Chapter XXIII. Regrets and Duck-Shooting
 

Saturday afternoon, as is usual in the country, brought an increased number of duties to the inhabitants of the farmhouse, but at the supper hour they all, except Burt, looked back upon the day with unwonted satisfaction. He had returned weary, hungry, and discontented, notwithstanding the fact that several brace of ducks hung on the piazza as trophies of his skill. He was in that uncomfortable frame of mind which results from charging one's self with a blunder. In the morning he had entered on the sport with his usual zest, but it had soon declined, and he wished he had remained at home. He remembered the children's intention of spending the day among the maples, and as the sun grew warm, and the air balmy, the thought occurred with increasing frequency that he might have induced Amy to join them, and so have enjoyed long hours of companionship under circumstances most favorable to his suit. He now admitted that were the river alive with ducks, the imagined opportunities of the maple grove were tenfold more attractive. At one time he half decided to return, but pride prevented until he should have secured a fair amount of game. He would not go home to be laughed at. Moreover, Amy had not been so approachable of late as he could wish, and he proposed to punish her a little, hoping that she would miss his presence and attentions. The many reminiscences at the supper-table were not consoling. It was evident that he had not been missed in the way that he desired to be, and that the day had been one of rich enjoyment to her. Neither was Webb's quiet satisfaction agreeable, and Burt mildly anathematized himself at the thought that he might have had his share in giving Amy so much pleasure. He took counsel of experience, however, and having learned that even duck-shooting under the most favorable auspices palled when contrasted with Amy's smiles and society, he resolved to be present in the future when she, like Nature, was in a propitious mood. Impetuous as he was, he had not yet reached the point of love's blindness which would lead him to press his suit in season and out of season. He soon found a chance to inform Amy of his regret, but she laughed merrily back at him as she went up to her room, saying that the air of a martyr sat upon him with very poor grace in view of his success and persistence in the sport, and that he had better put a white mark against the day, as she had done.

Early in the evening Dr. Marvin appeared, with Mr. Marks, one of the most noted duck-shooters and fishermen on the river, and they brought in three superb specimens of a rare bird in this region, the American swan, that queen of water-fowls and embodiment of grace.

"Shot 'em an hour or two ago, near Polopel's Island," said Mr. Marks, "and we don't often have the luck to get within range of such game. Dr. Marvin was down visiting one of my children, and he said how he would like to prepare the skin of one, and he thought some of you folks here might like to have another mounted, and he'd do it if you wished."

Exclamations of pleasure followed this proposition. Alf examined them with deep interest, while Burt whispered to Amy that he would rather have brought her home a swan like one of those than all the ducks that ever quacked.

In accordance with their hospitable ways, the Cliffords soon had the doctor and Mr. Marks seated by their fireside, and the veteran sportsman was readily induced to enlarge upon some of his experiences.

He had killed two of the swans, he told them, as they were swimming, and the other as it rose. He did not propose to let any such uncommon visitors get away. He had never seen more than ten since he had lived in this region. With the proverbial experience of meeting game when without a gun, he had seen five fly over, one Sunday, while taking a ramble on Plum Point.

"Have you ever obtained any snow-geese in our waters?" Dr. Marvin asked.

"No. That's the scarcest water-fowl we have. Once in a wild snowstorm I saw a flock of about two hundred far out upon the river, and would have had a shot into them, but some fellows from the other side started out and began firing at long range, and that has been my only chance. I occasionally get some brant-geese, and they are rare enough. I once saw a flock of eight, and got them all-took five out of the flock in the first two shots--but I've never killed more than twenty-five in all."

"I don't think I have ever seen one," remarked Mrs. Clifford, who, in her feebleness and in her home-nook, loved to hear about these bold, adventurous travellers. They brought to her vivid fancy remote wild scenes, desolate waters, and storm-beaten rocks. The tremendous endurance and power of wing in these shy children of nature never ceased to be marvels to her. "Burt has occasionally shot wild-geese--we have one mounted there--but I do not know what a brant is, nor much about its habits," she added.

"Its markings are like the ordinary Canada wild-goose," Dr. Marvin explained, "and it is about midway in size between a goose and a duck."

"I've shot a good many of the common wild-geese in my time," Mr. Marks resumed; "killed nineteen four years ago. I once knocked down ten out of a flock of thirteen by giving them both barrels. I have a flock of eight now in a pond not far away--broke their wings, you know, and so they can't fly. They soon become tame, and might be domesticated easily, only you must always keep one wing cut, or they will leave in the spring or fall."

"How is that?"

"Well, they never lose their instinct to migrate, and if they heard other wild-geese flying over, they'd rise quick enough if they could and go with them."

"Do you think there would be any profit in domesticating them?" asked practical Leonard.

"There might be. I know a man up the river who used to cross them with our common geese, and so produced a hybrid, a sort of a mule-goose, that grew very large. I've known 'em to weigh eighteen pounds or more, and they were fine eating, I can tell you. I don't suppose there is much in it, though, or some cute Yankee would have made a business of it before this."

"How many ducks do you suppose you have shot all together?" Mr. Clifford asked.

"Oh, I don't know--a great many. Killed five hundred last fall."

"What's the greatest number you ever got out of a flock, Marks?" put in Burt.

"Well, there is the old squaw, or long-tailed duck. They go in big flocks, you now--have seen four or five hundred together. In the spring, just after they have come from feeding on mussels in the southern oyster-beds, they are fishy, but in the fall they are much better, and the young ducks are scarcely fishy at all. I've taken twenty-three out of a flock by firing at them in the water and again when they rose; and in the same way I once knocked over eighteen black or dusky ducks; and they are always fine, you know."

"Are the fancy kinds, like the mallards and canvas-backs that are in such demand by the epicures, still plentiful in their season?" Webb asked.

"No. I get a few now and then, but don't calculate on them any longer. It was my luck with canvas-backs that got me into my duck-shooting ways. I was cuffed and patted on the back the same day on their account."

In response to their laughing expressions of curiosity he resumed: "I was but a little chap at the time; still I believed I could shoot ducks, but my father wouldn't trust me with either a gun or boat, and my only chance was to circumvent the old man. So one night I hid the gun outside the house, climbed out of a window as soon as it was light, and paddled round a point where I would not be seen, and I tell you I had a grand time. I did not come in till the middle of the afternoon, but I reached a point when I must have my dinner, no matter what came before it. The old man was waiting for me, and he cuffed me well. I didn't say a word, but went to my mother, and she, mother-like, comforted me with a big dinner which she had kept for me. I was content to throw the cuffing in, and still feel that I had the best of the bargain. An elder brother began to chaff me and ask, 'Where are your ducks?' 'Better go and look under the seat in the stern-sheets before you make any more faces,' I answered, huffily. I suppose he thought at first I wanted to get rid of him, but he had just enough curiosity to go and see, and he pulled out sixteen canvas-backs. The old man was reconciled at once, for I had made better wages than he that day; and from that time on I've had all the duck-shooting I've wanted."

"That's a form of argument to which the world always yields," said Leonard, laughing.

"How many kinds of wild-ducks do we have here in the bay, that you can shoot so many?" Maggie asked.

"I've never counted 'em up. The doctor can tell you, perhaps."

"I've prepared the skins of twenty-four different kinds that were shot in this vicinity," replied Dr. Marvin.

"Don't you and Mrs. Marvin dissect the birds also?" queried Leonard.

"Mr. Marks," said Mr. Clifford, "I think you once had a rather severe experience while out upon the river. Won't you tell us about it?"

"Yes. My favorite sport came nigh being the death of me, and it always makes me shiver to think of it. I started out one spring morning at five o'clock, and did not get home till two o'clock the next morning, and not a mouthful did I have to eat. I had fair success during the day, but was bothered by the quantities of ice running, and a high wind. About four o'clock in the afternoon I concluded to return home, for I was tired and hungry. I was then out in the river off Plum Point. I saw an opening leading south, and paddled into it, but had not gone far before the wind drove the ice in upon me, and blocked the passage. There I was, helpless, and it began to blow a gale. The wind held the ice immovable on the west shore, even though the tide was running out. For a time I thought the boat would be crushed by the grinding cakes in spite of all I could do. If it had, I'd 'a been drowned at once, but I worked like a Trojan, shouting, meanwhile, loud enough to raise the dead. No one seemed to hear or notice me. At last I made my way to a cake that was heavy enough to bear my weight, and on this I pulled up the boat, and lay down exhausted. It was now almost night, and I was too tired to shout any more. There on that mass of ice I stayed till two o'clock the next morning. I thought I'd freeze to death, if I did not drown. I shouted from time to time, till I found it was of no use, and then gave my thoughts to keeping awake and warm enough to live. I knew that my chance would be with the next turn of the tide, when the ice would move with it, and also the wind, up the river. So it turned out. I was at last able to break my way through the loosened ice to Plain Point, and then had a two-mile walk home; and I can tell you that it never seemed so like home before."

"Oh, Burt, please don't go out again when the ice is running," was his mother's comment on the story.

"Thoreau speaks of seeing black ducks asleep on a pond whereon thin ice had formed, inclosing them, daring the March night," said Webb. "Have you ever caught them napping in this way?"

"No," replied Mr. Marks; "though it might easily happen on a still pond. The tides and wind usually break up the very thin ice on the river, and if there is any open water near, the ducks will stay in it."

"Dr. Marvin, have you caught any glimpses of spring to-day that we have not?" Amy asked.

The doctor laughed--having heard of Webb's exploit in the night near the hennery--and said: "I might mention that I have seen 'Sir Mephitis' cabbage, as I suppose I should all it, growing vigorously. It is about the first green thing we have. Around certain springs, however, the grass keeps green all winter, and I passed one to-day surrounded by an emerald hue that was distinct in the distance. It has been very cold and backward thus far."

"Possess your souls in patience," said Mr. Clifford. "Springtime and harvest are sure. After over half a century's observation I have noted that, no matter what the weather may have been, Nature always catches up with the season about the middle or last of June."