Michael O'Halloran by Gene Stratton-Porter
Chapter XVIII. Malcolm and the Hermit Thrush
"Mr. Dovesky, I want a minute with you," said James Minturn.
"All right, Mr. Minturn, what is it?"
"You are well acquainted with Mrs. Minturn?"
"Very well indeed!" said Mr. Dovesky. "I have had the honour of working with her in many concerts."
"And of her musical ability you are convinced?"
"Brilliant is the only word," exclaimed the Professor.
"My reason for asking is this," said Mr. Minturn: "one of our boys, the second, Malcolm, is like his mother, and lately we discovered that he has her gift in music. We ran on it through Miss Leslie Winton, who interested Mrs. Minturn in certain wild birds."
"Yes I know," cried the Professor eagerly.
"When she became certain that she had heard a--I think she said Song Sparrow, sing Di Provenza from Traviata--correct me if I am wrong--until she felt that Verdi copied the bird or the bird copied the master, she told my wife, and Nellie was greatly interested."
"Yes I know," repeated the musician. "She stopped here one day in passing and told me what she had heard from Miss Winton. She asked me if I thought there were enough in the subject to pay for spending a day investigating it. I knew very little, but on the chance that she would have a more profitable time in the woods than in society, I strongly urged her to go. She heard enough to convince her, for shortly after leaving for her usual summer trip she wrote me twice concerning it."
"You mean she wrote you about studying bird music?"
"Yes," said the Professor, "the first letter, if I remember, came from Boston, where she found much progress had been made; there she heard of a man who had gone into the subject more deeply than any one ever before had investigated, and written a book. Her second letter was from the country near Boston, where she had gone to study under his direction. I have thought about taking it up myself at odd times this spring."
"That is why I am here," said Mr. Minturn. "I want you to begin at once, and go as far as you are able, taking Malcolm with you. The boys have been spending much of their time in the country lately, hiding in blinds, selecting a bird and practising its notes until they copy them so perfectly they induce it to answer. They are proud as Pompey when they succeed; and it teaches them to recognize the birds. I believe this is setting their feet in the right way. But Malcolm has gone so fast and so far, that he may be reproducing some of the most wonderful of the songs, for all I know, for the birds come peering, calling, searching, even to the very branch which conceals him. Isn't it enough for a beginning?"
"Certainly," said the musician.
"He's been badly spoiled by women servants," said Mr. Minturn, "but the men are taking that out of him as fast as it can be eliminated. I believe he is interested enough to work. I think his mother will be delighted on her return to find him working at what she so enjoys. Does the proposition interest you?"
"Deeply!" cried the Professor. "Matters musical are extremely dull here now, and I can't make my usual trip abroad on account of the war; I should be delighted to take up this new subject, which I could make serve me in many ways with my advanced Conservatory pupils."
"May I make a suggestion?" asked Mr. Minturn.
"Most assuredly," exclaimed the Professor.
"You noticed I began by admitting I didn't know a thing about it, so I'll not be at all offended if you indorse the statement. My boys are large, and old for the beginning they must make. I have to go carefully to find what they care for and will work at; so that I get them started without making them feel confined and forced, and so conceive a dislike for the study to which I think them best adapted. Would you find the idea of going to the country, putting a tuned violin in the hands of the lad, and letting him search for the notes he hears, and then playing the composers' selections to him, and giving his ear a chance, at all feasible?"
"It's a reversal, but he could try it."
"Very well, then," said Mr. Minturn rising. "All I stipulate is that you allow the other boys and the tutor to go along and assimilate what they can, and that when you're not occupied with Malcolm, their tutor shall have a chance to work in what he can in the way of spelling, numbers, and nature study. Is it a bargain?"
"A most delightful one on my part, Mr. Minturn," said Mr. Dovesky. "When shall I begin?"
"Whenever you have selected the instrument you want the boy to have, call Mr. Tower at my residence and arrange with him to come for you," said Mr. Minturn. "You can't start too soon to suit the boy or me."
"Very well then, I'll make my plans and call the first thing in the morning," said the Professor.
James Minturn went home and told what he had done.
"Won't that be great, Malcolm?" cried James Jr. "Maybe you can do the music so well you can be a birdman and stand upon a stage before a thousand people and make all of them think you're a bird."
"I believe I'd like to do it," said Malcolm. "If I find out the people who make music have gone and copied in what the birds sing, and haven't told they did it, I'll tell on them. It's no fair way, 'cause of course the birds sang their songs before men, didn't they father?"
"I think so, but I can't prove it," said Mr. Minturn.
"Can you prove it, Mr. Tower?" asked Malcolm.
"Yes," said Mr. Tower, "science proves that the water forms developed first. Crickets were singing before the birds, and both before man appeared."
"Then that's what I think," said Malcolm.
"When are they to begin, James?" asked Mrs. Winslow.
"Mr. Dovesky is to call Mr. Tower in the morning and tell him what arrangements he has been able to make," answered Mr. Minturn. "Malcolm, you are old enough to recognize that he is a great man, and it is a big thing for him to leave his Conservatory and his work, and go to the woods to help teach one small boy what the birds say. You'll be very polite and obey him instantly, will you not?"
"Do I have to mind him just like he was Mr. Tower?"
"I don't think you are obeying Mr. Tower because you must," said Aunt Margaret. "Seems to me I saw you with your arms around his neck last night, and I think I heard you tell him that you'd give him all your money, except for your violin, if he wouldn't go away this winter. Honestly, Malcolm, do you obey Mr. Tower because you feel forced to?"
"No!" cried Malcolm. "We have dandy times! And we are learning a lot too! I wonder if Mr. Dovesky will join our campfire?"
"Very probably he'll be eager to," said Mrs. Winslow, "and more than likely you'll obey him, just as you do father and Mr. Tower, because you love to."
"Father, are William and I going to study the birds?" asked James.
"If you like," said Mr. Minturn. "It would please me greatly if each of you would try hard to understand what Mr. Dovesky teaches Malcolm, and to learn all of it you can, and to produce creditable bird calls if possible; and of course these days you're not really educated unless you know the birds, flowers, and animals around you. It is now a component and delightful part of life."
"Gee, it's a pity mother isn't here," said Malcolm. "I bet she knows more about it than Mr. Dovesky."
"I bet she does, too," agreed James. "But she wouldn't go where we do. There isn't a party there, and if a mosquito bit her she'd have a fit."
"Aw! She would if she wanted to!" insisted Malcolm.
"Well she wouldn't want to!" said James.
"Well she might, smarty," said Malcolm. "She did once! I saw the boots and skirt she was going to wear. Don't you wish she liked the things we do better than parties, father?"
"Yes, I wish she did," said Mr. Minturn. "Maybe she will."
"If she'd hear me call the quail and the whip-poor-will, she'd like it," said Malcolm.
"She wouldn't like it well enough to stay away from a party to go with you to hear it," said James.
"She might!" persisted Malcolm. "She didn't know about this when she went to the parties. When she comes back I'm going to tell her; and I'm going to take her to hear me, and I'll show her the flowers and my fish-pond, and yours and father's. Wouldn't it be fun if she'd wear the boots again, and make a fish-pond too?"
"Yes, she'd wear boots!" scoffed James.
"Well she would if she wanted to," reiterated Malcolm. "She wore them when she wanted to hear the birds; if she did once, she would again, if she pleased."
"Well she wouldn't please," laughed James.
"Well she might," said Malcolm stubbornly. "Mightn't she, father?"
"If she went once, I see no reason why she shouldn't again," said Mr. Minturn.
"Course she'll go again!" triumphed Malcolm. "I'll make her, when she comes."
"Yes 'when' she comes!" jeered James. "She won't ever live here! She wouldn't think this was good enough for Lucette and Gretchen! And she gave away our house for the sick children, and she hates it at grandmother's! Bet she doesn't ever come again!"
"Bet she does!" said Malcolm instantly.
"Would you like to have mother come here, Malcolm?" interrupted Mr. Minturn quietly.
"Why----" he said and shifted his questioning gaze toward Aunt Margaret, "why--why--well, I'll tell you, father: if she would wear boots and go see the birds and the flowers--if she would do as we do----Sometimes in the night I wake up and think how pretty she is, and I just get hungry to see her--but of course it would only kick up a row for her to come here--of course she better stay away--but father, if she would come, and if she would wear the boots--and if she'd let old slapping Lucette go, and live as we do, father, wouldn't that be great?"
"Yes I think it would," said James Minturn conclusively, as he excused himself and arose from the table.
"James," said Malcolm, when they went to their schoolroom, "if Mr. Dovesky goes to shutting us up in the study and won't let us play while we learn, what will we do to him to make him sick of his job?"
"Oh things would turn up!" replied James. "But Malcolm, wouldn't you kind o' hate to have him see you be mean?"
"Well father saw us be mean," said Malcolm.
"Yes, but what would you give if he hadn't?"
"I'm not proud of it," replied Malcolm.
"Yes and that's just it!" cried James. "That's just what comes of living here. All of them are so polite, and if you are halfway decent they are so good to you, and they help you to do things that will make you into a man who needn't be ashamed of himself--that's just it! How would you like to go back and be so rough and so mean nobody at all would care for us?"
"Father wouldn't let us, would he?" asked Malcolm.
"He wouldn't if he could help it," said James. "He didn't used to seem as if he could help it. Don't you remember he would tell us it was not the right way, and try to have us be decent, and Lucette would tell mother, and mother would fire him? I wonder how she could! And if she could then, why doesn't she now? I guess he doesn't want to stop her party to bother with us; but if she ever conies and wants to take us back like we were, Malcolm, I'm not going. I like what we got now. Mother always said we were to be gentlemen; but we never could be that way. Father and Mr. Tower and Mr. Dovesky are gentlemen, just as kind, and easy, and fine. When we were mean as could be, and acted like fight-cats, you remember father and Mr. Tower only held us; they didn't get mad and beat us. If mother comes you may go with her if you want to."
"I wish she'd come with us!" said Malcolm.
"Not mother! We ain't her kind of a party."
"I know it," admitted Malcolm slowly. "Sometimes I want her just awful. I wonder why?"
"I guess it's 'cause a boy is born wanting his mother. I want her myself a lot of times, but I wouldn't go with her if she'd come today, so I don't know why I want her, but I do sometimes."
"I didn't know you did," said Malcolm.
"Well I do," said James, "but I ain't ever going. Often I think the queerest things!"
"What queer things do you think, James?"
"Why like this," said James. "That it ain't safe to let children be jerked, and their heads knocked. You know what Lucette did to Elizabeth? I think she hit her head too hard. She gave me more cake, and said I was a good boy for saying the ice made her sick, but all the time I thought it was hitting her head. I wouldn't be the boy who said that again, if I had to be shot for not saying it, like the French boy was about the soldiers. 'Member that day?"
"Yes I do," said Malcolm shortly.
"You know you coaxed her off the bench, and I pushed her in!" said James, slowly.
"Yes," said Malcolm. "And I kicked her. And I wasn't mad at her a bit. I wonder why I did it!"
"I guess you did it because you were more of an animal than a decent boy, same as I pushed her," said James. "I guess I won't ever forget that I pushed her."
"Pushing her wasn't as bad as what I did," said Malcolm. "I guess ain't either one of us going to feel right about Elizabeth again, long as we live."
"Malcolm, we can't get her back," said James, "but if any way happens that we ever get another little sister, we'll take care of her like father wanted to."
"You bet we will!" said Malcolm.
Next morning the boys had the car ready. They packed in all their bird books, their flower records, and botanies, and were eagerly waiting when the call from Mr. Dovesky came. At once they drove to his home for him, and from there to a music store where a violin was selected for Malcolm.
Mr. Dovesky was so big, the boys stood in awe of his size. He was so clean, no boy would want him to see him dirty. He was so handsome, it was good to watch his face, because you had to like him when he smiled. He was so polite, that you never for a minute forgot that soon you were going to be a man, and if you could be the man you wished, you would be exactly like him. Both boys were very shy of him and very much afraid his entrance into their party would spoil their fun.
When they left the music store, Malcolm carefully carrying his new violin, Mr. Dovesky his, and a roll of music, the boys with anxious hearts awaited developments.
"Now Mr. Tower," said Mr. Dovesky, "suppose we drive wherever you are likely to find the birds you have been practising on, and for a start let me hear just what you have done and can do, and then I can plan better to work in with you."
When they reached the brook they stopped to show the fish pools and then entered an old orchard, long abandoned for fruit growing and so worm infested as to make it a bird Paradise. Cuckoos, jays, robins, bluebirds, thrashers, orioles, sparrows, and vireos, nested there, singing on wing, among the trees, on the fences, and from bushes in the corners.
Malcolm and Mr. Dovesky secreted themselves on a board laid across the rails of an alder-filled fence corner, then the boy began pointing out the birds he knew and giving his repetition of their calls, cries, bits of song, sometimes whistled, sometimes half spoken, half whistled, any vocal rendition that would produce the bird tones. He had practised carefully, he was slightly excited, and sooner than usual he received replies. Little feathered folk came peeping, peering, calling, and beyond question answering Malcolm's notes. In an hour Mr. Dovesky was holding his breath with interest, suggesting corrections, trying notes himself, and when he felt he had whistled accurately and heard a bird reply, he was as proud as the boy.
Then a thing happened that none of them had mentioned, because they were not sure enough that it would. A brown thrush, catching the unusual atmosphere of the orchard that morning, selected the tallest twig of an apple tree and showed that orchard what real music was.
The thrush preened, flirted his feathers, opened his beak widely and sang his first liquid notes. "Starts on C," commented Mr. Dovesky softly.
"Three times, and does it over, to show us we needn't think it was an accident and he can't do it as often as he pleases," whispered Malcolm. Mr. Dovesky glanced at the boy and nodded.
"There he goes from C to E," he commented an instant later, "repeats that --C again, falls to B, up to G, repeats that--I wish he would wait till I get my pencil."
"I can give it to you," said Malcolm. "He does each strain over as soon as he sings it. I know his song!"
On the back of an envelope, Mr. Dovesky was sketching a staff of music in natural key, setting off measures and filling in notes. As the bird confused him with repetitions or trills on E or C so high he had to watch sharply to catch just what it was, his fingers trembled when he added lines to the staff for the highest notes. For fifteen minutes the blessed bird sang, and at each rendition of its full strain, it seemed to grow more intoxicated with its own performance. Finishing the last notes perfectly, the bird gave a hop, glanced around as if he were saying: "Now any one who thinks he can surpass that, has my permission to try." From a bush a small gray bird meouwed in derision and accepted the challenge. The watchers could not see him, but he came so close singing the same song that he deceived Mr. Dovesky, for he said: "He's going to do it over from the bushes now!"
"Listen!" cautioned Malcolm. "Don't you hear the difference? He starts the same, but he runs higher, he drops lower, and does it quicker, and I think the notes clearer and sweeter when the little gray fellow sings them, and you should see his nest! Do you like him better?"
"Humph!" said Mr. Dovesky. "Why I was so entranced with the first performance I didn't suppose anything could be better. I must have time to learn both songs, and analyze and compare."
"I can't do gray's yet," said Malcolm. "It's so fine, and cut up, with going up and down on the jump, but I got the start of it, and the part that goes this way----"
"This is my work!" cried Mr. Dovesky. "Is there any chance the apple-tree bird will repeat his performance?"
"Mostly he doesn't till evening," answered Malcolm. "He's pretty sure to again to-morrow morning, but old cat of the bushes, he sings any time it suits him all day. His nest isn't where he sings, and he doesn't ever perch up so high and make such a fuss about it, but I think mother would like his notes best."
"First," said Mr. Dovesky, "I'll take down what Mr. Brown Bird sang, and learn it. I'd call that a good start, and when I get his song so I can whistle, and play it on the instruments, then we'll go at Mr. Cat's song, and see if I can learn why, and in what way you think it finer."
"Oh, it goes from high to low quicker, more notes in a bunch, and sweeter tones trilling," explained Malcolm. Mr. Dovesky laughed, saying in a question of music that would constitute quite a difference. They went to the brook and lunched and made easy records of syllabic calls that could be rendered in words and by whistling. Then all of them gathered around Mr. Dovesky while he drew lines, crossed them with bands and explained the staff, and different time, and signatures, and together they had their first music lesson.
Malcolm whistled the thrush song while Mr. Dovesky copied the notes, tuned the violin, and showed the boy how the strings corresponded to the lines he had made, where the notes lay on them, and how to draw them out with the bow. He could not explain fast enough to satisfy the eager lad. After Mr. Dovesky had gone as far as he thought wise, and left off with music, he wandered with Mr. Tower hunting flowers in which he seemed almost as much interested as the music. Malcolm clung to the violin, and over and over ran the natural scale he had been taught; then slowly, softly, with wavering awkward bow, he began whistling plain easy calls, and hunting up and down the strings for them.
That day was the beginning. Others did not dawn fast enough to suit Malcolm, while the ease with which he mastered the songs of the orchard and reproduced them, in a few days set him begging to be taken to the swamp to hear the bird that sang "from the book." Leslie Winton was added to the party that day. Malcolm came from the land of the tamarack obsessed. James, William, and the tutor did not care for that location, but Malcolm and Mr. Dovesky wanted to erect a tent and take provisions and their instruments and live among the dim coolness, where miracles of song burst on the air at any moment. They heard and identified the veery. They went on their knees at their first experience with the clear, bell-toned notes of the wood thrush. With a little practice Malcolm could reproduce the "song from the book." He talked of it incessantly, sang and whistled it, making patent to every member of the family that what was in his heart was fully as much a desire to do the notes so literally that he would win the commendation of his mother, as to obtain an answer from an unsuspecting bird; for that was the sport. The big thing for which to strive! They worked to obtain a record so accurately, to reproduce it so perfectly that the bird making it would answer and come at their call. The day Malcolm, hidden in the tamarack swamp, coaxed the sparrow, now flitting widely in feeding its young, he knew not how far, to the bush sheltering him, and with its own notes set it singing against him as a rival, the boy was no happier than Mr. Dovesky.
Mr. Minturn could not quite agree to the camp at the swamp, but he provided a car and a driver and allowed them to go each morning and often to remain late at night to practise owl and nighthawk calls, veery notes, chat cries, and the unsurpassed melody of the evening vespers of the Hermit bird. This song once heard, comprehended, copied, and reproduced, the musician and the boy with music in his heart, brain, and finger tips, clung to each other and suffered the exquisite pain of the artist experiencing joy so poignant it hurt. After a mastery of those notes as to time, tone, and grouping, came the task of perfecting them so that the bird would reply.
Hours they practised until far in the night, and when Malcolm felt he really had located a bird, gained its attention, and set it singing against him, he was wild, and nothing would satisfy him but that his father should go to the swamp with him, and well hidden, hear and see that he called the bird. Gladly Mr. Minturn assented. Whether the boy succeeded in this was a matter of great importance to his father, but it was not paramount. The thing that concerned him most was that Malcolm's interest in what he was doing, his joy in the study he was making, had bred a deep regard in his heart for his instructor. The boy loved the man intensely in a few days, and immediately began studying with him, watching him, copying him. He moved with swift alertness, spoke with care to select the best word, and was fast becoming punctiliously polite.
On their return Mr. Dovesky had fallen into the habit of lunching with the Minturns. The things of which he and the boy reminded each other, the notes they reproduced by whistling, calling, or a combination, the execution of these on the violin, the references Mr. Dovesky made to certain bird songs which recalled to his mind passages in operas, in secular and sacred productions, his rendition of the wild music, and then the human notes, his comparison of the two, and his remarks on different composers, his mastery of the violin, and his ability to play long passages preceding and following the parts taken from the birds, were intensely absorbing and educative to all of them. Then Mr. Tower would add the description and history of each bird in question. Mr. Minturn started the boys' library with interesting works on ornithology, everything that had been written concerning strains in bird and human music; the lives and characters of the musicians in whose work the bird passages appeared, or who used melodies so like the birds it made the fact apparent the feathered folk had inspired them. This led to minute examination of the lives of the composers, in an effort to discover which of them were country born and had worked in haunts where birds might be heard. The differing branches of information opened up seemed endless. The change this work made in the boys appeared to James Minturn and his sister as something marvellous. That the work was also making a change in the heart of the man himself, was an equal miracle he did not realize.
As each day new avenues opened, he began to understand dimly how much it would have meant to him in his relations with his wife, if he had begun long ago under her tuition and learned, at least enough to appreciate the one thing outside society, which she found absorbing. He began to see that if he had listened, and tried, and had induced her to repeat to him parts of the great composers she so loved, on her instruments, when they reached home, he soon could have come to recognize them, and so an evening at the opera with her would have meant pleasure to himself instead of stolid endurance. Ultimately it might have meant an effective wedge with which to pry against the waste of time, strength and money on the sheer amusement of herself in society. Once he started searching for them, he found many ways in which he might have made his life with his wife different, if indeed he had not had it in his power to effect a complete change by having been firm in the beginning.
Of this one thing he was sure to certainty: that if he had been able to introduce any such element of interest into his wife's residence as he had, through merely saying the word, in his own, it surely would have made some of the big difference then it was making now. He found himself brooding, yearning over his sons, and his feeling for them broadening and deepening. As he daily saw James seeking more and more to be with him, to understand what he was doing, his pride in being able to feel that he had helped if it were no more than to sit in court and hand a marked book at the right moment, he began to make a comrade of, and to develop a feeling of dependence on, the boy.
He watched Malcolm with his quicker intellect, his daily evidence of temperament, his rapidly developing musical ability, and felt the tingle of pride in his lithe ruddy beauty, so like his mother, and his talent, so like hers. The boy, under the interest of the music, and with the progress he was making in doing a new, unusual thing, soon began to develop her mannerisms; when he was most polite, her charm was apparent; when he was offended, her hauteur enveloped him. When he was pleased and happy, her delicate tinge of rose flushed his transparent cheek, while the lights on his red-brown hair glinted with her colour. He shut himself in his room and worked with his violin until time to start to the tamarack swamp. When Mr. Minturn promptly appeared with the car, he found Malcolm had borrowed Mr. Dovesky's khaki suit and waders for him, and on the advice of the boy he wore the stiff coarse clothing, which the tamaracks would not tear, the mosquitoes could not bite through, and muck and water would not easily penetrate--there were many reasons.
When they reached the swamp both of them put on boots and then, following his son and doing exactly what he was told, James Minturn forgot law, politics, and business. With anxious heart he prayed that the bird the lad wished to sing would evolve its sweetest notes, and that his high hope of reproducing the music perfectly enough to induce the singer to answer would be fulfilled. Malcolm advanced softly, slipping under branches, around bushes, over deep moss beds that sank in an ooze of water at the pressure of a step and sprung back on release. Imitating every caution, stepping in the boy's tracks, and keeping a few rods behind, followed his father. He had rolled his sleeves to the elbow, left his shirt open at the throat, while for weeks the joy of wind and weather on his bared head had been his, so that as he silently followed his son he made an impressive figure. At a certain point Malcolm stopped, motioning his father to come to him.
"Now this is as far as I've gone yet," he whispered. "You stay here, and we'll wait till the music begins. If I can do it as well as I have for three nights, and get an answer, I'm going to try to call the Hermit bird I sing with. If a hen answers, I'll do the male notes, and try to coax her where you can see. If a male sings, I'll do his song once or twice to show you how close I can come, and then I'll do the hen's call note, and see if I can coax him out for you. If I creep ahead, you keep covered as much as you can and follow; but stay as far as that big tree behind me, and don't for your life move or make a noise when I'm still. I'll go far ahead as I want to be, to start on. Now don't forget to be quiet, and listen hard!"
"I won't forget!" said James Minturn.
"Oh but it will be awful if one doesn't sing to-night!"
"Not at all!" answered Mr. Minturn. "This is a new experience for me; I'll get the benefit of a sight of the swamp that will pay for the trip, if I don't even see a bird."
By the boy's sigh of relief the father knew he had quieted his anxiety. Malcolm went softly ahead a few yards, and stopped, sheltering himself in a clump of willow and button bushes. His father made himself as inconspicuous as he could and waited. He studied the trunks of the big scaly trees, the intermingled branches covered with tufts of tiny spines, and here and there the green cones nestling upright. The cool water rising around his feet called his attention to the deep moss bed, silvery green in the evening light. Here and there on moss mounds at the tree bases he could see the broad leaves and ripening pods that he thought must be moccasins seeding. Then his eye sought the crouching boy, and he again prayed that he would not be disappointed; with his prayer came the answer. A sweep of wings overhead, a brown flash through the tamaracks, and then a burst of slow, sweet notes, then silence.
James Minturn leaned forward, his eyes on his son, his precious little lad. How the big strong man hoped, until it became the very essence of prayer, that he would be granted the pride and pleasure, the triumph, of success; for his ears told him that to reproduce the notes he had just heard would undoubtedly be the crowning performance of bird music; surely there could be no other songster gifted like that! The bird made a short flight and sang again. Across the swamp came a repetition of his notes from another of his kind, so the brown streak moved in that direction. At its next pause its voice arose again, sweeter for the mellowing distance, and then another bird, not so far away, answered. The bird replied and came winging in sight, this time peering, uttering a short note, unlike its song; and not until it came searching where he could see it distinctly, did James Minturn awake to the realization that the last notes had been Malcolm's. His heart swelled big with prideful possession. What a wonderful accomplishment! What a fine boy! How careful he must be to help and to guide him.
Again the bird across the swamp sang and the one in sight turned in that direction. Then began a duet that was a marvellous experience. The far bird called. Malcolm answered. Soon they heard a reply. Mr. Minturn saw the boy beckoning him, and crept to his side.
"It's a female," whispered Malcolm. "I'm going to sing the male notes and calls, and try to toll her. You follow, but don't get too close and scare her."
The father could see the tense poise of Malcolm, stepping lightly, avoiding the open, stooping beneath branches, hiding in bushes, making his way onward, at every complete ambush sending forth those wonderful notes. At each repetition it seemed to the father that the song grew softer, more pleading, of fuller intonation; and then his heart almost stopped, for he began to realize that each answer to the boy's call was closer than the one before. Malcolm would sleep that night with a joyful heart. He was tolling the bird he imitated; it was coming at his call, of that there could be no question. His last notes came from a screen of spreading button bushes and northern holly. At the usual interval they heard the reply, but recognizably closer. Malcolm raised his hand without moving or looking back, but his father saw, and interpreted the gesture to mean that the time had come for him to stop. He took a few steps to conceal himself, for he was between trees when the signal came, and paused, already so elated he wanted to shout; he scarcely could restrain the impulse. What was the use in going farther? His desire was to race back to Multiopolis at speed limit to tell Mr. Dovesky, Margaret, and Mr. Tower what a triumph he had witnessed. He wanted to talk about it to his men friends and business associates.
Distinctly, through the slowly darkening green, he could see the boy putting all his heart into the song. James Minturn watched so closely he was not mistaken in thinking he could see the lad's figure grow tense as he delivered the notes, and relax when the answer relieved his anxiety as to whether it would come again, and then gather for another trial. At the last call the reply came from such a short distance that Mr. Minturn began intently watching from his shelter to witness the final triumph of seeing the bird Malcolm had called across the swamp, come into view. He could see that the boy was growing reckless, for as he delivered the strain, he stepped almost into the open, watching before him and slowly going ahead. With the answer, there was a discernible movement a few yards away. Mr. Minturn saw the boy start, and gazed at him. With bent body Malcolm stared before him, and then his father heard his amazed, awed cry: "Why mother! Is that you, mother?"
"Malcolm! Are you Malcolm?" came the incredulous answer.
James Minturn was stupefied. Distinctly he could see now. He did not recognize the knee boots, the outing suit of coarse green material, but the beautiful pink face slowly paling, the bright waving hair framing it, he knew very well. Astonishment bound him. Malcolm advanced another step, still half dazed, and cried: "Why, have I been calling you? I thought it was the bird I saw, still answering!"
"And I believed you were the Hermit singing!" she said.
"But you fooled the bird," said the boy. "Close here it answered you."
"And near me it called you," said Mrs. Minturn. "Your notes were quite as perfect."
Malcolm straightened and seemed reassured.
"Why mother!" he exclaimed. "When did you study bird music? Have you just come back?"
"I've been away only two weeks, Malcolm," she answered, "and if it hadn't been for learning the bird notes, I'd have returned sooner."
"But where have you been?" cried the boy.
"At home. I reserved my suite!" she answered.
"But home's all torn up, and pounding and sick people, and you hate pounding and sick people," he reminded her.
"There wasn't so very much noise, Malcolm," she said, "and I've changed about sickness. You have to suffer yourself to do that. Once you learn how dreadful pain is, you feel only pity for those who endure it. Every night when the nurses are resting, I change so no one knows me, and slip into the rooms of the suffering little children who can't sleep, and try to comfort them."
"Mother, who takes care of you?" he questioned.
"A very sensible girl named Susan," she answered.
The boy went a step closer.
"Mother, have you changed about anything besides sickness?" he asked eagerly.
"Yes Malcolm," said his mother. "I've changed about every single thing in all this world that I ever said, or did, or loved, when you knew me."
"You have?" he cried in amazement. "Would you wear that dress and come to the woods with us now, and do some of the things we like?"
"I'd rather come here with you, and sing these bird notes than anything else I ever did," she answered.
Malcolm advanced another long stride.
"Mother, is Susan a pounding, beating person like Lucette?" he asked anxiously.
"No," she said softly. "Susan likes children. When she's not busy for me, she goes into the music room and plays games, and sings songs to little sick people."
"Because you know," said Malcolm, "James and I talk it over when we are alone, we never let father hear because he loved Elizabeth so, and he's so fine--mother you were mistaken about father not being a gentleman, not even Mr. Dovesky is a finer gentleman than father--and father loved her so; but mother, James and I saw. We believe if it had been the cream, it would have made us sick too, and we're so ashamed of what we did; if we had another chance, we'd be as good to a little sister as father is to us. Mother, we wish we had her back so we could try again----"
Nellie Minturn shut her eyes and swayed on her feet, but presently she spoke in a harsh, breathless whisper, yet it carried, even to the ears of the listening man.
"Yes Malcolm, I'd give my life, oh so gladly if I could bring her back and try over----"
"You wouldn't have any person like Lucette around, would you mother?" he questioned.
"Not ever again Malcolm," she answered. "I'd have Little Sister back if it were possible, but that can't ever be, because when we lose people as Elizabeth went, they never can come back; but I'll offer my life to come as near replacing her as possible, and everywhere I've neglected you, and James, and father. I'll do the best there is in me, if any of you love me, or want me in the least, or will give me an opportunity to try."
"Mother, would you come where we are? Would you live as we do?" marvelled the boy.
"Gladly," she answered. "It's about the only way I could live now, I've given away so much of the money."
"Then I'll ask father!" cried the boy. "Why I forgot! Father is right back here! Father! Father! Father come quick! Father it wasn't the Hermit bird at all, it was mother! And oh joy, father, joy! She's just changed and changed, till she's most as changed as we are! She'll come back, father, and she'll go to the woods with us, oh she will! Father, you're glad, aren't you?"
When Nellie Minturn saw her husband coming across the mosses, his arms outstretched, his face pain-tortured, she came swiftly forward, and as she reached Malcolm, Mr. Minturn caught both of them in his arms crying: "My sweetheart! My beautiful sweetheart, give me another chance, and this time I'll be the head of my family in deed and in truth, and I'll make life go right for all of us."