay him best she knows? They're jest common human bein's, an' I don't know where you got privilege to spy on a female when she's doin' the best she knows."
Maria broke from his grasp and started down the line fence.
In a few strides Abram had her in his arms, his withered cheek with its springtime bloom pressed against her equally withered, tear-stained one.
"Maria," he whispered, waveringly, "Maria, honey, I wasn't meanin' any disrespect to the sex."
Maria wiped her eyes on the corner of her shawl. "I don't s'pose you was, Abram," she admitted; "but you're jest like all the rest o' the men. You never think! Now you go on with your plowin' an' let that little female alone."
She unclasped his arms and turned homeward.
"Honey," called Abram softly, "since you brought 'em that pocketful o' wheat, you might as well let me have it."
"Landy!" exclaimed Maria, blushing; "I plumb forgot my wheat! I thought maybe, bein' so early, pickin' was scarce, an' if you'd put out a little wheat an' a few crumbs, they'd stay an' nest in the sumac, as you're so fond o' them."
"Jest what I'm fairly prayin' they'll do, an' I been carryin' stuff an' pettin' him up best I knowed for a week," said Abram, as he knelt, and cupped his shrunken hands, while Maria guided the wheat from her apron into them. "I'll scatter it along the top rail, an' they'll be after it in fifteen minutes. Thank you, Maria. 'T was good o' you to think of it."
Maria watched him steadily. How dear he was! How dear he always had been! How happy they were together! "Abram," she asked, hesitatingly, "is there anything else I could do for--your birds?"
They were creatures of habitual repression, and the inner glimpses they had taken of each other that day were surprises they scarcely knew how to meet. Abram said nothing, because he could not. He slowly shook his head, and turned to the plow, his eyes misty. Maria started toward the line fence, but she paused repeatedly to listen; and it was no wonder, for all the redbirds from miles down the river had gathered around the sumac to see if there were a battle in birdland; but it was only the Cardinal, turning somersaults in the air, and screaming with bursting exuberance: "Come here! Come here!"