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The song of the cardinal : a love story online

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" For him every work of God manifested a
new and heretofore unappreciated loveliness."



"Good cbeer! Good cheer!" exulted the Cardinal

He darted about the orange
orchard searching for slugs
for his breakfast, and be
tween whiles he rocked on
the branches and rang over
his message of encourage
ment to men. The song
of the Cardinal was over
flowing with joy, for this
was his holiday, his play
time. The southern world
was full of brilliant sun
shine, gaudy flowers, an abundance of fruit, myriads
of insects, and never a thing to do but bathe, feast and
be happy. No wonder his song was a prophecy of
good cheer for the future, for happiness made up the
whole of his past.

The Cardinal was only a yearling, but his crest flared
high, his beard was crisp and black, and he was a very


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prodigy for size and coloring. Fathers of his family
that had accomplished many migrations looked small
beside him, and coats that had been shed season after
season seemed dull compared with his. It was as if
a pulsing heart of flame passed by when he came wing
ing through the orchard.

Last season the cardinal had pipped his shell, away to
the north, in that paradise of the birds, the Limber-
lost. There thousands of acres of black marsh-muck
stretch under summers sun and winters snows. There,
are darksome pools of murky water, bits of swale and
high morass. Giants of the forest reach skyward, or,
coated with velvet slime, lie decaying in sun-flecked
pools, while the underbrush is almost impenetrable.

The swamp is like a great dining-table for the birds.
Wild grape-vines clamber to the tops of the highest
trees, spreading umbrella-wise over the branches, and
their festooned floating trailers wave like silken fringe
with the play of the wind. The birds loll in the shade,
peel bark and break off dried curlers for nest material,
and feast on the pungent fruit. They chatter in swarms
over the wild cherry trees, and overload their crops
with red haws, wild plums, papaws, blackberries and
mandrake. The alders about the edge draw flocks



in search of berries, and the marsh grasses and weeds
are weighted down with seed hunters. The muck is
alive with worms ; and the whole swamp ablaze with
flowers, whose colors and perfumes attract myriads of
insects and butterflies.

Wild creepers flaunt their red and gold from the tree-
tops, and the bumblebees and humming-birds make
common cause in rifling their honey-laden trumpets.
The air about the wild plum and red haw trees is vi
brant with the beating wings of millions of wild bees,
and the bee-birds feast to gluttony. The fetid odors of
the swamp draw flies and mosquitoes in swarms, and
fly-catchers tumble and twist in the air in pursuit of

Every hollow tree homes its colony of bats. Snakes
sun on the bushes. The water folk leave trails of shin
ing ripples in their wake as they cross the lagoons.
Turtles waddle off the logs clumsily. Frogs take grace
ful flying leaps from pool to pool. Everything native
to that section of the country, underground, creeping
or a-wing, can be found in the Limberlost; but above
all it is the chosen habitation of the birds.

Dainty green warblers nest in its tree-tops, and red-
eyed vireos choose a location below. Bellbirds, finches,

of fflc <xrbin<xf

and thrushes home there. There are flocks of black
birds, grackles, and crows. Jays and catbirds quarrel
constantly, and marsh wrens keep up never-ending
chatter. Orioles swing their pendent purses from the
branches, and with the tanagers picnic on mulberries
and insects. In the evening, night-hawks dart about on
noiseless wing ; whippoorwills set up a plaintiff cry
that they continue far into the night; and owls revel in
moonlight and rich hunting. At dawn, robins wake
the echoes of each new day with the admonition,
" Cheer up! Cheer up!" and a little later big black
vultures go wheeling through cloudland or hang there,
like frozen splashes, searching the Limberlost and sur
rounding country for food. The boom of the bittern
resounds all day, and above it the rasping scream of
the blue heron, as he strikes terror to the hearts of
frogdom ; while the occasional cries of a lost loon,
strayed from its flock in northern migration, fill the
swamp with sounds of wailing.

Flashing through the tree-tops of the Limberlost there
are birds whose color is more brilliant than that of the
gaudiest flower that lifts its face to the light and air.
The lilies of the mire are not so white as the white
herons that fish among them. The ripest spray of


of ffle Carbtnaf

goldenrod is not so highly colored as the burnished
gold on the breast of the oriole that rocks on it. The
jays are bluer than the calamus bed they wrangle
above with throaty chatter. The finches are a finer
purple than the ironwort. For every clump of foxfire
flaming in the Limberlost, there is a cardinal glowing
redder on a bush above it. These may not be more
numerous than the other birds, but their brilliant color
ing and the fearless disposition that keeps them forever
in evidence make them appear so.

The Cardinal was hatched in a thicket of sweet brier
and blackberry. His father was a tough old widower
of many experiences and variable temper. He was the
biggest, most aggressive redbird in the Limberlost, and
easily reigned king of his kind. Catbirds, kingbirds,
and shrikes gave him a wide berth, and not even the
ever quarrelsome jays plucked up enough courage to
antagonize him. A few days after his latest bereave
ment, he saw a fine, plump young female; and she so
filled his eye that he gave her no rest until she per
mitted his caresses, and carried the first twig to the
wild rose. She was very proud to mate with the king
of the Limberlost; and, if deep down in her heart she
felt transient fears of her lordly master, she gave no


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sign, for she was a bird of goodly proportion and fine
feather herself.

She chose her location with the eye of an artist, and
the judgment of a housewife of much experience. It
would be a difficult thing for snakes and squirrels to
penetrate the briery thicket. The white berry blossoms
had scarcely ceased to attract a swarm of insects before
the sweets of the roses recalled them, and, by the time
they had faded, luscious big berries ripened within
reach and drew the food hunters. She built with far
more than ordinary care. It was a beautiful nest,
not nearly so loose and shackly as those of her kin
dred all about the swamp. There was a distinct
attempt at a cup shape, and it really was neatly lined
with dried blades of sweet marsh grass. But it was in
the laying of her first egg that the queen cardinal for
ever distinguished herself. She was a fine healthy
bird, full of love and happiness over her first venture
at housekeeping, and she so far surpassed herself on
that occasion that she had difficulty in convincing any
one that she was responsible for the result.

Indeed, she was compelled to lift beak and wing
against her lord in defense of this egg, for it was so
unusually large that he could not be persuaded short of


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force that some sneak of the feathered tribe had not
crept in and deposited it in her absence. The king
felt sure there was something wrong with the egg, and
wanted to roll it from the nest ; but the queen knew
her own, and stoutly battled for its protection. She
further distinguished herself by laying three others.
After that the king made up his mind that she was
a most remarkable bird, and went off pleasure seeking;
but the queen settled down to brood, and she did
it faithfully and well.

Through all the long days, when the heat became
intense, and the king was none too thoughtful of her
appetite or comfort, she nestled those four eggs
against her breast and patiently waited. The big egg
was her treasure. She gave it constant care. Many
times in a day she turned it ; and always against her
breast she felt it with an individual pressure that dis
tinguished it from the rest. It was the first to hatch, of
course, and the queen felt that she had enough if all
the others failed her; for this first egg pipped with a
resounding pip, and, before the silky down was really
dry on the big terra-cotta body, the young Cardinal
stood on his feet and lustily demanded food.

The king came to see him and at once acknowledged


^ong of ffle Carbinaf

subjugation. He was the father of many promising
cardinals, yet he had never seen one like this. He set
the Limberlost echoes rolling with his jubilant rejoic
ing. He unceasingly hunted for the ripest berries and
the juiciest grubs. He stuffed that baby from morning
until night, and never came with food that he did not
find him standing atop of the rest of the family calling for
more. The queen was just as proud of him and just as
foolish in her idolatry, but she kept tally and gave the
rest every other worm in turn. They were unusually
fine babies, but what chance has a merely fine baby in
a family that possesses a prodigy? The Cardinal was
as large as any two of the other nestlings, and so red
that the very down on him seemed tinged with crimson;
his skin and even his feet were red.

He was the first to climb to the edge of the nest and
the first out on a limb. He found himself a worm
long before his parents expected him to, and winged
his first flight to such a distance that his adoring
mother almost went into spasms lest his strength
should fail, and he should fall into the swamp and
become the victim of a hungry old turtle. He landed
safely, however; and the king was so pleased he hunted
him an unusually ripe berry and, perching in front


of ffle Catbinaf

of him, gave him his first language lesson. Of course,
the Cardinal knew how to say "Pee" and " Chee"
when he burst his shell; but the king taught him to
chip with accuracy and expression, and he learned
that very day that male birds of the cardinal family
always say "Chip," and the females "Chook." In
fact, he learned so rapidly and was generally so observ
ant that, before the king thought wise to give him the
next lesson, he found him on a limb with closed beak
and swelling throat, practising his own rendering of
the tribal calls, " Wheat ! Wheat ! Wheat ! " " Here !
Here! Here!" and "Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!" This
so delighted the king that he whistled them over and
over and helped the youngster all he could.

He was so proud of him that this same night he gave
him his first lesson in tucking his head properly and
going to sleep alone. In a few days more, when he
was sure of his wing strength, he gave him instructions
in flying. He taught him how to spread his wings
and slowly sail from tree to tree ; how to fly in short,
broken curves, to avoid the aim of a hunter; how to
turn abruptly in air and make a quick dash after a bug
or an enemy. He taught him the proper angle at
which to breast a stiff wind, and that he should always


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meet a storm head first, so that the water would run
as the plumage lies.

His first bathing lesson was a pronounced success.
The Cardinal took to water like a duck. He bathed,
splashed, and romped until his mother was almost
crazy for fear he should attract a water-snake or turtle;
but the element of fear was left out of his disposition.
He learned to dry, dress, and plume his feathers, and
showed such remarkable pride in keeping himself
immaculate that, although only a youngster, he was
already a bird of so great promise, that many of the
feathered inhabitants of the Limberlost came to pay
him a call.

Next, the king took him on a long trip about the
swamp, and taught him how to select the proper places
to scratch for worms ; how to search under leaves for
plant-lice and slugs for meat ; which berries were
good and safe, and the kind of weeds that bore the most

O "

and best seeds. He showed him how to find tiny
pebbles to grind his food, and how to sharpen and
polish his beak.

Then he took up the real music lessons, and taught
him how to whistle and how to warble and trill.
"Good Cheer! Good Cheer!" intoned the king.


of f0e Carbtnctf

" Coo Cher! Coo Cher!" imitated the Cardinal. These
songs were only studied repetitions, but there was a
depth and volume in his voice that gave promise of
future greatness, when age should have developed him,
and experience awakened his emotions. He was an
excellent musician for a youngster.

He soon did so well in caring for himself, in finding
food and in flight, and grew so big and independent,
that he made numerous excursions all about the Lim-
berlost alone ; and so goodly were his proportions, and
so aggressive his manners, that he suffered no moles
tation. In fact, the reign of the king promised to end
speedily; but if he feared it he made no sign, and his
pride in his wonderful offspring was always manifest.
After the Cardinal had thoroughly explored the swamp,
a longing for a wider range grew upon him ; and day
after day he hung about the borders, looking off across
the wide, cultivated fields, almost aching to test his
wings in one long, high, wild stretch of flight.

A day came when the heat of late summer set the
marsh steaming, and the Cardinal, lingering about the
borders, caught the breeze from the upland ; and the
vision of broad fields stretching away to the north so
enticed him that he spread his wings, and, following

2 3


the line of the trees and fences as much as possible, he
made his first journey from home. That day was so
delightful that it decided his fortunes. It would seem
that the swamp, so appreciated by his kindred, ought
to have been sufficient for the Cardinal, but it was not.
With every mile he winged his flight, came a greater
sense of power and strength, and a keener love for
the broad sweep of field and forest. His heart bounded
with the zest of rocking on the wind, racing through
the sunshine and sailing over the great panorama of
waving cornfields, meadows, orchards and woodlands.
The heat and closeness of the Limberlost seemed a
prison well escaped, as on and on he flew in straight,
untiring flight. Crossing a field of half-ripened corn
that sloped down to the river, the Cardinal saw many
birds feeding there, so he lit on a tall tree to watch
them. Soon he decided that he would like to try this
new food. He found a place where a crow had left an
ear nicely laid open, and, clinging to the husk, as he saw
the others do, he stretched to his full height and drove
his strong, sharp beak into the creamy grain. After
the stifling swamp hunting, after the long, exciting
flight, to rock on this swaying corn and drink the
rich milk of the grain, was to the Cardinal his first taste


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of nectar and ambrosia. When he came to the golden
kernel, he lifted his head, and, chipping it off in tiny
specks, he tasted and approved with all the delight of
an epicure in a delicious new dish.

Perhaps there were other treats in the next field.
He decided to go still farther. But he had flown only
a little way when he changed his course and turned to
the south, for below him was a long, shining, creep
ing thing, fringed with willows, while towering above
them were giant sycamore, maple, tulip, and elm trees
that caught the wind and rocked with it ; and the
Cardinal did not know what it was. Filled with wonder
he dropped lower and lower. Birds were all about it,
many flying with it and dipping into it ; but its clear,
creeping silver was a mystery to the Cardinal.

The beautiful river of poetry and song that the
Indians first discovered and, later with the French,
named Ouabache, the winding, shining river that Logan
and Me-shin-go-me-sia loved, the only river that could
tempt Wa-ca-co-nah from the Salamonie and Missis-
sinewa, the river beneath whose silver sycamores and
giant maples Chief Godfrey traveled many miles to
pitch his camp-fires, was never more beautiful than on
that perfect autumn day.

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With his feathers plastered tight, the Cardinal
lighted on a willow, and leaned to look, quivering with
excitement and uttering explosive " chips;" for there
he was, face to face with a big redbird that looked
neither peaceful nor timid. He uttered an impudent
" Chip" of challenge, which, as it left his beak was
flung back to him. The Cardinal flared his crest and
half lifted his wings, stiffening them at the butt, the
bird he was facing did the same. In his surprise
he rose to his full height with a dexterous little side
step, and the other bird straightened and side-stepped
exactly with him. It was too much for the Cardinal.
Straining every muscle, he made a dash for the impu
dent upstart.

He struck the water with such force that it splashed
above the willows, and a kingfisher, stationed on a
stump opposite him, watching the shoals for minnows,
saw it. He spread his beak and bellowed with rattling
laughter, until his voice re-echoed from point to point
down the river. The Cardinal scarcely knew how he
got out, but he had learned a new lesson. That beau
tiful, shining, creeping thing was water; not thick,
tepid, black marsh water, but pure, cool, silver water.
He shook his plumage, feeling a degree redder from


of f0e Cdrbtnaf

shame, but he would not be laughed into leaving.
He found it too delightful. In a little time he ventured
down and took a drink, and it was the first real drink
of his life. Oh, but it was good !

When thirst from the heat and his long flight was
quenched, he ventured in for a bath, and that was a
new and delightful experience. How he slashed and
splashed, and sent the silvery drops flying ! How he
ducked and soaked and cooled in that rippling water,
in which he might stay as long as he pleased and
splash his fill ; for he could see the bottom for a long
distance all about, and could easily avoid anything
attempting to harm him. He was so wet when his
bath was over, he could scarcely get to a bush to dry
and dress his plumage.

Once again in perfect feather, he remembered the
bird of the water, and went back to the willow.
There in the depths of the shining river the Cardinal
discovered himself, and his heart swelled big with just
pride. Was that broad, full breast his? Where had
he seen any other cardinal with a crest so high it
waved with the wind? How big and black his eyes
were, and his beard was almost as long and crisp as
his father s. He spread his wings and gloated on their

2 7

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sweep, and twisted and flirted his tail. He went over
all his toilet again and dressed every feather on him.
He scoured the back of his neck with the butt of his
wings, and, tucking his head under them, slowly drew
it out time after time to polish his crest. He turned
and twisted. He rocked and paraded, and every
glimpse he caught of his size and beauty filled him with
pride. He strutted like a peacock and chattered like
a jay.

When he could find no further points to admire,
another fact caught his attention. When he " chip
ped " there was an answering " Chip " from across the
river; certainly there was no cardinal there, so it must
be that he was hearing his own voice as well as seeing
himself. Selecting a conspicuous perch he sent an in
cisive " Chip !" across the water, and in kind it came
back to him. Then he "chipped" softly and tenderly,
as he did in the Limberlost to a favorite little sister
that often came and perched beside him in the maple
where he slept, and softly and tenderly came the
answer. Then the Cardinal understood. "Wheat!
Wheat! Wheat!" He whistled it high, and he
whistled it low. "Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!" He
whistled it tenderly and sharply and imperiously.



"Here! Here! Here!" At this ringing command, every
bird as far as the river carried his voice, came to in
vestigate and remained to admire. Over and over he
rang every change he could invent. He made a
gallant effort at warbling and trilling, and then,
with the gladdest heart he had ever known, he burst
into ringing song: " Good Cheer! Good Cheer! Good

As evening came on he grew restless and uneasy,
so he slowly winged his way back to the Limberlost ;
but that day forever spoiled him as a swamp bird. In
the night he restlessly ruffled his feathers, and sniffed
for the breeze of the meadows. He tasted the corn
and the clear water over again. He admired his
image in the river, and longed for the sound of his
voice, until he began murmuring, "Wheat! Wheat!
Wheat!" in his sleep. In the earliest dawn a robin
woke him singing, "Cheer up! Cheer up!" and he
answered with a sleepy "Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!"
A little later the robin sang again with exquisite soft
ness and tenderness, "Cheer up, Dearie! Cheer up,
Dearie! Cheer up! Cheer up! Cheer!" The Car
dinal, now fully wakened, shouted lustily, " Good
Cheer! Good Cheer!" and after that it was only a


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little time until he was on his way to the shining river.
It was better than the day before, and every following
day found him feasting in the cornfield and bathing
in the shining water ; but he always went back to his
family at nightfall.

When the black frosts began to strip the Limberlost,
and food was almost reduced to dry seed, there came
a day on which the king marshaled his followers and
spoke the magic word. With the dusk he led them
southward, mile after mile, until their breath fell short,
and their wings ached with unaccustomed flight; but,
because of the trips to the river, the Cardinal was
stronger than the others, and he easily kept abreast of
the king. In the early morning, even before the robins
were awake, the king settled in the Everglades. But


the Cardinal had lost all liking for swamp life, so he
stubbornly set out alone, and in a little time he had
found another river. It was not quite so delightful
as the shining river; but still it was beautiful, and on
its gently sloping bank was an orange orchard. There
the Cardinal rested, and found a winter home after his
heart s desire.

The next morning, a golden-haired little girl and
an old man with snowy locks came hand in hand


JSong of ffle Cdrbindf

through the orchard. The child saw the Cardinal and
immediately claimed him for her bird, and that same
day the edict went forth that a very dreadful time was
in store for any one who harmed or even frightened the
Cardinal. So in security began a series of days that
were pure delight. The orchard was alive with insects,
attracted by the heavy odors, and slugs infested the
bark. Feasting was almost as good as in the Limber-
lost, and always there was the river to drink from
and to splash in at will.

In those days the child and the old man lingered for
hours in the orchard, watching the bird which every
day seemed to grow bigger and brighter. What
a picture his coat, now a bright cardinal red, made
against the waxy, green leaves ! How big and brilliant
he seemed as he raced and darted in play among the
creamy blossoms ! How the little girl stood with clasped
hands worshiping him as, with swelling throat, he rocked
on the highest spray and sang his inspiring chorus
over and over, "Good Cheer! Good Cheer!" Every
day they came to watch and listen. They scattered
crumbs; and the Cardinal grew so friendly that he
greeted their coming with a quick " Chip! Chip!"
while the delighted child tried to repeat it after him.

JSong of ffle Carbinaf

Soon they were such friends that when he saw them
approaching he would softly call "Chip! Chip!" and
then with beady eyes and tilted head await her reply.

Sometimes a member of his family from the Ever
glades found his way into the orchard, and the Cardinal,
having grown to feel a sense of proprietorship, resented
the intrusion and went after him like a streak of flame.
Whenever any straggler had this experience, he re
turned to the swamp realizing that the cardinal of the
orange orchard was almost twice his size and strength,
and so startlingly red as to be a wonder.

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Online LibraryGene Stratton-PorterThe song of the cardinal : a love story → online text (page 1 of 6)