ONCE upon a time there was in a wood a nest which held eight of the dearest little eggs a hen-mother ever looked upon with joy...
At least this particular hen-mother thought so, and her mate rather agreed with her when they talked the matter over together. And his opinion had weight, for in his flights he sometimes saw other eggs, and would tell her about them on his return. But what could they be to her own?
Nothing could be better than what was perfect, and her own were perfect in her eyes.
What a fine shape they had! How beautifully rounded! How soft their tint! How tasteful the arrangement of spots! All others must needs be too light or too dark, or too something or other, to suit her particular taste.
The sea-gull, who ate snails in the garden, boasted of his family egg as twenty times larger and twenty times more beautiful. "But if it be more beautiful, what can that matter to us," said the hen-mother, in conclusion, "when ours are perfect in our eyes, and we are so very happy?"
"And shall be so much happier yet," pursued her mate, who, as a travelled bird, had had experience, and knew what was in store; "when the little ones awake to a life and enjoyment of their own, and can feed and sing, and know and love us both."
"Ah, to be sure, to be sure, that will be rapture, indeed," cried the hen-mother. "Thank you so much for telling me! How silly I was, thinking I was as happy as I could possibly be! Of course I shall be happier by and by; and how very happy that will be, for I am happy enough now. I wish the day were come!"
Yet she was very happy; but most so when she forgot she was to be happier still.
And by and by the time came; and when the little ones were all hatched, and could peer about and see their father bringing food, and open their mouths and swallow it very fast, and cry for more,
"Now then, at last the happiness is perfect," said the hen-mother; "I have nothing further to wish for."
And she watched them being fed and satisfied, and never felt hungry herself, till they had had plenty and were at ease.
"Eight darlings in one nest! What a sight to fill one's heart! There may be trouble enough, it's true, and very little room to rest; but one's own eight beautiful creatures round one, under one's wing, all chirping and alive–this is perfection of happiness indeed!"
"You cannot say so just yet," sang the mate; but he did not tell her this quite at first. He waited for a soft evening in early summer before he piped about what was in store.
"You cannot say so just yet. Our darlings are very sweet, but they are poor helpless things at present. Wait till they have grown more feathers, have learnt to take care of themselves, and fly and sing. They cannot be perfect, nor can your happiness be perfect, till then. Some of our neighbors are beforehand with us. There were fine young birds among the boughs yesterday, twitting our youngsters in their songs with being behindhand altogether."
"They will not have to twit long, I suppose," exclaimed the hen-mother rather angrily. "Of course you will bring ours forward as fast as you can. Of course they must not be behind their neighbors. Of course they must learn to take care of themselves, and fly and sing, like the rest. Dear, dear! how silly I was! But thank you so much for telling me. It's very well to be easily pleased, and the poor helpless things are very sweet, as you say; but of course it will be a much grander thing when they have grown to be fine young birds like those others; able to take care of themselves and to twit their neighbors who can't. And of course I shall be as happy again. I wish the time were come."
And it did come; but there was a great deal of trouble to be taken first. The little ones had to be nursed and fed till their feathers had grown, and then they had to be trained, by slow degrees and with much care, to use their young wings in flight. Now the hen-mother had left her mate no rest till he began to teach; for, first, she was jealous for her children's credit; and secondly, she wanted to feel what it was to be as happy as it was possible to be. Happy enough she was, but for this wish.
But alas! for the trouble and fear that came over her when the teaching really began. The eight darlings must come out of their nest, from under her wing; she could help them no longer–they could scarcely help themselves.
Yet they must spread the feeble pinion, and strain the unpracticed muscle, and run a risk of failure and even life, to insure success.
Oh, poor hen-mother, what a trying change was this, though brought about by her own especial desire! No wonder that, while the teaching was going on, she would sit and shake with fright, and wish all manner of foolish things: that they were back in the nest, of course; but far more than that–even that they were back in the old baby days again, in the egg-shells of their first existence, unconscious of life and of them. "They were all under my wing then, at any rate," said she; "my own dear little ones with me, and I with them: what more could I want?"
And, oh dear, when the youngsters were safe in the nest once more at night, how she used to gather them under her wings with joy!
"I am getting to like night better than day," said she at last to her mate, "for then my birds are in the nest again. You are training them very cleverly, I know and I was the first to want them to be clever like other young birds, and they are getting cleverer day by day, I dare say, so I ought to be happier; but the happiness is not as pleasant as it was. How can it be, when they are away so much, and the empty nest stares me in the face? The risks are so many too, till they can really fly well, and I tremble with fear. But all is right at night, when you all come back and sing. Yes, if it wasn't for thinking of the morrow, the happiness would be perfect indeed then: if it were always evening, I mean, and they and you were always here."
"It is natural you should feel as you do," replied the mate; "but you mistake the cause. If you are not quite happy yet, it is merely because things are not quite perfect, that is all. When the young ones can fly really well, for instance, there will no longer be any risk; and when they can sing better still, our music will be pleasanter than ever; and when they are able and independent, all your cares and anxieties will be at an end. Wait a little longer, and you will be happy indeed."
The hen-mother sighed. "I suppose you must be right," said she; "I will wait. But if I could sing myself, I would sing a mother's song about the birds in the nest. It may not have been perfection, but it was a very happy time."
So she waited and did her best to be pleased.
But for longer and longer intervals the empty nest stared her in the face, and she thought many things she did not dare to say – even the old foolish wish that they were all in their egg-shells again.
Still, every evening, when they came back and perched in the boughs, if not in the nest, and the singing grew sweeter and sweeter, she cheered up and rejoiced once more.
And now at last the nestlings were full-grown birds, and could fly and sing as well as their parents. Perfection had come; they were independent; nobody's young birds could twit them now. "But now, of course," said their father, "they must go out and seek their fortunes, as we did, and choose mates, and settle in life for themselves. You see the justice of this?"
The hen-mother, to whom he was speaking, answered "Yes;" but her heart was half broken. And when he added, "This is the real perfection of happiness to parents," she made no answer at all.
"It ought to be, perhaps," thought she to herself, "but it isn't so with me. I wonder why?"
She sat on the edge of the empty nest and wondered still; but she couldn't find out the secret there.
Then the young ones piped to her from the woods; and at last said she, "Things are altered, I see; I will go to them!" and the very thought comforted her as she flew away.
And when she had found them, and watched them in the full enjoyment of their own young life–listened to them as they warbled merrily to each other among the trees, or sported with friends here and there, she began to understand the whole matter.
She was rejoicing in their joy rather than in her own.
And time went on: and one day as she sat, so listening, on a branch in the centre of the wood, her mate by her side, said she, "It is all becoming quite clear, and I can see that you were right on the whole. This is nearer the perfection of happiness than anything else could be, but the quite perfect is not to be had. Still, this is nearest and best; whether sweetest or not, I scarcely know. But thank you for telling me! I was selfish before: wanted my own darlings to myself, under my own wing, in my own particular nest–safe, as I called it–foolish that I was! Oh, narrow, narrow thought!
As if one place was safer than another, when the sun looks down everywhere, streaming warmth and comfort upon all! I see things differently now. The wood is but a larger nest, and those that live in it but a larger family. I spread out my love a little wider, and behold my happiness spreads out too! Though each in turn, for a time, must form his own little circle of joy, the whole must form one larger circle together; and who knows where it is to end?"
She ceased, and then listened again, and truly the wood was ringing with melodies: her mate by her side; her children now here, now there with the dear ones they loved. The circle grew wider and wider as time went further on.
But by and by, when age had crept over both, the mate had tender thoughts himself of old times, and tenderer still for her. She had not been wrong altogether, he whispered softly and kindly. It was not selfishness only that had filled her heart. He would sing her the song she used to wish she could have sung herself – a mother's song about the birds in the nest.
And it went to the hearts of both.
* * * * * *
Other mothers in other nests, lift up your souls, as the circle widens from your feet.
"One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all," has all together now in the circle of His care; yea, even though a world, or the change we call death, may seem to divide them: and He will bring His own together at last into one home – the "Father's House;" – one home, be the mansions never so many!
Birds In The Nest is one of many stories written by Margaret Gatty (1809-1873) from her "Parables From Nature" collection which is in the public domain.
Gatty is a treasured author who wrote children's literature and about marine biology from a believer's perspective.