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THE SPOONBILL AND THE CLOUD
As Martin grew in years and strength, his age being now about seven,
his rambles began to extend beyond the waste grounds outside of the
fenced orchard and gate. These waste grounds were a wilderness of
weeds: here were the sunflowers that Martin liked best; the wild
cock's-comb, flaunting great crimson tufts; the yellow flowering
mustard, taller than the tallest man; giant thistle, and wild
pumpkin with spotted leaves; the huge hairy fox-gloves with yellow
bells; feathery fennel, and the big grey-green thorn-apples, with
prickly burs full of bright red seed, and long white wax-like flowers,
that bloomed only in the evening. He could never get high enough on
anything to see over the tops of these plants; but at last he found
his way through them, and discovered on their further side a wide
grassy plain with scarcely a tree on it, stretching away into the
blue distance. On this vast plain he gazed with wonderment and
delight. Behind the orchard and weedy waste the ground sloped down
to a stream of running water, full of tall rushes with dark green
polished stems, and yellow water-lilies. All along the moist banks
grew other flowers that were never seen in the dry ground above--the
blue star, and scarlet and white verbenas; and sweet-peas of all
colours; and the delicate red vinegar flower, and angel's hair, and
the small fragrant lilies called Mary's-tears, and tall scattered
flags, flaunting their yellow blossoms high above the meadow grass.
Every day Martin ran down to the stream to gather flowers and shells;
for many curious water-snails were found there with brown
purple-striped shells; and he also liked to watch the small birds
that build their nests in the rushes.
There were three of these small birds that did not appear to know
that Martin loved them; for no sooner would he present himself at
the stream than forth they would flutter in a great state of mind.
One, the prettiest, was a tiny, green-backed little creature, with a
crimson crest and a velvet-black band across a bright yellow breast:
this one had a soft, low, complaining voice, clear as a silver bell.
The second was a brisk little grey and black fellow, with a loud,
indignant chuck, and a broad tail which he incessantly opened and
shut, like a Spanish lady playing with her fan.
The third was a shy, mysterious little brown bird, peering out of
the clustering leaves, and making a sound like the soft ticking of a
clock. They were like three little men, an Italian, a Dutchman, and
a Hindoo, talking together, each in his own language, and yet well
able to understand each other. Martin could not make out what they
said, but suspected that they were talking about him; and he feared
that their remarks were not always of a friendly nature.
At length he made the discovery that the water of the stream was
perpetually running away. If he dropped a leaf on the surface it
would hasten down stream, and toss about and fret impatiently
against anything that stood in its way, until, making its escape, it
would quickly hurry out of sight. Whither did this rippling, running
water go? He was anxious to find out. At length, losing all fear and
fired with the sight of many new and pretty things he found while
following it, he ran along the banks until, miles from home, he came
to a great lake he could hardly see across, it was so broad. It was
a wonderful place, full of birds; not small, fretful creatures
flitting in and out of the rushes, but great majestic birds that
took very little notice of him. Far out on the blue surface of the
water floated numbers of wild fowl, and chief among them for grace
and beauty was the swan, pure white with black head and neck and
crimson bill. There also were stately flamingoes, stalking along
knee-deep in the water, which was shallow; and nearer to the shore
were flocks of rose-coloured spoonbills and solitary big grey herons
standing motionless; also groups of white egrets, and a great
multitude of glossy ibises, with dark green and purple plumage and
long sickle-like beaks.
The sight of this water with its beds of rushes and tall flowering
reeds, and its great company of birds, filled Martin with delight;
and other joys were soon to follow. Throwing off his shoes, he
dashed with a shout into the water, frightening a number of ibises;
up they flew, each bird uttering a cry repeated many times, that
sounded just like his old father's laugh when he laughed loud and
heartily. Then what was Martin's amazement to hear his own shout and
this chorus of bird ha, ha, ha's, repeated by hundreds of voices all
over the lake. At first he thought that the other birds were mocking
the ibises; but presently he shouted again, and again his shouts
were repeated by dozens of voices. This delighted him so much that
he spent the whole day shouting himself hoarse at the waterside.
When he related his wonderful experience at home, and heard from his
father that the sounds he had heard were only echoes from the beds
of rushes, he was not a bit wiser than before, so that the echoes
remained to him a continual wonder and source of never-failing
Every day he would take some noisy instrument to the lake to startle
the echoes; a whistle his father made him served for a time; after
that he marched up and down the banks, rattling a tin canister with
pebbles in it; then he got a large frying-pan from the kitchen, and
beat on it with a stick every day for about a fortnight. When he
grew tired of all these sounds, and began casting about for some new
thing to wake the echoes with, he all at once remembered his
father's gun--just what he wanted, for it was the noisiest thing in
the world. Watching his opportunity, he got secretly into the room
where it was kept loaded, and succeeded in carrying it out of the
house without being seen; then, full of joyful anticipations, he ran
as fast as the heavy gun would let him to his favourite haunt.
When he arrived at the lake three or four spoonbills--those beautiful,
tall, rose-coloured birds--were standing on the bank, quietly dozing
in the hot sunshine. They did not fly away at his approach, for the
birds were now so accustomed to Martin and his harmless noises that
they took very little notice of him. He knelt on one knee and
pointed the gun at them.
"Now, birdies, you don't know what a fright I'm going to give
you--off you go!" he cried, and pulled the trigger.
The roar of the loud report travelled all over the wide lake,
creating a great commotion among the feathered people, and they rose
up with a general scream into the air.
All this was of no benefit to Martin, the recoil of the gun having
sent him flying over, his heels in the air; and before he recovered
himself the echoes were silent, and all the frightened birds were
settling on the water again. But there, just before him, lay one of
the spoonbills, beating its great rose-coloured wings against the
Martin ran to it, full of keen distress, but was powerless to help;
its life's blood was fast running away from the shot wounds it had
received in its side, staining the grass with crimson. Presently it
closed its beautiful ruby-coloured eyes and the quivering wings grew
Then Martin sat down on the grass by its side and began to cry, Oh,
that great bird, half as tall as himself, and so many times more
lovely and strong and beautiful in its life--he had killed it, and
it would never fly again! He raised it up very tenderly in his arms
and kissed it--kissed its pale green head and rosy wings; then out
of his arms it tumbled back again on to the grass.
"Oh, poor bird," he cried suddenly, "open your wings and fly away!"
But it was dead.
Then Martin got up and stared all round him at the wide landscape,
and everything looked strange and dim and sorrowful. A shadow passed
over the lake, and a murmur came up out of the rushes that was like
a voice saying something that he could not understand. A great cry
of pain rose from his heart and died to a whisper on his lips; he
was awed into silence. Sinking down upon the grass again, he hid his
face against the rosy-breasted bird and began to sob. How warm the
dead bird felt against his cheek--oh, so warm--and it could not live
and fly about with the others.
At length he sat up and knew the reason of that change that had come
over the earth. A dark cloud had sprung up in the south-west, far
off as yet, and near the horizon; but its fringe already touched and
obscured the low-hanging sun, and a shadow flew far and vast before
it. Over the lake flew that great shadow: the waters looked cold and
still, reflecting as in a polished glass the motionless rushes, the
glassy bank, and Martin, sitting on it, still clasping in his arms
the dead rose-coloured bird.
Swifter and vaster, following close upon the flying shadow, came the
mighty cloud, changing from black to slaty grey; and then, as the
sun broke forth again under its lower edge, it was all flushed with
a brilliant rose colour. But what a marvellous thing it was, when
the cloud covered a third of the wide heavens, almost touching the
horizon on either side with its wing-like extremities; Martin,
gazing steadily at it, saw that in its form it was like an immense
spoonbill flying through the air! He would gladly have run away then
to hide himself from its sight, but he dared not stir, for it was
now directly above him; so, lying down on the grass and hiding his
face against the dead bird, he waited in fear and trembling.
He heard the rushing sound of the mighty wings: the wind they
created smote on the waters in a hurricane, so that the reeds were
beaten flat on the surface, and a great cry of terror went up from
all the wild birds. It passed, and when Martin raised his bowed head
and looked again, the sun, just about to touch the horizon with its
great red globe, shone out, shedding a rich radiance over the earth
and water; while far off, on the opposite side of the heavens, the
great cloud-bird was rapidly fading out of sight.
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