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Time of the Singing of the Birds
By Grace Livingston Hill
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2015 Grace Livingston Hill
All rights reserved.
The birds were singing madly in the old orchard around the house when Barney Vance woke up that first morning back in the old house where he was born and brought up, and where, two years before, he had kissed his mother good-bye to go across the seas and fight. Now he was Lieutenant Vance and had been invalided out of the army and sent home to recuperate, with little probability that he would be called back. His strong young body had taken a terrible beating during his last engagement with the enemy, and the doctor had thought there was grave doubt whether it would ever get back to the old vigor where he could hope to go on and continue fighting. And he had been tired. So tired! And glad to rest a bit, though in his heart of hearts he had the determination to be back on the job again as soon as he recovered his normal strength. But now he was here, and it was good to rest. It was like crawling into a foxhole when the enemy got too strenuous, and he was temporarily out of ammunition. It was good to find a real haven. That was how he had felt as he swung off the midnight train last night at the little flag station, where he knew he would have to walk over a mile, to make the old home. He was none too ready for that dark lonely walk, but it was home, and it was where he had a right to be, and he wanted to get there, so he had walked. He had stumbled up to the porch seat after sounding the knocker, and dropped down with his head leaning against the clapboards of the old house, his eyes closed.
Of course he knew that his mother was gone. Word of her death had come to him while he was still in the hospital, recovering from his desperate wounds, and had much delayed his chances of restoration to health. But he had fought that long battle out, and recognized it as one of the inevitable chances of war he had taken when he bid his mother good-bye. She herself had seen it, and reminded him that she might not be there when he returned, reminded him that she would be watching for him in heaven. He had known that she would not be in the old farmhouse to meet him. He had reminded himself of that fact again and again during the long journey. And yet he had wanted to come.
There would be nobody at the old home to meet him but the two old servants, old Joel Babbit and his wife, Roxy, who had been in charge of the house and the farm ever since he could remember. That is, he hoped they were still there. For after his mother was gone there had been no one to write to him about things but old Roxy, and she wasn't much of a correspondent. Still he had hoped. Roxy used to love him, and next to his mother would be more like homefolks than anybody he knew. And so he had kept on hoping through every hard step of that mile and a half he had walked from the station.
And Roxy had come to answer that knock. He had known she would if she was alive. And if she wasn't, what did it matter? That was how he felt as he slumped to the porch seat and waited.
And then there was her step, in the old felt slippers, down at the heel, shuffling along, a candle in her hand, to supplement the light that she had turned on at the head of the stairs.
Roxy had brought him in and crooned over him, called him her dear boy, and drawn him into the old front room, where she had always kept a fire laid ready for lighting should he ever return.
"I promised yer mommy, ye know," she said as she knelt and touched her candle to the kindling and whipped up a fire in no time.
Of course it wasn't cold weather, for those birds wouldn't have been singing so joyously now this morning if it were, but he remembered the fire had felt good to his stiff joints and aching muscles last night, and the crackling of the flames as they snapped the dry old twigs had sounded cheerily as if they were welcoming him, even though there were only two very humble retainers besides themselves to do it.
Those were the first impressions he had as he gradually came awake. Something cheery, in spite of the fact that it was all sad, because his mother was gone and wouldn't be back there anymore — wouldn't be there to ask him all about his experiences, nor to mourn over his wounds, nor worry lest there might be aftereffects. She had gone to another world, where wounds down here didn't matter anymore. Oh, she would be sympathetic with his worries even now, up in heaven, where he was sure she had gone! But they wouldn't pierce her own soul the way his bumps and bruises used to do even when he was just a little child and fell down on the old door stone at the kitchen steps, and skinned his knee. He always knew those bruises of his hurt his mother even more than they did him. He came to know that at a very early age when he watched the slow tears travel down her smooth cheek as she bathed the blood away and put on the lotion, wincing herself because it smarted him. He remembered asking her then, "Does it hurt your fingers when you put it on my cut?" And she had smiled and shaken away the tears, and said, "No, it doesn't hurt Mother."
"Then why does you cwy?"
And she had answered tenderly, "Oh, I guess I was feeling how it hurt you, little boy. That's what made the tears come. I don't like anything to hurt my brave boy."
He remembered puzzling over that, and the asking, "Is I your bwave boy, Muvver?"
She had looked at the lingering tears on his cheeks, and then smiled a bit sadly. "Well, perhaps not just yet, dear. But you're going to be brave by and by. Brave people don't cry for hurts, you know. They bear a hurt quietly, with beautiful courage. When you grow up you will grow courageous I hope."
He could remember every word she had said about being brave. Dear Mother! He remembered her tender smile. Somehow it almost comforted him for her absence now. It was the greatest hurt he had, that she was gone. Was he being brave about it? And would she think, was she thinking now, where she was in heaven; was she feeling satisfied that he had been brave in the war he had been fighting? There was a time to which he could look back, when his very soul had been torn with pain, and he had remembered her words then, of how a real man would be brave, even when suffering great pain.
Over on the other side of the room lay his uniform; a purple heart and a silver star adorned its somberness, but what were they to him now? Would his mother think he had won the silver star? Would she have been pleased? Oh, yes, she would! But he must not think about that now. He had come home and she was not here. He had a new life to live, though he had little heart for it, now, when it suddenly dawned upon him that he was here. Here in the old house, where he had so longed to be! Here with the old apple trees around him in full bloom, and the birds singing their tumultuous songs, just as if there had been no war. Just as if there were not death, and no more war going on even now, where some of his former comrades were going bravely into battle. Birds singing. Almost as if it might be heaven and he was hovering on the edge of it, as if there were no sorrow, and only peace and joy. Glad birds! How could they? How could they sing when there was still sorrow in the world?
But this couldn't last forever, this wrenching of hearts, and pain in the midst of joy. Someday there would dawn glory, and joy forever, and he must live for that time. It sounded almost like a sermon he was preaching to himself these first dawning thoughts of homecoming.
But there were sweet things to think about, too. Perhaps they were some of the themes of the songs those little birds were singing out there among the apple blossoms.
And there had been old Roxy, coming to the door to let him in, her old arms around him, a tenderness in their touch that reminded him of his mother's touch. She had been his nurse and comforter long ago while his mother was still there. Now she would go on comforting him, just with a gentle hand, the kindliness in her voice, the look in her old eyes, the good things with which she would feed him.
Even last night she had brought him hot broth, and fed him as if he had been that little child she had loved from his babyhood. He had been so tired, and so nearly overcome with exhaustion from his long walk after weeks in the hospital, that he had scarcely thanked her. It had been good to him to be fed. Then she had called old Joel, and together they had got him upstairs to his old room, with the sweet-smelling sheets fresh from their hiding among lavender blossoms, the cool pillows under his head with their breath of lavender. How homelike it had all been, as if his mother had ordered it for him, as if she had arranged it and left it ready when she had to go off to heaven!
So he lay and came slowly back to waking again on a new day. A day where he must be brave. Even though he bitterly missed the past, he must be brave.
He must stop this kind of reminiscing. It was glooming the first morning of his day at home. He must not let that be. What was it he had anticipated so keenly, beyond the mere getting here and feeling the old home around him? He had known his mother was gone, and yet he had wanted to come. What else was there in the life he had left behind those two long years ago?
Friends? Yes, there were a lot of friends of course. But the fellows were all off in the service somewhere. Two who had been very close, he had left lying on the battlefield that last night he was in action and was carried off himself, waking up in a hospital a long time afterward. Girls? Yes, there had been girls, a lot of attractive ones, but he hadn't wanted to marry any one of them. He had been very young when he went away to college. He hadn't begun to think about marrying yet. Some of them had been rather sweet. One he had heard was married now, and another had died in an accident. But there had been others. Where were they now? Probably off doing war nursing, or working in some war plant, though he didn't know of such a place in this vicinity. There might be, of course. He would have to look up some of those old contacts. They would have changed some with the years, probably, and world happenings. He must have changed, too. But it would be pleasant to get together with someone he used to know and talk over old times, find out what had become of this one and that one of whom he had lost track.
There had been Hank Bristow and Casper Withrow. They were probably in the war somewhere. Maybe someone knew. He must get Roxy to talking. She would have heard. Roxy never used to miss a trick in the old days, and she loved to talk when she was in the mood.
There had been Hortense Revenal. What had become of her? She and her mother had come to board over at the next farm a couple of summers before the war. She had been in high school with him, and much in evidence at all the school parties and activities. And because of their living in the same neighborhood it had often fallen to his lot to see her home from gatherings. As she grew older she developed a possessiveness that had not pleased his mother. What was it about her that Mother had criticized? She said she was bold and was much too sophisticated for her age. This was after Hortense had returned from a summer with her father, who was estranged from his wife, and lived in New York. It was rumored there would be a divorce. Hortense's mother was a giddy person who paid very little attention to her child, and had many weekend visitors from a distance. His own mother used always to have a troubled look in her eyes whenever Hortense had been much in his company.
But it had been no wonder that Hortense was often coming over to see him on one pretense or another, a problem she could not solve, or a Latin sentence she could not translate, and then would stay for a few games. Poor kid! She had nothing at home to attract her. He had felt sorry for her. And Mother had been very kind to her of course. She would always bring her sewing and sit in the room, sometimes playing games with them, taking part in their talk, occasionally reading aloud to them. But he had a strong feeling that his mother had been much relieved when Hortense went to visit her father, or went away to see her grandmother or one of her aunts. His mother definitely had objected to Hortense. Well now, why? That was a question he would have to take out and examine and sift, in case Hortense should turn up again. Just why hadn't Mother felt easy in having her come over so often? It couldn't be just that Mother was old-fashioned and didn't like the way Hortense was dressed, too elaborately, or something of that sort.
Hortense had large appealing black eyes, a dominating personality, and a way of ignoring questions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, mine and thine. He could look back and see that now. Was it just because his mother had called his attention to it, or had he known it all the time and had he excused it because Hortense had a sort of personal fascination for him?
Well, she had been only a kid then, and he hadn't been much more himself. If Mother were here now she might not have the same objection, and of course his mother wouldn't want him to be biased by her judgments of several years ago. Still, he was not deeply anxious to see Hortense. If she came in his way, well and good. If not, well, that was that. It was only childhood stuff, anyway. Of course if he found she was still living in the old place he would have to go and visit, after a while, when he got strong enough to feel like visiting. Then he could judge if he wanted to see her anymore. He could ask Roxy about her. But of course Roxy had never liked her, either.
And there had been Lucy Anne Salter, and the Wrexall twins, Madge and Martha, and Janet Harper. But hadn't he heard that Janet had gone overseas, in some capacity, a WAC or a WAVE or one of those things? He wasn't sure. Somehow in those two terrible years of his absence the things he had left behind had grown so unimportant. Well, perhaps it wouldn't have been that way if his mother had lived and kept on writing her wonderful letters to him. How he used to envy the other fellows after she was gone when they got a letter from their mothers! Well, there! He must stop that. That kind of a memory would bring smarting tears to his eyes, and a soldier did not wear tears. Even if he had been in bed for weeks and weeks, and was all unnerved. He must brace up. Listen to those birds. They were screaming their joy of the morning, and he must be glad, too, for he was at home, where he had wanted for so long to be. He was here, and the morning sounded good, and the breath of apple blossoms was borne on the soft April air. "The time of the singing of birds" had come. He had liked that verse when he was a kid.
But home without Mother wasn't all he had hoped it would be. Out there in a foreign land in a hospital, home had seemed just heaven, even with his mother gone. Her presence would sort of be lingering around. And it was. Yes, he could remember when she would come into the room in the morning and pull his shades down, to let him sleep a little longer. But there! He mustn't remember. It would get him all stirred up.
It was early yet, and he was still weary. He would just turn over and go to sleep again.
So the birds sang on and lulled him into a dream of his mother, who seemed to come and soothe his forehead, and tell him to lie still and rest yet a little while, as she used to do. And so he slept again.CHAPTER 2
The journey home had been precarious and wearisome. There were so many changes, and he scarcely got over the excitement of one stage of it until another was thrust upon him. Change of scene, conditions, environment, and companions.
From the first suggestion of it, the doctor and the nurses had been opposed to letting him go. They felt it was too soon to move him. He had so recently been considered one who would not recover from that last terrible engagement.
"It's all wrong," said the doctor. "Lieutenant Vance should not be moved for at least another month. If they insist upon it I will not answer for the consequences. He is too valuable a man to be taking any chances with his life."
"Yes, I agree with you," said Barney Vance's captain. "He is too valuable a man."
But when they asked Barney himself they found him strangely indifferent — just that pleasant grin and a quiet lifting of his eyebrows.
"It's all right with me, Doc," he said. "It feels good to rest for a while."
The eyes of the doctor and the captain met with that negative glance that was decisive.
"He doesn't seem to care," said the puzzled captain, back in the shack when he called his headquarters. "I thought he'd be all on fire to get home."
A waiting private looked up, saluted respectfully, and said, "Beg pardon, sir, but perhaps you don't know that guy has just recently received word from home that his mother's dead. He wouldn't be so keen about anything just now. He banked a lot on his mother."
Excerpted from Time of the Singing of the Birds by Grace Livingston Hill. Copyright © 2015 Grace Livingston Hill. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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