Diary of a Goose Girl by Kate Douglas Wiggin
by the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm - Chapter 4

 


CHAPTER IV

July 9th.

By the time the ducks and geese are incarcerated for the night, the
reasonable, sensible, practical-minded hens--especially those whose
mentality is increased and whose virtue is heightened by the
responsibilities of motherhood--have gone into their own particular rat-
proof boxes, where they are waiting in a semi-somnolent state to have the
wire doors closed, the bricks set against them, and the bits of sacking
flung over the tops to keep out the draught. We have a great many young
families, both ducklings and chicks, but we have no duck mothers at
present. The variety of bird which Phoebe seems to have bred during the
past year may be called the New Duck, with certain radical ideas about
woman's sphere. What will happen to Thornycroft if we develop a New Hen
and a New Cow, my imagination fails to conceive. There does not seem to
be the slightest danger for the moment, however, and our hens lay and sit
and sit and lay as if laying and sitting were the twin purposes of life.

The nature of the hen seems to broaden with the duties of maternity, but
I think myself that we presume a little upon her amiability and natural
motherliness. It is one thing to desire a family of one's own, to lay
eggs with that idea in view, to sit upon them three long weeks and hatch
out and bring up a nice brood of chicks. It must be quite another to
have one's eggs abstracted day by day and eaten by a callous public, the
nest filled with deceitful substitutes, and at the end of a dull and
weary period of hatching to bring into the world another person's
children--children, too, of the wrong size, the wrong kind of bills and
feet, and, still more subtle grievance, the wrong kind of instincts,
leading them to a dangerous aquatic career, one which the mother may not
enter to guide, guard, and teach; one on the brink of which she must ever
stand, uttering dryshod warnings which are never heeded. They grow used
to this strange order of things after a bit, it is true, and are less
anxious and excited. When the duck-brood returns safely again and again
from what the hen-mother thinks will prove a watery grave, she becomes
accustomed to the situation, I suppose. I find that at night she stands
by the pond for what she considers a decent, self-respecting length of
time, calling the ducklings out of the water; then, if they refuse to
come, the mother goes off to bed and leaves them to Providence, or
Phoebe.

The brown hen that we have named Cornelia is the best mother, the one who
waits longest and most patiently for the web-footed Gracchi to finish
their swim.

When a chick is taken out of the incubytor (as Phoebe calls it) and
refused by all the other hens, Cornelia generally accepts it, though she
had twelve of her own when we began using her as an orphan asylum. "Wings
are made to stretch," she seems to say cheerfully, and with a kind glance
of her round eye she welcomes the wanderer and the outcast. She even
tended for a time the offspring of an absent-minded, light-headed
pheasant who flew over a four-foot wall and left her young behind her to
starve; it was not a New Pheasant, either; for the most conservative and
old-fashioned of her tribe occasionally commits domestic solecisms of
this sort.

There is no telling when, where, or how the maternal instinct will assert
itself. Among our Thornycroft cats is a certain Mrs. Greyskin. She had
not been seen for many days, and Mrs. Heaven concluded that she had
hidden herself somewhere with a family of kittens; but as the supply of
that article with us more than equals the demand, we had not searched for
her with especial zeal.

The other day Mrs. Greyskin appeared at the dairy door, and when she had
been fed Phoebe and I followed her stealthily, from a distance. She
walked slowly about as if her mind were quite free from harassing care,
and finally approached a deserted cow-house where there was a great mound
of straw. At this moment she caught sight of us and turned in another
direction to throw us off the scent. We persevered in our intention of
going into her probable retreat, and were cautiously looking for some
sign of life in the haymow, when we heard a soft cackle and a ruffling of
plumage. Coming closer to the sound we saw a black hen brooding a nest,
her bright bead eyes turning nervously from side to side; and, coaxed out
from her protecting wings by youthful curiosity, came four kittens, eyes
wide open, warm, happy, ready for sport!

The sight was irresistible, and Phoebe ran for Mr. and Mrs. Heaven and
the Square Baby. Mother Hen was not to be embarrassed or daunted, even
if her most sacred feelings were regarded in the light of a cheap
entertainment. She held her ground while one of the kits slid up and
down her glossy back, and two others, more timid, crept underneath her
breast, only daring to put out their pink noses! We retired then for
very shame and met Mrs. Greyskin in the doorway. This should have
thickened the plot, but there is apparently no rivalry nor animosity
between the co-mothers. We watch them every day now, through a window in
the roof. Mother Greyskin visits the kittens frequently, lies down
beside the home nest, and gives them their dinner. While this is going
on Mother Blackwing goes modestly away for a bite, a sup, and a little
exercise, returning to the kittens when the cat leaves them. It is
pretty to see her settle down over the four, fat, furry dumplings, and
they seem to know no difference in warmth or comfort, whichever mother is
brooding them; while, as their eyes have been open for a week, it can no
longer be called a blind error on their part.

When we have closed all our small hen-nurseries for the night, there is
still the large house inhabited by the thirty-two full-grown chickens
which Phoebe calls the broilers. I cannot endure the term, and will not
use it. "Now for the April chicks," I say every evening.

"Do you mean the broilers?" asks Phoebe.

"I mean the big April chicks," say I.

"Yes, them are the broilers," says she.

But is it not disagreeable enough to be a broiler when one's time comes,
without having the gridiron waved in one's face for weeks beforehand?

The April chicks are all lively and desirous of seeing the world as
thoroughly as possible before going to roost or broil. As a general
thing, we find in the large house sixteen young fowls of the
contemplative, flavourless, resigned-to-the-inevitable variety; three
more (the same three every night) perch on the roof and are driven down;
four (always the same four) cling to the edge of the open door, waiting
to fly off, but not in, when you attempt to close it; nine huddle
together on a place in the grass about forty feet distant, where a small
coop formerly stood in the prehistoric ages. This small coop was one in
which they lodged for a fortnight when they were younger, and when those
absolutely indelible impressions are formed of which we read in
educational maxims. It was taken away long since, but the nine loyal (or
stupid) Casabiancas cling to the sacred spot where its foundations
rested; they accordingly have to be caught and deposited bodily in the
house, and this requires strategy, as they note our approach from a
considerable distance.

Finally all are housed but two, the little white cock and the black
pullet, who are still impish and of a wandering mind. Though headed off
in every direction, they fly into the hedges and hide in the underbrush.
We beat the hedge on the other side, but with no avail. We dive into the
thicket of wild roses, sweetbrier, and thistles on our hands and knees,
coming out with tangled hair, scratched noses, and no hens. Then, when
all has been done that human ingenuity can suggest, Phoebe goes to her
late supper and I do sentry-work. I stroll to a safe distance, and,
sitting on one of the rat-proof boxes, watch the bushes with an eagle
eye. Five minutes go by, ten, fifteen; and then out steps the white
cock, stealthily tiptoeing toward the home into which he refused to go at
our instigation. In a moment out creeps the obstinate little beast of a
black pullet from the opposite clump. The wayward pair meet at their own
door, which I have left open a few inches. When all is still I walk
gently down the field, and, warned by previous experiences, approach the
house from behind. I draw the door to softly and quickly; but not so
quickly that the evil-minded and suspicious black pullet hasn't time to
spring out, with a make-believe squawk of fright--that induces three
other blameless chickens to fly down from their perches and set the whole
flock in a flutter. Then I fall from grace and call her a Broiler; and
when, after some minutes of hot pursuit, I catch her by falling over her
in the corner by the goose-pen, I address her as a fat, juicy Broiler
with parsley butter and a bit of bacon.

 

 

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