Mrs. Molesworth.

Four Winds Farm



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"Don't ask me to play much to-day, my dear boys," she said. "I never like to play much when I am tired; it doesn't seem fair to the music."

"Then you sha'n't play at all, mother darling," said Fergus. "Gratian, I'll tell you what; you shall tell mother and me a story. That will rest her nicely."

Gratian looked up hesitatingly.

"He tells such nice stories," Fergus went on.

"Does he often tell them?" asked the lady.

"Yes, when we are alone," said Fergus.

"The music makes me think of them very often," said Gratian. "It makes Fergus see pictures, and it makes me think stories. Sometimes I can see pictures too, but I think I like stories best."

"He made a beauty the other day, about a Princess whose eyes were forget-me-nots, so that whoever had once seen her could never forget her again; and if they were good people it made them very happy, but if they were naughty people it made them very unhappy – only it did them all good somehow in the end. Gratian made it come right."

"That sounds very pretty," said the lady. "Did that come out of my music?"

"No," said the boy, "that story came mostly out of your eyes. I called you the lady with the forget-me-not eyes the first Sunday in church."

He spoke so simply that the lady could not help smiling.

"My eyes thank you for your pretty thoughts of them," she said. "Will you tell that story again?"

"No," Fergus interrupted. "I want a new one. You were to have one ready for to-day, Gratian."

"I have only a very little one, but I will tell it, if you like," said Gratian. "It isn't exactly like a story. There isn't anything wonderful in it like in the one about the Princess, or the one about the underground fairies."

"No, that was a beauty," said Fergus. "But never mind if this one isn't quite so nice," he added, condescendingly.

So Gratian began.

"It is about a sea-gull," he said. "You know about them, of course, for you have been at the sea. This was a little, young sea-gull. It had not long learnt to fly, and sea-gulls need to fly very well, for often they have to go many miles without a rest when they are out at sea, unless there happens to be a ship passing or a rock standing up above the water, or even a bunch of seaweed floating – that might do for a young bird that is not very heavy. There was very stormy weather the year this sea-gull and his brothers and sisters were hatched, and sometimes the father and mother sea-gulls were quite frightened to let them try to fly, for fear they should be beaten down by the storm winds and not have strength to rise again. It is quite different, you see, from little land-birds learning to fly. They can just flutter a little way from one twig to another near the ground, so that if they do fall they can't be much hurt. Sea-gulls need to have brave hearts even when they are quite little. This sea-gull was very brave, almost too brave. He loved the sea so dearly that while he was still a nestling, peeping out from his home, high up on a ledge of rock, at the dancing, flashing waves down below, he longed to be among them.

He felt as if he almost would go mad with joy if only his mother would let him dash off with her, whirling and curving about in the air, with nothing below but the great ocean. And he would scarcely believe her and his father when they told him that it wasn't so easy to fly as it looked – not at the beginning, and that birds had to learn by degrees. At last one day the father, who had been out sniffing about, came in and told the mother it would be a good day for a beginning. So all the four young ones got ready, and stood at the edge of the nest in great excitement. I think it must have been very funny to see them at first – they were so awkward and clumsy. But they didn't hurt themselves – for the old birds kept them at first among the rocks where they couldn't fall far. And our sea-gull wasn't quite so sure of himself the next day, nor quite so impatient to go on flying, and I daresay he got on better when he had become less conceited. When they could fly a little better the father and mother took them to a little bay, where there was nice soft sand, and where the wind blew gently, and there they got on very well. And there they should have been content to stay till the spring storms were over and their wings had grown stronger. They all were quite content except the one I am telling you of."

"What was his name?" asked Fergus.

"He hasn't got one," Gratian replied, "but we can make him one. I daresay it would be better."

"Call him White-wings," said Fergus.

"No," said Gratian, "that won't do," though he didn't say why. "Besides his wings weren't all white. We'll call him 'Quiver,' because he was always quivering with impatience. Well, they were all quite content except Quiver, and he was very discontented. He looked longingly over the sea, wishing so to be in the midst of the flocks of birds he saw sparkling in the sunshine; and at last one morning when his father and mother had gone off for a good fly by themselves, which they well deserved, poor things, after all their trouble with the little ones, he stood up in the nest, flapping his impatient wings, and said to the three others that he too was going off on his own account. The brothers and sisters begged him not, but it was no use – off he would go, he was in such a hurry to see the world and to feel independent. Well, he got on pretty well at first; the sea was far out, and there were several rocks sticking up which he could rest on, and he found it so easy that he was tempted to fly out farther than he had intended, going from one rock to the other. And he didn't notice how far he had gone till he had been resting a while on a rock a good way out, and then looking round he couldn't tell a bit where he was, for there was nothing but sea all round him. He couldn't think what had become of all the other points of rocks – they seemed to have disappeared. But just as he was beginning to feel rather frightened a number of gulls flew up and lighted on the rock. They were all chattering and very excited.

"'We must make haste,' they said, 'and get to the shore as fast as we can before the storm is on us. And we must shelter there till we can get back to our own rocks.'

"They only rested a moment or two, and then got ready to start again. Quiver stood up and flapped his wings to attract attention.

"'May I fly with you?' he said. 'I'm afraid I don't quite know the way.'

"They looked at him in surprise.

"'What are you doing away from your home – a young fledgling like you?' they said. 'Come with us if you like, it's your only chance, but you'll probably never get to shore.'

"Oh how frightened he was, and how he wished he'd stayed at home! But he flew away with them, for it was, as they said, his only chance, and what he suffered was something dreadful. And when at last he reached the shore, it was only to drop down and lie on the sands gasping and bruised, and, as he thought, dying. A man that was passing, in a hurry himself to get home before the storm, picked up poor Quiver, half out of pity, half because he thought his little master might like to have his feathers if he died, or to make a pet of him if he lived. And Quiver, who was quite fainting by this time, woke up to find himself lying in a little sort of tool-house in a garden, with a boy about as big as you, Fergus, stooping over him.

"'I don't think he's going to die,' the boy said. 'I've made him a bed of some hay here in the corner – to-morrow we'll see how he is.'

"Poor Quiver felt very strange and queer and sad. It took him several days to get better, and he didn't like the food they gave him, though of course they meant to be kind. At last, one day he was able to hop about and even to flap his wings a little.

"'Now I shall soon be able to fly home again,' he thought joyfully. 'If once I can get to the sea I'll be sure to meet some gulls who can show me the way.'

"And when the boy came to look at him, he was pleased to hear himself said to be quite well again.

"'We can let him out into the garden now, can't we?' he said to the gardener, 'and we'll see if he's such a good slug catcher as you say.'

"'No fear but he's that, sir,' said the gardener. 'But first we must clip his wings, else he'd be flying away.'

"And he took Quiver up in his arms, and stretching out his wings, though not so as to hurt them, snipped at them with a big sharp pair of scissors. Quiver didn't feel it, any more than we feel having our nails cut, but he was dreadfully frightened. And he was still all shaking and confused when the gardener set him down on the garden path – though he got better in a minute and looked about him. It was a pretty garden, and he was pleased to be out in the air again, though he felt something strange in it, for he had never before been away from the sea. And he ran a few steps just to try his legs, and then turned round meaning to say good-bye to the boy and thank him in his sea-gull way for his hospitality before starting off. Having done this he stretched his wings to fly – but – oh dear, what was the matter? He could not raise himself more than a few inches from the ground – wings! – he had none left, and with a pitiful cry he rolled over on the ground in misery and despair.

"'Poor bird!' said the boy; 'you shouldn't have clipped his wings, Barnes. It would have been better to let him fly away.'

"'He'd never have got to his home; he's too young a bird to fly so far. And he'll be uncommon good for the slugs, you'll see, sir.'

"So all the summer poor Quiver spent in the garden. He got more used to it after a while, but still he had always a pain at his heart. He used to rush along the paths as if he was in a desperate hurry and eager to get to the end, and then he would just rush back again. It was the only way he could keep down his impatience and his longing for the sea. He used to pretend to himself that when he got to the end of the path he would feel the salt air and see the waves dancing; but the children of the house, who of course didn't understand his thoughts, used to laugh at him and call him 'that absurd creature.' But his heart was too sore for him to mind, and even catching slugs was very little consolation to him.

"And so Quiver lived all through the summer and the autumn till the winter came round again, and all this time whenever his wings began to grow longer, Barnes snipped them short again. I don't think there ever was a bird so severely punished for discontent and impatience.

"The winter was a dreadfully cold one; there was frost for such a long time that nothing seemed alive at all – there was not a worm or a slug or an insect of any kind in the garden. The little boy and his brothers and sisters all went away when it began to get so cold, but before they went, they told Barnes that he must not leave Quiver out in the garden; he must be shut up for the winter in the large poultry house with the cocks and hens.

"'For there's nothing for him to eat outside, and you might forget to feed him, you know,' the children said.

"So Quiver passed the winter safely, though sadly enough. He had plenty to eat, and no one teased or ill-used him, but he used sometimes almost to choke with his longing for freedom and for the fresh air – above all, the air of the sea. He did not know how long winter lasted; he was still a young bird, but he often felt as if he would die if he were kept a prisoner much longer. But he had to bear it, and he didn't die, and he grew at last so patient that no one would have thought he was the same discontented bird. There was a little yard covered over with netting outside the hen-house, and Quiver could see the sky from there; and the clouds scudding along when it was a windy day reminded him a little of the waves he feared he would never see again; and the stupid, peaceful cocks and hens used to wonder what he found to stare up at for hours together. They thought by far the most interesting thing in life was to poke about on the ground for the corn that was thrown out to them.

"At last – at last – came the spring. It came by little bits at a time of course, and Quiver couldn't understand what made everything feel so different, and why the sky looked blue again, till one day the gardener's wife, who managed the poultry, opened the door of the covered yard and let them all out, and Quiver, being thinner and quicker than the hens, slipped past her and got out into the garden. She saw him when he had got there, but she thought it was all right – he might begin his slug-catching again. And he hurried along the path in his old way, feeling thankful to be free, but with the longing at his heart, stronger than ever. It was so long since he had tried to fly in the least that he had forgotten almost that he had wings, and he just went hurrying along on his legs. All of a sudden something startled him – a noise in the trees or something like that – and without thinking what he was doing, he stretched his wings in the old way. But fancy his surprise; instead of flopping and lopping about as they had done for so long, ever since Barnes had cut them, they stood out firm and steady, quite able to support his weight; he tried them again, and then again, and – it was no mistake – up he soared, up, up, up, into the clear spring sky, strong and free and fearless, for his wings had grown again! That was what they had been doing all the long dull winter; so happiness came to poor Quiver at last, when he had learnt to wait."

"And did he fly home?" asked Fergus breathlessly; "did he find his father and mother and the others in the old nest among the rocks?"

"Yes," replied Gratian, after a moment's consideration, "he met some gulls on his way to the sea, who told him exactly how to go. And he did find them all at home. You know, generally, bird families don't stay so long together, but these gulls had been so unhappy about Quiver that they had fixed to stay close to the old ones till he came back. They always kept on hoping he would come back."

"I am so glad," said Fergus with a sigh of relief. "How beautiful it must have been to feel the sea-wind again, and see the waves dancing in the sunshine! Do you know, Gratian, I was just a little afraid at the end that you were going to say that Quiver had grown so good that he went 'up, up, up,' straight into heaven. I shouldn't have liked that – at least not till he had lived happily by the sea first. And then," Fergus began to get a little confused, "I don't know about that. Do gulls go to heaven, mother? You don't mind my thinking dogs do."

The lady smiled. She had not said anything yet; she seemed to be thinking seriously. But now she drew Gratian to her and kissed his forehead.

"Thank you, dear boy," she said. "I am so glad to have heard one of your stories."

CHAPTER XI
DRAWN TWO WAYS

 
"When Love wants this, and Pain wants that,
And all our hearts want Tit for Tat."
 
Matthew Browne

Gratian almost danced along the moor path on his way home that evening; he felt so happy. Never had he loved Fergus and his mother so much – he could not now understand how he had ever lived without them, and like a child he did not think of how he ever could do so. He let the future take care of itself.

It was cold of course. He rather fancied that White-wings was not far off, and once or twice he stood still to listen. It was some little time now since he had heard anything of his friends. But at first nothing met his ear, and he ran on.

Suddenly a breath – a waft rather of soft air blew over his face. It was not White-wings, and most certainly not Gray-wings. Gratian looked up in surprise – he could hardly expect the soft western sister on such a cold night.

"Yes, it is I," she said; "you can hardly believe it, can you? I am only passing by – no one else will know I have been here. I don't generally come when you are in such merry spirits – I don't feel that you need me then. But as I was not so very far off, I thought I'd give you a kiss on my way. So you told them the sea-gull's story – I am glad they liked it."

"Yes," said Gratian, "they did, indeed. But, Green-wings, I'm glad you've come, for I wanted to ask you, if they ask me if I made it all up myself, what can I say? I'm so afraid of telling what isn't true; but you know I couldn't explain about you and the others. I couldn't if I tried."

"You are not meant to do so," replied she quickly. "What have you said when Fergus has asked you about other stories?"

"I have said I couldn't explain how I knew them – that sometimes they were a sort of dream. I didn't want to say I had made them all myself, though I have partly made them – you know I have, Green-wings."

"Certainly – it was not I for instance, who told you the very remarkable fact of natural history that you related at the end of the story?" said Green-wings with her soft laugh. "You may quite take the credit of that. But I won't laugh at you, dear. It is true that they are your stories, and yet a sort of dream. No one but you could hear them – no one would say that the whispers of the wind talking language to you, are anything but the reflection of your own pretty fancies. It will be all right – you will see. But I must go," and she gave a little sigh.

"Green-wings, darling, you seem a little sad to-night," said Gratian. "Why is it? Is it that the winter has come?"

"I am never very merry, as you know. But I am a little sadder than usual to-night. I foresee – I foresee sorrows" – and her voice breathed out the words with such an exquisite plaintiveness that they sounded like the dying away notes of a dirge. "But keep up your heart, my darling, and trust us all – all four. We only wish your good, though we may show it in different ways. And wherever I am I can always be with you to comfort you, if it be but for a moment. No distance can separate us from our child."

"And I am most your child, am I not, dear Green-wings?" asked Gratian. "I knew you the first, and I think I love you the most."

"My darling, good-night," whispered Green-wings, and with a soft flutter she was gone.

There was no mother waiting at the open door for Gratian's return that evening.

"It is too cold for standing outside now," he said to himself as he went in, adding aloud, "Here I am, mother. Did you think I was late?"

Mrs. Conyfer was sitting by the fire. Her knitting lay on her knee, but her hands were idle. She looked up as Gratian came in.

"I am glad you have come, dear," she said; but her voice sounded tired, and when he was close to her he saw that her face seemed tired also.

"Are you not well, mother?" he said gently.

Mrs. Conyfer looked a little surprised but pleased too. It was new to her either to think of how she was or to be asked about it. For though her husband was kind and good, he was plain and even a little rough, as are the moorland people in general. Gratian had never been rough, but he had not had the habit of much noticing those about him. Since he had been so often with Fergus and the lady he had learnt to be more observant of others, especially of his mother, and more tender in his manner.

"Are you not well, mother dear?" he repeated.

"I'm only a bit tired, my boy," she said. "I'm getting old, I suppose, and I've worked pretty hard in my way – not to say as if I'd been a poor man's wife of course, but a farmer's wife has a deal on her mind."

"And you do everything so well, mother," said Gratian admiringly. "I'm getting old enough now to see how different things are here from what they are in many houses. Fergus does so like to hear about the dairy and the cocks and hens, and about the girdle cakes and all the nice things you make."

"He's really a nice little gentleman!" said Mrs. Conyfer, well pleased, "I am glad to hear he's getting so much better. I'm sure his mother deserves he should – such a sweet lady as she is."

For now and then on a Sunday the two boys' mothers had spoken to each other.

"Yes, he's much better," said Gratian. "To-day he walked six times up and down the terrace with only my arm."

"They weren't afraid to let him out, and it so cold to-day?" said Mrs. Conyfer.

"It wasn't so very cold – you usedn't to mind the cold, mother," said the boy.

"Maybe not so much as now," she replied. "I think I'm getting rheumatic like my father and mother before me, for I can't move about so quick, and then one feels the cold more."

"What makes people have rheumatics?" asked Gratian.

"Folk don't have it so much hereabout," his mother answered; "but I don't belong to the moor country, you know. My home was some way from this, down in the valley, where it's milder but much damper – and damp is worst of anything for rheumatism. Dear me, I remember my old grandmother a perfect sight with it – all doubled up – you wondered how she got about. But she was a marvel of patience, and so cheery too. I only hope I shall be like her in that, if I live so long, for it's a sore trial to an active nature to become so nearly helpless."

"Had she nobody to be kind to her when she got so ill?" asked Gratian.



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