THE EVENING WALK
After supper, Samuel and his cousins took a walk in the meadow, toward the mill pond. The air was now cool and pleasant, and as the boys moved through the narrow path, among the low grass, thousands of grasshoppers, and other insects, filled the air with their cheerful hum. Thomas, with his companions, passed round the mill, and then climbed a fence which led through a field of corn. The corn was not very high, so that they had to be careful not to tread upon it. When they reached the other side, Samuel saw that the fence was covered with raspberry vines, from one end to the other. He asked what they did with so many. "All that father wishes to use, or to eat," replied Thomas, "he gathers out of the garden; but these he leaves for two or three poor families, who live not far off, and who take them to town to sell. It helps them to pay their rent."
"And does he give away blackberries, too?" asked Samuel.
"Yes, and many other kinds of fruit," replied his cousin. "He has such large fields and orchards, that he can afford to give away great quantities of apples, peaches, currants, grain, and vegetables."
The boys roamed about the fields, talking in this manner, until after sunset, when Thomas said it was time to return. They crossed into a bye path, and walked toward the house through a field in which wheat had been growing. Among the short straw, left by the reapers, Samuel saw many birds' nests, and deep holes that had been dug by rabbits, field mice, and other small animals.
In a short time they passed a very old house, whose sides appeared as if they would fall every moment. The roof was covered with moss and grass, and the boards had crumbled and separated from each other; a number of bats and swallows were flying about it, and Thomas said that dozens of these little animals, beside rats and mice, lived inside. Samuel asked him if anybody lived there. "No," said his cousin; "but father remembers very well when an old soldier, that the farmers called Jack, did live in this house. His leg had been injured in battles. After it healed he moved to this place, and lived on the vegetables he could raise in a little garden, besides what people gave him.
Every night he came out and sat on the log by the door, playing on an old fiddle. Then the school children would collect around him, and give him pennies, or fruit, and such things. Sometimes he told them stories; for he had travelled in many lands, and knew a great deal about them. In the summer nights, father says, he often heard poor old Jack singing the songs that he had learned when he was a boy; and sometimes he could be seen hobbling down this lane, on his crutches, or sitting by the water catching some fish for his supper.
One day he was missed, and folks thought he was sick; but they waited till the next morning, and then a great crowd collected round the house, and called him. No one answered; so someone lifted the latch and went in. Old Jack was not there, and the people began to get frightened. They hunted for him all that day, and many days afterward; but he was never found. Some think that one day he will come back. Since that time, no one has ever lived in his house, and in a few years it will tumble down with old age."
While Thomas had been giving this account of Poor Jack, the Soldier, John was very busy moving round the old house, and peeping through the cracks in the boards. At last he motioned Thomas and Samuel, to come to him, and then whispered:
"Stoop down—don't make a bit of noise—and peep through this crack. You'll see the biggest owl that ever you did see, in all your life." Both of them looked through. It was very dark, but Samuel saw two great eyes, like balls of fire, and in a little while he could perceive the body of an owl, which, as John had said, was the largest he had ever seen.
"Let us go in and catch him," said John. But Thomas answered, that as it was now dark the owl could easily fly away; and besides, as they did not wish to kill it, it could be of no use to them, if they should catch it. "It might do for cousin to look at," replied John; but he did not insist upon entering the house. As they were going away, Samuel asked his cousin if he did not think owls were ugly.
"No, indeed," answered John. "I would rather see an owl any time than these little birds that can do nothing but sing. See how soft his feathers are—all barred and spotted with black and brown, which is more handsome than to be all over red or yellow. I know he can't sing; but he's got nice, long ears, and that no other bird has. And how nice and round his head is. Then he sits on a tree, and looks wise, as father says. The Canary, and the mocking bird, are good enough to keep in cages, but of all birds, give me an owl."
Thomas and Samuel laughed at this notion, but John continued:
"Thomas, did not some people, who lived a long while ago, call the owl the 'bird of wisdom?'"
"Yes," replied Thomas. "I have heard father say that it was the Athenians."
"That shows how wise they were," said John. "I seems to me as though that owl, which we saw, was keeping house for poor old soldier Jack."
"Do hush about owls," said his brother, laughing; and they ran together through the gate, and into the yard.