HOW THE BLACKBIRD SPOILED HIS COAT
NCE upon a time, our friend Blackbird, who comes first of the feathered brothers in the spring, was not black at all. No, indeed; he was white—white as feather-snow new fallen in the meadow. There are very few birds who have been thought worthy to dress all in beautiful white, for that is the greatest honor which a bird can have. So, like the Swan and the Dove, Master Whitebird—for that is what they called him then—was very proud of his spotless coat.
He was very proud and happy, and he sang all day long, the jolliest songs. But you see he did not really deserve this honor, because he was at heart a greedy bird; and therefore a great shame came upon him, and after that he was never proud nor happy any more. I shall tell you the story of how the Whitebird grew grimy and gloomy as we know him, almost as black and solemn as old Daddy Crow.
Once upon a time, then, Master Whitebird was teetering on a rose-bush, ruffling his beautiful white feathers and singing little bits of poetry about himself to any one who would listen.
Just look at me!”
he piped, and cocked his little eyes about in every direction, to see who might be admiring his wondrous whiteness.
But all on a sudden his song gurgled down into his throat and choked itself still, and his eyes fixed themselves upon a tree close by. It was a dead old tree, and there was a hole in the trunk halfway up to the lowest limb, a round little hole about as big as your two fists.
Whitebird had seen something black pop into that hole in a sly and secret way, and he began to wonder; for he was inquisitive, as most birds are. He sat quite still on his rose-bush and watched and watched. Presently out of the hole popped a black head, bigger than Whitebird’s, with two wise little twinkling eyes.
“Oho!” said Whitebird to himself, “it is Mother Magpie up to her old tricks, hiding, hiding. Maybe she has a treasure hidden there. I will watch, and perhaps I shall find out something worth knowing.”
Mother Magpie was the wisest and the slyest of all the birds, and it was always worth while, as Whitebird knew, to take lessons of her. So he sat perfectly still until she came cautiously back carrying something in her beak. It was round and white and glinted like moonlight. Whitebird’s eyes stuck out greedily.
“It is a piece of silver!” he thought, but he sat perfectly still until the Magpie had stowed the coin safely in the hollow tree and had hopped away as if upon an unfinished errand. “Aha! there is more then. I will watch to see what comes next,” said Whitebird. And he waited.
Sure enough. In a little while the Magpie returned, this time bringing something which glowed yellow like sunlight.
“It is a piece of gold!” gasped Whitebird, and his eyes bulged out like those of lobsters, he was so jealous of her luck. But he silently watched her disappear into her tree-cupboard and then hastily depart as before toward the mountain. “What comes next?” muttered Whitebird to himself. “I am dying to peep into that hole. I cannot wait much longer.”
Then, after a while, a third time came back the Magpie to the dead tree. And lo, what she carried in her beak twinkled and trembled and shone in many colors, like a drop of dew on a velvet flower-cheek. When Whitebird saw this sight, he nearly tumbled off his perch with excitement.
“It is a diamond!” he cried aloud; “oh, it is a real diamond!”
At this sudden noise from the rose-bush Mother Magpie’s nerves were so shocked that she dropped the diamond helter-skelter into the hole. And in a moment she fell in after it, out of sight. She hoped that no one had seen her, but little Whitebird knew the place. He hopped after her and, perching on the edge of the hole, peered down into the hollow tree. And there he saw a great heap of silver and gold and precious stones, which Mother Magpie was trying to cover with her wings.
“Oh, what a treasure! What a treasure!” he piped greedily. “Mother Magpie, you must tell me where you found it, that I may go and get some for myself.”
But Mother Magpie refused to tell.
“Oho!” chirped Whitebird, angrily; “we shall see about that! Then I will call in the fierce birds, Robber Hawk and Fighting Falcon and the bloody Butcher Bird, and they will take your treasure from you, and kill you, too, into the bargain. What do you think of that, Mother Magpie?”
Then she was afraid, for she knew those bad birds; and she saw that she must trust her secret with Whitebird, since he had already discovered half the truth.
“Well, if you will promise me not to let any one else know, not even King Eagle, I will tell you,” she said. So Whitebird promised.
“Listen,” said the Magpie. “You must find the cave which is near the tallest oak on the mountain, under the flat stone. In a corner there is a tiny hole, just big enough for you or me to pass. And this is the entrance to a passage which leads down into the cellars of the earth. And when you have gone down and down, farther than any one except myself ever went before, you will come to the palace of the King of Riches. It is full of gold and silver and precious stones like these you see here. Each chamber is more beautiful and more tempting than the last. But you must not touch a stone or a single coin, or even a little bit of gold-dust, until you have seen the King. For first you must offer yourself to be his servant, and then he will be generous; then he will let you carry away as much treasure as your beak will hold. That is all there is to it. But beware, greedy Whitebird! Take my advice, and do not touch a grain of treasure before you see the King, or great evil will befall you.”
Whitebird promised to do as she said. And then away he flew to the blue mountain and its tallest oak. Close by the great oak, in a lonely spot, he found the flat rock, and under it was the cave where once a bear had lived. Whitebird hopped in eagerly, and away back in one corner of the cave he found a little round hole, as the Magpie had said; a hole not much bigger than an apple. It must have been a tight squeeze for fat Mother Magpie!
Whitebird hopped through the hole and found himself in a long, narrow passage which led down, down, down into places where his eyes were of no use at all. For he was not like Master Owl, who can see better in the dark than anywhere else. Blindly he hopped on and on, till he came into a great cavern, bright with a white radiance, as if the moonlight filtered in from somewhere. It was the first room of the King’s palace of treasure; and it was all of silver, paved with silver, heaped with silver, shining with silver. Whitebird’s eyes glittered and he wanted to stop and take some for himself. But just in time he remembered the wise warning of Mother Magpie; and so he hopped on over the silver pebbles through a silver door into a second room. And this was flooded with yellow light as of sunshine, so dazzling that for a moment Whitebird’s yellow eyes could see nothing at all. When he could see, the place seemed full of yellow eyes like his own, great yellow eyes heaped up from floor to ceiling. And when he became used to this he looked again and saw that these were golden coins, and that this was a cavern all of gold.
Oh, such a wonderful sight! Oh, such a golden dream! The floor on which he stood was deep with gold dust, which squished between his toes like yellow sand on a sea beach. And then Whitebird lost his head and went quite mad, forgetting the words of wise Mother Magpie.
“Gold dust, gold dust, a treasure for me!” he sang, hopping up and down on one leg. “I can carry away a great beakful of the yellow seeds, and each one will blossom into a golden flower for me—for me—for me!” He was wholly crazy, as you see.
He thrust his bill deep into the gold dust of the floor, and greedily filled it more than full, till it dropped over his white, white feathers and splashed his coat so that he was no longer a white bird but a yellow bird. Oh, the silly, greedy thing! But there are worse fates than being a yellow bird.
Just at this moment a dreadful roar echoed through the caverns till they rumbled like an earthquake, and into the golden chamber crashed a horrible dragon-creature, the guardian of the King’s treasure. His eyes blazed red like coals, and from his mouth came smoke and flame so that the gold melted before his breath. He rushed straight upon poor little Whitebird to gobble him up, and as he came he roared: “Thief, thief! who steals my master’s treasure? I scorch you with my eye! I burn you with my breath! I swallow you into the furnace of my throat. Gr-r-r-r!”
There seemed no chance for Whitebird to escape, the creature was so near. But with a cry of terror he fluttered and hopped away as fast as he could toward the narrow passage, through the gold chamber and the silver chamber, leaving all the treasure behind. (Oh, don’t you wish we could have known how the diamond chamber looked, with its rainbow light?)
Whitebird hopped and fluttered, fluttered and hopped, feeling the dragon’s hot breath close behind frizzling his feathers and blinding his eyes with smoke. He seemed like to be roasted alive in this horrible underground oven. But oh, there was the hole close before him! Pouf! With a terrible roar the dragon snapped at him as Whitebird popped through the hole; but he got only a mouthful of burnt tail-feathers. Whitebird was safe, safe in the narrow passage where the dragon could not follow. Up and up and up and up he feebly fluttered into the light of the dear outside world, and then he gave a chirp of joy to find that he really had escaped. But oh, how tired and frightened he was!
Mother Magpie was sitting on a bush waiting for him, for she had guessed what would happen to the greedy bird. And when she saw him she gave a squawk of laughter.
“O Whitebird,” she chuckled, “what a sight! what a sight! Your lovely coat, your spotless feathers! Oh, you greedy, greedy Blackbird!”
Then he who had been Whitebird looked down at himself and saw what a dreadful thing had happened. And he closed his eyes and gave a hoarse, sad croak. For the smoke and flame of the dragon’s breath had smirched and scorched him from top to toe, so that he was no longer white, but thenceforth and forever Blackbird.
I think Mother Magpie must have told the story to her children, chuckling over the greedy fellow’s failure. And they told it to the children of sunny France, from whom I got the tale for you. So now you know why the Blackbird looks so solemn and so sulky in his suit of rusty black; and why his nerves are so weak that if one suddenly surprises him, picking up seeds in the field, he gives a terrible scream of fright. For he thinks one is that dreadful dragon-creature who chased him and so nearly gobbled him on that unlucky day, long ago.
Poor Brother Blackbird! Don’t let him know I told you all this; it would make him so very much ashamed.
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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