Jeannette Marks ~ The Merry Merry Cuckoo

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“Lad dear, no more or ye’ll be havin’ an attack, an’——”

Annie’s words sounded inconclusive, although she fortified them by an animated gesture with her plump wrinkled hand. Her eyes glanced timidly from the window to David’s face.

“But, Annie, ye’ve not said a word of the cuckoo,” replied David plaintively.

“Aye, the cuckoo,” said Annie, her heart sinking as she sent her voice up. “The cuckoo—”

“Has it come? Did ye hear it?”

The old man clasped and unclasped his hands helplessly, childish disappointment overspreading his face.

“David dear, if ye’d but listen to what I was a-goin’ to say”—Annie gulped—”I was a-goin’ to say that I’ve not heard the cuckoo yet, but that everythin’ ’s over early an’ I’m expectin’ to hear one any time now. It’s so warm there might be one singin’ at dusk to-day—there might be!”

“Might there be?” asked David, his eyes brightening, “might there be, Annie?”

“Aye, there might be, lad,” and she lifted his head on her arm gently while she turned the pillow.

“It’s over early,” he objected, “an’, Annie——”

“Davie dear, be still,” she commanded, drawing his head close to her bosom before she put him down on the pillow again. “Pastor Morris says everythin’ ’s over early; even the foxglove is well up in the garden; an’ the heather by Blaen Cwm will be bloomin’ a month early, an’ the hills will be pink, lad—soon. Now, dearie, I’ll be back by and by with the broth; ye must be still awhile.”

Annie went out of the room stepping as softly as she could. For a moment she stood on the doorsill, looking into the old garden, green at last after the dreary winter and beautiful in the promise of coming summer blossom. Foxglove and columbine, honeysuckle, lilies and roses would bloom, but David would see them no more! For fifty springs they had gone into the garden together, he to trim the hedge and bind up the honeysuckle, she to dig about the rose-bushes and flowers. And every spring there had been one evening when the cuckoo’s song was heard for the first time and when there came into David’s eyes a look of boyish joy. Ah, lad, lad, how she loved him! And he should hear the cuckoo again!

Resolutely Annie started up hill, climbing close by the high pasture wall, and, panting made her way as best she could over boggy places. After she had gone about a quarter of a mile she looked around her, furtively. There lay Gwyndy Bach in the distance, Ty Ceryg and Cwm Cloch far away, and the Chapel still farther. Only the mountains were near by, and a few lazy sheep trailing over their wild, grey ledges. She did not see even a sheep-dog. When she sat down by the stone-wall there was a look of approval on her face, followed, as she opened her mouth, by a look of appealing misery.

“Aye, it was somethin’ like this: coo-o. Dear, let me see, every year I’ve heard it, an’ David he does it. Coo-o-o! Tut, that sounds like a hen.” Annie peered about her. “Cu, cu,” then she shook with silent laughter. “I know! it goes over and over again, sing-song, sing-song, like this: cu-cu, cu-cu. Aye, that’s better.” Practising the song Annie rocked herself backwards and forwards. “It’s growing better!” she exclaimed, “but, lad, lad, I’m plannin’ to deceive ye”; and the tears rolled out of her old eyes. She brushed the tears away impatiently and began the song again: “Cucu-cu, cucu-cu, cucucucu, cu; aye, that’s fair, aye, it’s fine! He’ll not know me from a real cuckoo. I’ll have to be tryin’ it now, for ye’ve no long, dearie.”

Annie went down into the valley, humming the bird-notes over to herself lest she forget what she had learned. She lifted her short skirts and waded through the marshy places; in her eagerness she was unmindful of the pasture-bogs, her seventy years, her weary body; and her sparse grey hair lay damp on her forehead. In her mother-heart was but one thought: bringing his wish to Davie. Gasping she reached the southern corner of the cottage garden, and there leaned on a trellis for support till she could get her breath. Completely engrossed in what she was to do, she did not think to look about her, she did not listen for possible approaching footsteps, and even Davie had slipped in importance a wee bit behind the cuckoo song. Finally she drew a long breath and began; she paused a moment, then repeated the song, softly, slowly. Pleased with her success, she sang the song again, very softly, very slowly, till it sounded much as if it came from a distance somewhere by the stream near the mill wheel.

She was just beginning once more when steps rustled behind her and a voice said tauntingly: “Pooh! ’tis a pretty cuckoo ye make, Annie, an’ a pretty song!”

“Lowry Prichard!”

“It’s over early for the cuckoo, is it not?”

“Aye.”

“An’ what are ye singin’ in your garden for, an’ David dyin’?”

Annie’s mild eyes gathered fire, but she said nothing.

“Are ye deceivin’ David, an’ he on the edge of the grave, Annie? ’Tis a godly song to sing, an’ a tale for Chapel, eh, Annie?”

“Ye—may—go—out—of—this—garden, an’ that this minute,” said Annie, advancing.

Lowry backed towards the wicket.

“Ye look fair crazy, Annie, crazy with wrath, aye, and your hair is all rumpled an’ your smock is wet. Bein’ a cuckoo is——”

But Lowry never finished her taunt, for Annie pushed her through the wicket gate.

The old wife went towards the cottage door slowly. David must have heard Lowry’s words, and she could never make him happy again.

“Annie! Annie!” Her face brightened, then fell.

“Aye, David, I’m comin’.”

“Annie, did ye hear a cuckoo singin’?” David’s eyes glowed rapturously in the twilight.

“Aye, I thought so, dearie.”

“It sang three times; first, it sounded like somethin’ else, it was so breathless; then it sang quiet and sweet like a cuckoo; an’ the third time it seemed comin’ from the old mill wheel. I was listenin’ for it again when I heard Lowry Prichard’s shrill voice an’ I could hear no more.”

“But, lad dear, ye’ve heard it, an’ I’m that glad!” Annie beamed upon him. “Three times; aye, that’s fine an’ a real cuckoo; now ye’re happy, dearie, an’ ye’ll sleep well upon it.”

“Will it be singin’ again?” asked David, with a sigh.

“Aye, in the early mornin’ an’ at dusk. Now ye must drink your broth an’ go to sleep.”

David drank it obediently.

“It’s been a fine day, lad dear, is it not so?”

“Aye, a fine day. I did not think I’d ever hear it sing again”; and David’s head slipped contentedly on to the pillow. “Aye,” he murmured, “a happy day!”

At dawn Annie stole out to sing her cuckoo song. It was done quickly, and she was back among her pots and kettles before David could know that she had been away. She rattled the saucepans around, then she stopped to listen. Yes, there he was calling.

“Aye, David, I’m comin’; I did not hear for the noise, dearie.”

“Annie, it’s been singin’ again!” There was an expression of eager happiness on David’s wan face. “I’m a-wantin’ to hear it sing over an’ over again, over an’ over again. But, Annie, ye make such a clatter there’s no hearin’ more than a song or two, an’ yesterday ’twas Lowry.”

“Aye, dearie, ’tis a pity I was makin’ such a noise gettin’ breakfast for ye.”

“I was awake, Annie, when the stars were hangin’ in the trees, an’ I saw them go out one by one while I was a-waitin’ for it to sing. I heard little creepin’ things makin’ way through the trees an’ the grass, an’ I saw the poplar by the window turn from silver to brown an’ back to grey; an’ I heard the other birds makin’ their early mornin’ stirrin’, flittin’ an’ chirpin’; an’ a little breeze came an’ bustled through the trees with them, but no cuckoo; an’ then just as it was singin’ ye began stormin’ with pots an’ kettles.”

“I’m that sorry, Davie lad, but ye have heard it twice, dearie, an’ it’ll be singin’ this evenin’ at dusk, perhaps, over an’ over again. Ye are feelin’ fine this mornin’, Davie?”

“Aye, better nor yesterday mornin’; I’ll be gettin’ well, Annie, is it not so?”

“Indeed, lad dear, ye’ll be about among the heather ’fore long.”

Annie turned suddenly and went back into the kitchen; there in a corner she dried her eyes with her apron, drew a long breath, and went on with her household duties. She was disposing of the work rapidly when she heard the click of the wicket gate. Coming up the path were John Roberts, Peter Williams, and Lowry Prichard. Annie put down the pot she was scouring, wiped her hands on her apron, and went to the kitchen door, which, stepping outside, she closed carefully behind her. She looked sharply at the approaching group, and her kindly wrinkled face hardened. Peter Williams spoke first:—

“A fine mornin’ to ye, Annie Dalben.”

“Thank ye, Peter Williams, for the wish.”

“How is your man?” asked John Roberts.

“He is the same,” replied Annie, in a level tone of voice.

Lowry Prichard moved nearer:—

“We’ve come about the cuckoo-singin’, Annie. At the Chapel last night the congregation prayed for ye, an’ a committee was appointed to wrestle with ye.”

Annie breathed quickly.

“Aye, Sister,” continued Peter Williams, “ye’ve always been a godly member of the flock; ye would not have David go to Heaven with your lie on his soul?”

“Amen!” sang Lowry Prichard.

“An’, Sister, there was light in that meetin’; the Spirit’s among us these days; yours are the only lyin’ lips.”

“Repent!” shouted John Roberts.

“Have ye done?” asked Annie.

“But, Sister——”

“I’ve a word to say. I’ve no mind to your salvation, no, nor to Heaven if the Lord makes this singin’ a lie. I’m a-thinkin’ of David as I’ve thought of him these fifty years, an’ if a lie will make him happy when he’s dyin’, then I’m willin’ to lie, an’ do it every minute of the day.”

“Sinner!” muttered John Roberts.

“Aye, sinner, a willin’ sinner,” said Annie, her soft eyes blazing; “be gone, an’ ye need not return.”

Annie bolted the door and sat down wearily on a chair. She felt quiet; it mattered so little now what the neighbours thought of her if only David might die happy, and David still believed he had heard the cuckoo. She was tired, so tired that she did not care what the Chapel said of her; and her heart was numb. She knew that David was going, but it did not come home to her in the least except to make her hungry to bring him happiness. He should have that if she could give it. At a faint call she hastened to his room.

“Annie, there’s some one outside, an’——”

“Aye, David Dalben, there is, an’ Annie is a cuck—”

But the sentence was never finished, for Annie forced Lowry Prichard’s head back and slammed the casement to, latching it securely.

“What does she want?” asked David feebly.

“I cannot say, lad, but she’s no right talkin’ to ye through a window. She’s an idle, pryin’ young woman. I’ll see now that she’s out of the garden. Go to sleep, dearie, it’s bad for ye havin’ so much noise over nothin’; aye, that’s a good lad,” and Annie smoothed his brow with one hand the while she brushed aside her tears with the other.

If David should live a week longer, could she ever keep the truth from him? For a day, yes, perhaps. But for an entire week, with all Nant y Mor trying to force a way to the sick man? No. And how could she sing morning and night with the neighbours spying into the garden and around the house? She felt friendless; for strength only the courage of a mother left alone in the world with a sick child to protect. She had no idea of relinquishing her plan, although she was in despair, and if any one had come to her with a friendly hand she would have wept. As it was, she was ready to meet attack after attack.

Annie was not surprised, later in the day, to see young Pastor Morris coming up the pathway. He came slowly. When he greeted Annie his eyes sought the ground, his complexion was ruddier and more boyish than ever, and his lips, usually firm in speech, seemed uncertain. But the large hand with which he held Annie’s was warm and kind. In the clean kitchen he began to talk with Annie about David: how was David, what did the physician say, wasn’t Annie growing tired, what could he do? Suddenly the young Pastor changed as if brought face to face with a disagreeable duty.

“Annie, they say that you are imitating a cuckoo; is it so?”

“Aye, sir, for David’s ears.”

“But, Annie, that is acting a lie, is it not?”

“It may be,” replied Annie wearily.

“Wouldn’t it be better if I were to tell David, Annie?”

“Oh, no, no, no!” sobbed Annie. “Not that!”

“Annie, Annie, you mustn’t cry so; there!” and the young man stretched out his hand helplessly.

“Oh, sir, it’s all the happiness David’s got, an’ he is goin’. O my lad, my lad!”

“There, there, Annie!”

“We’ve been married fifty years this spring, an’ every spring we’ve listened for the cuckoo an’ not one missed. An’ this year he’s dyin’, an’ he’s a-wantin’ to hear it so, an’ it’s over early. O Davie, Davie!”

“There, Annie, there, dear,” soothed the young man; “tell me about it. We’ll see, Annie.”

“There’s no more,” said Annie, “only he kept askin’ about things, violets an’ cowslips an’ birch-trees an’ poplars, an’ I knew all the time he was thinkin’ of the cuckoo an’ not askin’ because he was goin’ an’ mightn’t hear it. An’ one day he did. An’ I said I thought he’d hear one that very evenin’, that everythin’ was over early. Then he seemed happier than I’d seen him, an’ I went off up the hill an’ practised it till I could do it fair. O Davie, lad!”

“Now, Annie dear,” comforted the young man, patting her helplessly on the back. “Annie dear, don’t cry, just tell me more.”

“Then, sir, I sang the song in the corner of the garden, an’ when I went into the house there was such a look of joy on David’s face that’s not been there for many a month, an’ it was no matter Lowry Prichard found me singin’. It’s the last happiness I can give him, sir.”

“I see,” said the young man; “aye, Annie, I see. And you will be wishing to do it again?”

“Aye, sir, Davie’s expectin’ to hear the cuckoo to-night. Each time might be his last, an’ I cannot disappoint him, poor lad.”

“Well, Annie,” said the minister, looking shyly out the window, “I’ll be around the garden at dusk watching, and there’ll be no one to annoy you while you are singing, so sing your best for Davie.”

“Oh, sir, thank you,” replied Annie, drying her tears and sighing with relief; “it’s a comfort. But ye’re no harmin’ your conscience for me, sir, are ye?”

“I’m not saying, Annie; I’m over young to have a conscience in some things. I’ll be going in to speak a few words to David, shall I?”

“Aye, sir, ye’re so kind.”

And so it happened that at dusk, when David’s eyes were growing wider with expectation and his heart was beating for very joy of the coming song, Annie, after she had patted him in motherly fashion, smoothed out his coverlets, called him lad dear, and dearie, and Davie, and all the sweet old names she knew so well how to call him—so it happened that she stole out into the garden with a lighter heart to sing than she had had in many a day. She knew the young minister was somewhere around to protect her from interruption. Standing by the honeysuckle trellis, swaying her old body to and fro, she sang. The song came again and again, low, sweet, far away, till all the hill seemed chiming with the quiet notes and echoes. And the young man listening outside to the old woman singing inside the garden knew something more of the power of love than he had known before; and he bowed his head, thinking of the merry notes and of David in the twilit room dying. Annie sang the song over and over again, then over and over again, till beyond the valley she saw the evening star hanging in the sky. Once more she sang, and all the spring was in her song. Then she turned to go into the house, her heart beating with fear. As she came through the doorway she heard her name called.

“Annie, sweetheart, did ye hear the cuckoos singin’?”

David was sitting up in bed, his hands stretched towards her.

“Aye, lad dear,” replied Annie softly, taking David into her arms.

“An’ there were so many, an’ they sang over an’ over again.”

“Aye, David.”

“But ye were not here, an’ I’d like hearin’ them better with ye here.”

“Aye, dearie, I was busy.”

“Oh, it was beautiful singin’—”

“Aye, lad, I know.”

“An’ over an’ over again, like this——” But David’s notes trailed away as he started to sing.

“Aye, dearie, I see.”

“An’ the—valley—was—quiet—but—Annie——” The voice ceased, for a second the pulse in his throat ticked sharply against her heart, then his head settled drowsily upon her breast.

“Oh, lad, lad dear, Davie,” called Annie, rocking him in her arms, “lad, lad dear, will ye not speak to me?”

And the young minister stepping in over the threshold saw that the Messenger had come.

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