The trumpet of the swan, p.12
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       The Trumpet of the Swan, p.12

           E. B. White
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  "Well," said the little boy, "I was very thirsty, and so I wanted to go to a candy store and get something to drink."

  "Just tell what you saw, please, Alfred," said the judge. "Never mind how thirsty you were."

  "I was coming along the street," continued Alfred, "because I was very thirsty. So I was coming along the street on my way to the candy store to get something to drink, and there, up in the sky, all of a sudden there was a big white bird right over me in the sky and he was sliding down out of the sky like this." Alfred held out his arms and imitated a bird. "And so when I saw the big bird I stopped thinking about how thirsty I was and pretty soon this enormous bird, he was enormous, was on the sidewalk and he was dead and there was blood all over everything and that's what I saw."

  "Did you notice anything special about the bird?" asked Judge Ricketts.

  "Blood," said Alfred.

  "Anything else?"

  "No, just blood."

  "Did you hear a gun?"

  "No, just blood," said Alfred.

  "Thank you!" said the judge. "That will be all."

  Just then a siren started wailing--woooaw, woooaw, woooaw. An ambulance came screaming down the street. It stopped in front of the crowd. Two men jumped out. They carried a stretcher and set it down next to where the swan lay. The old cob lifted his head and looked around. "I have been at death's door," he thought, "and now I think I am returning to life. I am reviving. I shall live! I shall return on strong wings to the great sky. I shall glide gracefully again on the ponds of the world and hear the frogs and take pleasure in the sounds of night and the coming of day."

  As he was thinking these pleasant thoughts, he felt himself being lifted. The ambulance attendants put his slate around his neck, picked him up, laid him gently on the stretcher, and carried him into the ambulance, which had a red light whirling round and around on top of it. One of the men placed an oxygen mask over the old cob's head and gave him some oxygen. And away they drove, making a great deal of noise, to the hospital. There, he was put to bed and given a shot of penicillin. A young doctor came in and examined the wound where the shotgun pellet had hit him. The doctor said the wound was superficial. The old cob didn't know what "superficial" meant, but it sounded serious.

  Nurses gathered around. One of them took the swan's blood pressure and wrote something on a chart. The old cob was beginning to feel very well again. It felt good to be in bed, being cared for by nurses--one of whom was quite pretty. The doctor washed the wound and put a Band-Aid on it.

  Meantime, back on the sidewalk in front of the music store, the judge was announcing his decision.

  "On the basis of the testimony," he said solemnly, "I award the money to the storekeeper, to make up for the loss of the trumpet and damage to the store. I am placing the swan in the custody of the game warden."

  "Your Honor," said the warden, "don't forget that the storekeeper is under arrest for shooting a wild swan."

  "It was a case of false arrest," said the judge wisely. "The storekeeper fired his gun at the bird because he was afraid his store would be robbed again. He did not know that the swan was bringing money to pay for the trumpet. The gun was fired in self-defense. Everyone is innocent, the swan is honest, the debt is paid, the storekeeper is rich, and the case is dismissed."

  A cheer went up from the crowd. The warden looked sulky. The policeman looked glum. But the storekeeper was beaming. He was a happy man. He felt that justice had been done.

  "I have an announcement," he said. "I am only going to keep just enough of this money to pay for the stolen trumpet and the repair bills for my store. All the rest of the money will be given to a good cause if I can think of just the right one. Can anyone think of a worthy cause that needs money?"

  "The Salvation Army," suggested a woman.

  "No," said the storekeeper.

  "The Boy Scouts?" suggested a boy.

  "No," said the storekeeper.

  "The American Civil Liberties Union?" suggested a man.

  "Nope," said the storekeeper. "Nobody has thought of just the right place for me to send this money."

  "How about the Audubon Society?" asked a little fellow whose nose looked like the beak of a bird.

  "Great! You've got it!" cried the storekeeper. "A bird has been very good to me, and now I want to do something for birds. The Audubon Society is kind to birds. I want this money to be used to help birds. Some birds are in real trouble. They face extinction."

  "What's extinction?" asked Alfred Gore. "Does it mean they stink?"

  "Certainly not," said the storekeeper. "Extinction is what happens when you're extinct--when you don't exist anymore because there are no others like you. Like the passenger pigeon and the eastern Heath Hen and the Dodo and the Dinosaur."

  "The Trumpeter Swan was almost extinct," said the game warden. "People kept shooting them, like this crazy storekeeper. But now they are making a comeback."

  The storekeeper glared at the warden.

  "I'll say they're making a comeback," he said. "The swan that was just here came back to Billings with four thousand four hundred and twenty dollars and seventy-eight cents and gave it all to me. I call that making a very good comeback. I can't imagine where he got all that money. It's a mighty funny thing."

  The storekeeper went back into his music store, the policeman went back to the station house, the judge went back to the courthouse, the game warden walked off down the street toward the hospital, and Alfred Gore, who was still thirsty, continued his journey to the candy store. All the rest of the people wandered away.

  At the hospital, the old cob lay peacefully in bed thinking beautiful thoughts. He felt thankful to be alive and relieved to be out of debt.

  It was getting dark. Many of the patients in the hospital were asleep already. A nurse came into the cob's room to open his window.

  When she came back a few minutes later to take the cob's temperature and give him a back rub, the bed was empty--the room was deserted. The cob had jumped out of the window, spread his broad wings, and headed for home through the cold night sky. He flew all night, crossed the mountains, and arrived home soon after daylight, where his wife was waiting for him.

  "How did it go?" she asked.

  "Very well," he said. "An extraordinary adventure. I was shot at, just as you predicted. The storekeeper pointed a gun at me and fired. I felt an agonizing pain in my left shoulder--which I've always considered the more beautiful of my two shoulders. Blood gushed from my wound in torrents, and I sank gracefully to the sidewalk, where I handed over the money and thus regained my honor and my decency. I was at death's door. A great multitude of people gathered. Blood was everywhere. I became faint and passed out with dignity in front of all. The police arrived--dozens of them. Game wardens flocked to the scene in great numbers, and there was a tremendous argument about the money."

  "How did you know all this if you were unconscious?" asked his wife.

  "My dear," said the cob, "I wish you wouldn't interrupt me when I am telling the story of my trip. Seeing my grave condition, someone in the crowd summoned an ambulance, and I was taken to the hospital, where I was put to bed. I looked very beautiful lying there, my black bill contrasting with the snowy white sheets. Doctors and nurses attended me and comforted me in my hour of suffering and pain. You can judge how serious my wound was when I tell you that one of the doctors examined it and said it was superficial."

  "It doesn't look bad to me," said his wife. "I think you just got nicked. If it had been bad, you couldn't have flown back so soon. Anyway, superficial or not, I'm glad to see you home safe. I always miss you when you're gone. I don't know why, but I do."

  And with that, she placed her head across his neck and gave him a slight nudge. Then they had breakfast and went for a swim in an open place in the frozen lake. The cob pulled his Band-Aid off and threw it away.



  Louis and Serena were more in love than ever. When spring came, they fle
w north, Louis wearing his trumpet and his slate and his chalk pencil and his medal, Serena wearing nothing at all. Now that he no longer had to work and earn, Louis felt a great sense of relief. No more would he have to carry a moneybag around his neck.

  The two swans flew high and fast, ten thousand feet above the earth. They arrived at last at the little pond in the wilderness where Louis had been hatched. This was his dream--to return with his love to the place in Canada where he had first seen the light of day. He escorted Serena from one end of the pond to the other and back again. He showed her the tiny island where his mother's nest had been. He showed her the log Sam Beaver had been sitting on when Louis had pulled his shoelace because he couldn't say beep. Serena was enchanted. They were in love. It was spring. The frog was waking from his long sleep. The turtle was coming to life again after his nap. The chipmunk felt the warm air, soft and kind, blow through the trees, just as it did in that springtime when Louis's father and mother had visited the pond to nest and raise their young.

  The sun shone down, strong and steady. Ice was melting; patches of open water appeared on the pond. Louis and Serena felt the changing world, and they stirred with new life and rapture and hope. There was a smell in the air, a smell of earth waking after its long winter. The trees were putting out tiny green buds, the buds were swelling. A better, easier time was at hand. A pair of Mallard Ducks flew in. A sparrow with a white throat arrived and sang, "Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada!"

  Serena chose a muskrat lodge on which to build her nest. It was the right height above the water. The muskrats had built it of mud and sticks. Louis had hoped his wife might decide to make her nest in the same spot where his mother had built hers, but females are full of notions; they want their own way, pretty much, and Serena knew what she was doing. Louis was so delighted when he saw her begin to construct the nest, he didn't really care where it was. He raised his horn to his mouth and played the beginning of an old song called "It's delightful to be married, to be-be-be-be, be-be-be-be married . . ." Then he helped by bringing a few pieces of coarse grass.

  Rain or shine, cold or warm, every day was a happy day for the two swans. In time, the eggs were laid and the cygnets were hatched--four of them. The first sound the baby swans heard was the pure, strong sound of their father's trumpet.

  "Oh, ever in the greening spring," he played, "By bank and bough retiring . . ."

  Life was gay and busy and sweet in the little lonely pond in the north woods. Once in a while Sam Beaver would show up for a visit, and they would have great times together.

  Louis never forgot his old jobs, his old friends, or his promise to the Head Man in Charge of Birds in Philadelphia. As the years went by, he and Serena returned each spring to the pond, nested, and had their young. And each year, at the end of summer, when the moult was over and the flight feathers grew back in and the cygnets were ready to try their wings, Louis took his family for a long pleasure trip across America. He led them first to Camp Kookooskoos, where he had saved the life of Applegate Skinner and won his medal. The camp would be closed for the season, but Louis liked to revisit it and wander around, remembering the boys and how he had earned his first hundred dollars as camp bugler.

  Then the swans would fly to Boston, where the Swan Boatman always gave them a big welcome. Louis would polish up his horn, blow the spit out of it, and swim in front of the boats again, playing "Row, row, row your boat," and the people of Boston would hear the familiar sound of the trumpet of the swan and would flock to the Public Garden. Then the Boatman would treat Louis and Serena to a night at the Ritz Hotel, while the cygnets spent the night by themselves on the lake, watched over by the Boatman. Serena dearly loved the Ritz. She ate dozens of watercress sandwiches and gazed at herself in the mirror and swam in the bathtub. And while Louis stood and looked out of the window at the Public Garden down below, Serena would walk round and around, turning lights on and off for the fun of it. Then they would both get into the bathtub and go to sleep.

  From Boston, Louis would lead his family to the Philadelphia Zoo and show them Bird Lake. Here, he would be greeted warmly by the Head Man in Charge of Birds. If the Zoo needed a young Trumpeter Swan to add to its collection of waterfowl, Louis would donate one of his cygnets, just as he had promised. In later years, Philadelphia was also the place where they would see Sam Beaver. Sam took a job with the Zoo just as soon as he was old enough to go to work. He and Louis always had a great time when they got together. Louis would get out his slate, and they would have a long talk about old times.

  After visiting Philadelphia, Louis would fly south with his wife and children so they could see the great savannas where alligators dozed in the swamp water and Turkey Buzzards soared in the sky. And then they would return home to spend the winter in the Red Rock Lakes of Montana, in the lovely, serene Centennial Valley, where all Trumpeter Swans feel safe and unafraid.

  The life of a swan must be a very pleasant and interesting life. And of course Louis's life was particularly pleasant because he was a musician. Louis took good care of his trumpet. He kept it clean and spent hours polishing it with the tips of his wing feathers. As long as he lived, he felt grateful to his father, the brave cob who had risked his life in order to give him the trumpet he needed so badly. Every time Louis looked at Serena, he remembered that the sound of the trumpet was what had made her willing to become his mate.

  Swans often live to be very old. Year after year, Louis and Serena returned in spring to the same small pond in Canada to raise their family. The days were peaceful. Always, just at the edge of dark, when the young cygnets were getting sleepy, Louis would raise his horn and play taps, just as he used to do at camp long ago. The notes were sad and beautiful as they floated across the still water and up into the night sky.

  One summer, when Sam Beaver was about twenty, he and his father were sitting in their camp in Canada. It was after supper. Mr. Beaver was rocking in a chair, resting after a day of fishing. Sam was reading a book.

  "Pop," said Sam, "what does 'crepuscular' mean?"

  "How should I know?" replied Mr. Beaver. "I never heard the word before."

  "It has something to do with rabbits," said Sam. "It says here that a rabbit is a crepuscular animal."

  "Probably means timid," said Mr. Beaver. "Or maybe it means that it can run like the dickens. Or maybe it means stupid. A rabbit will sit right in the middle of the road at night and stare into your headlights and never get out of the way, and that's how a lot of rabbits get run over. They're stupid."

  "Well," said Sam, "I guess the only way to find out what 'crepuscular' means is to look it up in the dictionary."

  "We haven't got a dictionary here," said Mr. Beaver. "You'll have to wait till we get back to the ranch."

  Just then, over at the pond where the swans were, Louis raised his horn and played taps, to let his children know that the day had come to an end. The wind was right, and the sound carried across the swamp.

  Mr. Beaver stopped rocking.

  "That's funny!" he said. "I thought I heard the sound of a trumpet just then."

  "I don't see how you could," replied Sam. "We're alone in these woods."

  "I know we are," said Mr. Beaver. "Just the same, I thought I heard a trumpet. Or a bugle."

  Sam chuckled. He had never told his father about the swans in the pond nearby. He kept their secret to himself. When he went to the pond, he always went alone. That's the way he liked it. And that's the way the swans liked it.

  "What ever happened to your friend Louis?" asked Mr. Beaver. "Louis was a trumpeter. You don't suppose he's somewhere around here, do you?"

  "He might be," said Sam.

  "Have you heard from him recently?" asked Mr. Beaver.

  "No," replied Sam. "He doesn't write anymore. He ran out of postage stamps, and he has no money to buy stamps with."

  "Oh," said Mr. Beaver. "Well, the whole business about that bird was very queer--I never did fully understand it."

  Sam looked across at h
is father and saw that his eyes had closed. Mr. Beaver was falling asleep. There was hardly a sound to disturb the stillness of the woods.

  Sam was tired and sleepy too. He got out his notebook and sat down at the table by the light of the kerosene lamp. This is what he wrote:

  Tonight I heard Louis's horn. My father heard it, too. The wind was right, and I could hear the notes of taps, just as darkness fell. There is nothing in all the world I like better than the trumpet of the swan. What does "crepuscular" mean?

  Sam put his notebook away. He undressed and slid into bed. He lay there, wondering what "crepuscular" meant. In less than three minutes he was fast asleep.

  On the pond where the swans were, Louis put his trumpet away. The cygnets crept under their mother's wings. Darkness settled on woods and fields and marsh. A loon called its wild night cry. As Louis relaxed and prepared for sleep, all his thoughts were of how lucky he was to inhabit such a beautiful earth, how lucky he had been to solve his problems with music, and how pleasant it was to look forward to another night of sleep and another day tomorrow, and the fresh morning, and the light that returns with the day.

  Excerpt from Charlotte's Web

  Read on for an excerpt from Charlotte's Web

  I. Before Breakfast

  WHERE'S Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

  "Out to the hoghouse," replied Mrs. Arable. "Some pigs were born last night."

  "I don't see why he needs an ax," continued Fern, who was only eight.

  "Well," said her mother, "one of the pigs is a runt. It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it."

  "Do away with it?" shrieked Fern. "You mean kill it? Just because it's smaller than the others?"

  Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. "Don't yell, Fern!" she said. "Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway."

  Fern pushed a chair out of the way and ran outdoors. The grass was wet and the earth smelled of springtime. Fern's sneakers were sopping by the time she caught up with her father.

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