The trumpet of the swan, p.9
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       The Trumpet of the Swan, p.9

           E. B. White
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  He circled, picked an open spot, and exactly at four fifty-two he splashed down. His trumpet banged against his slate, his slate knocked against his medal, his medal rapped against his chalk pencil, and his chalk pencil on its string wound itself around his moneybag. All in all, the splashdown caused quite a commotion. The ducks and geese were not expecting anything like this to happen--a big white Trumpeter Swan dropping down out of the sky, loaded with personal possessions.

  Louis paid no attention to the other birds. He had a date to keep. He saw a man leaning on the wide railing in front of the Bird House. The man was dressed in a purple suit and wore a Tyrolean hat. His face looked shrewd and wise, as though he knew a great many things, many of them not worth knowing.

  "That must be Abe 'Lucky' Lucas," thought Louis.

  He swam quickly over.

  "Ko-hoh!" he said, through his trumpet.

  "My pleasure," replied Mr. Lucas. "You are right on time. The splashdown was sensational. Welcome to the Philadelphia Zoo, which crawls with rare mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes, including sharks, rays, and other fishlike vertebrates. Watch out for wild animals--this place is replete with them: snakes, zebras, monkeys, elephants, lions, tigers, wolves, foxes, bears, hippos, rhinos, woodchucks, skunks, hawks, and owls. I seldom come here; my work confines me to the throbbing heart of the city, among the money changers. I am under great pressure from my work. How was your trip from Boston?"

  "Smooth," wrote Louis on his slate. "I made good time. What about my job?"

  "A happy question," replied Mr. Lucas. "The job will start on October fifteenth. The contract has been finalized. Your place of employment is a nightclub of great renown, across the river--a place of high fashion and low prices, a jumpy joint. You will be called upon to make appearances each evening except Sunday, and play your trumpet for the happy customers. Once in a while you can join a jazz group: 'Louis the Swan on trumpet.' The pay is very good. My spirits are lifted by thinking about the pay. Wealth and happiness are around the corner for Louis the Swan and Lucky Lucas, the great of heart. My agent's fee is ten percent, a mere bagatelle."

  "How do I get to the nightclub?" asked Louis, who only understood about half of what Mr. Lucas was saying.

  "In a taxicab," replied Mr. Lucas. "Be at the North Entrance of the Zoo, Girard Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, at nine o'clock on the evening of October fifteenth, a night that will live in memory. A cab will await your pleasure and will transport you to the club. The driver is a friend of mine. He, too, is under pressure from his work."

  "Who's going to pay for the cab?" asked Louis on his slate.

  "I am," replied Mr. Lucas. "Lucky Lucas, the generous of heart, pays for the cab for Louis the Swan. And by the way, I see that you are wearing a moneybag and that it is plump with moola. I suggest, from the kindness of my great heart, that you turn this moneybag over to me for safekeeping during your stay in Philadelphia, a place of many thieves and pickpockets."

  "No, thank you," wrote Louis. "Will keep moneybag myself."

  "Very well," said Mr. Lucas. "And now there is one other small matter I must bring to your attention. Most of the birds that swim on this luxury lagoon have undergone surgery. Candor compels me to tell you that the tip of one wing is usually removed by the management--a painless operation, popular with zoos the world over. 'Pinioned' is the word for it, I believe. It detains the water bird and prevents him from leaving the narrow confines of this public park and rising into the air, because when one wing is shorter than the other, the balance of the bird is upset. His attempt to take off would be crowned with failure. In short, he can't fly. Sensing in advance the revulsion you would feel toward having the tip of one of your powerful wings removed, I approached the Man in Charge of Birds and laid before him a proposition. He has agreed not to clip your wing. It is arranged. He is a man of honor. Your freedom of movement is assured. You will not be pinioned. But in return for this so great favor on the part of the management of the Philadelphia Zoo, you are to give a free concert here at the lake every Sunday afternoon for the people of Philadelphia, the peasantry, who come here to refresh themselves. Is it a deal?"

  "Yes," wrote Louis. "Will give Sunday concert."

  "Good!" said Mr. Lucas. "Farewell for the nonce! Be at the North Entrance at nine! October fifteen. A cab will await you. Play well, Sweet Swan! You will be the finest thing that has happened to Philadelphia since the Constitutional Convention of 1787."

  Louis didn't understand this, but he nodded good-bye to Mr. Lucas and swam off toward the island in the center of the lake. There he stepped ashore, straightened his things, preened his feathers, and rested. He was not sure he was going to like his new job. He was not sure he liked Mr. Lucas. But he needed money badly, and when you need money, you are willing to put up with difficulties and uncertainties. One good thing about the whole business was the Zoo itself. It seemed like an extremely nice place in spite of what he had heard about having your wing clipped. Louis had no intention of having a wing clipped.

  "I'll sock anybody who tries that on me!" he said to himself.

  He was pleased to see so many other water birds. There were many kinds of ducks and geese. In the distance, he saw three Trumpeter Swans. They were old residents of the Lake. Their names were Curiosity, Felicity, and Apathy. Louis decided he would wait a day or two before making their acquaintance.

  Bird Lake has a fence around it. When the night came for him to start work, Louis polished his trumpet, put on all his things, flew over the fence, and landed at the North Entrance. He was there promptly at nine. The taxicab was there, waiting, just as Mr. Lucas had promised. Louis got in and was driven away to his new job.



  During the next ten weeks, Louis got rich. He went every evening except Sundays to the nightclub and played his trumpet for the customers. He did not like the job at all. The place was big and crowded and noisy. Everyone seemed to be talking too loudly, eating too much, and drinking too much. Most birds like to go to sleep at sundown. They do not want to stay up half the night entertaining people. But Louis was a musician, and musicians can't choose their working hours--they must work when their employer wants them to.

  Every Saturday night Louis collected his pay--five hundred dollars. Mr. Lucas was always on hand to receive his agent's fee of ten percent from Louis. After Louis had paid Mr. Lucas, he still had four hundred and fifty dollars left, and he would put this in his moneybag, hop into the waiting taxicab, and return to Bird Lake, arriving at around 3 A.M. His moneybag grew so stuffed with money, Louis was beginning to worry.

  On Sunday afternoons, if the weather was good, crowds of people would gather on the shores of Bird Lake, and Louis would stand on the island in the middle of the lake and give a concert. This became a popular event in Philadelphia, where there isn't much going on on Sunday. Louis took the concert very seriously. By playing for the people, he was earning the right to remain free and not have a wing clipped.

  He was always at his best on Sundays. Instead of playing jazz and rock and folk and country-and-western, he would play selections from the works of the great composers--Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Johann Sebastian Bach--music he had learned by listening to records at Camp Kookooskoos. Louis also liked the music of George Gershwin and Stephen Foster. When he played "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess, the people of Philadelphia felt that it was the most thrilling music they had ever heard. Louis was considered so good on the trumpet he was invited to make a guest appearance with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.

  One day, about a week before Christmas, a great storm came up. The sky grew dark. The wind blew a howling gale. It made a whining noise. Windows rattled. Shutters came off their hinges. Old newspapers and candy wrappers were picked up by the wind and scattered like confetti. Many of the creatures in the Zoo became restless and uneasy. Over in the Elephant House, the elephants trumpeted in alarm. Lions roared and paced back and forth. The Great Bla
ck Cockatoo screamed. Keepers rushed here and there, shutting doors and windows and making everything secure against the awful force of the gale. The waters of Bird Lake were ruffled by the strong, mighty wind, and for a while the lake looked like a small ocean. Many of the water birds sought protection on the island.

  Louis rode out the gale on the lake, in the lee of the island. He faced the wind and kept paddling with his feet, his eyes bright with wonder at the strength of the blast. Suddenly he saw an object in the sky. It was coming down out of the clouds. At first, he couldn't make out what it was.

  "Maybe it's a flying saucer," he thought.

  Then he realized that it was a large white bird, struggling desperately to come in against the wind. Its wings were beating rapidly. In a moment it splashed down and flopped ashore, where it lay sprawled out, almost as if it were dead. Louis stared and stared and stared. Then he looked again.

  "It looks like a swan," he thought.

  It was a swan.

  "It looks like a Trumpeter Swan," he thought.

  It was a Trumpeter Swan.

  "My goodness," said Louis to himself, "it looks like Serena. It is Serena. She's here at last. My prayers have been answered!"

  Louis was right. Serena, the swan of his desiring, had been caught by the fierce storm and blown all the way across America. When she looked down and saw Bird Lake, she ended her flight, almost dead from exhaustion.

  Louis was tempted to rush right over. But then he thought, "No, that would be a mistake. She is in no condition at the moment to perceive the depth of my affection and the extent of my love. She is too pooped. I will wait. I will bide my time. I will give her a chance to recover. Then I will renew our acquaintance and make myself known."

  Louis did not go to his job that night; the weather was too bad. All night, he stayed awake, keeping watch, at a slight distance from his beloved. When morning came, the wind subsided. The skies cleared. The lake grew calm. The storm was over. Serena stirred and woke. She was still exhausted, and very mussy. Louis stayed away from her.

  "I'll just wait," he thought. "When in love, one must take risks. But I'm not going to risk everything with a bird who is too tired to see straight. I won't hurry, and I won't worry. Back home on Upper Red Rock Lake, I was without a voice; she ignored me because I could not tell her of my love. Now, thanks to my brave father, I have my trumpet. Through the power of music, I will impress her with the intensity of my desire and the strength of my devotion. She will hear me say ko-hoh. I'll tell her I love her in a language anybody can understand, the language of music. She will hear the trumpet of the swan, and she will be mine. At least, I hope she will."

  Usually, if a strange bird appeared on Bird Lake, one of the keepers would report its arrival to the Head Man in Charge of Birds, whose office was in the Bird House. The Head Man would then give the order to have the new bird pinioned--have one of its wings clipped. But today, the keeper who usually tended the waterfowl was sick with the flu and had not come to work. Nobody noticed that a new Trumpeter Swan had arrived. Serena was being very quiet, anyway--she was not attracting any attention. There were now five Trumpeters on the lake. There were the original three captive swans, Curiosity, Felicity, and Apathy. There was, of course, Louis. And now there was the new arrival, Serena, still exhausted but beginning to revive.

  Toward the end of the afternoon, Serena roused herself, looked at her surroundings, had a bite to eat, took a bath, then walked out of the water and stood for a long while preening her feathers. She felt distinctly better. And when her feathers were all smoothed out, she looked extremely beautiful--stately, serene, graceful, and very feminine.

  Louis trembled when he saw how truly lovely she was. He was again tempted to swim over and say ko-hoh and see if she remembered him. But he had a better idea.

  "There is no hurry," he thought. "She's not going to leave Philadelphia tonight. I will go to my job, and when I get back from work, I shall abide near her all through the night. Just at daylight, I'll awaken her with a song of love and desire. She will be drowsy; the sound of my trumpet will enter her sleepy brain and overcome her with emotion. My trumpet will be the first sound she hears. I will be irresistible. I will be the first thing she sees when she opens her eyes, and she will love me from that moment on."

  Louis was well satisfied with his plan and began to make preparations. He swam ashore, removed his things, hid them under a bush, then returned to the water, where he fed and bathed. Then he fixed his feathers carefully. He wanted to look his best next morning, when the meeting was to take place. He drifted around for a while, thinking of all the songs he liked and trying to decide which one to play to wake Serena in the morning. He finally decided to play "Beautiful Dreamer, Wake Unto Me." He had always loved that song. It was sad and sweet.

  "She will be a beautiful dreamer," thought Louis, "and she will wake unto me. The song fits the situation perfectly."

  He was determined to play the song better than he had ever played it before. It was one of his best numbers. He really knew how to play it awfully well. Once, when he played it at one of his Sunday concerts, a music critic from a Philadelphia newspaper heard him, and next morning the paper said: "Some of his notes are like jewels held up to the light. The emotion he transmits is clean and pure and sustained." Louis had memorized that statement. He was proud of it.

  Now he was anxious for morning to come, but he still had his job at the nightclub to go to. He knew the night would be long and that he wouldn't be able to sleep.

  Louis swam ashore to pick up his things. When he looked under the bush, he received a terrible jolt: his medal was there, his slate and chalk pencil were there, his moneybag was there, but where was the trumpet? His trumpet was gone. Poor Louis! His heart almost stopped. "Oh, no!" he said to himself. "Oh, no!" Without his trumpet, his whole life would be ruined, all his plans for the future would collapse.

  He was frantic with anger and fear and dismay. He dashed back into the water and looked up and down the lake. Far off, he saw a small Wood Duck that seemed to have something shiny in its mouth. It was the trumpet, all right! The duck was trying to play it. Louis was furious. He skimmed down the lake, going even faster than he had on the day he had saved Applegate from drowning. He swam straight for the duck, knocked him on the head with a swift blow from his wing, and grabbed the precious trumpet. The duck fainted. Louis wiped the horn, blew the spit out of it, and hung it around his neck, where it belonged.

  Now he was ready. "Let the night come! Let the hours pass! Let morning come, when my beautiful dreamer wakes unto me!"

  Night came at last. Nine o'clock came. Louis went off to work, riding in the cab. The Zoo quieted down. The visitors had all gone home. Many of the animals slept or snoozed. A few of them--the great cats, the raccoon, the armadillo, the ones that enjoy the night-time--prowled and became restless. Bird Lake was clothed in darkness. Most of the waterfowl tucked their heads under their wings and slept. At one end of the lake, the three captive swans--Curiosity, Felicity, and Apathy--were already asleep. Near the island, Serena, the beautiful Serena, was fast asleep and dreaming. Her long white neck was folded neatly back; her head rested on soft feathers.

  Louis got home from work at two in the morning. He flew in over the low fence and splashed down near Serena, making as little noise as possible. He did not try to sleep. The night was fair and crisp, as nights often are just before Christmas. Clouds drifted across the sky in endless procession, partially hiding the stars. Louis watched the clouds, watched Serena as she slept, and waited for day to come--hour after hour after hour.

  At last, a faint light showed in the east. Soon, creatures would be stirring, morning would be here.

  "This is my moment," thought Louis. "The time has come for me to waken my true love."

  He placed himself directly in front of Serena. Then he raised the trumpet to his mouth. He tilted his head: the horn pointed slightly upward toward the sky, where the first light was showing.

  He began his son

  "Beautiful dreamer," he played, "wake unto me . . ."

  The first three or four notes were played softly. Then as the song progressed, the sound increased; the light in the sky grew brighter.

  Each note was like a jewel held to the light. The sound of Louis's trumpet had never before been heard at this early dawn-hour in the Zoo, and the sound seemed to fill the whole world of buildings and animals and trees and shrubs and paths and dens and cages. Sleepy bears, dozing in their grotto, pricked up their ears. Foxes, hiding in their dens, listened to the sweet and dreamy sound of the horn blown at the coming of light. In the Lion House, the great cats heard. In the Monkey House, the old baboon listened in wonder to the song.

  Beau--ti--ful dream--er, wake un--to me . . .

  The hippo heard, and the seal in his tank. The gray wolf heard, and the yak in his cage. The badger, the coon, the Ring-tailed Coati, the skunk, the weasel, the otter, the llama, the dromedary, the White-tailed Deer--all heard, listened, pricked up their ears at the song. The kudu heard, and the rabbit. The beaver heard, and the snake, who has no ears. The wallaby, the possum, the anteater, the armadillo, the peafowl, the pigeon, the bowerbird, the cockatoo, the flamingo--all heard, all were aware that something out of the ordinary was happening.

  Philadelphians, waking from sleep in bedrooms where the windows were open, heard the trumpet. Not one person who heard the song realized that this was the moment of triumph for a young swan who had a speech defect and had conquered it.

  Louis was not thinking about his large, unseen audience of animals and people. His mind was not on bears and buffaloes and cassowaries and lizards and hawks and owls and people in bedrooms. His mind was on Serena, the swan of his choice, the beautiful dreamer. He played for her and for her alone.

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