Family Misfortunes, by Washington Irving

Bracebridge Hall, or The Humorists

The night has been unruly; where we lay,
The chimneys were blown down.

Macbeth.

We have for a day or two past had a flow of unruly weather, which has intruded itself into this fair and flowery month, and for a time has quite marred the beauty of the landscape. Last night, the storm attained its crisis; the rain beat in torrents against the casements, and the wind piped and blustered about the old Hall with quite a wintry vehemence. The morning, however, dawned clear and serene; the face of the heavens seemed as if newly washed, and the sun shone with a brightness that was undimmed by a single vapour. Nothing over-head gave traces of the recent storm; but on looking from my window, I beheld sad ravage among the shrubs and flowers; the garden-walks had formed the channels for little torrents; trees were lopped of their branches; and a small silver stream that wound through the park, and ran at the bottom of the lawn, had swelled into a turbid yellow sheet of water.

In an establishment like this, where the mansion is vast, ancient, and somewhat afflicted with the infirmities of age, and where there are numerous and extensive dependencies, a storm is an event of a very grave nature, and brings in its train a multiplicity of cares and disasters.

While the Squire was taking his breakfast in the great hall, he was continually interrupted by some bearer of ill-tidings from some part or other of his domains; he appeared to me like the commander of a besieged city, after some grand assault, receiving at his headquarters reports, of damages sustained in the various quarters of the place. At one time the housekeeper brought him intelligence of a chimney blown down, and a desperate leak sprung in the roof over the picture gallery, which threatened to obliterate a whole generation of his ancestors. Then the steward came in with a doleful story of the mischief done in the woodlands; while the gamekeeper bemoaned the loss of one of his finest bucks, whose bloated carcass was seen floating along the swoln current of the river.

When the Squire issued forth, he was accosted, before the door, by the old, paralytic gardener, with a face full of trouble, reporting, as I supposed, the devastation of his flower-beds, and the destruction of his wall-fruit. I remarked, however, that his intelligence caused a peculiar expression of concern, not only with the Squire and Master Simon, but with the fair Julia and Lady Lillycraft, who happened to be present. From a few words which reached my ear, I found there was some tale of domestic calamity in the case, and that some unfortunate family had been rendered houseless by the storm. Many ejaculations of pity broke from the ladies; I heard the expressions of "poor, helpless beings," and "unfortunate little creatures," several times repeated; to which the old gardener replied by very melancholy shakes of the head.

I felt so interested, that I could not help calling to the gardener, as he was retiring, and asking what unfortunate family it was that had suffered so severely? The old man touched his hat, and gazed at me for an instant, as if hardly comprehending my question. "Family!" replied he, "there be no family in the case, your honour; but here have been sad mischief done in the rookery!"

I had noticed, the day before, that the high and gusty winds which prevailed had occasioned great disquiet among these airy householders; their nests being all filled with young, who were in danger of being tilted out of their tree-rocked cradles. Indeed, the old birds themselves seemed to have hard work to maintain a foothold; some kept hovering and cawing in the air; or, if they ventured to alight, they had to hold fast, flap their wings, and spread their tails, and thus remain see-sawing on the topmost twigs.

In the course of the night, however, an awful calamity had taken place in this most sage and politic community. There was a great tree, the tallest in the grove, which seemed to have been a kind of court-end of the metropolis, and crowded with the residence of those whom Master Simon considers the nobility and gentry. A decayed limb of this tree had given way with the violence of this storm, and had come down with all its aircastles.

One should be well aware of the humours of the good Squire and his household, to understand the general concern expressed at this disaster. It was quite a public calamity in this rural empire, and all seemed to feel for the poor rooks as for fellow-citizens in distress.

The ground had been strewed with the callow young, which were now cherished in the aprons and bosoms of the maid-servants, and the little ladies of the family. I was pleased with this touch of nature; this feminine sympathy in the sufferings of the offspring, and the maternal anxiety of the parent birds.

It was interesting, too, to witness the general agitation and distress that seemed to prevail throughout the feathered community; the common cause that was made of it; and the incessant hovering, and fluttering, and lamenting, that took place in the whole rookery. There is a cord of sympathy, that runs through the whole feathered race, as to any misfortunes of the young; and the cries of a wounded bird in the breeding season will throw a whole grove in a flutter and an alarm. Indeed, why should I confine it to the feathered tribe? Nature seems to me to have implanted an exquisite sympathy on this subject, which extends through all her works. It is an invariable attribute of the female heart, to melt at the cry of early helplessness, and to take an instinctive interest in the distresses of the parent and its young. On the present occasion, the ladies of the family were full of pity and commiseration; and I shall never forget the look that Lady Lillycraft gave the general; on his observing that the young birds would make an excellent curry, or an especial good rook-pie.