Chapter 4
 

"So dear! So dear!" crooned the Cardinal

She had taken possession of the sumac. The location was her selection and he loudly applauded her choice. She placed the first twig, and after examining it carefully, he spent the day carrying her others just as much alike as possible. If she used a dried grass blade, he carried grass blades until she began dropping them on the ground. If she worked in a bit of wild grape-vine bark, he peeled grape-vines until she would have no more. It never occurred to him that he was the largest cardinal in the woods, in those days, and he had forgotten that he wore a red coat. She was not a skilled architect. Her nest certainly was a loose ramshackle affair; but she had built it, and had allowed him to help her. It was hers; and he improvised a paean in its praise. Every morning he perched on the edge of the nest and gazed in songless wonder at each beautiful new egg; and whenever she came to brood she sat as if entranced, eyeing her treasures in an ecstasy of proud possession.

Then she nestled them against her warm breast, and turned adoring eyes toward the Cardinal. If he sang from the dogwood, she faced that way. If he rocked on the wild grape-vine, she turned in her nest. If he went to the corn field for grubs, she stood astride her eggs and peered down, watching his every movement with unconcealed anxiety. The Cardinal forgot to be vain of his beauty; she delighted in it every hour of the day. Shy and timid beyond belief she had been during her courtship; but she made reparation by being an incomparably generous and devoted mate.

And the Cardinal! He was astonished to find himself capable of so much and such varied feeling. It was not enough that he brooded while she went to bathe and exercise. The daintiest of every morsel he found was carried to her. When she refused to swallow another particle, he perched on a twig close by the nest many times in a day; and with sleek feathers and lowered crest, gazed at her in silent worshipful adoration.

Up and down the river bank he flamed and rioted. In the sumac he uttered not the faintest "Chip!" that might attract attention. He was so anxious to be inconspicuous that he appeared only half his real size. Always on leaving he gave her a tender little peck and ran his beak the length of her wing--a characteristic caress that he delighted to bestow on her.

If he felt that he was disturbing her too often, he perched on the dogwood and sang for life, and love, and happiness. His music was in a minor key now. The high, exultant, ringing notes of passion were mellowed and subdued. He was improvising cradle songs and lullabies. He was telling her how he loved her, how he would fight for her, how he was watching over her, how he would signal if any danger were approaching, how proud he was of her, what a perfect nest she had built, how beautiful he thought her eggs, what magnificent babies they would produce. Full of tenderness, melting with love, liquid with sweetness, the Cardinal sang to his patient little brooding mate: "So dear! So dear!"

The farmer leaned on his corn-planter and listened to him intently. "I swanny! If he hasn't changed his song again, an' this time I'm blest if I can tell what he's saying!" Every time the Cardinal lifted his voice, the clip of the corn-planter ceased, and Abram hung on the notes and studied them over.

One night he said to his wife: "Maria, have you been noticin' the redbird of late? He's changed to a new tune, an' this time I'm completely stalled. I can't for the life of me make out what he's saying. S'pose you step down to-morrow an' see if you can catch it for me. I'd give a pretty to know!"

Maria felt flattered. She always had believed that she had a musical ear. Here was an opportunity to test it and please Abram at the same time. She hastened her work the following morning, and very early slipped along the line fence. Hiding behind the oak, with straining ear and throbbing heart, she eagerly listened. "Clip, clip," came the sound of the planter, as Abram's dear old figure trudged up the hill. "Chip! Chip!" came the warning of the Cardinal, as he flew to his mate.

He gave her some food, stroked her wing, and flying to the dogwood, sang of the love that encompassed him. As he trilled forth his tender caressing strain, the heart of the listening woman translated as did that of the brooding bird.

With shining eyes and flushed cheeks, she sped down the fence. Panting and palpitating with excitement, she met Abram half-way on his return trip. Forgetful of her habitual reserve, she threw her arms around his neck, and drawing his face to hers, she cried: "Oh, Abram! I got it! I got it! I know what he's saying! Oh, Abram, my love! My own! To me so dear! So dear!"

"So dear! So dear!" echoed the Cardinal.

The bewilderment in Abram's face melted into comprehension. He swept Maria from her feet as he lifted his head.

"On my soul! You have got it, honey! That's what he's saying, plain as gospel! I can tell it plainer'n anything he's sung yet, now I sense it."

He gathered Maria in his arms, pressed her head against his breast with a trembling old hand, while the face he turned to the morning was beautiful.

"I wish to God," he said quaveringly, "'at every creature on earth was as well fixed as me an' the redbird!" Clasping each other, they listened with rapt faces, as, mellowing across the corn field, came the notes of the Cardinal: "So dear! So dear!"

After that Abram's devotion to his bird family became a mild mania. He carried food to the top rail of the line fence every day, rain or shine, with the same regularity that he curried and fed Nancy in the barn. From caring for and so loving the Cardinal, there grew in his tender old heart a welling flood of sympathy for every bird that homed on his farm.

He drove a stake to mark the spot where the killdeer hen brooded in the corn field, so that he would not drive Nancy over the nest. When he closed the bars at the end of the lane, he always was careful to leave the third one down, for there was a chippy brooding in the opening where it fitted when closed. Alders and sweetbriers grew in his fence corners undisturbed that spring if he discovered that they sheltered an anxious-eyed little mother. He left a square yard of clover unmowed, because it seemed to him that the lark, singing nearer the Throne than any other bird, was picking up stray notes dropped by the Invisible Choir, and with unequalled purity and tenderness, sending them ringing down to his brooding mate, whose home and happiness would be despoiled by the reaping of that spot of green. He delayed burning the brush-heap from the spring pruning, back of the orchard, until fall, when he found it housed a pair of fine thrushes; for the song of the thrush delighted him almost as much as that of the lark. He left a hollow limb on the old red pearmain apple-tree, because when he came to cut it there was a pair of bluebirds twittering around, frantic with anxiety.

His pockets were bulgy with wheat and crumbs, and his heart was big with happiness. It was the golden springtime of his later life. The sky never had seemed so blue, or the earth so beautiful. The Cardinal had opened the fountains of his soul; life took on a new colour and joy; while every work of God manifested a fresh and heretofore unappreciated loveliness. His very muscles seemed to relax, and new strength arose to meet the demands of his uplifted spirit. He had not finished his day's work with such ease and pleasure in years; and he could see the influence of his rejuvenation in Maria. She was flitting around her house with broken snatches of song, even sweeter to Abram's ears than the notes of the birds; and in recent days he had noticed that she dressed particularly for her afternoon's sewing, putting on her Sunday lace collar and a white apron. He immediately went to town and bought her a finer collar than she ever had owned in her life.

Then he hunted a sign painter, and came home bearing a number of pine boards on which gleamed in big, shiny black letters:

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|  NO HUNTING ALLOWED  |                    
|     ON THIS FARM     |                          
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He seemed slightly embarrassed when he showed them to Maria. "I feel a little mite onfriendly, putting up signs like that 'fore my neighbours," he admitted, "but the fact is, it ain't the neighbours so much as it's boys that need raising, an' them town creatures who call themselves sportsmen, an' kill a hummin'-bird to see if they can hit it. Time was when trees an' underbrush were full o' birds an' squirrels, any amount o' rabbits, an' the fish fairly crowdin' in the river. I used to kill all the quail an' wild turkeys about here a body needed to make an appetizing change, It was always my plan to take a little an' leave a little. But jest look at it now. Surprise o' my life if I get a two-pound bass. Wild turkey gobblin' would scare me most out of my senses, an', as for the birds, there are jest about a fourth what there used to be, an' the crops eaten to pay for it. I'd do all I'm tryin' to for any bird, because of its song an' colour, an' pretty teeterin' ways, but I ain't so slow but I see I'm paid in what they do for me. Up go these signs, an' it won't be a happy day for anybody I catch trespassin' on my birds."

Maria studied the signs meditatively. "You shouldn't be forced to put 'em up," she said conclusively. "If it's been decided 'at it's good for 'em to be here, an' laws made to protect 'em, people ought to act with some sense, an' leave them alone. I never was so int'rested in the birds in all my life; an' I'll jest do a little lookin' out myself. If you hear a spang o' the dinner bell when you're out in the field, you'll know it means there's some one sneakin' 'round with a gun."

Abram caught Maria, and planted a resounding smack on her cheek, where the roses of girlhood yet bloomed for him. Then he filled his pockets with crumbs and grain, and strolled to the river to set the Cardinal's table. He could hear the sharp incisive "Chip!" and the tender mellow love-notes as he left the barn; and all the way to the sumac they rang in his ears.

The Cardinal met him at the corner of the field, and hopped over bushes and the fence only a few yards from him. When Abram had scattered his store on the rail, the bird came tipping and tilting, daintily caught up a crumb, and carried it to the sumac. His mate was pleased to take it; and he carried her one morsel after another until she refused to open her beak for more. He made a light supper himself; and then swinging on the grape-vine, he closed the day with an hour of music. He repeatedly turned a bright questioning eye toward Abram, but he never for a moment lost sight of the nest and the plump gray figure of his little mate. As she brooded over her eggs, he brooded over her; and that she might realize the depth and constancy of his devotion, he told her repeatedly, with every tender inflection he could throw into his tones, that she was "So dear! So dear!"

The Cardinal had not known that the coming of the mate he so coveted would fill his life with such unceasing gladness, and yet, on the very day that happiness seemed at fullest measure, there was trouble in the sumac. He had overstayed his time, chasing a fat moth he particularly wanted for his mate, and she, growing thirsty past endurance, left the nest and went to the river. Seeing her there, he made all possible haste to take his turn at brooding, so he arrived just in time to see a pilfering red squirrel starting away with an egg.

With a vicious scream the Cardinal struck him full force. His rush of rage cost the squirrel an eye; but it lost the father a birdling, for the squirrel dropped the egg outside the nest. The Cardinal mournfully carried away the tell-tale bits of shell, so that any one seeing them would not look up and discover his treasures. That left three eggs; and the brooding bird mourned over the lost one so pitifully that the Cardinal perched close to the nest the remainder of the day, and whispered over and over for her comfort that she was "So dear! So dear!"