Chapter XXI. Spring's Harbingers

Amy was awakened on the following morning by innumerable bird-notes, not songs, but loud calls. Hastening to the window, she witnessed a scene very strange to her eyes. All over the grass of the lawn and on the ground of the orchard beyond was a countless flock of what seemed to her quarter-grown chickens. A moment later the voice of Alf resounded through the house, crying, "The robins have come!" Very soon nearly all the household were on the piazza to greet these latest arrivals from the South; and a pretty scene of life and animation they made, with their yellow bills, jaunty black heads, and brownish red breasts.

"Turdus migratorius, as the doctor would say," remarked Burt; "and migrants they are with a vengeance. Last night there was not one to be seen, and now here are thousands. They are on their way north, and have merely alighted to feed."

"Isn't it odd how they keep their distance from each other?" said Webb. "You can scarcely see two near together, but every few feet there is a robin, as far as the eye can reach. Yes, and there are some high-holders in the orchard also. They are shyer than the robins, and don't come so near the house. You can tell them, Amy, by their yellow bodies and brown wings. I have read that they usually migrate with the robins. I wonder how far this flock flew last--ah, listen!"

Clear and sweet came an exquisite bird-song from an adjacent maple. Webb took off his hat in respectful greeting to the minstrel.

"Why," cried Amy, "that little brown bird cannot be a robin."

"No," he answered, "that is my favorite of all the earliest birds--the song-sparrow. You remember what Dr. Marvin said about him the other evening? I have been looking for my little friend for a week past, and here he is. The great tide of migration has turned northward."

"He is my favorite too," said his father. "Every spring for over seventy years I remember hearing his song, and it is just as sweet and fresh to me as ever. Indeed, it is enriched by a thousand memories."

For two or three days the robins continued plentiful around the house, and their loud "military calls," as Burroughs describes them, were heard at all hours from before the dawn into the dusk of night, but they seemed to be too excited over their northward journey or their arrival at their old haunts to indulge in the leisure of song. They reminded one of the advent of an opera company. There was incessant chattering, a flitting to and fro, bustle and excitement, each one having much to say, and no one apparently stopping to listen. The majority undoubtedly continued their migration, for the great flocks disappeared. It is said that the birds that survive the vicissitudes of the year return to their former haunts, and it would seem that they drop out of the general advance as they reach the locality of the previous summer's nest, to which they are guided by an unerring instinct.

The evening of the third day after their arrival was comparatively mild, and the early twilight serene and quiet. The family were just sitting down to supper when they heard a clear, mellow whistle, so resonant and penetrating as to arrest their attention, although doors and windows were closed. Hastening to the door they saw on the top of one of the tallest elms a robin, with his crimson breast lighted up by the setting sun, and his little head lifted heavenward in the utterance of what seemed the perfection of an evening hymn. Indeed, in that bleak, dim March evening, with the long, chill night fast falling and the stormy weeks yet to come, it would be hard to find a finer expression of hope and faith.

The robin is a bird of contrasts. Peculiarly domestic in his haunts and habits, he resembles his human neighbors in more respects than one. He is much taken up with his material life, and is very fond of indulging his large appetite. He is far from being aesthetic in his house or housekeeping, and builds a strong, coarse nest of the handiest materials and in the handiest place, selecting the latter with a confidence in boy-nature and cat-nature that is often misplaced. He is noisy, bustling, and important, and as ready to make a raid on a cherry-tree or a strawberry-bed as is the average youth to visit a melon-patch by moonlight. He has a careless, happy-go-lucky air, unless irritated, and then is as eager for a "square set-to" in robin fashion as the most approved scion of chivalry. Like man, he also seems to have a spiritual element in his nature; and, as if inspired and lifted out of his grosser self by the dewy freshness of the morning and the shadowy beauty of the evening, he sings like a saint, and his pure, sweet notes would never lead one to suspect that he was guilty of habitual gormandizing. He settles down into a good husband and father, and, in brief, reminds one of the sturdy English squire who is sincerely devout over his prayer-book on proper occasions, and between times takes all the goods the gods send.

In the morning little Johnnie came to the breakfast-table in a state of great excitement. It soon appeared that she had a secret that she would tell no one but Amy--indeed, she would not tell it, but show it; and after breakfast she told Amy to put on her rubber boots and come with her, warning curious Alf meanwhile to keep his distance. Leading the way to a sunny angle in the garden fence, she showed Amy the first flower of the year. Although it was a warm, sunny spot, the snow had drifted there to such an extent that the icy base of the drift still partially covered the ground, and through a weak place in the melting ice a snow-drop had pushed its green, succulent leaves and hung out its modest little blossom. The child, brought up from infancy to feel the closest sympathy with nature, fairly trembled with delight over this avant-coureur of the innumerable flowers which it was her chief happiness to gather. As if in sympathy with the exultation of the child, and in appreciation of all that the pale little blossom foreshadowed, a song-sparrow near trilled out its sweetest lay, a robin took up the song, and a pair of bluebirds passed overhead with their undulating flight and soft warble. Truly spring had come in that nook of the old garden, even though the mountains were still covered with snow, the river was full of floating ice, and the wind chill with the breath of winter. Could there have been a fairer or more fitting committee of reception than little Johnnie, believing in all things, hoping all things, and brown-haired, hazel-eyed Amy, with the first awakenings of womanhood in her heart?