Chapter VII. Neighbors Drop In
 

One evening early in the year three neighbors dropped in. They were evidently as diverse in character as in appearance. The eldest was known in the neighborhood as Squire Bartley, having long been a justice of the peace. He was a large landholder, and carried on his farm in the old-fashioned ways, without much regard to system, order, or improvement. He had a big, good-natured red face, a stout, burly form, and a corresponding voice. In marked contrast with his aspect and past experience was Mr. Alvord, who was thin almost to emaciation, and upon whose pallid face not only ill-health but deep mental suffering had left their unmistakable traces. He was a new-comer into the vicinity, and little was known of his past history beyond the fact that he had exchanged city life for country pursuits in the hope of gaining strength and vigor. He ought to have been in the full prime of cheerful manhood, but his sombre face and dark, gloomy eyes indicated that something had occurred in the past which so deeply shadowed his life as to make its long continuance doubtful. He had not reached middle age, and yet old Mr Clifford appeared a heartier man than he. While he had little knowledge of rural occupations, he entered into them with eagerness, apparently finding them an antidote for sad memories. He had little to say, but was a good listener, and evidently found at the Cliffords' a warmth and cheer coming not from the hearth only. Webb and Leonard had both been very kind to him in his inexperience, and an occasional evening at their fireside was the only social tendency that he had been known to indulge. Dr. Marvin, the third visitor, might easily compete with Burt in flow of spirits, and in his day had been quite as keen a sportsman. But he was unlike Burtis in this, that all birds were game to him, and for his purpose were always in season. To Emerson's line,

  "Hast thou named all the birds without a gun?"

he could not reply in the affirmative, and yet to kill as many as possible had never been his object. From earliest childhood he had developed a taste for ornithology, and the study of the fauna of the region had been almost his sole recreation for years. He too was a frequent visitor at the Cliffords', where he ever found ready listeners and questioners.

"I don't know what is the matter with my poultry," Squire Bartley remarked, after the weather, politics, and harmless phases of local gossip had been discussed; "they are getting as poor as crows. My boys say that they are fed as well as usual. What's more, I've had them throw down for 'em a warm mixture of meal and potatoes before they go to roost, but we don't get an egg. What luck are you having, Leonard?"

"Well, I don't know that I'm having much luck in the matter," Leonard replied, with his humorous smile; "but I can't complain. Until this very cold weather set in we had eggs in plenty, and still have a fair supply. I'm inclined to think that if your hens are the right kind, and are properly cared for, they can't help producing eggs. That has usually been my experience. I don't believe much in luck, but there are a few simple things that are essential to success with poultry in winter. By the way, do you give them well or spring water to drink?"

"Well, no, I don't believe we do, at this time of year. I've so arranged it that the drippings from the eaves of the barn fall into a trough, and that saves trouble. I expect the boys are careless, too. for I've seen the fowls eating snow and ice."

"That accounts for your poultry being like crows, for, whatever the reason may be, snow-water will soon reduce chickens to mere feathers and bones."

"You don't say so!" cried the squire. "Well, I never heard that before."

"I don't think your system of feeding is the correct one, either," pursued Leonard. "You give your hens the warm meal to-morrow evening, as usual, and then about midnight go to the roosts and feel of their crops. I'll warrant you'll find them empty. The meal, you see, digests speedily, and is soon all gone. Then come the long cold hours before morning, and the poor creatures have nothing to sustain them, and they become chilled and enfeebled. It takes some time for the grain you give them in the morning to digest, and so they are left too long a time without support. Give them the grain in the evening--corn and buckwheat and barley mixed--and there is something for their gizzards to act on all night long. The birds are thus sustained and kept warm by their food. Then in the morning, when they naturally feel the cold the most, give them the warm food, mixing a little pepper with it during such weather as this."

"Well," remarked the squire, "I guess you're right. Anyway, I'll try your plan. One is apt to do things the same way year after year without much thought about it."

"Then, again," resumed Leonard, "I find it pays to keep poultry warm, clean, and well sheltered. In very cold weather I let them out only for an hour or two. The rest of the time they are shut up in the chicken-house, which has an abundance of light, and is well ventilated. Beneath the floor of the chicken-house is a cellar, which I can fill with stable manure, and graduate the heat by its fermentation. This acts like a steady furnace. There is room in the cellar to turn the manure from time to time to prevent its becoming fire-fanged, so that there is no loss in this respect. Between the heat from beneath, and the sun streaming in the windows on the south side of the house, I can keep my laying hens warm even in zero weather; and I make it a point not to have too many. Beyond a certain number, the more you have the worse you're off, for poultry won't stand crowding."

"You farmers," put in Dr. Marvin, "are like the doctors, who kill or cure too much by rule and precedent. You get into certain ways or ruts, and stick to them. A little thought and observation would often greatly modify your course. Now in regard to your poultry, you should remember that they all existed once as nature made them--they were wild, and domestication cannot wholly change their character. It seems to me that the way to learn how to manage fowls successfully is to observe their habits and modes of life when left to themselves. In summer, when they have a range, we find them eating grass, seeds, insects, etc. In short, they are omnivorous. In winter, when they can't get these things, they are often fed one or two kinds of grain continuously. Now, from their very nature, they need in winter all the kinds of food that they instinctively select when foraging for themselves--fresh vegetables, meat, and varieties of seeds or grain. We give to our chickens all the refuse from the kitchen--the varied food we eat ourselves, with the exception of that which contains a large percentage of salt--and they thrive and lay well. Before they are two years old we decapitate them. Old fowls, with rare exceptions, will not lay in winter."

Sad-eyed Mr. Alvord listened as if there were more consolation and cheer in this talk on poultry than in the counsel of sages. The "chicken fever" is more inevitable in a man's life than the chicken-pox, and sooner or later all who are exposed succumb to it. Seeing the interest developing in his neighbor's face, Leonard said, briskly:

"Mr. Alvord, here's an investment that will pay you to consider. The care of poultry involves light and intelligent labor, and therefore is adapted to those who cannot well meet the rough and heavy phases of outdoor work. The fowls often become pets to their keepers, and the individual oddities and peculiarities of character form an amusing study which is not wanting in practical advantages. The majority of people keep ordinary barn-door fowls, which are the result of many breeds or strains. The consequence is almost as great diversity of character within gallinaceous limits as exists in the families that care for them. For instance, one hen is a good, persistent layer; another is a patient, brooding mother; a third is fickle, and leaves her nest so often and for such long intervals that the eggs become chilled, and incubation ceases. Some are tame and tractable, others as wild as hawks, and others still are not of much account in any direction, and are like commonplace women, who are merely good to count when the census is taken."

"I hope you make no reference to present company," Maggie remarked.

Leonard gave his wife one of his humorous looks as he replied, "I never could admit that in regard to you, for it would prove too much against myself. The idea of my picking out a commonplace woman!"

"Leonard knows, as we all do, that he would be like a decapitated chicken himself without her," said Mrs. Clifford, with her low laugh.

Maggie smiled. This was re-assuring from the mother of the eldest and favorite son.

"Well," remarked Squire Bartley, sententiously, "there are old housewives in the neighborhood that have more luck with poultry than any of you, with all your science."

"Nonsense," replied Dr. Marvin. "You know a little about law, squire, and I less about medicine, perhaps, and yet any good mother could take care of a lot of children better than we could. There is old Mrs. Mulligan, on the creek road. She raises ducks, geese, and chickens innumerable, and yet I fail to see much luck in her management; but she has learned from experience a better skill than the books could have taught her, for she said to me one day, 'I jis thries to foind out what the crathers wants, and I gives it to 'em,' She knows the character of every hen, duck, and goose she has, and you don't catch her wasting a sitting of eggs under a fickle biddy. And then she watches over her broods as Mrs. Leonard does over hers. Don't talk about luck. There has been more of intelligent care than luck in bringing up this boy Alf. I believe in book-farming as much as any one, but a successful farmer could not be made by books only; nor could I ever learn to be a skilful physician from books, although all the horses on your place could not haul the medical literature extant. I must adopt Mrs. Mulligan's tactics, and so must you. We must find out 'what the crathers want,' be they plants, stock, or that most difficult subject of all, the human crather. He succeeds best who does this in season, and not out of season."

"You are right, doctor," said Leonard, laughing. "I agree with what you say about the varied diet of poultry in general, and also in particular, and I conform my practice to your views. At the same time I am convinced that failure and partial success with poultry result more from inadequate shelter and lack of cleanliness than from lack of proper food. It does not often happen in the country that fowls are restricted to a narrow yard or run, and when left to themselves they pick up, even in winter, much and varied food in and about the barn. But how rarely is proper shelter provided! It is almost as injurious for poultry as it would be for us to be crowded, and subjected to draughts, dampness, and cold. They may survive, but they can't thrive and be profitable. In many instances they are not even protected from storms, and it's a waste of grain to feed poultry that roost under a dripping roof."

"Well," said the squire, "I guess we've been rather slack. I must send my boys over to see how you manage."

"Amy," remarked Burtis, laughing, "you are very polite. You are trying to look as if you were interested."

"I am interested," said the young girl, positively. "One of the things I liked best in English people was their keen interest in all rural pursuits. Papa did not care much for such things; but now that I am a country girl I intend to learn all I can about country life."

Amy had not intended this as a politic speech, but it nevertheless won her the increased good-will of all present. Burtis whispered,

"Let me be your instructor."

Something like a smile softened Webb's rugged face, but he did not raise his eyes from the fire.

"If her words are not the result of a passing impulse," he thought, "sooner or later she will come to me. Nature, however, tolerates no fitful, half-hearted scholars, and should she prove one, she will be contented with Burt's out-of-door fun."

"Miss Amy," remarked Dr. Marvin, vivaciously, "if you will form some of my tastes you will never suffer from ennui. Don't be alarmed; I have not drugs in my mind. Doctors rarely take their own medicine. You don't look very strong, and have come back to your native land with the characteristics of a delicate American girl, rather than the vigor of an English one. I fear you slighted British beef and mutton. If I were so officious as to prescribe unasked, I should put you on birds for several months, morning, noon, and evening. Don't you be officious also, Burt. It's on the end of your tongue to say that you will shoot them for her. I had no such commonplace meaning. I meant that Miss Amy should enjoy the birds in their native haunts, and learn to distinguish the different varieties by their notes, plumage, and habits. Such recreation would take her often out-of-doors, and fill every spring and summer day with zest."

"But, Dr. Marvin," cried Amy, "is not the study of ornithology rather a formidable undertaking?"

"Yes," was the prompt reply. "I sometimes feel as if I could devote several lifetimes to it. But is it such a formidable thing to begin with a few of our commonest birds, like the robin or wren, for instance; to note when they first arrive from their southern sojourn, the comical scenes of courtship and rivalry in the trees about the door, the building of their homes, and their housekeeping? I am sorry to say that I find some of my patients consumed with a gossipy interest in their neighbors' affairs. If that interest were transferred to the families residing in the cherry and apple trees, to happy little homes that often can be watched even from our windows, its exercise would have a much better effect on health and character. When a taste for such things is once formed, it is astonishing how one thing leads to another, and how fast knowledge is gained. The birds will soon begin to arrive, Miss Amy, and a goodly number stay with us all winter. Pick out a few favorite kinds, and form their intimate acquaintance. I would suggest that you learn to identify some of the birds that nest near the house, and follow their fortunes through the spring and as late in the summer as their stay permits, keeping a little diary of your observations. Alf here will be a famous ally. You will find these little bird histories, as they develop from day to day, more charming than a serial story."

It were hard to tell who was the more captivated by the science of ornithology, Amy or Alf, when this simple and agreeable method for its study was suggested. Mr. Alvord looked wistfully at the unalloyed pleasure of the boy and the young girl as they at once got together on the sofa and discussed the project. He quietly remarked to the doctor, "I also shall make time to follow your suggestion, and shall look forward to some congenial society without my home if not within it."

"See what comes from being enthusiastic about a thing!" laughed the doctor. "I have made three converts."

Mrs. Leonard looked furtively and pityingly at the lonely Mr. Alvord. A man without a wife to take care of him was to her one of the forlornest of objects, and with secret satisfaction she thought, "Leonard, I imagine, would find the birds' housekeeping a poor substitute for mine."