While they were almost babies the Mother taught them how to recognise trees in Winter by the bark, and in Spring she showed them the crimson jewel on the filbert bush in the corner of the garden, which was the female bloom, and explained that the tasselled catkins grew no nuts.
She introduced them to the little doves in the columbine blossom, and the ship’s keel in the sweet pea, and spread the butterfly wings also that gave the reason for the long Latin name to the tribe of peas, beans, and vetches. They sowed mustard and cress in the letters of their own names, and learnt how one seed differed from another, and the Doctor helped them to find birds nests. In the quickset hedge in Compton Lane was a hedge sparrow’s nest, all soft green moss and twigs, lined with the hair of a red cow. The four eggs were as blue as the turquoise in the Mother’s old enamelled necklace.
In nearly every holly bush they found a blackbird’s or a thrush’s nest. Outside they were very much alike, being built of moss and rootlets, but within the blackbird finishes hers softly with moss while the song-thrush plasters her house with cow dung. The thrush’s egg was more sky blue than the hedge sparrow’s, and was spotted thickly at one end with deepest purple. That of the blackbird was green and flecked all over with light tan colour. “If you take a robin’s nest you are sure to break your leg,” and the robins seemed to know they were safe, and took very little trouble to conceal their nursery. There was a nest in the bank by the field-gate—a loose mass of feathers and grass lined with down and horsehair, which contained five pearly white eggs spotted with red. Another robin’s nest was in a wonderful place. You might pass it fifty times, because you would never look at the rusty old beer warmer, a conical “tooty tooty” with a curling ear, lying among the rubbish in the Park shrubbery beyond the tarred fence. That piece of ground behind the houses was a perfect museum of old kettles and saucepans, broken china and earthenware, and among the tall fool’s parsley lay the beer warmer, and in it a robin’s nest, and among the delicate pale coloured eggs was one large greenish brown one, twice the size of the others but not so large as a thrush’s or blackbird’s. It was a cuckoo’s egg. They usually lay their eggs in hedge sparrows’ nests, so this was rather out of the common, and it was difficult to imagine how the big bird could have laid it in the narrow iron pot, unless, as has been asserted, she placed it there with her beak. There used to be stories of hen cuckoos having been seen flying over the orchards carrying an egg in their bills, searching for a nest in which to place it, and it appeared as if it could not have been laid among the robin’s eggs in the beer warmer in any other way. The Doctor hoped to see the birds hatched, but, unfortunately, the nest was stolen and lost. The cooking utensil in question was about six inches wide at the mouth and ten or eleven in depth at the apex of the cone. It was lying on its side with the nest at right angles to the orifice.
In the Doctor’s garden redstarts were very common; locally they were known as firetails, from the bright orange feathers under the tail. They build year after year in the same crack of the garden wall, the nest of dry grass and moss, and the eggs the pale blue of a forget-me-not- blossom. The missel thrushes nested high up the fork of a lime tree. Like the song-thrush, the nest was lined with mud, but an inner finishing of soft grass was added. The eggs were large and very handsome, being grey blue, spotted and blotched with red brown and brownish purple almost black. There was something wild and weird about this large bird who sang his loudest when a thunderstorm was raging and rain pouring in deluges. He is called the storm-cock, and appears to exult in bad weather and rejoice in riot and desolation. If one could see into his mind we should probably find his song was a Te Deum about juicy snails, fat slugs, and worms of earth. At the edge of the wood behind the dressmaker’s cottage some sparrows built a nest woven of odds and ends of silk, wool, cotton, and thread ends of all colours, feathers, hairpins, and scraps of wire. It was more a rag bag than a nest, and the ladies of the village might have identified fragments of their Sunday frocks.
The house sparrow does not hold with any act of uniformity. It builds with any material at hand, and lays eggs varying in the same nest from pink and white to grey and olive green. At the other end of the wood was a steep bank above a dry ditch nearly full of dead oak leaves. Half-way up the slope was a hollow place, the mouth of a rabbits’ burrow that had fallen in, and there the oak leaves appeared to have rolled themselves into a compact ball. On closer inspection an opening was visible at one side; the mass of leaves was a nightingale’s nest. It was bound together with grass bents and lined with softer grass and rootlets, and contained four dull olive-green eggs, scarcely differing in colour from the material of which it was composed. The wood was full of nightingales in the early Summer, and no doubt there were many nests, but there were only three of these discovered, the concealment of colour and position was so complete; two nests were found in the wood, and the third in the bank of a roadside ditch at a point nearly opposite to the present gates of the Great Northern Fever Hospital.
There were jays’ nests high in the spruces, and wood pigeons built in the larch plantations. The pheasants were few and far between, but the eggs were seen occasionally if the children were among the young birch saplings picking wood anemones, and waterfowl nested all round the lake in Groveland’s Park and on the islands. They were so protected they scarcely counted as wild birds. The prettiest nests of all were the chaffinches.. More than an inch thick of moss and lichen lined with the softest feathers, and with brown eggs and darker zig-zag markings that looked as if you could read the words if you knew that language. The colouring always suggested Mocha stones. The greatest contrast to the chaffinch’s nest was that of the lesser whitethroat or hay-tit, who builds a transparent structure which is a mere network of grass bents; it is in reality very strongly put together, but always looks unfinished and too frail to support the pale spotted eggs within.
There was a willow wren’s house in a hole in the dairyman’s haystack, with fourteen tiny white eggs deeply spotted with pink, and her namesake, Jenny Wren, built a domed dwelling of leaves and moss against the red trunk of a yew tree inside the Highfield Park wall, halfway down Compton Lane. It faced due south, and was almost invisible, although there was no attempt at concealment; it relied on colour alone to escape the eye of the marauder. The eggs were like those of the willow wren, but very much paler, indeed so faintly spotted as to be almost white. There were always young owlets in the breeding season in a hollow oak in Highfield Park. They were white barn owls, like the one in the old story which Pat shot when he was crossing a churchyard in the gloaming. It lay among the tombstones with outspread wings, and he rushed home pale with terror because “begorra he had shot one of the blessed Cherubim.” The children loved to see the white owls flitting silently among the oak trees in the summer twilight. Highfield Park was for many years their free playground. There were two large meadows, known as the upper ten-acre and the lower ten-acre, separated by a fence of iron hurdles. A gravel footpath ran all round the small estate, with a wide belt of bushes and fine trees known as Shrubbery, which was divided from the pathway by a dwarf quickset hedge.
The children had a geography of their own and called the great oaks by names. Two of the largest were Broken Bough and Splinter—the latter had been split by lightening—and beyond were the Oak apple tree and the Owl tree, which was massed with dark ivy, the stem of which was as thick as a man’s thigh. The soft “whoo-whoo” of the white owls and the hissing of the baby owls in the nest, the rustling of small things in the grass, the grunt of a hedgehog, the nibbling of the sheep and baaing of lambs in the upper ten-acre, the stamp of a horse’s hoof as he shook off the gnats by the pond, the white mist wreaths rising from the grass and hiding the trunks of the trees so that their tops appeared to float on a silver sea. Who could wish to go home and exchange all this for a closely shut up room and quiet evening amusements by the light of a Moderator lamp? But what must be must be, and it was too late to stay out longer.
Soon after they had returned home one evening the Doctor’s brother-in-law came in looking white and scared. He had been an evening walk since his return from the City by the six o’clock ‘bus. He hurried the Doctor into the front garden to listen to the screams of a woman that he was sure was being murdered. The cries were terrible. He felt as if his blood was freezing in his veins. When they went outside not a sound was to be heard. There was a red afterglow in the West. The young moon with the old one in her lap hung in the pale green sky above. The wood stretched like a black forest against the evening light. The world was very still.
All was quiet in the village.
The distant note of a corncrake scarcely broke the silence. There was a neigh from and old horse in the carrier’s stable, the whirr of a passing cockchafer, and then suddenly from the edge of the wood came a ghastly cry. The sound was greeted by the Doctor’s hearty laugh. “Why, man,” he cried, “that is nothing but a screech owl.”
People in Chapter IV
Places in Chapter IV
The quickset hedge in Compton Lane
Opposite to the present gates of the Great Northern Fever Hospital
The lake in Groveland’s Park
The Dairymans Haystack
The Highfield Park wall, halfway down
A hollow oak in Highfield Park
"Broken Bough" Oak tree in Highfield Park
"Splinter" Oak tree in Highfield park
"Oak Apple" Tree in Highfield park
"Owl Tree" in Highfield park
The edge of the wood behind the dressmaker’s cottage
Events in Chapter IV
In this Chapter Henrietta describes the culture of the children being taught about the local habitat and wildlife by their parents. She then describes in detail the different nests and eggs produced by the local bird population.
Birds identified in Chapter IV
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