The Shagganappi

by Emily Pauline Johnson



The Whistling Swans


    FOR several evenings early in October the North Street boys had been gathering at Benson’s to try and organize a club, but the difficulty seemed to be to decide upon what kind of a club would be most interesting. The ball season would soon be over, the long winter would soon be on them, and things wore a pretty flat outlook, unless they could arrange some interesting diversion for that string of dull days, only broken by Christmas holidays. The West Ward fellows had a Checker Club, the Third Form fellows had a Puzzle Club, the Collegiates had a Canadian Literature Club; even the Mill boys down on the Flats had a Captain Kidd Club, proving themselves at times bandits quite worthy the club’s name. Only the North Street boys seemed “out of it,” but from the way they talked and shouted and wrangled at these preliminary meetings it looked as if they certainly intended to “come in” out of their isolation. But there had been five meetings without any decision having been arrived at. Every boy of the ten present seemed to want a different sort of club. The things that were suggested would have amazed the members of the various other clubs could they have heard them.
    Then, one night when the din and confusion were at fever heat, the door suddenly opened and in walked Benson’s father.
    “Why, what’s all this babel?” he exclaimed, as silence fell on the crowd and the boys got to their feet meekly to greet him with polite “good-evenings.” “I never heard such a parrot-and-monkey, Kilkenny-cat outfit in all my life! What’s up, fellows?” [Page 169]
    Benson’s father was generally acknowledged to be a “comedian.” No one ever saw him in a temper, or heard him speak a sharp word. He had a droll, woebegone face that never smiled, but a face everybody—from the mayor to the poorest mill hand—loved and respected. How often Benson had come in from school, ill-tempered and sour-visaged at something that had gone wrong in the class-room, only to have that droll face of his father’s and some equally droll remark upset all his dignity and indignation into laughter and consequent good nature.
    “One at a time, boys, just one at a time, or I shall have bustificated eardrums! What is it all about?”
    Then they told him, but, it must be confessed, not one at a time.
    “A club, eh?” he questioned, straddling a chair and leaning his arms on the back. “What kind of a club, pleasure club, improvement club, sporting club, what?”
    “That’s the trouble; we can’t hit on it!” they chorused.
    For a moment he sat silent, his round, childish eyes surveying the world that hung on his very first words.
    “I saw a queer thing as I came up the street to-night,” he began, seemingly having forgotten the subject in hand. “A dray-horse was standing before the mill gates, and, frisking about its heels, was a dandy little cocker spaniel, prettiest little dog you ever saw. The horse got tired leaning on one leg, I guess, for he shifted his position, and, in bringing down his left hind leg, he just pinned the little cocker’s foot to the ground with his big hoof. Cocker yelled. Worst row I ever heard—until I came into this room. But what do you suppose Mr. Horse did? Just lifted gently his left fore-hoof, but the squealing did not stop. Then he lifted his right fore-hoof; still the squealing went on. ‘Thinks I,’ said the horse to himself, ‘it must be my right hind-hoof,’ so he lifted that. ‘No, sir,’ he told himself; ‘sure, it’s my left-hinder’; and lifting that, he released the poor dog, who dashed around to the horse’s head, leaping up to his nose, and saying, [Page 170] ‘Thank you!’ over and over.* And the big, clumsy dray-horse just drew his long face a little longer, and said: ‘Never mind, old chap! I didn’t mean to hurt you; I’m sorry.’ Then came the drayman out of the mill—a nice, considerate, heart-warm, intelligent human being. Oh, yes! we humans know so much more than animals, don’t we, fellows? And because the big, patient, kindly dray-horse had, in its restlessness, moved twenty feet from the spot the driver left him at, that creature that is supposed to have known better, just took his whip and licked and lashed that glorious animal, yelling in a frenzy of temper, ‘I’ll teach you to move, when I leave you! You—’ Well boys, you nor I don’t care to hear all he did say.”
    “The brute!” “The big human hulk!” “The sneak!” “And he called himself a man!” were some of the phrases growled out by the indignant boys.
    “Yes, a man,” continued Benson’s father, “so much better than the dray-horse, that knew enough to lift his feet until he lifted the right one. I believe if that horse had the feet of a centipede, he would have gone on lifting them until the dog was released. I tell you, boys, if I could get anyone to help me, I’d start an Animal Rescue Club, to—”
    But the good gentleman never finished that sentence. The boys were on top of him, round him, under him, clamoring and shouting for him to organize their club for them, to help them study the habits and ways and “thoughts” of animals, to prevent abuse and cruelty towards them. They voted him in as honorary president, and went home that night the happiest-hearted lot of boys in the country. Just before they dispersed, however, a shy little chap named Jimmy Duffy, who had not much opportunity to speak amid the noise of stronger voices, said:
    “But, Mr. Benson, you do think the dray-horse thought and reasoned, don’t you?” [Page 171]
    “Surely he did, boy! And he spoke, too, in is own simple horse-language, though we cannot understand his tongue; but we should,” answered Benson’s father.
    It was not very long before the “Animal Rescue Club” of North Street became known far and wide, and its influence began to be felt in all quarters. The unfeeling drayman whose act of cruelty first gave rise to the organization was watched, then reported to police headquarters, from where he received a sound lecture because of various other ill-treatments of his horse, and after a time he began to see his own unkindness through the same spectacles as the “Animal Rescuers” viewed it, and within two months he became a considerate, gentle driver.
    “If the club never does another thing but reform that one man, and make him kinder to that big, good-hearted horse of his, it has been organized for some purpose,” commented Mr. Benson, one evening, when he “dropped in” to one of the meetings. “Keep it up, fellows. Our little four-footed animals serve us well, and deserve consideration in return.” And the boys worked hard and faithfully to follow his advice. Homeless cats, stray, mangy dogs, ill-fed horses, neglected cows, street sparrows, pigeons, bluejays, were watched and protected and relieved of their sufferings all that winter through. Finally Benson’s father arranged his evenings so that he could spend an hour with the club at each meeting, which time he devoted to “lecturing” on the habits and haunts of animals and birds. Those lectures were the delight of all, for this happy-hearted, boyish man would, in some marvellous fashion, discover all the humorous habits and comical dispositions and actions of every living thing. The little wiry-haired Irish terrier was a comedian, he declared. The bull-moose was a tragedian, the black bear cub was a clown, the lynx a villain, and the migrating birds a sweet, invisible chorus. Then to each and all he would attach some fascinating story, explaining why they resembled these characters. Often the entire club would [Page 172] be roaring with laughter over animal antics and bird capers, then the young faces would be very serious the next minute over some pathetic, heart-breaking tale of hunted deer-mothers trying to protect their pretty fawns, or some father fox lying dead because a swift bullet had caught him as he raided the poultry yard in the endeavor to seize food for the pretty litter of sharp-nosed little cubs, curled up with their mother in a distant cave.
    So the boys listened and learned and laughed, and, as spring crept up the calendar, their only regret at the return of the ball season was that the club meetings would be over until next autumn.

*         *         *         *         *         *

    It was late in April when little Jimmy Duffy’s father was called to Buffalo on business. The night before leaving, he said: “It’s most annoying! Here I have to go all that way for just about one hour’s talk with a man; an entire day wasted for the sake of one hour, or—hold on, let’s see, Jimmy. You have never seen Niagara Falls, have you?”
    “No, dad,” answered Jimmy, his face eager with hope.
    “The you be ready to come with me to-morrow. I’ll get through my business by noon, and you and I will just ‘do’ the Falls until dark, and get home on the late train. How does that strike you?”

    But Jimmy was speechless with delight. For years he had longed to see Niagara, but there was a number of older brothers and sisters, and Jimmy’s turn never seemed to have come until to-day. But the treat was here at last. A whole day along with his big dad, prowling about Niagara Falls, feasting his eyes upon its wonders, listening to its everlasting roar as it plunges over the heights! Jimmy did not sleep very much that night, and, long before train time, he was up, dressed in his best suit, even got himself a fresh pocket-handkerchief, scrambled through breakfast, then sat fidgeting on the front doorstep, while his father took a leisurely meal, glanced calmly [Page 173] at his watch occasionally, then, pushing back his chair, stepped briskly into the hall, glanced at the weather, got his light coat and hat, said good-bye to Mrs. Duffy, and called out: “Now, then, Jimmy!” But Jimmy was already at the gate, having kissed his mother good-bye almost an hour before, and presently they were swinging up to the station at a good gait, Mr. Duffy silent, thoughtful, engrossed in his coming business engagement, Jimmy dancing, whistling, strung up with excitement that bade fair to continue throughout the day.
    It took three hours to reach Buffalo. Then poor Jimmy had to sit in a stuffy outer office while his father and “the man” talked on the other side of a glass door. Jimmy thought they would never stop, but in exactly one hour the door opened, and he heard “the man” say:
    “Now, Mr. Duffy, will you come to my club and we will have luncheon together?”
    “Not to-day, thanks, Mr. Brown. I have my small boy with me, and we’re off for the Falls. Jimmy’s never seen them yet.”
    “Well, well!” answered Mr. Brown. “That’s nice! Going to be a boy again yourself, eh, Duffy? Well, have a good time, and good luck to you both!” And the glass door closed.
    His business ended, Jimmy’s father seemed another person. He chatted and talked and laughed with his son, ordered a splendid luncheon for them both, swung aboard the train, and by two o’clock they were standing on the very edge of the precipice, with the glorious Falls of Niagara thundering into the basin at their feet. The column of filmy mist, the gorgeous rainbows, the stupendous cataract, leaping and snarling like a million wolves—it whirled about Jimmy’s brain like a wild dream of No Man’s Land, and he walked beside his father in a daze of delight. They prowled through the islands, crossed the cobwebby bridges from rock to rock above the Falls, and [Page 174] finally sprawled on a bald ledge of stone, that jutted far out into the turbulent river.
    “We’ll just rest here a few minutes, James,” said his father, playfully. “Then we must go below the Falls and explore the ice-bridge. I see it is yet in perfect condition. You are fortunate, my boy, to be able to see it. There are some winters that never bring an ice-bridge. Then sometimes it thaws in March, so we are lucky to-day.
    About them tossed and tumbled the angry rapids, wrangling and brawling around their granite shores, but, above their conflicting noises arose a far, clear, musical sound, like a hundred throats and lips that whistled in unison.
    “What’s that?” exclaimed Mr. Duffy, sitting erect suddenly.
    “I don’t know,” said the boy, scanning the tangled waters with his unpractised young eyes.
    “There it is again, dad!” he cried. “It is whistling. A great company, somewhere, whistling!” Then, looking quickly skyward, he pointed excitedly upstream, “Look, look! Birds! They are birds! Great white ones, dad! What are they? There’s the whistle again!”
    Mr. Duffy shaded his eyes from the sun, and watched; for there, in the smooth waters above the rapids, were settling, one by one, a magnificent host of snow-white swans, their wearied bodies almost dropping into the river, their exhausted pinions dropping, nerveless and trailing, into the dark, deceptive stream, which lured them like a snare to its breast.
    “Jimmy, Jimmy!” shouted Mr. Duffy, “they’re swans, and they’re dead played out! They’re migrating north for the summer! I bet they’ve flown a thousand miles! See, boy, they’re spent, dead beat!”
    Jimmy fairly held his breath. The magnificent band of birds were slowly floating towards them. Now they could distinguish each regal body, feathered in dazzling white, each bill, scarlet as a July poppy, each gracefully [Page 175] lifted throat. But the majestic creatures floated swiftly and silently on, on, on!
    “Father!” The boy’s voice trembled huskily. “Oh, father, you don’t think they are in any danger of going over, do you?” His begging, pleading tones revealed his own childish fears.
    “Oh, surely not!” answered Mr. Duffy, but his tone lacked confidence. Then, after a brief silence, he almost groaned: “Jimmy, they’re done for! They don’t see their danger, and they’re too tired to rise if they do. Oh, boy, if we could save them!”
    But Jimmy stood rigid, staring, his heart slowly breaking, breaking. Anyone could see now that the stately battalion was doomed. With utter unconsciousness they drifted on, exhausted with their far journey from the lagoons and marshes of Chesapeake Bay, where the torrid suns had driven them from their winter haunts, to wing their way to their summer home in the far, white North.
    “Oh, Jimmy, the pity of it!” murmured Mr. Duffy. But the boy stood wordless, as the irresistible giant current caught the trusting birds and swept them, with a hideous, overpowering force, to the very brink of the Horseshoe Fall. The boy, thrilling with the horror of it, shut his eyes, and flung himself, face downward, on the rocks. A strange, inarticulate moan left the man’s lips. The boy lifted his head, lifted his eyes, but the river was empty.
    They ran breathlessly across the cobwebby bridges, around Goat Island, then to the shore, then to the elevator, and descended to the ice-bridge; but, above the angry battle of Niagara, arose the plaintive, dying cries of scores of snow-white birds, the shouts of gathering sightseers. Against the ruthless edges of ice lay, bleeding and broken, what was left of that superb company homeward bound. Their poor, twisted legs, their crushed heads, their flattened bodies, their pitiful, dying struggles, would melt a heart of stone. No more those graceful [Page 176] throats would whistle through the April airs, beneath the early suns and the late morning stars. The sweet, wild chorus was stilled forever.
    By the time Jimmy and his father arrived, crowds of people had descended with stones and sticks—anything they could lay their hands on—and were beating the remaining spark of life out of the helpless birds, then seizing and quarrelling over the bodies, without one word of pity or regret for the dreadful catastrophe, so long as they could secure the coveted specimens of this rare migratory bird. Then Jimmy noticed that some few had actually escaped injury, but, before he could reach them, older and stronger people had rushed upon the terrified and weakened creatures, and were clubbing them to death.
    “Stop it! stop it!” he shouted. “Those birds are not injured! Save them! Let them go!”
    “Not if I know it!” yelled back a huge fellow with the face of a greedy demon. “Why, these birds are worth twenty dollars apiece!” he blurted, “and I’m going to have every one of them.”
    Down, down, down, went one after another as they tried to rise and spread their magnificent wings, until only one remained. With the quickness of a cat, Jimmy flung his thin little body between the flopping victim and the upraised club.
    “You strike that swan if you dare!” he cried, fiercely, glaring up at the would-be murderer with indignant eyes.
    “Hello, bantam! You after twenty dollars, too?” sneered the man.
    “No; I’m after this swan’s life, and I’m going to have it!” growled the boy. “The bird is mine!”
    “Yes, Jimmy,” said his father, approaching sadly. “And it’s the only one that has life. I have counted one hundred and sixteen, either dead or slain.” [Page 177]
    The boy took off his coat, wrapping it about the superb bird, then carried it carefully to the elevator, and, soon after reaching the summit of the shore, had it fed and tended, then gently crated for shipment home. The tired bird submitted without protest to being measured. From tip to tail it measured fifty-one inches, with the magnificent expansion of wing of eighty-one inches, the only survivor of that glorious white company that was whistling its way to the North. And it was the kindly, boyish hand of little Jimmy Duffy, youngest member of the “Animal Rescue Club,” that had saved it from a crueller death than even old, heartless Niagara could have given it, and it was his hands that gently removed the bars of the crate in the Duffys’ big backyard.
    “There, you beautiful thing,” he said, as he removed the last slat, “stay with us if you can, but go when and where you want. There are no prisons around here.”
    But the next morning the swan was still in the yard. The ducks talked to it, but its sad, wondering eyes and listless wings spoke louder than words of its weariness and woe. Scores of boys came to see it that day, and the evening brought Benson’s father. After hearing the story all he could day was: “It’s a good thing for me that I was not there. I’m a pretty big fellow, and can lick chaps that are even bigger than I am, and if I’d caught that brute killing those uninjured birds, I’d have thrown him into the Whirlpool Rapids, sure as you’re born; I’d be in jail now, and probably hanged in the autumn. Yes, taking it altogether, I’m glad I wasn’t there!”
    Of course, many of the townspeople were for having Jimmy confine the bird, or at least send it to a museum, or enclose it in a wire netting; but the boy replied:
    “No, thanks. I have seen enough of them die, and I don’t want my swan to die of a broken heart.”
    But the swan stayed on day after day, seemingly content and happy. Then there dawned a beautiful day in May. The sun shone hot and level on the little back yard. [Page 178] In the middle of the morning a clear, musical, distinct whistle brought Jimmy running to the side door. The swan’s head was uplifted, its crimson beak pointing away from the sun. Presently it spread its regal wings and floated up, up, up. One more clear, lingering whistle, and it was away, while Jimmy watched it with eyes both dumbly sad and unspeakably glad, until it was but a radiant white speck sailing into the north, to search for others of its kind. [Page 179]

 


* Fact observed by the writer’s brother. [back]

It is a fact that occurred in April, 1908, that a company of one hundred and sixteen whistling swans were carried over Niagara Falls, and that the only one that escaped the weapons of destroyers was rescued by a little boy, and cared for exclusively by him. [back]