If You Touch


4. Chapter IV

For many days it appeared as if the Poor Boy's entire efforts were directed into an attempt to sleep off his troubles. Experience was like a drug of which he could not rid himself; he waked, tried to read, tried to walk, tried to enjoy looking out over the valley, and soon gave it up, and threw himself on his bed, or on the big lounge in the living-room. And these days, of course, so the pendulum swings, were followed by days and nights in which he could not sleep at all.

But old Martha was not worried, though she pretended to be. It was natural that having slept too much he should now sleep too little. She prescribed exercise and usefulness. One day she made him wash all the dishes, and prune all the rose-vines, and tie them in readiness for straw jackets when winter should set in, and she made him split wood in the cellar, and after dinner she made him go to the piano and play Irish music for her until the sweat stood out on his forehead. Then she ordered him under a cold shower, and when he was in bed she pulled up a chair, and told him the longest and dullest story she knew--"The Banshee of Kilmanogg." And behold he slept, and was wakened by birds in the ivy who were talking over their plans for going south for the winter.

The Poor Boy opened his rested eyes and listened to the birds. There were some who intended to travel by the seaboard air-line, others by the midland air-line; for the most part they were going to Florida and the Gulf States for the cold months; but a certain robin and his wife, tempted by the memory of crumbs and suet which a wise and wonderful old lady always put out for them, had determined to winter at Aiken in the holly-tree that stood by the old lady's window. There were comparisons of resorts and disputes about them.

In the party were young birds who had never been south at all. And a certain old bachelor bird amused himself very heartily at the expense of these. He did not dwell upon the beauty of the journey that was before them, but upon its inconveniences, its dangers, and its horrors.

"The midland route would be all right," he said, "if it weren't for the farmers' boys with their long guns and the--ever see a cat, Bub?"

"No," twittered Bub nervously. "Don't expect to. I'm for the seaboard."

"That would be sense," said the old bachelor, "if it weren't for the Statue of Liberty."

"The what?"

"It's a big light--you never know just what it is, because when you fly into it to see, it breaks your neck and all the other worthless bones in your body."

"I'm not agoing to fly into any light."

"You think you won't," said the bachelor ominously. "But first your brains will scatter figuratively, and then--literally. Too bad!--too bad!"

All the young birds shuddered.

"Those big snakes in the South are rather nasty things, too," continued the bachelor bird. "I'm used to them, of course, and I've proved dozens of times that there's no such thing as hypnotism; but the effect of a snake's eye on very young and inexperienced birds is inconceivable, and not to be reconciled to the Darwinian theory or Mendel's law. What between snakes, hawks, and women's hats, the life of a bird--"

"Isn't what it used to be."

The bachelor turned upon his interrupter and scowled.

"On the contrary," he said, "it's exactly what it used to be. And that's the--ahem--of it! Pardon me, ladies."

"When do you start?" he was asked. "Not for a week," he answered pompously. "I have several little odds and ends to look into first--" And right in the midst of his speech the call of the South hit him in the middle, you may say. It always does hit a bird like that, and it is contagious like girls fainting in a factory.

The cynical bachelor flew suddenly to the tipmost top of a tree, and poured forth the whole of his heart and soul in a song of the South. "I've got to go--I've got to go," he sang:

"For it's there that I must be,
Where the flower of the pomegranate blazes
In the top of the pomegranate tree.

"And as for the dangers of travel,
I'd laugh--if I hadn't to sing.
For a gale is a silly old zephyr
And a bird is a wonderful thing,
A wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful thing."

Two more verses he sang at the top of his lungs, broke off short with a shrill cry of joy, and took wing.

Then the south-sickness spread, and even the young birds flew to the tops of trees, and defied gales, snakes, the Statue of Liberty, the boy with the gun, and the female (you wouldn't call her a woman) with the untrimmed hat. And away they flew, in ones and twos, until there were only a few left. One of these hopped on the window-sill in full view, and told the Poor Boy to get up.

"Don't be setting such an example of sloth," she said, and squeaked at her own temerity and flew away.

The Poor Boy leaped from bed, and flung his pajamas afar, and rushed for cold water.

The shower fell heavily with wondrous iciness, and the Poor Boy sang aloud and praised God, who had once more returned him the gift of seeing and hearing. At breakfast he told Martha, and with the utmost gravity repeated to her everything that the birds had said--for him.