The trumpet of the swan, p.5
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       The Trumpet of the Swan, p.5

           E. B. White
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  Finally his father, the cob, spoke up.

  "Louis, my son," he began in his deep, resonant voice, "this is the day we have long awaited--the day of your return to our sanctuary in the Red Rock Lakes. No one can imagine the extent of our joy or the depth of our emotion at seeing you again, you who have been absent from our midst for so long, in lands we know not of, in pursuits we can only guess at. How good it is to see your countenance again! We hope you have enjoyed good health during your long absence, in lands we know not of, in pursuits we can only guess at--"

  "You've said that once already," said his wife. "You're repeating yourself. Louis must be tired after his trip, no matter where he's been or what he's been up to."

  "Very true," said the cob. "But I must prolong my welcoming remarks a bit longer, for my curiosity is aroused by that odd little object Louis is wearing around his neck and by the strange symbols he has placed upon it by rubbing that white thing up and down and leaving those strange white tracings."

  "Well," said Louis's mother, "we're all interested in it, naturally. But Louis can't explain it because he is defective and can't talk. So we'll just have to forget our curiosity for the moment and let Louis take a bath and have dinner."

  Everyone agreed this was a good idea.

  Louis swam to the shore, placed his slate and his chalk pencil under a bush, and took a bath. When he was through, he dipped the end of one wing in the water and sorrowfully rubbed out the words "Hi, there!" Then he hung the slate around his neck again. It felt good to be home with his family. And his family had increased during the months he had spent with Sam Beaver at school. There were now six new cygnets. Louis's father and mother had spent the summer on a trip to Canada, and while there, they had nested and hatched six little cygnets, and in the fall they had all joined up again at the Red Rock Lakes in Montana.

  One day, soon after Louis's return, the grain man stopped by with a sack of grain. Louis saw him and swam over. When the man spread the grain on the ground to feed the birds, Louis took off his slate and wrote, "Thank you very much!" He held the slate up to the man, who appeared surprised.

  "Say!" said the man. "You're quite a bird! Where did you learn to write?"

  Louis erased the slate and wrote, "At school."

  "School?" said the grain man. "What school?"

  "Public school," wrote Louis. "Mrs. Hammerbotham taught me."

  "Never heard of her," said the grain man. "But she must be a darned good teacher."

  "She is," wrote Louis. He was overjoyed to be carrying on a conversation with a stranger. He realized that even though the slate was no help with other birds, it was going to be a help with people, because people could read. This made him feel a whole lot better. Sam Beaver had given Louis the slate as a good-bye present when he left the ranch. Sam had bought the slate and the chalk pencil with money he had saved. Louis decided he would always carry them with him, no matter where he went in the world.

  The grain man wondered whether he had been dreaming or whether he had really seen a swan write words on a slate. He decided to say nothing about it to anyone, for fear people might think he was crazy in the head.

  For birds, spring is the time to find a mate. The warm sweet airs of spring stir strange feelings in young swans. The males begin to notice the females. They show off in front of them. The females begin to notice the males, too, but they pretend they are not noticing anything at all. They act very coy.

  Louis felt so queer one day, he knew he must be in love. And he knew which bird he was in love with. Whenever he swam past her, he could feel his heart beat faster, and his mind was full of thoughts of love and desire. He thought he had never seen such a beautiful young female swan. She was a trifle smaller than the others, and she seemed to have a more graceful neck and more attractive ways than any of his other friends on the lake. Her name was Serena. He wished he could do something to attract her attention. He wanted her for his mate but was unable to tell her so because he couldn't make a sound. He swam in circles around her and pumped his neck up and down and made a great show of diving and staying down to prove he could hold his breath longer than any other bird. But the little female paid no attention to Louis's antics. She pretended he didn't exist.

  When Louis's mother found out that Louis was courting a young female, she hid behind some bulrushes and watched what was going on. She could tell that he was in love by the way he acted, and she saw that he was having no success.

  Once, in desperation, Louis swam up to Serena, his beloved, and made a bow. His slate, as usual, was around his neck. Taking the chalk pencil in his mouth, he wrote "I love you" on the slate and showed it to her.

  She stared at it for a moment, then swam away. She didn't know how to read, and although she rather liked the looks of a young cob who had something hanging around his neck, she couldn't really get interested in a bird that was unable to say anything. A Trumpeter Swan that couldn't trumpet was a bust as far as she was concerned.

  When Louis's mother saw this, she went to her husband, the cob.

  "I have news for you," she said. "Your son Louis is in love, and the swan of his choice, the female of his desiring, pays no attention to him. It's just as I predicted: Louis won't be able to get a mate because he has no voice. That snippety little female he's chasing after gives me a pain in the neck, the way she acts. But just the same, I'm sorry for Louis. He thinks she's the greatest thing on the lake, and he can't say, 'Ko-hoh, I love you,' and that's what she's waiting to hear."

  "Why, this is terrible news," said the cob, "news of the most serious import. I know what it is like to be in love. Well do I remember how painful love can be, how exciting, and, in the event of unsuccess, how disappointing and doleful the days and nights. But I am Louis's father, and I'm not going to take this situation lying down. I shall act. Louis is a Trumpeter Swan, noblest of all the waterfowl. He is gay, cheerful, strong, powerful, lusty, good, brave, handsome, reliable, trustworthy, a great flier, a tremendous swimmer, fearless, patient, loyal, true, ambitious, desirous--"

  "Just a minute," said his wife. "You don't need to tell me all these things. The point is, what are you going to do to help Louis get himself a mate?"

  "I'm leading up to that in my own graceful way," replied the cob. "You say that what this young female wants is to hear Louis say, 'Ko-hoh, I love you'?"

  "That's right."

  "Then she shall hear it!" exclaimed the cob. "There are devices made by men--horns, trumpets, musical instruments of all sorts. These devices are capable of producing sounds similar to the wild sound of our trumpeting. I shall begin a search for such a device, and if I have to go to the ends of the earth to find a trumpet for our young son, I shall find it at last and bring it home to Louis."

  "Well, if I may make a suggestion," said his wife, "don't go to the ends of the earth, go to Billings, Montana. It's nearer."

  "Very well, I will try Billings. I shall look for a trumpet in Billings. And now, without further ado, I go. There is no time to lose. Springtime doesn't last forever. Love is fleeting. Every minute counts. I'm leaving this instant for Billings, Montana, a great city teeming with life and with objects made by man. Good-bye, my love! I shall return!"

  "What are you going to use for money?" asked his practical wife. "Trumpets cost money."

  "Leave that to me," replied the cob. And with that, he took off into the air. He climbed steeply, like a jet plane, then leveled off, flying high and fast toward the northeast. His wife watched him until he was out of sight. "What a swan!" she murmured. "I just hope he knows what he's doing."



  As the cob flew toward Billings on his powerful white wings, all sorts of troublesome thoughts whirled in his head. The cob had never gone looking for a trumpet before. He had no money to pay for a trumpet. He feared he might arrive after the shops had closed for the day. He realized that in the whole continent of North America he was undoubtedly the only Trumpeter Swan who was on his way to a city to g
et a trumpet.

  "This is a queer adventure," he said to himself. "Yet it is a noble quest. I will do anything to help my son Louis--even if I run into real trouble."

  Toward the end of the afternoon, the cob looked ahead and in the distance saw the churches and factories and shops and homes of Billings. He decided to act quickly and boldly. He circled the city once, looking for a music store. Suddenly he spied one. It had a very big, wide window, solid glass. The cob flew lower and circled so he could get a better look. He gazed into the store. He saw a drum painted gold. He saw a fancy guitar with an electric cord. He saw a small piano. He saw banjos, horns, violins, mandolins, cymbals, saxophones, marimbaphones, cellos, and many other instruments. Then he saw what he wanted: he saw a brass trumpet hanging by a red cord.

  "Now is my time to act!" he said to himself. "Now is my moment for risking everything on one bold move, however shocking it may be to my sensibilities, however offensive it may be to the laws that govern the lives of men. Here I go! May good luck go with me!"

  With that, the old cob set his wings for a dive. He aimed straight at the big window. He held his neck straight and stiff, waiting for the crash. He dove swiftly and hit the window going full speed. The glass broke. The noise was terrific. The whole store shook. Musical instruments fell to the floor. Glass flew everywhere. A salesgirl fainted. The cob felt a twinge of pain as a jagged piece of broken glass cut into his shoulder, but he grabbed the trumpet in his beak, turned sharply in the air, flew back through the hole in the window, and began climbing fast over the roofs of Billings. A few drops of blood fell to the ground below. His shoulder hurt. But he had succeeded in getting what he had come for. Held firmly in his bill, its red cord dangling, was a beautiful brass trumpet.

  You can imagine the noise in the music store when the cob crashed through the window. At the moment the glass broke, one of the clerks was showing a bass drum to a customer, and the clerk was so startled at seeing a big white bird come flying through the window, he hit the drum a tremendous wallop.

  "Bom!" went the drum.

  "Crash!" went the splinters of flying glass.

  When the salesgirl fainted, she fell against the keys of the piano.

  "Rrrongee-rrrongee-rrongee!" went the piano.

  The owner of the store grabbed his shotgun, which went off by mistake, blasting a hole in the ceiling and sending down a shower of plaster. Everything was flying around and falling and making a noise.

  "Bom!" went the drum.

  "Plunk!" went the banjo.

  "Rrrongee-rrrongee-rrrongee!" went the piano.

  "Ump!" went the bull fiddle.

  "Help!" screamed a clerk. "We've been robbed."

  "Make way!" shouted the owner. He ran for the door, stepped outside, and fired another shot--bang!--at the disappearing bird. His shot was too late. The cob was safe in the sky, beyond the range of gunfire. He was headed home, toward the southwest, high above the roofs and spires of Billings. In his beak was the trumpet. In his heart was the pain of having committed a crime.

  "I have robbed a store," he said to himself. "I have become a thief. What a miserable fate for a bird of my excellent character and high ideals! Why did I do this? What led me to commit this awful crime? My past life has been blameless--a model of good behavior and correct conduct. I am by nature law-abiding. Why, oh, why did I do this?"

  Then the answer came to him, as he flew steadily on through the evening sky. "I did it to help my son. I did it for love of my son Louis."

  Back in Billings, the news spread rapidly. This was the first time a swan had broken into a music store and made off with a trumpet. A lot of people refused to believe it had happened. The editor of the newspaper sent a reporter to the store to look around. The reporter interviewed the owner and wrote an article about the event for the paper. The article was headed:

  Everybody in Billings bought a copy of the paper and read all about the extraordinary event. It was talked about all over town. Some people believed it; others said it never could have happened. They said the store owner had just invented it to get some publicity for his store. But the clerks in the store agreed that it had really happened. They pointed to the drops of blood on the floor.

  The police came to look over the damage, which was estimated at nine hundred dollars. The police promised they would try to find the thief and arrest him, but the police were sorry to hear that the thief was a bird. "Birds are a special problem," they said. "Birds are hard to deal with."

  Back at the Red Rock Lakes, Louis's mother waited anxiously for her husband to return. When he showed up in the night sky, she saw that he had a trumpet with him. It was slung around his neck by its cord.

  "Well," she said, as he glided to a stop in the water, "I see you made it."

  "I did, my dear," said the cob. "I traveled fast and far, sacrificed my honor, and I have returned. Where is Louis? I want to give him his trumpet right away."

  "He's over there sitting on a muskrat house, dreaming about that empty-headed young female he's so crazy about."

  The cob swam over to his son and made a presentation speech.

  "Louis," he said, "I have been on a journey to the haunts of men. I visited a great city teeming with life and commerce. Whilst there, I picked up a gift for you, which I now bestow upon you with my love and my blessing. Here, Louis, is a trumpet. It will be your voice--a substitute for the voice God failed to give you. Learn to blow it, Louis, and life will be smoother and richer and gayer for you! With the help of this horn, you will be able at last to say ko-hoh, like every other swan. The sound of music will be in our ears. You will be able to attract the attention of desirable young females. Master this trumpet, and you will be able to play love songs for them, filling them with ardor and surprise and longing. I hope it will bring you happiness, Louis, and a new and better life. I procured it at some personal sacrifice to myself and my pride, but we won't go into that now. The long and short of it is, I had no money; I took the trumpet without paying for it. This was deplorable. But the important thing is that you learn to play the instrument."

  So saying, the cob removed the trumpet from around his neck and hung it on Louis, alongside the slate and the white chalk pencil.

  "Wear it in good health!" he said. "Blow it in happiness! Make the woods and the hills and the marshes echo with the sounds of your youthful desire!"

  Louis wanted to thank his father, but he was unable to say a word. And he knew it would do no good to write "Thank you" on the slate, because his father wouldn't be able to read it, never having had an education. So Louis just bobbed his head and waggled his tail and fluttered his wings. The cob knew by these signs that he had found favor in the sight of his son and that the gift of a trumpet was acceptable.



  Louis was the best-liked young male swan on Upper Red Rock Lake. He was also the best equipped. He not only had a slate and a chalk pencil around his neck, he had a brass trumpet on a red cord. The young females were beginning to notice him because he looked entirely different from the other cygnets. He stood out in a crowd. None of the others carried anything with them.

  Louis was delighted with the new trumpet. All day, the first day he had it, he tried to get it to make a noise. Holding the trumpet was not easy. He tried several different positions, bending his neck and blowing. At first, no sound came out. He blew harder and harder, puffing out his cheeks and getting red in the face.

  "This is going to be tough," he thought.

  But then he discovered that, by holding his tongue in a certain way, he could get the trumpet to emit a small gasping sound. It wasn't a very pretty noise, but at least it was a noise. It sounded a little like hot air escaping from a radiator.

  "Puwoowf, puwoowf," went the trumpet.

  Louis kept at it. Finally, on the second day of trying, he got it to play a note--a clear note.

  "Ko!" went the trumpet.

  Louis's heart skipped a beat when he heard it. A duck, swimmin
g nearby, stopped to listen.

  "Ko! Ko ee oo oooph," went the trumpet.

  "It will take time," thought Louis. "I'm not going to become a trumpeter in a day, that's for sure. But Rome wasn't built in a day, and I'm going to learn to blow this horn if it takes me all summer."

  Louis had other problems besides learning the trumpet. For one thing, he knew that his trumpet wasn't paid for--it had been stolen. He didn't like that at all. For another thing, Serena, the swan he was in love with, had gone away. She had left the lakes with several other young swans and had flown north to the Snake River. Louis was afraid he might never see her again. So he found himself with a broken heart, a stolen trumpet, and no one to give him any lessons.

  Whenever Louis was in trouble, his thoughts turned to Sam Beaver. Sam had helped him before; perhaps he could help him again. Besides, springtime was making him restless: he felt an urge to leave the lakes and fly somewhere. So he took off one morning and headed straight for the Bar Nothing Ranch, in the Sweet Grass country, where Sam lived.

  Flying was not as easy as it once had been. If you've ever tried to fly with a trumpet dangling from your neck and a slate flapping in the wind and a chalk pencil bouncing around at the end of its string, you know how hard it can be. Louis realized that there were advantages in traveling light and not having too many possessions clinging to you. Nevertheless, he was a strong flier, and the slate and the chalk pencil and the trumpet were important to him.

  When he reached the ranch where Sam lived, he circled once, then glided down and walked into the barn. He found Sam grooming his pony.

  "Well, look who's here!" exclaimed Sam. "You look like a traveling salesman with all that stuff around your neck. I'm glad to see you."

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