KING OF THE BIRDS
NCE upon a time, when the world was very new and when the birds had just learned from Mother Magpie how to build their nests, some one said, “We ought to have a king. Oh, we need a king of the birds very much!”
For you see, already in the Garden of Birds trouble had begun. There were disputes every morning as to which was the earliest bird who was entitled to the worm. There were quarrels over the best places for nest-building and over the fattest bug or beetle; and there was no one to settle these difficulties. Moreover, the robber birds were growing too bold, and there was no one to rule and punish them. There was no doubt about it; the birds needed a king to keep them in order and peace.
So the whisper went about, “We must have a king. Whom shall we choose for our king?”
They decided to hold a great meeting for the election. And because the especial talent of a bird is for flying, they agreed that the bird who could fly highest up into the blue sky, straight toward the sun, should be their king, king of all the feathered tribes of the air.
Therefore, after breakfast one beautiful morning, the birds met in the garden to choose their king. All the birds were there, from the largest to the smallest, chirping, twittering, singing on every bush and tree and bit of dry grass, till the noise was almost as great as nowadays at an election of two-legged folk without feathers. They swooped down in great clouds, till the sky was black with them, and they were dotted on the grass like punctuation marks on a green page. There were so many that not even wise Mother Magpie or old Master Owl could count them, and they all talked at the same time, like ladies at an afternoon tea, which was very confusing.
Little Robin Redbreast was there, hopping about and saying pleasant things to every one, for he was a great favorite. Gorgeous Goldfinch was there, in fine feather; and little Blackbird, who was then as white as snow. There were the proud Peacock and the silly Ostrich, the awkward Penguin and the Dodo, whom no man living has ever seen. Likewise there were the Jubjub Bird and the Dinky Bird, and many other curious varieties that one never finds described in the wise Bird Books,—which is very strange, and sad, too, I think. Yes, all the birds were there for the choosing of their king, both the birds who could fly, and those who could not. (But for what were they given wings, if not to fly? How silly an Ostrich must feel!)
Now the Eagle expected to be king. He felt sure that he could fly higher than any one else. He sat apart on a tall pine tree, looking very dignified and noble, as a future king should look. And the birds glanced at one another, nodded their heads, and whispered, “He is sure to be elected king. He can fly straight up toward the sun without winking, and his great wings are so strong, so strong! He never grows tired. He is sure to be king.”
Thus they whispered among themselves, and the Eagle heard them, and was pleased. But the little brown Wren heard also, and he was not pleased. The absurd little bird! He wanted to be king himself, although he was one of the tiniest birds there, who could never be a protector to the others, nor stop trouble when it began. No, indeed! Fancy him stepping as a peacemaker between a robber Hawk and a bloody Falcon. It was they who would make pieces of him. But he was a conceited little creature, and saw no reason why he should not make a noble sovereign.
“I am cleverer than the Eagle,” he said to himself, “though he is so much bigger. I will be king in spite of him. Ha-ha! We shall see what we shall see!” For the Wren had a great idea in his wee little head—an idea bigger than the head itself, if you can explain how that could be. He ruffled up his feathers to make himself as huge as possible, and hopped over to the branch where the Eagle was sitting.
“Well, Eagle,” said the Wren pompously, “I suppose you expect to be king, eh?”
The Eagle stared hard at him with his great bright eyes. “Well, if I do, what of that?” he said. “Who will dispute me?”
“I shall,” said the Wren, bobbing his little brown head and wriggling his tail saucily.
“You!” said the Eagle. “Do you expect to fly higher than I?”
“Yes,” chirped the Wren, “I do. Yes, I do, do, do!”
“Ho!” said the Eagle scornfully. “I am big and strong and brave. I can fly higher than the clouds. You, poor little thing, are no bigger than a bean. You will be out of breath before we have gone twice this tree’s height.”
“Little as I am, I can mount higher than you,” said the Wren.
“What will you wager, Wren?” asked the Eagle. “What will you give me if I win?”
“If you win you will be king,” said the Wren. “But beside that, if you win I will give you my fat little body to eat for your breakfast. But if I win, Sir, I shall be king, and you must promise never, never, never, to hurt me or any of my people.”
“Very well. I promise,” said the Eagle haughtily. “Come now, it is time for the trial, you poor little foolish creature.”
The birds were flapping their wings and singing eagerly, “Let us begin—begin. We want to see who is to be king. Come, birds, to the trial. Who can fly the highest? Come!”
Then the Eagle spread his great wings and mounted leisurely into the air, straight toward the noonday sun. And after him rose a number of other birds who wanted to be king,—the wicked Hawk, the bold Albatross, and the Skylark singing his wonderful song. The long-legged Stork started also, but that was only for a joke. “Fancy me for a king!” he cried, and he laughed so that he had to come down again in a minute. But the Wren was nowhere to be seen. The truth was, he had hopped ever so lightly upon the Eagle’s head, where he sat like a tiny crest. But the Eagle did not know he was there.
Soon the Hawk and the Albatross and even the brave little Skylark fell behind, and the Eagle began to chuckle to himself at his easy victory. “Where are you, poor little Wren?” he cried very loudly, for he fancied that the tiny bird must be left far, far below.
“Here I am, here I am, away up above you, Master Eagle!” piped the Wren in a weak little voice. And the Eagle fancied the Wren was so far up in the air that even his sharp eyes could not spy the tiny creature. “Dear me!” said he to himself. “How extraordinary that he has passed me.” So he redoubled his speed and flew on, higher, higher.
Presently he called out again in a tremendous voice, “Well, where are you now? Where are you now, poor little Wren?”
Once more he heard the tiny shrill voice from somewhere above piping, “Here I am, here I am, nearer the sun than you, Master Eagle. Will you give up now?”
Of course the Eagle would not give up yet. He flew on, higher and higher, till the garden and its flock of patient birds waiting for their king grew dim and blurry below. And at last even the mighty wings of the Eagle were weary, for he was far above the clouds. “Surely,” he thought, “now the Wren is left miles behind.” He gave a scream of triumph and cried, “Where are you now, poor little Wren? Can you hear me at all, down below there?”
But what was his amazement to hear the same little voice above his head shrilling, “Here I am, here I am, Sir Eagle. Look up and see me, look!” And there, sure enough, he was fluttering above the Eagle’s head. “And now, since I have mounted so much higher than you, will you agree that I have won?”
“Yes, you have won, little Wren. Let us descend together, for I am weary enough,” cried the Eagle, much mortified; and down he swooped, on heavy, discouraged wings.
“Yes, let us descend together,” murmured the Wren, once more perching comfortably on the Eagle’s head. And so down he rode on this convenient elevator, which was the first one invented in this world.
When the Eagle nearly reached the ground, the other birds set up a cry of greeting.
“Hail, King Eagle!” they sang. “How high you flew! How near the sun! Did he not scorch your Majesty’s feathers? Hail, mighty king!” and they made a deafening chorus. But the Eagle stopped them.
“The Wren is your king, not I,” he said. “He mounted higher than I did.”
“The Wren? Ha-ha! The Wren! We can’t believe that The Wren flew higher than you? No, no!” they all shouted. But just then the Eagle lighted on a tree, and from the top of his head hopped the little Wren, cocking his head and ruffling himself proudly.
“Yes, I mounted higher than he,” he cried, “for I was perched on his head all the while, ha-ha! And now, therefore, I am king, small though I be.”
Now the Eagle was very angry when he saw the trick that had been played upon him, and he swooped upon the sly Wren to punish him. But the Wren screamed, “Remember, remember your promise never to injure me or mine!” Then the Eagle stopped, for he was a noble bird and never forgot a promise. He folded his wings and turned away in disgust.
“Be king, then, O cheat and trickster!” he said.
“Cheat and trickster!” echoed the other birds. “We will have no such fellow for our king. Cheat and trickster he is, and he shall be punished. You shall be king, brave Eagle, for without your strength he could never have flown so high. It is you whom we want for our protector and lawmaker, not this sly fellow no bigger than a bean.”
So the Eagle became their king, after all; and a noble bird he is, as you must understand, or he would never have been chosen to guard our nation’s coat of arms. And besides this you may see his picture on many a banner and crest and coin of gold or silver, so famous has he become.
But the Wren was to be punished. And while the birds were trying to decide what should be done with him, they put him in prison in a mouse-hole and set Master Owl to guard the door. Now while the judges were putting their heads together the lazy Owl fell fast asleep, and out of prison stole the little Wren and was far away before any one could catch him. So he was never punished after all, as he richly deserved to be.
The birds were so angry with old Master Owl for his carelessness that he has never since dared to show his face abroad in daytime, but hides away in his hollow tree. And only at night he wanders alone in the woods, sorry and ashamed.
Another story tomorrow…
Project Gutenberg's The Curious Book of Birds, by Abbie Farwell Brown This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.net Title: The Curious Book of Birds Author: Abbie Farwell Brown Illustrator: E. Boyd Smith Release Date: June 27, 2005 [EBook #16140] Language: English Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1