The Blackbird's Nest by Juliana Horatia Ewing
"Let me not think an action mine own way, But as Thy love shall sway, Resigning up the rudder to Thy skill."
One day, when I was a very little girl (which is a long time ago), I made a discovery. The place where I made it was not very remote, being a holly-bush at the bottom of our garden; and the discovery was not a great one in itself, though I thought it very grand. I had found a blackbird's nest, with three young ones in it.
The discovery was made on this wise. I was sitting one morning on a log of wood opposite this holly-bush, reading the story of Goody Twoshoes, and thinking to myself how much I should like to be like her, and to go about in the village with a raven, a pigeon, and a lark on my shoulders, admired and talked about by everybody. All sorts of nonsense passed through my head as I sat, with the book on my lap, staring straight before me; and I was just fancying the kind condescension with which I would behave to everybody when I became a Goody Twoshoes, when I saw a bird come out of the holly-bush and fly away. It was a blackbird: there was no doubt of it; and it must have a nest in the tree, or why had it been there so long? Down went my book, and I flew to make my discovery. A blackbird's nest, with three young ones! I stood still at first in pure pleasure at the sight; and then, little by little, grand ideas came into my head.
I would be very kind to these little blackbirds, I thought; I would take them home out of this cold tree, and make a large nest of cotton wool (which would be much softer and better for them than to be where they were), and feed them, and keep them; and then, when they were full-grown, they would, of course, love me better than any one, and be very tame and grateful; and I should walk about with them on my shoulders, like Goody Twoshoes, and be admired by everybody; for, I am ashamed to say, most of my day dreams ended with this, to be admired by everybody. I was so wrapped up in these thoughts that I did not know, till his hands were laid upon my shoulders, that my friend, the curate of the village, had come up behind me. He lived next door to us, and often climbed over the wall that divided our garden to bring me flowers for my little bed. He was a tall, dark, not very young man; and the best hand at making fire-balloons, mending toys, and making a broken wax doll as good as new with a hot knitting needle, that you can imagine. I had heard grown-up people call him grave and silent, but he always laughed and talked to me.
"What are you doing, little woman?" he said.
"I have got a nest of poor little birds," I answered; "I am so sorry for them here in the cold; but they will be all right when I have got them indoors. I shall make them a beautiful nest of cotton wool, and feed them. Won't it be nice?"
I spoke confidently; for I had really so worked up my fancy that I felt quite a contemptuous pity for all the wretched little birds who were hatched every year without me to rear them. At the same time, I had a general idea that grown-up people always did throw cold water on splendid plans like mine; so I was more indignant than surprised when my friend the curate tried to show me that it was quite impossible to do as I wished. The end of all his arguments was that I must leave the nest in its place. But I had a great turn for disputing, and was not at all inclined to give up my point. "You told me on Sunday," I said, pertly, "that we were never too little to do kind things; let me do this."
"If I could be sure," he said, looking at me, "that you only wish to do a kind thing."
I got more angry and rude.
"Perhaps you think I want to kill them," I said.
He did not answer, but taking both my hands in his, said, gravely, "Tell me, my child, which do you wish most--to be kind to these poor little birds? or to have the honour and glory of having them, and bringing them up?"
"To be kind to them," said I, getting very red. "I don't want any honour and glory," and I felt ready to cry.
"Well, well," he said, smiling; "then I know you will believe me when I tell you that the kindest thing you can do for these little birds is to leave them where they are. And if you like, you can come and sit here every day till they are able to fly, and keep watch over the nest, that no naughty boy may come near it--the curate, for instance!" and he pulled a funny face. "That will be very kind."
"But they will never know, and I want them to like me," said I.
"I thought you only wanted to be kind," he answered. And then he began to talk very gently about different sorts of kindness, and that if I wished to be kind like a Christian, I must be kind without hoping for any reward, whether gratitude or anything else. He told me that the best followers of Jesus in all times had tried hard to do everything, however small, simply for GOD's sake, and to put themselves away. That they often began even their letters, etc., with such words, as, "Glory to GOD," to remind themselves that everything they did, to be perfect, must be done to GOD, and GOD alone. And that in doing good kind things even, they were afraid lest, though the thing was right, the wish to do it might have come from conceit or presumption.
"This self-devotion," he added, "is the very highest Christian life, and seems, I dare say, very hard for you even to understand, and much more so to put in practice. But we must all try for it in the best way we can, little woman; and for those who by GOD's grace really practised it, it was almost as impossible to be downcast or disappointed as if they were already in Heaven. They wished for nothing to happen to themselves but GOD's will; they did nothing but for GOD's glory. And so a very good bishop says, 'I have my end, whether I succeed or am disappointed.' So you will have your end, my child, in being kind to these little birds in the right way, and denying yourself, whether they know you or not."
I could not have understood all he said; but I am afraid I did not try to understand what I might have done; however, I said no more, and stood silent, while he comforted me with the promise of a new flower for my garden, called "hen and chickens," which he said I was to take care of instead of the little blackbirds.
When he was gone I went back to the holly-bush, and stood gazing at the nest, and nursing angry thoughts in my heart. "What a preach," I thought, "about nothing! as if there could be any conceit and presumption in taking care of three poor little birds! The curate must forget that I was growing into a big girl; and as to not knowing how to feed them, I knew as well as he did that birds lived upon worms, and liked bread-crumbs." And so thinking wrong ended (as it almost always does) in doing wrong: and I took the three little blackbirds out of the nest, popped them into my pocket-handkerchief, and ran home. And I took some trouble to keep them out of everyone's sight--even out of my mother's; for I did not want to hear any more "grown-up" opinions on the matter.
I filled a basket with cotton wool, and put the birds inside, and took them into a little room downstairs, where they would be warm. Before I went to bed I put two or three worms, and a large supply of soaked bread-crumbs, in the nest, close to their little beaks. "What can they want more?" thought I in my folly; but conscience is apt to be restless when one is young, and I could not feel quite comfortable in bed, though I got to sleep at last, trying to fancy myself Goody Twoshoes, with three sleek full-fledged blackbirds on my shoulders.
In the morning, as soon as I could slip away, I went to my pets. Any one may guess what I found; but I believe no one can understand the shock of agony and remorse that I felt. There lay the worms that I had dug up with reckless cruelty; there was the wasted bread; and there, above all, lay the three little blackbirds, cold and dead!
I do not know how long I stood looking at the victims of my presumptuous wilfulness; but at last I heard a footstep in the passage, and fearing to be caught, I tore out of the house, and down to my old seat near the holly-bush, where I flung myself on the ground, and "wept bitterly." At last I heard the well-known sound of some one climbing over the wall; and then the curate stood before me, with the plant of "hen and chickens" in his hands. I jumped up, and shrank away from him.
"Don't come near me," I cried; "the blackbirds are dead;" and I threw myself down again.
I knew from experience that few things roused the anger of my friend so strongly as to see or hear of animals being ill-treated. I had never forgotten, one day when I was out with him, his wrath over a boy who was cruelly beating a donkey; and now I felt, though I could not see, the expression of his face, as he looked at the holly-bush and at me, and exclaimed, "You took them!" And then added, in the low tone in which he always spoke when angry, "And the mother-bird has been wandering all night round this tree, seeking her little ones in vain, not to be comforted, because they are not! Child, child! has GOD the Father given life to His creatures for you to destroy it in this reckless manner?"
His words cut my heart like a knife; but I was too utterly wretched already to be much more miserable; I only lay still and moaned. At last he took pity, and lifting me up on to his knee, endeavoured to comfort me.
This was not, however, an easy matter. I knew much better than he did how very naughty I had been; and I felt that I had murdered the poor tender little birds.
"I can never, never, forgive myself!" I sobbed.
"But you must be reasonable," he said. "You gave way to your vanity and wilfulness, and persuaded yourself that you only wished to be kind to the blackbirds; and you have been punished. Is it not so?"
"O yes!" I cried; "I am so wicked! I wish I were as good as you are!"
"As I am!"--he began.
I was too young then to understand the sharp tone of self-reproach in which he spoke. In my eyes he was perfection; only perhaps a little too good. But he went on:--
"Do you know, this fault of yours reminds me of a time when I was just as wilful and conceited, just as much bent upon doing the great duty of helping others in my own grand fashion, rather than in the humble way which GOD's Providence pointed out, only it was in a much more serious matter; I was older, too, and so had less excuse. I am almost tempted to tell you about it; not that our cases are really quite alike, but that the punishment which met my sin was so unspeakably bitter in comparison with yours, that you may be thankful to have learnt a lesson of humility at smaller cost."
I did not understand him--in fact, I did not understand many things that he said, for he had a habit of talking to me as if he were speaking to himself; but I had a general idea of his meaning, and said (very truly), "I cannot fancy you doing wrong."
I was puzzled again by the curious expression of his face; but he only said, "Shall I tell you a story?"
I knew his stories of old, and gave an eager "Yes."
"It is a sad one," he said.
"I do not think I should like a very funny one just now," I replied. "Is it true?"
"Quite," he answered. "It is about myself." He was silent for a few moments, as if making up his mind to speak; and then, laying his head, as he sometimes did, on my shoulder, so that I could not see his face, he began.
"When I was a boy (older than you, so I ought to have been better), I might have been described in the words of Scripture--I was 'the only son of my mother, and she was a widow.' We were badly off, and she was very delicate, nay, ill--more ill, GOD knows, than I had any idea of. I had long been used to the sight of the doctor once or twice a week, and to her being sometimes better and sometimes worse; and when our old servant lectured me for making a noise, or the doctor begged that she might not be excited or worried, I fancied that doctors and nurses always did say things of that sort, and that there was no particular need to attend to them.
"Not that I was unfeeling to my dear mother, for I loved her devotedly in my wilful worldly way. It was for her sake that I had been so vexed by the poverty into which my father's death had plunged us. For her sake I worried her, by grumbling before her at our narrow lodgings and lost comforts. For her sake, child, in my madness, I wasted the hours in which I might have soothed, and comforted, and waited on her, in dreaming of wild schemes for making myself famous and rich, and giving her back all and more than she had lost. For her sake I fancied myself pouring money at her feet, and loading her with luxuries, while she was praying for me to our common Father, and laying up treasure for herself in Heaven.
"One day I remember, when she was remonstrating with me over a bad report which the schoolmaster had given of me (he said I could work, but wouldn't), my vanity overcame my prudence, and I told her that I thought some fellows were made to 'fag,' and some not; that I had been writing a poem in my dictionary the day that I had done so badly, and that I hoped to be a poet long before my master had composed a grammar. I can see now her sorrowful face as, with tears in her eyes, she told me that all 'fellows' alike were made to do their duty 'before GOD, and Angels, and Men.' That it was by improving the little events and opportunities of every day that men became great, and not by neglecting them for their own presumptuous fancies. And she entreated me to strive to do my duty, and to leave the rest with GOD. I listened, however, impatiently to what I called a 'jaw' or a 'scold,' and then (knowing the tender interest she took in all I did) I tried to coax her by offering to read my poem. But she answered with just severity, that what she wished was to see me a good man, not a great one; and that she would rather see my exercises duly written than fifty poems composed at the expense of my neglected duty. Then she warned me tenderly of the misery which my conceit would bring upon me, and bade me, when I said my evening prayers, to add that prayer of King David, 'Keep Thy servant from presumptuous sins, lest they get the dominion over me.'
"Alas! they had got the dominion over me already, too strongly for her words to take any hold. 'She won't even look at my poem,' I thought, and hurried proudly from the room, banging one door and leaving another open. And I silenced my uneasy conscience by fresh dreams of making my fortune and hers. But the punishment came at last. One day the doctor took me into a room alone, and told me as gently as he could what everyone but myself knew already--my mother was dying. I cannot tell you, child, how the blow fell upon me--how, at first, I utterly disbelieved its truth! It seemed impossible that the only hope of my life, the object of all my schemes and fancies, was to be taken away. But I was awakened at last, and resolved that, GOD helping me, while she did live, I would be a better son. I can now look back with thankfulness on the few days we were together. I never left her. She took her food and medicine from my hand; and I received my First Communion with her on the day she died. The day before, kneeling by her bed, I had confessed all the sin and vanity of my heart and those miserable dreams; had destroyed with my own hand all my papers, and had resolved that I would apply to my studies, and endeavour to obtain a scholarship and the necessary preparation for Holy Orders. It was a just ambition, little woman, undertaken humbly, in the fear of GOD, and in the path of duty; and I accomplished it years after, when I had nothing left of my mother but her memory."
The curate was silent, and I felt, rather than saw, that the tears which were wetting my frock had not come from my own eyes, though I was crying bitterly. I flung my arms round his neck, and hugged him tight.
"Oh, I am so sorry!" I sobbed; "so very, very sorry!"
We became quieter after a bit; and he lifted up his head and smiled, and called himself a fool for making me sad, and told me not to tell any one what he had told me, and what babies we had been, except my mother.
"Tell her everything always," he said.
I soon cheered up, particularly as he took me over the wall, and into his workshop, and made a coffin for the poor little blackbirds, which we lined with cotton-wool and scented with musk, as a mark of respect. Then he dug a deep hole in the garden and we buried them, and made a fine high mound of earth, and put the "hen and chicken" plants all round. And that night, sitting on my mother's knee, I told her "everything," and shed a few more tears of sorrow and repentance in her arms.
* * * * *
Many years have passed since then, and many showers of rain have helped to lay the mound flat with the earth, so that the "hen and chickens" have run all over it, and made a fine plot. The curate and his mother have met at last; and I have transplanted many flowers that he gave me to his grave. I sometimes wonder if, in his perfect happiness, he knows, or cares to know, how often the remembrance of his story has stopped the current of conceited day-dreams, and brought me back to practical duty with the humble prayer, "Keep Thy servant also from presumptuous sins."