The Moon Stroke

by Laurence Housman

In the hollow heart of an old tree a Jackdaw and his wife had made themselves a nest. As soon as the mother of his eggs had finished laying, she sat waiting patiently for something to come of it. One by one five mouths poked out of the shells, demanding to be fed; so for weeks the happy couple had to be continually in two places at once searching for food to satisfy them.

Presently the wings of the young ones grew strong; they could begin to fly about; and the parents found time for a return to pleasuring and curiosity-hunting. They began gathering in a wise assortment of broken glass and chips of platter to grace the corners of their dwelling. All but the youngest Jackdaw were enchanted with their unutterable beauty and value; they were never tired of quarrelling over the possession and arrangement of them.

"But what are they for?" asked the youngest, a perverse bird who grouped himself apart from the rest, and took no share in their daily squabblings.

The mother-bird said: "They are beautiful, and what God intended for us: therefore they must be true. We may not see the use of them yet, but no doubt some day they will come true."

The little Jackdaw said: "Their corners scratch me when I want to go to sleep; they are far worse than crumbs in the bed. All the other birds do without them—why should not we?"

"That is what distinguishes us from the other birds!" replied the Janedaw, and thanked her stars that it was so.

"I wish we could sing!" sighed the littlest young Jackdaw. "Babble, babble!" replied his mother angrily.

And then, as it was dinner-time, he forgot his grief as they all said grace, and fell-to.

One evening the old Jackdaw came home very late, carrying something that burned bright and green, like an evening star; all the nest shone where he set it down.

"What do you think of that for a discovery?" he said to the Janedaw.

"Think?" she said; "I can't. Some of it looks good to eat; but that fire-patch at the end would burn one's inside out."

Presently the Jackdaw family settled itself down to sleep; only the youngest one sat up and watched. Now he had seen something beautiful. Was it going to come true? Its light was like the song of the nightingale in the leaves overhead: it glowed, and throbbed, and grew strong, flooding the whole place where it lay.

Soon, in the silence, he heard a little wail of grief: "Why have they carried me away here," sighed the glow-worm, "out of the tender grass that loves the ground?"

The littlest Jackdaw listened with all his heart. Now something at last was going to become true, without scratching his legs and making him feel as though crumbs were in his bed.

A little winged thing came flying down to the green light, and two voices began crying together—the glow-worm and its mate.

"They have carried you away?"

"They have carried me away; up here I shall die!"

"I am too weak to lift you," said the one with wings; "you will stay here, and you will die!" Then they cried yet more.

"It seems to me," thought the Jackdaw, "that as soon as the beautiful becomes true, God does not intend it to be for us." He got up softly from among his brothers. "I will carry you down," he said. And without more ado, he picked it up and carried it down out of the nest, and laid it in the long grass at the foot of the tree.

Overhead the nightingale sang, and the full moon shone; its rays struck down on the little Jackdaw's head. For a bird that is not a nightingale to wake up and find its head unprotected under the rays of a full moon is serious: there and then he became moon-struck. He went back into bed; but he was no longer the same little Jackdaw. "Oh, I wish I could sing!" he thought; and not for hours could he get to sleep.

In the morning, when the family woke up, the beautiful and the true was gone. The father Jackdaw thought he must have swallowed it in his sleep.

"If you did," said his wife "there'll be a smell of burnt feathers before long!"

But the littlest Jackdaw said, "It came true, and went away, because it was never intended for us."

Now some days after this the old Jack-daw again came carrying something that shone like an evening star—a little spike of gold with a burning emerald set in the end of it. "And what do you think of that?" said he to his wife.

"I daren't come near it," she answered, "for fear it should burn me!"

That night the little Jackdaw lay awake, while all the others slept, waiting to hear the green stone break out into sorrow, and to see if its winged mate would come seeking it. But after hours had gone, and nothing stirred or spoke, he slipped softly out of the nest, and went down to search for the poor little winged mate who must surely be about somewhere.

And now, truly, among the grasses and flowers he heard something sobbing and sighing; a little winged thing darted into sight and out again, searching the ground like a dragon-fly at quest. And all the time, amid the darting and humming of its wings, came sobbing and wringing of hands.

The young Jackdaw called: "Little wings, what have you lost? Is it not a spike with a green light at the end of it?"

"My wand, my wand!" cried the fairy, beside herself with grief. "Just about sunset I was asleep in an empty wren's nest, and when I woke up my wand was gone!"

Then the little Jackdaw, being moon-struck, and not knowing the value of things, flew up to the nest and brought back the fairy her wand.

"Oh!" she cried, "you have saved my life!" And she thanked the Jackdaw till he grew quite modest and shy.

"What is it for? What can you do with it?" he asked.

"With this," she answered, "I can make anything beautiful come true! I can give you whatever you ask; you have but to ask, and you shall have."

Then the little Jackdaw, being moon-struck, and not knowing the value of things, said, "Oh, if I could only sing like a nightingale!"

"You can!" said the fairy, waving her wand but once; and immediately some-thing like a melodious sneeze flew into his head and set it shaking.

"Chiou! chiou! True-true-true-true! Jug! jug! Oh, beautiful! beautiful!" His beak went dabbling in the sweet sound, rippling it this way and that, spraying it abroad out of his blissful heart as a jewel throws out its fires.

The fairy was gone; but the little Jackdaw sprang up into the high elm, and sang on endlessly through the whole night.

At dawn he stopped, and looking down, there he saw the family getting ready for breakfast, and wondering what had become of him. Just as they were saying grace he flew in, his little heart beating with joy over his new-found treasure. What a jewel of a voice he had: better than all the pieces of glass and chips of platter lying down there in the nest! As soon as the parent-birds had finished grace, he lifted his voice and thanked God that the thing he had wished for had become true.

None of them understood what he said, but they paid him plenty of attention. All his brothers and sisters put up their heads and giggled, as the young do when one of their number misbehaves.

"Don't make that noise!" said his mother; "it's not decent!"

"It's low!" said the father-bird.

The littlest young Jackdaw was overwhelmed with astonishment. When he tried to explain, his unseemly melodies led to his immediate expulsion from the family circle. Such noises, he was told, could only be made in private; when he had quite got over them he might come back,—but not until.

He never got over them; so he never came back. For a few days he hid himself in different trees of the garden, and sang the praises of sorrow; but his family, though they comprehended him not, recognised his note, and came searching him with beak and claw, and drove him out so as not to have him near them committing such scandalous noises to the ears of the public.

"He lies in his throat!" said the old Jackdaw. "Everything he says he garbles. If he is our son he must have been hatched on the wrong side of the nest!"

After that, wherever he went, all the birds jeered at and persecuted him. Even the nightingales would not listen to his brotherly voice. They made fun of his black coat, and called him a Nonconformist without a conscience. "All this has come about," thought he, "because God never meant anything beautiful to come true."

One day a man who saw him and heard him singing, caught him, and took him round the world in a cage for show. The value of him was discovered. Great crowds came to see the little Jackdaw, and to hear him sing. He was described now as the "Amphabulous Philomel, or the Mongrel-Minstrel"; but it gave him no joy.

Before long he had become what we call tame—that is to say, his wings had been clipped; he was allowed out of his cage, because he could no longer fly away, and he sang when he was told, because he was whipped if he did not.

One day there was a great crowd round the travelling booth where he was on view: the showman had a new wonder which he was about to show to the people. He took the little Jackdaw out of his cage, and set him to perch upon his shoulder, while he busied himself over something which he was taking carefully out of ever so many boxes and coverings.

The Jackdaw's sad eye became attracted by a splendid scarf-pin that the showman wore—a gold pin set with a tiny emerald that burned like fire. The bird thought, "Now if only the beautiful could become true!"

And now the showman began holding up a small glass bottle for the crowd to stare into. The people were pushing this way and that to see what might be there.

At the bottom sat the little fairy, without her wand, weeping and beating her hands on the glass.

The showman was so proud he grew red in the face, and ran shouting up and down the plank, shaking and turning the bottle upside down now and then, so as to make the cabined fairy use her wings, and buzz like a fly against the glass.

The Jackdaw waggled unsteadily at his perch on the man's shoulder. "Look at him!" laughed some one in the crowd, "he's going to steal his master's scarf-pin."

"Ho, ho, ho!" shouted the showman. "See this bird now! See the marvellous mongrel nature of the beast! Who tells me he's only a nightingale painted black?"

The people laughed the more at that, for there was a fellow in the crowd looking sheepish. The Jackdaw had drawn out the scarf-pin, and held it gravely in its beak, looking sideways with cunning eyes. He was wishing hard. All the crowd laughed again.

Suddenly the showman's hand gave a jerk, the bottle slipped from his hold and fell, shivering itself upon the ground.

There was a buzz of wings—the fairy had escaped.

"The beautiful is coming true," thought the Jackdaw, as he yielded to the fairy her wand, and found, suddenly, that his wings were not clipped after all.

"What more can I do for you?" asked the fairy, as they flew away together. "You gave me back my wand; I have given you back your wings."

"I will not ask anything," said the little Jackdaw; "what God intends will come true."

"Let me take you up to the moon," said the fairy. "All the Jackdaws up there sing like nightingales."

"Why is that?" asked the little Jackdaw.

"Because they are all moon-struck," she answered.

"And what is it to be moon-struck?" he asked.

"Surely you should know, if any one!" laughed the fairy. "To see things beautifully, and not as they are. On the moon you will be able to do that without any difficulty."

"Ah," said the little Jackdaw, "now I know at last that the beautiful is going to come true!"