Page images


the opiates of the library, and the bounding pulse of glowing and glorious thought returns all the sooner for its being a little drastic. None perhaps acts more speedily than a taste of the sea. Take a man who has never been beyond the hum" of the city, or the chime of the village clock, and whose thoughts float along with the current of public news in the one, or stagnate in the lazy pool of village chancings in the other, put him on shipboard on a fine evening, when the glassy water has that blink of greenish purple which landsmen admire, and seamen understand; give him offing till the turn of the night; then let the wind be loosed at once, and the accumulating waves heave fathoms up and sink fathoms down; let there be sea-room, and trim the bark to drive, now vibrating on the ridge of the unbroken wave, now plunging into the thick of that which has been broken by its own violence, and hissing as if the heat of her career and collision were making the ocean to boil, as when the nether fire upheaves a volcanic isle; temper his spirit in those waters for even one night, and when you again land him safely you will find him tenfold more a man of steel.

A calm day in the wilderness is, of course, mildness itself compared with such a night; but still there is an absence of art, and consequently a touch of the sublime of nature in it; it suits the feeble-minded, for it invigorates without fear.

The dry height is silent, save the chirp of the grasshopper, or the hum of some stray bee which the heat of the day has tempted out, to see if there are any honeyed blooms among the heath; but, by and by, you hear the warning whistle of the plover, sounded perhaps within a few yards of your feet, but so singularly inward and ventriloque, that you fancy it comes from miles off; the lapwing soon comes at the call, playing and wailing around your head, and quits you not till you are so near the marshy expanse that your footing is heavy, and the ground quakes and vibrates under your feet. That is not much to be heeded if you keep the line of the rushes, for a thick tuft of these sturdy plants makes a safe footfall in any bog. You may now perhaps start the twite, but it will utter its peevish chirp, and jerk off; and if there is a stream with banks of some consistency, you may see the more lively wagtail, which will jerk, and run, and flirt about, as if showing off for your especial amusement. If there is a wide portion of clear water, you may perhaps see the wild-duck, with her young brood, sail

ing out of the reeds, like a vessel of war leading the fleet which she protects; or, if the pool is smaller, you may see the brown and yellow of the snipe gliding through the herbage on the margin, as if it were a snake in the grass. Not a wing will stir however, or a creature take much heed of your presence, after the lapwing wails her farewell.

In the tuft of tall and close herbage, not very far from the firm ground, but yet so placed near, or rather in the water, that you cannot very easily reach it, the bittern may be close all the time, wakeful, noting you well, and holding herself prepared to "keep her castle," but you cannot raise her by shouting, or even by throwing stones, the last of which is treason against nature, in a place solely under nature's dominion. Wait till the sun is down, and the last glimmer of the twilight has got westward of the zenith, and then return to the place where you expect the bird.

The reeds begin to rustle with the little winds, in which the day settles accounts with the night; but there is a shorter and a sharper rustle, accompanied by the brush of rather a powerful wing. You look round the dim horizon, but there is no bird: another rustle of the wing, and another, still weaker and weaker, but not a moving thing between you and the sky around. You feel rather disappointed-foolish, if you are daring; fearful, if you are timid. Anon, a burst of uncouth and savage laughter breaks over you, piercingly, or rather gratingly loud, and so unwonted and odd, that it sounds as if the voices of a bull and a horse were combined, the former breaking down his bellow to suit the neigh of the latter, in mocking you from the sky.

That is the love-song of the bittern, with which he serenades his mate; and uncouth and harsh as it sounds to you, that mate hears it with far more pleasure than she would the sweetest chorus of the grove; and when the surprise with which you are at first taken is over, you begin to discover that there is a sort of modulation in the singular sound. As the bird utters it, he wheels in a spiral, expanding his voice as the loops widen, and sinking it as they close; and though you can just dimly discover him between you and the zenith, it is worth while to lie down on your back, and watch the style of his flight, which is as fine as it is peculiar. The sound comes better out, too, when you are in that position; and there is an echo, and, as you would readily imagine, a shaking of the ground; not that, according to the tale of the poets, the bird thrusts his bill into the marsh, and shakes that with

his booming, though (familiar as I once was for years with the sound, and all the observable habits of the bitterns) some kindly critic, on a former occasion, laboured to convert me from that heresy. A quagmire would be but a sorry instrument, even for a bittern's music; but when the bittern booms and bleats over head, one certainly feels as if the earth were shaking; but it is probably nothing more than the general affection of the sentient system by the jarring upon the earan affection which we more or less feel in the case of all harsh and grating sounds, more especially when they are new to us.

The length of the bird is about twenty-eight inches, and the extent of the wings about forty-four. It is heavier in proportion to the extent of the wings than the heron; and though it flies more steadily than that bird, it is not very powerful in forward flight, or in gaining height without wheeling; but when once it is up, it can keep the sky with considerable ease; and while it does so, it is safe from the buzzards and harriers, which are the chief birds of prey in its locality.

The nest is constructed by both birds, in a close tuft or bush, near by, and sometimes over, the water, but always more elevated than the flood. Indeed, as it builds early, about the time of the spring rains, which bring it abundance of food, in frogs, snails, worms, and the fry of fishes, it has the flood higher at the time of commencing the nest, than it is likely to be during the incubation. The nest is constructed wholly of vegetable matter-rushes, the leaves of reeds, and those of the stronger marsh grasses. The eggs are four or five, of a greenish brown colour; the incubation lasts about twenty-five days, and three weeks more elapse before the young are fit for leaving the nest. When they break the shell they are callow, and have a scraggy appearance; but they are laboriously fed by the parents, and acquire better forms at the same time that they gain their plumage.

The bittern is both a solitary and a peaceful bird; and, excepting the small fishes, reptiles and other little animals on which it feeds, it offers harm to nothing, animal or vegetable. Unless when the male booms and bleats, or rather bellows and neighs his rude song, the birds are seldom heard, and not often seen, unless sometimes in the severe weather, when they are frozen out, and descend lower down the country in quest of food. They keep in their rushy tents as long as the weather is open, and they can by their long and powerful bills find their food among the roots of these; and they probably also in part subsist upon

the seeds, or even the albuminous roots of some of the aquatic plants; but their feet, which are adapted for rough and spongy surfaces, do not hold well on the ice; at all events, in the places where I used to know them, when the interstices of the plants and the margins of the pools were so far frozen that they would bear; and the wild goose had been driven from more northern haunts by the severity of the weather, the bitterns were not to be found by the most diligent search in the withered tufts, though if they had the habit of converting the earth into a musical instrument, these would be the times at which it would sound the best. On their departure from the upland moors, they proceed gradually and skulkingly by the margins of the streams, to the lower swamps and marshes, where, from the warmer climate and the thicker mantle of dry vegetables, the frost is much longer in taking effect.

Though the bittern is an unoffending and retiring bird, easily hawked when on a low flight, and not very difficult to shoot when out of its cover, as it flies short, and soon alights, it is both a vigilant and a powerful bird on the ground. It stands high, so that, without being seen, it sees all around it, and is not easily surprised. Its bill, too, is

so strong yet so sharp, and the thrust of it is given with so much rapidity and effect, that other animals are not very fond of going in upon it; and even when it is wounded, it will make a very determined resistance, throwing itself on its back so that it may use both its bill and its claws.

It would not be very consistent to regret the diminished and diminishing numbers of the bittern, a bird which, wherever it appears, proclaims that there the resources of the country are running to waste; for such is the indication given by the bird. It is not an indication of hopeless sterility. It does not inhabit the naked height on which the fertilising rain not only falls without producing fertility, but washes away the small quantity of mould which the few starveling plants produce. The elements of a more profitable crop are always in existence in the abode of the bittern; and, though the quantity of skill and labour required from man varies much, those elements can always to a certain extent be claimed to man's use. The place where I used to hear the bittern every evening during the first month after the storm broke, for it began before the short supplemental winter, the fleeting storm of flaking snow which used to season the lapwing, has been in great part under crop for years. Where that is not the case, it has


been planted; and the partridge and the ring-dove have come close the margin of what remains of the mere. The winding stream -"the burnie wimplin doon the glen," with its little daisied meadows, its primrosed banks, its tangled thickets, its dimpling pools, and its dark nooks, each having a name, and altogether clear to trout, to bird, and to boyhood, has become a straight ditch between bushless banks, and runs so low and shallow in the dry season, as hardly to have depth for the minnow and the stickle-back, and the very tadpoles lie stranded, dead, and dry, by the little runs of sand. There might be more breadth in the country; but to me, at least, there seemed to be, in every sense of the word, less depth. The crops, too, were thin and stunted, and the domestic beasts which were nibbling among the stems of the scattered ray-grass, which looked very like a thin bristling of copper wire, had certainly as many and as easily counted bones as the smaller breed which were wont to roam at freedom over the moor. To me, the plaint of the dove brought more of melancholy than the booming of fifty bitterns, even with the gloom of the twilight, and a lingering dread of beings of the darkness to boot. But change is the course of nature, and the foundation of art; and in all places, and under all circumstances, mors janua vitæ.

190.-On Prayer.


[THE Sermons of Dr. Ogden are well known to the theological student. They are distinguished by that combination of earnestness and acute reasoning which many of the divines of the last century inherited from their great predecessors. Samuel Ogden, the son of poor parents, was born at Manchester in 1716. His merits were rewarded by considerable preferment in the Church. He died at Cambridge in 1778.]

You may remember a little ancient fable to the following purpose :"An old man upon his death-bed said to his sons, as they stood round him, I am possessed, my dear children, of a treasure of great value, which, as it is fit, must now be yours: they drew nearer: nay, added the sick man, I have it not here in my hands; it is deposited some

« PreviousContinue »