In the Village of Viger

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

THE BOBOLINK


IT WAS the sunniest corner in Viger where old Garnaud had built his cabin—his cabin, for it could not be called a house.  It was only of one storey, with a kitchen behind, and a workshop in front, where Etienne Garnaud mended the shoes of Viger.  He had lived there by himself ever since he came from St. Valérie; everyone knew his story, everyone liked him.  A merry heart had the old shoemaker; it made a merry heart to see him bending his white head with its beautiful features above his homely work, and to hear his voice in a high cadence of good-humoured song.  The broad window of his cabin was covered with a shutter hinged at the top, which was propped up by a stick slanted from the window-sill.  In the summer the sash was removed, and through the opening came the even sound of the Blanche against the bridge piers, or the scythe-whetting from some hidden meadow.  From it there was a view of a little pool of the stream where the [Page 63] perch jumped clear into the sun, and where a birch growing on the bank threw a silver shadow-bridge from side to side.  Farther up, too, were the willows that wore the yellow tassels in the spring, and the hollow where burr-marigolds were brown-golden in August.  On the hill slope stood a delicate maple that reddened the moment summer had gone, which old Etienne watched with a sigh and a shake of the head. 
    If the old man was a favourite with the elder people of Viger, he was a yet greater favourite with the children.  No small portion of his earnings went toward the purchase of sugar candy for their consumption.  On summer afternoons he would lay out a row of sweet lumps on his window-sill and pretend to be absorbed by his work, as the children, with much suppressed laughter, darted around the corner of his cabin, bearing away the spoils.  He would pause every now and then to call, "Aha—Aha!  Where are all my sweeties? those mice and rats must have been after them again!" and would chuckle to himself to hear the children trying to keep back the laughter, out of sight around the corner.  In the winter, when the boys and girls would come in to see him work, he always managed to drop some candy into their pockets, which they would find afterward with less surprise than the old man imagined.
    But his great friend was the little blind daughter of his neighbour Moreau.  "Here comes my little fairy," he would call out, as he saw her feeling her way down the road with her little cedar wand.  "Here comes my little fairy," and he would go out to guide her across the one [Page 64] plank thrown over the ditch in front of his cabin.  Then they would sit and chat together, this beautiful old man and the beautiful little girl.  She raised her soft brown, sightless eyes to the sound of his voice, and he told her long romances, described the things that lay around them, or strove to answer her questions.  This was his hardest task, and he often failed in it; her questions ran beyond his power, and left him mystified.
    One spring he bought a bobolink from some boys who had trapped it; and he hung its cage in the sun outside his cabin.  There it would sing or be silent for days at a time.  Little Blanche would sit outside under the shade of the shutter, leaning half into the room to hear the old man talk, but keeping half in the air to hear the bird sing.
    They called him "Jack" by mutual consent, and he absorbed a great deal of their attention.  Blanche had to be present at every cage cleaning.  One day she said, "Uncle Garnaud, what is he like?"
    "Why, dearie, he's a beauty; he's black all over, except his wings and tail, and they have white on them."
    "And what are his wings like?"
    "Well, now, that finishes me.  I am an old fool, or I could tell you."
    "Uncle Garnaud, I never even felt a bird; could I feel Jack?"   
    "Well, I could catch him; but you mustn't squeeze him."   
    Jack was caught with a sudden dart of the old man's hand; the little blind girl felt him softly, traced the shape [Page 65] of his outstretched wing, and put him back into the cage with a sigh.
    "Tell me, Uncle Garnaud," she asked, "how did they catch him?"
    "Well, you see, they put a little cage on a stump in the oat-field, and by-and-by the bird flew over and went in."
    "Well, didn't he know they would not let him out if he once went in?'
    "Well, you know, he hadn't any old uncle to tell him so."
    "Well, but birds must have uncles, if they have fathers just like we have."
    Old Etienne puckered up his eyes and put his awl through his hair.  The bird ran down a whole cadence, as if he was on the wind over a wheat-field; then he stopped."
    "There, Uncle Garnaud, I know he must mean something by that.  What did he do all day before he was caught?"
    "I don't think he did any work.  He just flew about and sang all day, and picked up seeds, and sang, and tried to balance himself on the wheat-ears."
    "He sang all day?  Well, he doesn't do that now."
    The bird seemed to recall a sunny field-corner, for his interlude was as light as thistledown, and after a pause he made two little sounds like the ringing of bells at Titania's girdle.
    "Perhaps he doesn't like to be shut up and have nobody but us," she said, after a moment. [Page 66]
    "Well," said the old man, hesitatingly, "we might let him go."
    "Yes," faltered the child, "we might let him go."
    The next time little Blanche was there she said, "And he didn't do anything but that, just sing and fly?"
    "No, I think not."
    "Well, then, he could fly miles and miles, and never come back, if he didn't want to?"
    "Why, yes; he went away every winter, so that the frost wouldn't bite him."
    "Oh!  Uncle Garnaud, he didn't, did he?"
    "Yes, true, he did."
    The little girl was silent for a while; when the old man looked at her the tears were in her eyes.
    "Why, my pretty, what's the matter?"
    "Oh, I was just thinking that why he didn't sing was because he only saw you and me, and the road, and our trees, when he used to have everything."
    "Well," said the old man, stopping his work, "he might have everything again, you know."
    "Might he?" she asked, doubtfully.
    "Why, we might let him fly away."
    The bird dropped a clear note or two.
    "Oh, Uncle Garnaud, do let him go!"
    "Why, beauty, just as you say."
    The old man put off his apron and took the cage down.
    "Here, little girl, you hold the cage, and we'll go where he can fly free." [Page 67]
    Blanche carried the cage and he took her hand.  They walked down to the bridge, and set the cage on the rail.
    "Now, dearie, open the door," said the old man.
    The little child felt for the slide and pushed it back.  In a moment the bird rushed out and flew madly off.
    "He's gone," she said, "Jack's gone.  Where did he go, Uncle?"
    "He flew right through that maple-tree, and now he's over the fields, and now he's out of sight."
    "And didn't he even once look back?"
    "No, never once."
    They stood there together for a moment, the old man gazing after the departed bird, the little girl setting her brown, sightless eyes on the invisible distance.  Then, taking the empty cage, they went back to the cabin.  From that day their friendship was not untinged by regret; some delicate mist of sorrow seemed to have blurred the glass of memory.  Though he could not tell why, old Etienne that evening felt anew his loneliness, as he watched a long sunset of red and gold that lingered after the footsteps of the August day, and cast a great colour into his silent cabin above the Blanche. [Page 68]