Hildegarde's Neighbors by Laura E. Richards
Chapter XV. A Morning Hour.
It is morning in the Lonely Cove. Before and around lies a broad stretch of glimmering water, dotted here and there with great stumps, and lined about the shore with dead trees. Dams built in the river beyond have raised the level of the lake, and hundreds of trees have died.
On every side is a network of gnarled and knotted roots. The black limbs grapple with each other; here one has dragged his neighbour over, and he lies with arms outstretched, writhen into antic twists and curves, as if he had died in torment; there, in singular contrast, are two friends,--oaks, were they once?--who have fallen into one another's arms, and, dead, seem still to embrace and uphold each other tenderly.
Here again are stumps that gleam like gray silver, bare and polished, worn by storms and winds. The shining water is clear, and one sees the bottom covered with particles of wood, chipped from the rotting trees, preserved by the water from further decay.
Through this silent water glides the Cheemaun, Hilda in the bow-- where is Hilda so happy as in the birch canoe?--Roger paddling in the stern. As the paddle dips, bubbles rise and burst, large and round. Behind, the dark woods curve in a lovely line; between wood and water, spread like a bed for the dead and dying trees, a swamp, bright with rushes and water-weed.
On the crest of a snow-white birch sits a great fish-hawk, with bent head and closed wings. What is the hunter dreaming of? Hours of sport, most likely; long pauses on balanced wings, the arrowy downward sweep, the swift plunge, and the triumph of the upward plunge, dripping and proud, bearing his prey aloft.
Some real or fancied noise disturbs the vision; he rises, spreads the wide, hollow wings, and flaps slowly away. Roused by his flight, half a dozen crows burst suddenly into talk, and protest violently against some deadly injury, then as suddenly fall silent again.
Whirr! a kingfisher darts down with a quick splash, and back to his bough with a fish in his beak. The canoe moves on, slowly, noiselessly; here the water is only three inches deep, but the soft bottom yields as the strong young arms ply the paddle.
Hilda lifts her hand with a warning gesture, and they are motionless once more. Look! not fifty yards away, a group of pretty birds play and paddle in the shallow water. Sandpipers, are they? They might be enchanted princesses, Hilda thinks, as they go mincing along, turning their heads now to this side, now to that, admiring themselves in the clear water. One of them finds a bit of succulent weed, and the others come running, for all the world like curious girls, ruffling their pretty feathers, cocking their pretty heads; and they peck, and chatter, and peck again, wholly unconscious of the two monsters who are drifting nearer and nearer. Suddenly one of them catches sight of a moving shadow, hears some faint lapping of water against the side of the canoe, inaudible to ears less fine; and the three princesses are up and away, fluttering, hopping, fairly flying at last, to hide themselves in the deeps of the bog-land.
Neither of the two had spoken during all this time. Both felt the magic of the place so strong upon them that speech seemed profanation. The flight of the little birds, however, loosened the spell. Hildegarde spoke, but softly, almost under her breath. "Captain! Do you see the lizard? Look at him, on the log there! The greenness of him! soul of an emerald!"
"I was looking at the fish," said Roger.
"What for a fish?" Hilda leaned over the side, and looked into the clear shallow water. A bream was hovering over her wide, shallow nest, fanning the water slowly with wide-spread wings. "Why does she do that?"
"To protect the eggs; they are there in the sand, and she is keeping off all the water-people who like eggs for breakfast."
They drifted on again in silence: what was there good enough to say in such a place?
Hildegarde pulled the transparent stems of jewel-weed, with their glowing, pitcher-shaped blossoms, and twined them into a garland, which she hung over the bow of the canoe. "Dear Cheemaun!" she said. "She shall be decorated as Hiawatha's was. She deserves to be hung with real jewels."
"Are there any more real than these?" said Roger. "And--you really like the Cheemaun, do you, Miss Hilda? and the place? I thought you would like the place."
"Oh!" said Hilda, and her voice said enough. "How did you find it? How strange that I have never heard of it before! There is nothing so beautiful in the world, I am sure! Have the others been here?"
"N--no," answered Roger, slowly. "I don't think they have been here. I--I found it one morning, when I was shooting, two or three years ago; and I am afraid I have been greedy, and kept it to myself."
"How good of you to bring me!" cried Hilda. "I like it all the better because no one--that is, because it is so lonely and still. You--you don't shoot now much, do you, Captain Roger?"
"No. I used to be very fond of it when I was a boy; but now, well, I would rather see them alive, don't you know?"
Hildegarde nodded her wise little head, and knew very well indeed, and thought the Captain was very right.
"I do not see how a sportsman can really love creatures," she said. "If you love them, you want them to live, as you say. Oh! oh, Captain Roger, please quickly stop! Look! What wonder is this?"
Hilda's voice sank to a whisper, thrilled with excitement. There, a few yards away from them, ashen grey against the silver-grey of a dead tree, was a great bird. To Hilda's excited fancy, it seemed the spirit of the place, changed by some wizardry into bird form, crouching there amid the ruins of the forest where once it had flitted and frolicked, a gauze-winged sprite.
Roger, less imaginative, and more skilled in wood-lore, saw a great blue heron, sitting huddled together on a stump, its head drawn in, its yellow eyes glaring wild with fright.
"It must be wounded!" he said softly. "Keep very still, and I will see if we can come nearer."
Softly, slowly, the birch canoe stole through the water. It scarcely seemed to move, yet every moment brought them nearer to the wild creature of the woods. It made no attempt to fly, only crouched lower, and tried to flatten itself against the stump.
"Oh, poor, poor thing!" whispered Hilda. "Can you do anything for it, Captain Roger?"
"Only one thing, I fear," said Roger, gently. "Its leg is broken, and we must not leave it in misery."
"You must kill it? Oh, it seems too pitiful! No, I am not going to be silly, only I will turn my head away, please, Captain Roger."
Now she could have put her hand on the wounded bird, as it sat motionless, only the wide eyes of terror telling that it was alive. The bow of the boat passed close against the log, and on beyond. Hilda thought she should never forget the dumb agony of those eyes. They should not be here at all, she thought. It was not decent for human beings to thrust themselves into the sorrows and mysteries of the woods and water. She could not--
Roger leaned forward, paddle in hand; a moment, and all was over. Something slid into the water, and there was a little plashing murmur among the reeds; then stillness again.
The canoe began to move backward, and Hilda opened her eyes, which had been tightly closed. Neither of the two spoke until they were in open water again, and the swamp left behind.
"I am sorry!" said Roger then, almost apologetically. "I am sorry that happened. The poor creature had been shot, and was badly wounded; it would only have lingered in pain."
"Oh yes, I know; I am so glad you were there, to help it out of the suffering."
"But now you will never want to come here again, I fear."
"Oh, but I shall!" cried Hilda. "I am not so silly as that, truly I am not. I shall always think of this as the loveliest place I know; and--"
"Well, and--what?" asked Roger.
"Oh, nothing! Only--well, it is your own place," said Hilda frankly, "and I shall always think of you here, in the dear Cheemaun, with the enchanted princesses--I mean the sandpipers-- and the fish-hawk, and all the rest of it."
"If it is mine, I may do what I like with it, and I give it to you. Will you have it?"
"Oh, we will share it together!" cried Hilda eagerly; and then bethought herself, and blushed in her usual ridiculous way, and wondered if the back of her neck were blushing too. It was, and Roger saw the crimson mounting to the pretty ears and losing itself in the fair hair; and he wondered--and wondered again, and then remembered that people sometimes blushed when they were angry. He was a very, very stupid Roger, in some ways; but in a moment Hilda began to talk as cheerfully as possible, and to ask about all the birds they had seen, so Roger was relieved, and they paddled home to breakfast in a very pleasant way.