Here to return to
IN QUEST OF RAVENS
“Every pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardor of the pursuer.” — KEATS.
WHILE M. Sylvestre Bonnard, Member of the Institute, was in Sicily prosecuting his memorable search for the Alexandrian manuscript of the Golden Legend, he fell in unexpectedly with his old acquaintances, M. and Mme. Trépof, collectors of match-boxes. Their specialty, as may be supposed, was not exactly to M. Bonnard’s liking. Being a scholar and an antiquary, he would rather have seen their affections bestowed upon something more strictly in the line of the fine arts, — upon antique marbles, perhaps, or painted vases; but after all, he said to himself, it made no very great difference. A collector is a collector; and, besides, Mme. Trépof always spoke of their pursuit (she and her husband were traveling round the world in furtherance of it) with a mixture of enthusiasm and irony that made the whole business truly delightful.
There we have the shrewd collector’s secret. Whatever the objects of his choice, — postage-stamps, first editions, butterflies, or match-boxes, — they become for the time being the only objects worthy of a man’s desire; but in talking about them, as of course he cannot altogether avoid doing, he keeps in mind the old caution about the pearls and the swine, and veils his seriousness under a happy lightness of speech. This is the better course for all concerned; and something like this is the course I mean to adopt in narrating my raven-hunt amid the North Carolina mountains, in May, 1896. The work was absorbing enough in the doing, but at this distance, and out of consideration for the scholarly reader, — who may feel about ravens as M. Bonnard felt about match-boxes, — I hope to be able to treat it with a becoming degree of disinterestedness.
My collecting, be it said in parenthesis, was in one respect quite unlike M. Bonnard’s and Mme. Trépof’s. It was concerned, not with the objects themselves, but with the sight of them. I wanted, not cured bird-skins in a cabinet, but bits of first-hand knowledge in the memory and the notebook. Here at Highlands, this little hamlet perched far up in a mountain wilderness, ravens were common, — so I had read; and as I purposed remaining in the place for two or three weeks, I should no doubt see much of them, and so be able not only to “check the name,” thus adding the species to my set of the Corvidæ, but to acquire some real familiarity with the bird’s voice and ways. Such was my dream; but certainty began to fade into uncertainty from the day I drove into the mountains.
One of my first village calls, after a day’s ramble in the country round about, was upon the apothecary, who sat sunning himself on the stoop in front of his shop, — a cheerful example of how idyllic a life “tending store” may become under favorable conditions. To begin with, as was natural, not to say obligatory, between a newcomer and an old resident, the altitude and climate of the place were discussed. Then, as soon as I could do so with politeness, I asked about ravens.
“Ravens?” said the doctor. “Ravens?” Surely the inflection was not encouraging. There were no ravens, so far as he knew.
“But the books say they are common here.”
“Well, I am perfectly acquainted with the bird, and I have never seen one in Highlands in all my twelve years.”
This might have seemed to end the matter, once for all; but as I walked away I remembered how often birds had proved to be common where old residents had never seen them, and I said to myself that the present would be only another repetition of the familiar story. There must be ravens here. Mr.---- and Mr.---- could not have been mistaken.
Let that be as it might, this was my third day in the mountains, — the long ride from Walhalla counting for one, — and when I returned to the village, at noon, my first glimpse of a raven was yet to be had. However, a wide-awake farmer assured me that, as he expressed it, something must be the matter with Dr.----’s eyes. He had seen ravens many a time; in fact he had seen one within two days. Of course he had. The affair was turning out just as I had foreseen. It is a poor naturalist who has not learned to beware of negative testimony. The apothecary might sit on his stoop and shake his head; before many days I would shake a black wing in his face.
That afternoon I took another road, and though I found no ravens I brought back a lively expectation. I had stopped beside a pond, and was pulling down a small halesia-tree to break off a branch of its snowy bells, when a horseman rode up. We spoke to each other (it is one advantage of out-of-the-way places that they encourage human intercourse, as poverty helps people to be generous), and in answer to my inquiry he told me that the tree I was holding down was a “box elder.” The road was the Hamburg road, or the Shortoff road, — one name being for a town, the other for a mountain, — and the body of water was Stewart’s Pond. Then I came to the point. Did he often see ravens in this country? He answered promptly in the affirmative; and when I told him of my want of success and of Dr.----’s twelve-year failure, he assured me that if I would come out to Turtlepond, where he lived, I could see them easily enough. He saw them often, and just now they were particularly noisy; he thought they must be teaching their young to fly.
How far was it to Turtlepond? I asked. “Seven or eight miles.” And the road? Could he tell me how to get there? Oh, yes; and he began. But I was soon quite lost. He knew the way too well, and I gave over trying to follow him, saying to myself that I would procure directions, when the time came, from some one in the village. The man was very neighborly and kind, invited me to get up behind him and ride, gave me his name, answered all my questions, and rode away. Here, then, were ravens with something like certainty and well within reach (“ra-vĕns,” my new acquaintance had been careful to say, with no slurring of the second vowel), and, Dr.----- to the contrary notwithstanding, I would yet see them.
The next morning, with a luncheon in my pocket and a minute itinerary in my notebook, I set out for Turtlepond. Important things must be attended to promptly. “You will be lucky if you find it,” said the man who had laid out my route, by way of a god-speed; and I half believed him. He did not add, what I knew was on his tongue, “You will be luckier still if you find a raven;” as to that, also, he was welcome to his opinion. Ravens or no ravens, I meant to enjoy myself. What could a man want better than a long, unhurried day in those romantic mountain roads, with a bird singing from every bush, and new and lovely flowers inviting his hand at every turn? With fair weather and in a fair country, walking is its own reward.
To put the town behind me was the work of a few minutes. After that my way ran through the woods, although for the first half of the distance, at least, there was never more than a mile or two without a clearing and a house. This part of the road grew familiar to me afterward, I traveled it so often; and now, as I take it once more in my mind, I can see it in all its windings. Here, as the land begins to decline from the plateau, or mountain shoulder, on which the village nestles, stands a line of towering conical hemlocks, — a hundred and fifty feet tall, at a moderate guess. Out of them came the nasal, high-pitched, highly characteristic ank, ank, ank of my first Canadian nuthatch, — my first one in North Carolina, I mean. That, by the bye, was on this very trip to Turtlepond. I had been on the watch for him, and put him into my bird list with peculiar satisfaction. He was like a fellow Yankee, as was also the brown creeper that dwelt near by. This same row of hemlocks — beside a brook, as Southern hemlocks always are, with a thicket of laurel and rhododendron underneath — was also one of the haunts of the olive-sided flycatcher, another Northerner, who chooses the loftiest perch he can find from which to deliver his wild quit-quequeeo. Should this Carolinian representative of a boreal species ever be promoted to the dignity of sub-specific rank, as has happened to some of his neighbors, I should bid for the honor of naming him, — the hemlock flycatcher.
By the time I reached this point, on a sultry morning, I was commonly ready for a breathing-spell, and by good luck here was a most convenient log, on which I used to sit, listening to the bird chorus, and waylaying any socially disposed mountaineer who might chance to come along on his way to the town; for Highlands, whatever an outsider may think of it, is in its own measure and degree a veritable metropolis.1 The only man who ever failed to halt in response to my greeting was a very canonical-looking parson. He was traveling up to Zion in a “buggy,” and not unlikely was meditating his next Sunday’s sermon.
If the religious condition of a community is to be estimated by the number of its meeting-houses, let me say in passing, then Highlands ought to be a very suburb of the New Jerusalem. Its population cannot be more than three or four hundred, but its churches are legion. “Yes,” said a sprightly young lady, to whom the subject was mentioned, “if there were only one or two more, we might all have one apiece.” Baptists, Methodists (of different sorts, — species and subspecies), Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Adventists, Unitarians, — all the sects seemed to be provided for, though I am not sure about the Catholics and the Swedenborgians. It is queer how conscientiously particular, and almost private, the worship of God is made. The Almighty must be a great lover of mint, anise, and cummin, one would say. I was reminded again and again of that sweet old Scripture: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”
This digression, though suggested by the recollection of my serious-faced clergyman, is not to be taken as reflecting in any wise upon him or upon his calling. He was trying to do his duty, I have no question. If he felt obliged to have a pulpit and a uniform of his own, it was not that he differed from other people, but that other people differed from him. May his work prosper, and his days be long! He was traveling in a buggy, as I have said. Had he been on foot, no doubt he might have been readier to stop a minute to chat with an inquisitive stranger, — as ready, perhaps, as a more venerable pilgrim who happened along a few minutes later, and who not only stopped, but sat down, and, so to speak, paid me a visit: a little man, bent with his seventy-three years (he told me his age almost at once), who had come ten miles on foot that morning. In one hand he carried a live turkey, — with its legs tied, of course, — and in the other a chicken. Poor things, they were making their last journey. It was a very hot day,” the old man thought. His cotton shirt was flung wide open for coolness, and as he mopped his face, having put down his burdens and taken off his hat, he talked in a cheerful, honest voice, most agreeable to listen to. Life was still a pleasant experience to him, as it seemed. I doubt whether he had ever tired of it for a day. He would sell the turkey and the chicken, buy a little tobacco and perhaps one or two other necessaries, and then trudge the ten miles home again. It is a great thing to have a market for one’s produce, and a greater thing to be contented with one’s lot.
Not far beyond this favorite resting-place — tempting even in the retrospect, as the reader perceives — is a house with a good-sized clearing, through which meanders a trout-stream, to the endless comfort of one of the younger boys of the family. I saw him angling there, one day, with shining success. What a good time he was having! He could hardly bait the hook fast enough. I leaned over the fence and watched him out of pure sympathy (he did not see me, I think, though there was nothing in the world between us — except the fish), and afterward I mentioned the circumstance to his father. “Oh, he is a great fisherman,” was the proud response. For a boy that is a boy a trout-brook is better than all the toy-shops. The good man and his wife (New York State people, who had moved here twelve years before) treated me most hospitably when I came to know them, but on this first morning, having far to go, I went by without calling, pausing only to note the chebec of a least flycatcher, which seemed to be at home in their orchard trees. Its name is still Number 60 in my North Carolina list.
Another bend in the road, and I came within sight of the first of two mills. These had figured at considerable length in my chart of directions, and near them, as I now remember, I fell into some uncertainty as to how this chart was to be interpreted. I turned aside, therefore, to inquire of the second miller; but before I could reach him a blue yellow-backed warbler began singing from a treetop; and as he was my first specimen here, I must out with my opera-glass and find him. The miller surveyed my proceedings with unashamed curiosity, but he answered my questions, none the less, and for still another stage I kept on with the comfortable assurance that I was headed for Turtlepond.
If I failed to arrive there, it should not be for want of using my tongue. From the time I left Highlands I had inquired my way of every man I met. For one thing, I relish natural country talk; and if there is to be conversation, it must somehow be opened. I kept in mind, too, the skepticism of my Highlands informant, and by unhappy experience I had learned how easy it is, in cases of this kind, to go astray through some misunderstanding of question or answer.
So I sauntered along, with frequent interruptions, of course (that was part of the game), — here for a bird, there for a flower, a tree, or a bit of landscape. I recall especially great numbers of the tiny yellow lady’s-slipper and beds of the white-flowered clintonia — the latter a novelty to me — just coming into bloom. Then, by and by, the road began a long, sidelong ascent of a mountain; but at the last moment, when I seemed to have left human habitations behind me for good, I saw across the narrow valley through the forest — the branches at this height being still in the bud — two men at work in a ploughed field. Here was one more opportunity to assure myself against contingencies, and with a loud “hullo” I gained their attention. Was this the road to Turtlepond? I shouted. Yes, they shouted back (a man who could not lift up his voice would be poorly off in that country); I was to keep on and on as far as the schoolhouse, just beyond which I must be sure to turn to the right. Very good, said I to myself, here is something definite; and again I faced the mountain road.
That was a master stroke of precaution. But for it I might have walked till night, and should never have found myself at Turtlepond. I passed one more house, it is true, but there was no one visible about it, and when at last I reached the log schoolhouse, standing all by itself deep in the woods, it was locked and empty, and the “road to the right” was so obscure, so utterly unlike a road, that only for my last man’s emphatic warning (how I blessed him for his good sense!) I should have passed it without a suspicion that it was or ever had been a thoroughfare. As it was, I looked at it and wondered. Could that be my course? There was no sign that horse or wheel had turned that corner for an indefinite period. Still, my instructions were explicit. This was certainly the schoolhouse, and at the schoolhouse I was to turn to the right. Lest I should be interpreting a preposition too strictly, nevertheless, I kept on for a piece in the way I had been traveling. No, there was no other crossroad, and I came back to the schoolhouse, rested awhile under a big tree, and then took the blind trail. Happily, it very soon became more distinct, more evidently a road in use; and being now on a downward grade, I jogged along in good spirits.
It was drawing near noon, and unless my jaunt was to measure more than eight miles I must be somewhere near the end of it. The mountain forest was especially inviting here, with a brook now and then and a profusion of ground flowers, beside the laurel and the azaleas; but I must not linger, I said to myself, as I might be obliged to spend an hour or two at Turtlepond. It was hardly to be assumed that the ravens would be waiting for me, to greet me on the instant. Meanwhile, a pileated woodpecker set up a lusty shout just in advance, and in another moment went dashing off among the trees, still shouting as he flew. He was no rarity in these parts, but it did me good to see his flaming crest and the flash of his white wing-spots. Then, when I had gone a little farther and could already discern the open valley, a kingfisher rattled and showed himself. He was the first of his kind, and went down straightway as Number 62. Perhaps Number 63 would be the raven!
Well, I emerged from the forest, the road turning rather sharply at the last and making down the valley with a brook on its left hand; and here I pretty soon approached a house. The two opposite doors were open (mosquitoes are unknown in this happy country), and inside, looking out of the back door in the direction of the brook, stood a woman and a brood of children. They were talking pretty loudly, as people may who live so far from human neighbors, and a hound stood silent behind them. I drew near, but they did not hear me. Then, rather than startle them rudely with a strange voice, I touched the fence-rail with my umbrella. Instantly the hound turned and began baying, and the woman, bidding him be quiet, came to the front door and answered my good-morning. Could she tell me where Zeb McKinney lived? I inquired. Yes, it was the next house down the road, “about a quarter.” Hereabouts, as I knew, a “quarter” means a quarter of a mile. In Yankee land it means twenty-five cents. The character of a people may be judged in part by the, ellipses of their daily speech, —the things that are taken for granted by every one as present in the minds of others.
I believe I did not raise the question of ravens at this first house. For the instant it was enough to know that I had arrived at Turtle pond. But my eye was open and my ear alert. And surely this was a place for ravens and every wild thing: a narrow valley, tightly shut in, with nothing in sight but the crowding walls and a patch of sky. Aloft in the distance, in the direction of Hickory Gap (so I heard it called afterward, and wished that all place-names were equally euphonious), some large bird, hawk or eagle, was sailing out of sight. What a groveling creature is man, in the comparison! Along the brookside grew splendid halesia-trees, full of white bells, and a more splendid crab-apple tree, — one of the glories of America, — just now a perfect cloud of pink buds and blooms and tender green leaves. Here sang catbirds, thrashers, wood thrushes, robins, rose-breasted grosbeaks, a blue golden-winged warbler, and I forget what else. I had not traveled so far, half disabled as I was, to listen to birds of their quality. And the ravens? Well, at that moment they must have an engagement elsewhere. Perhaps they were still instructing their young in the art of volitation.
And now, having walked “about a quarter,” I was at Zeb McKinney’s. There was no need to inquire if he were at home. Through the open door I could see that the only occupants of the house were two women: one young, one very old and stiff. The latter, as was meet, came to speak to the stranger. No, Mr. McKinney was not at home; he had gone down to the sawmill. Ravens? Yes, they saw them once in a while, but she did not remember noticing any for some time back. The spring was just below the house; I should find a gourd to drink from.
I drank from the spring, pondered the woman’s “once in a while,” took a look about me, and then retraced my steps, having in mind a comfortable nooning-place, out of sight of the houses, where I would eat my luncheon, and observe the ravens at my leisure as they crossed from one mountain to another above my head. For all the unexpectedness of the old woman’s dubious phrase, I was not discouraged. Why should I be? Mr. Burroughs did not find the English nightingale all at once, nor did M. Tartarin kill a lion on his first day in the Algerian desert; and if these men had exercised patience, so could I.
At the right spot, therefore, where the shade fell upon a handy stump, I took my seat. First a line or two in my notebook, and then I would dispose of my luncheon. At that instant, however, two boys came down the road; and when I spoke to them, they waited for no more explicit invitation, but planted themselves on the ground, one on each side of me. If I asked them a question, they answered it; if I kept silence, they sat and looked at me. For aught that appeared, they meant to spend the afternoon thus engaged. Pleasant as popularity is, its manifestations were just now a trouble. The ravens might fly over at any moment, and it was important that I should be undisturbed, — to say nothing of my dinner. I remembered the saying of Poor Richard, — “Love your neighbor, but don’t pull down your hedge; “and at last, seeing that something must be done, I rose, moved a few rods, and then, dropping suddenly upon the grass, said, “Good-by.” The boys took the hint, and ten minutes later I saw them beside the brook, trying their luck with the fish. The quality of selfishness had proved itself twice blest, as happens oftener than we think, it may be, in this “unintelligible world.”
This part of the story need not be prolonged. The reader has already foreseen that my luncheon was finished without interruption. No raven’s wing darkened the air. I lingered till the case began to seem hopeless. Then I loitered as slowly as possible up the valley, and at last took the ascending road through the mountain woods toward the log schoolhouse. By this time there were signs of rain, but with a three-hour jaunt before me it was useless to hurry. So at the schoolhouse corner I rested again, — partly to enjoy the sight of Rabun Bald, a noble Georgia peak, which showed grandly from this point, — and then, all at once, thinking of nothing but the landscape, I heard a far-away cry, hoarse, loud, utterly strange, utterly unlike a crow’s, and yet unmistakably coracious! That surely was a raven’s voice. It could be nothing else. If I were out of the woods, where I could look about me! The bird, whatever it was, was evidently on the wing; the sound was now here, now there; but alas, it was receding. Fainter and fainter it became at each repetition, and then all was silent, till a heavy clap of thunder and a sudden blackness recalled me to myself, and I resumed the march homeward. Soon it rained. Then came a general pother of the elements, — wind, hail, lightning and thunder. Not far beyond me, as I now called to mind, there was a house, the only one I had seen on the mountain. I hastened forward, therefore, and took shelter on the piazza. A dog was cowering inside, too badly frightened to resent my intrusion or to bid me welcome.
And there we stayed till the clouds broke. Then, refreshing myself with big hailstones, which lay white in the grass, I took the road again for the long diagonal descent to the valley.
I was well fagged by the time I reached Highlands; but I had been to Turtlepond, and in my memory were some confused recollections of a few distant notes, probably a bird’s, and possibly a raven’s. To that complexion had the matter already come. It is marvelous how quickly certainty loses its color when once the breath of doubt touches it.
Two days afterward, finding myself not yet acclimated, I joined a company who were making a day’s wagon-trip to White. side, the highest peak in the immediate vicinity of Highlands; a real mountain, said to be five thousand feet in height, but looking considerably lower to my eye, its surroundings being all so elevated, and the southern latitude, as I suppose, giving to it a more richly wooded, and consequently less rugged and alpine appearance than belongs to New England mountains of a corresponding rank. On the southerly side it breaks off into a huge perpendicular light-colored cliff, said to be eighteen hundred feet in depth, from which it derives its name and much of its local distinction. Above this cliff rises its knob of a summit, with the sight of which I had grown familiar as one of the principal points in the landscape from the hotel veranda.
The wagon carried us by a roundabout course to the base of this rocky knob, and there the majority of the party remained, while two ladies and myself clambered up a steep pitch to the summit, to take the prospect and to feel that we had been there, — and perhaps to see a raven; for Whiteside had from the beginning been held up to me as one of that bird’s particular resorts. “Wait till you go to Whiteside,” I had been told again and again.
What had looked like a pyramidal rock turned out to be the end of a long ridge, over which we marched in Indian file for a mile or more, picking flowers (the nodding Trillium stylosum, especially, of which each new specimen seemed pinker and prettier than the last) and admiring the landscape, — a boundless woodland panorama, with clearings and houses in Whiteside valley, and innumerable hazy mountains rising one beyond another in every direction. The world of new leafage below us, now darkened by cloud shadows, now shining in the sun, was beautiful far beyond any skill of mine to picture it.
We were still walking and quietly enjoying — my fellow tourists being, fortunately, of the non-exclamatory type — when the silence was broken by loud screams. “Ravens!” I thought, — for when the mind is full it is liable to spill over at any sudden jar, — and, dropping my umbrella, I sprang to the edge of the cliff. The bird was only a hawk, soaring and screaming, too far away to be made out; a duck-hawk, perhaps, but certainly not a raven. “How you frightened me!” said one of the ladies. “I thought you were going to throw yourself over the precipice.” My hobby-horse amused her,— as it did me also, — but she was herself too sound an enthusiast to be really unsympathetic. A New Jersey grandmother, she made nothing of a thirteen-mile tramp, a thorough drenching, and a pedestrian’s blister, when rare flowers were in question, and the next morning would be off again before breakfast, scouring the country for new trophies. Like Mme. Trépof, she would have gone to Sweden in search of a match-box, had the notion taken her. As for ravens, she had already seen one, only a few days before my arrival. It flew directly over the hotel, and she recognized it at once, not as a raven, to be sure, but as “the blackest crow she had ever seen.” A man who happened to be doing some carpenter’s work about the house heard her exclamation, and told her what it was, and by good luck he was to-day our driver. It was wonderful how much encouragement I received in my amusing pursuit. If only there were fewer stories and more ravens! I was ready to say.
Yet if I said so, it was only in a fit of impatience. In point of fact, I received with thankfulness every such bit of evidence that Dr.----’s gloomy prognostications were ill founded. On the very morning after this expedition to Whiteside, for example, I was on my way to the summit of Satulah, — an easy jaunt, and a capital observatory, — when I met a young man carrying a gun, and proposed to him the inevitable inquiry. Oh yes, he saw ravens pretty often; he had seen some within a month, he thought. They never flew over without calling out; which, as I interpreted it, might mean only that when they kept silence he failed to notice them. Here was more proof of the birds’ presence; but the words “within a month” kept down any tendency to undue exhilaration.
That noon, at the hotel, I had an interesting ornithological conference with two residents of the town, both of them already well informed as to the nature of my crotchet. For a beginning, one of them told me that he had seen a raven that very forenoon, — and as usual it was “flying over.” Then the talk somehow turned upon the whippoorwill, of which I had thus far found no trace hereabout, and they agreed that it was not uncommon at certain seasons. It was often called the bullbat, they added. They had seen it, both of them, I think, flying far up in the air in broad daylight, and crying whippoorwill! “Good!” said I. “I would rather have seen that than all the ravens in North Carolina.” Here was a really novel addition to the familiar legend about the identity of the whippoorwill and the nighthawk, — a legend whose distribution is perhaps almost as wide as that of the birds themselves.
But wonders were not to stop here. One of the men, the one who had that forenoon seen a raven, proceeded to inform me that catbirds passed the winter in the mud, in a state of hibernation. William had dug them up, and they had come to and flown away. He himself had never seen this, but he knew, as everybody else did, that catbirds disappeared in the autumn, there was no telling how or when, and reappeared in the spring in a manner equally mysterious. I hinted some incredulity, to his great surprise, intimating for one thing that it was well known that catbirds migrated farther south; whereupon he appealed to his companion. “Wouldn’t you believe it, if William ----- told you he had seen it?” he asked; and there was a shout of laughter from the bystanders when the second man, after a minute’s reflection, answered bluntly, “No.”
It would be too long a story to set down all the answers I received from the many persons whom I questioned here and there in my daily peregrinations. One man was sorry he had not heard of me sooner. A cow had been killed by lightning somewhere on the mountains, a week or two before. That would have been my opportunity. Ravens are sure to be on hand at such a time. But it was too late now, as they never touch flesh after it has begun to spoil. Another man, a German, living some miles out of the village, said, “Well, in my country we call them ravens, but here they call them crows.” They were a nuisance; he had to kill them. He knew smaller black birds, in flocks, but no larger ones. He and the apothecary —who now and then laughed good-humoredly at my continued failure, as I stopped to pass the time of day with him, or to ask him about the way to some waterfall — were, as well as I remember, the only witnesses for the negative; so that the question was no longer as to the presence of the birds, but as to the degree of their commonness and the probability of my seeing them. It would be too much to say that the whole town was excited over the matter, but at least my few fellow boarders at the hotel either felt or simulated a pretty constant interest. “Well,” one or another of them would say, as I dragged my weary steps up the hill to the door, at the end of a day’s outing, well, have you seen any ravĕns yet?”
One day there appeared at the dinner-table a bright, rosy-faced, clear-eyed, wholesome-looking boy of nine or ten years, and the gentleman who had brought him in as his guest presently introduced him to me, with the remark that perhaps Bob “could give me information upon my favorite topic. Bob smiled bashfully, and I began my examination. Yes, he said, he had seen ravens. How often, should he say? Why, almost every day. When did he see them last? Yesterday. How many were there? One. It was flying over. Did it call? Yes, they always did. How much bigger than a crow was it? Not much, but the voice was very different. This last was a model answer, — not at all the answer of a dishonest witness, or of an honest witness ambitious to make out a story. It was impossible to doubt him (his father and his older brother confirmed his testimony afterward), and yet I had been out of doors almost constantly for more than two weeks, and so far had not obtained the first glimpse of a large, wide-ranging, highflying bird which this boy — who lived a few miles out of the village, it is true — saw nearly every day. Verily, as the unsuccessful man’s text has it (and a comfortable text it is), “the race is not to the swift, . . . nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
I speak unadvisedly. I had seen ravens; I had seen them here at Highlands. But it was in a dream of the night. There were two, and they were “flying over,” — yes, and calling as they flew. One of them was partly white, an albinistic peculiarity at which I do not remember to have felt the least surprise. But indeed, if I may trust my own experience, nothing surprises us in dreamland. There, as in fairyland, everything is natural. Perhaps the same will be true in a world after this.
Meantime, if my eyes were holden from some things, I saw many others as I traveled hither and thither, now to a mountain top, now down one of the roads into the warm lower country, now to some far-away woodland waterfall. The days were all too short and all too few. Like a sensible man, to whom years had brought the philosophic mind, I had more than one string to my bow, and toward the end of my three weeks the very thought of ravens had mostly ceased to trouble me. Then, on my last day in the village, I met a barefooted boy near the hotel. Howdy?” said I. Howdy?” he answered; and then he asked, “Did you git to see your ravĕns?” Who is this, I thought, and how does he know me? For I am not used to being famous. But I answered No, I had seen no ravens. How did he know I wanted to see any?” I saw you at Turtlepond,” he said. He was out there with his cousin, Cling Cabe. With that it all came back to me. He was one of the boys who had paid me such flattering noonday attentions, and of whom I had taken so shabby a leave. I was glad to see him again. But he was not yet done with his story. Probably he had carried the burden of it for the last fortnight. Two ravens flew over just after you left,” he said. Was he sure they were ravens? Yes, his uncle Zeb2 saw them, and said they were. Well, it was plainer and plainer that I had mistaken my game. I must leave it for younger eyes to see ravens, — in the flesh, at least. “Your old men shall dream dreams,” said the prophet.
It was May 27 when, after an early breakfast, I left Highlands in a big mountain wagon, bound for Boston by the way of Dillsboro and Asheville. I had come into the mountains from the south, and was going out in a northerly direction. The road was not highly recommended; it would be a rough, all-day drive, but it would take me through a new piece of country; and as for the jolting, I fancied that by this time I had become hardened to all that the steepest and stoniest of roads could inflict upon a passenger. On that point, I may as well confess, though it does not concern the present story, I was insufficiently informed.
It had been agreed that I should take my own time, making the trip as natural-historical as I pleased. It fares better with sentiments not to be in a hurry with them,” says Sterne, and the same is true of sciences and other pleasures. Again and again I ordered the horses stopped as we came to some likely piece of cover, but little or nothing resulted. There were singers in plenty, but no new voices. After all, I said to myself, one does not study ornithology to any great advantage from a wagon-seat. Yet I remember one lesson — an old one rehearsed — that the morning brought me.
Soon after getting out of the village we passed Stewart’s Pond. This had been one of my most frequent resorts. A considerable part of several half-days had been idled away beside it, and more than once I had commented upon the singular fact that its shores, birdy as they were, harbored no water thrushes, while in several similar places I had heard them singing for more than a fortnight. There was something really mysterious about it, I was inclined to think. The place seemed made for them, unless, perhaps, the damming of the stream had rendered the current too sluggish to suit their taste. Now, however, as we drove past, and just as I was bidding the place good-by, a water thrush struck up his simple, lazily emphatic tune. “Here I am, stranger,” he might have been saying. Had he been there all the time? I did not know. One’s investigations are never complete, even in the most limited area.
We had not gone many miles farther before we took what was for me a new road, which turned out presently to be like all the others: a road running mostly through the forest, uphill and downhill by turns, with here and there, at long distances, a solitary cabin, unpainted, perhaps unwindowed, yet pretty certainly with a patch of sweet-william and other old-fashioned flowers in the front yard.” The rudest one of all, in the very lonesomest of clearings, had before the door a magnificent eglantine bush that would have made the fortune of any Northern gardener. The mountain side might be all aflame with azalea and laurel, but the woman’s heart must have a bit of garden, something planted and tended, to make the cabin more like a home.
For some hours we had been traveling thus, and were now come to an open place in the town of Hamburg, so the driver told me. Here, all at once, I nudged him with a quick command to stop. “There it is! “I cried, as I whipped out my opera-glass. “There’s a raven! ““Yes,” said the driver, “that’s the bird.” He was flying from us in a diagonal course, making toward a hill or mountain, — at a comfortable distance, in the best of lights, and most admirably disposed to show us his dimensions; but he was silent and in tremendous haste.
“Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he.”
If you would only say something! I thought. But he did not “call out,” perhaps because he was not “flying over.” I held the glass on him till he passed out of sight, — a really good look, as time counts under such circumstances. Yes, at the last moment I had seen a raven! Would the driver, when he got back to Highlands to-morrow evening, have the goodness so to inform Dr.----- for his comfort?
Another thing I had accomplished: I had supplied three male Hamburgers with abundant material for a week’s gossip; for even in my excitement I had been aware that we had halted almost directly in front of a house, — the only one for some miles, I think, — in the yard of which three men were lounging. I looked at the bird, and the men looked at me. It gave me pleasure afterward to think what a story it must have made. “Yes, sir, it’s gospel truth: he pulled out a spy-glass and sat there looking at a raven. I reckon he never see one before.”
I speak of excitement, but it was a wonder to me how temperate my emotions were, and how quickly they subsided. Within a half-mile our progress was blocked by a large oak-tree, which the wind had twisted partly off and thrown squarely across the road. The driver had brought no axe along, and was obliged to go back to the house for help, leaving me to care for the team. Straight before me loomed the Balsam Mountains, a dozen peaks, gloriously high and mountainous; not too far away, yet far enough to be blue, with white clouds veiling their lower slopes and so lifting the tops skyward. I looked at them and looked at them, and between the looks I put the raven into my notebook.
For the day it kept its place unquestioned. Then, long before I reached Massachusetts, I punctuated the entry with a question mark. The bird had been silent; its apparent size might have been an illusion; and my assurance of the moment, absolute though it was, would not bear the test of time and cold blood.
Here ended my raven-hunt. I had enjoyed it, and would gladly have made it longer, — in that respect it had been successful; but the collection “I was to have made, my little store of first-hand knowledge,” had fared but poorly. As far as ravens were concerned, I was bringing home a lean bag, — a brace of interrogation points.________________
1 All things go by comparison. “I always lived in the country till I came here,” said my driver to me one day.
2 The great “war governor" and senator of North Carolina was born among the mountains of the State; and from what I heard, he seems to have left his name
found, like a wild flower,
as truly as Wallace ever did in Scotland.