Two Little Savages
By Ernest Thompson Seton
Public Domain Books
But the greatest event of Yan’s then early life now took place. His school readers told him about Wilson and Audubon, the first and last American naturalists. Yan wondered why no other great prophet had arisen. But one day the papers announced that at length he had appeared. A work on the Birds of Canada, by ..., had come at last, price one dollar.
Money never before seemed so precious, necessary and noble a thing. “Oh! if I only had a dollar.” He set to work to save and scrape. He won marbles in game, swopped marbles for tops, tops for jack-knives as the various games came around with strange and rigid periodicity. The jack-knives in turn were converted into rabbits, the rabbits into cash of small denominations. He carried wood for strange householders; he scraped and scraped and saved the scrapings; and got, after some months, as high as ninety cents. But there was a dread fatality about that last dime. No one seemed to have any more odd jobs; his commercial luck deserted him. He was burnt up with craving for that book. None of his people took interest enough in him to advance the cash even at the ruinous interest (two or three times cent per cent) that he was willing to bind himself for. Six weeks passed before he achieved that last dime, and he never felt conscience-clear about it afterward.
He and Alner had to cut the kitchen wood. Each had his daily allotment, as well as other chores. Yan’s was always done faithfully, but the other evaded his work in every way. He was a notorious little fop. The paternal poverty did not permit his toilet extravagance to soar above one paper collar per week, but in his pocket he carried a piece of ink eraser with which he was careful to keep the paper collar up to standard. Yan cared nothing about dress–indeed, was inclined to be slovenly. So the eldest brother, meaning to turn Alner’s weakness to account, offered a prize of a twenty-five-cent necktie of the winner’s own choice to the one who did his chores best for a month. For the first week Alner and Yan kept even, then Alner wearied, in spite of the dazzling prize. The pace was too hot. Yan kept on his usual way and was duly awarded the twenty-five cents to be spent on a necktie. But in the store a bright thought came tempting him. Fifteen cents was as much as any one should spend on a necktie–that’s sure; the other ten would get the book. And thus the last dime was added to the pile. Then, bursting with joy and with the pride of a capitalist, he went to the book-shop and asked for the coveted volume.
He was tense with long-pent feeling. He expected to have the bookseller say that the price had gone up to one thousand dollars, and that all were sold. But he did not. He turned silently, drew the book out of a pile of them, hesitated and said, “Green or red cover?”
“Green,” said Yan, not yet believing. The book-man looked inside, then laid it down, saying in a cold, business tone, “Ninety cents.”
“Ninety cents,” gasped Yan. Oh! if only he had known the ways of booksellers or the workings of cash discounts. For six weeks had he been barred this happy land–had suffered starvation; he had misappropriated funds, he had fractured his conscience and all to raise that ten cents–that unnecessary dime.
He read that book reverentially all the way home. It did not give him what he wanted, but that doubtless was his own fault. He pored over it, studied it, loved it, never doubting that now he had the key to all the wonders and mysteries of Nature. It was five years before he fully found out that the text was the most worthless trash ever foisted on a torpid public. Nevertheless, the book held some useful things; first, a list of the bird names; second, some thirty vile travesties of Audubon and Wilson’s bird portraits.
These were the birds thus maligned:
Duck Hawk Rose-breasted Grosbeak Sparrow Hawk Bobolink White-headed Eagle Meadow Lark Great Horned Owl Bluejay Snowy Owl Ruffed Grouse Red-headed Woodpecker Great Blue Heron Golden-winged Woodpecker Bittern Barn-swallow Wilson’s Snipe Whip-poor-will Long-biller Curlew Night Hawk Purple Gallinule Belted Kingfisher Canada Goose Kingbird Wood Duck Woodthrush Hooded Merganser Catbird Double-crested Cormorant White-bellied Nuthatch Arctic Tern Brown Creeper Great Northern Diver Bohemian Chatterer Stormy Petrel Great Northern Shrike Arctic Puffin Shore Lark Black Guillemot
[Illustration: “He already knew the Downy Woodpecker"]
But badly as they were presented, the pictures were yet information, and were entered in his memory as lasting accessions to his store of truth about the Wild Things.
Of course, he already knew some few birds whose names are familiar to every schoolboy: the Robin, Bluebird, Kingbird, Wild Canary, Woodpecker, Barn-swallow, Wren, Chickadee, Wild Pigeon, Humming-bird, Pewee, so that his list was steadily increased.