The besting of Bombastes [story by C. J. Dennis]

[Editor: This story by C. J. Dennis was published in The Singing Garden (1935).]

The besting of Bombastes

On the day that he brought himself first (and very confidently) under our notice we named him “Bombastes Furioso,” without hesitation, for it seemed to us that no other could suit him one half so well; because all the fury and bombast that might reasonably inhabit any single living being, of any size, seemed to be concentrated in that absurd little ball of fuss and flesh and feathers. So ridiculously small was he that the whole of him might gone comfortably into an egg-cup and still left room on top.

All male blue wrens are perkily vain and self-important little braggarts; and Bombastes was the wren of wrens. His comical tail was cocked at a cheekier angle, his cap and cape were of a richer, shinier blue, his song was not so much a song as an arrogant yell of blustering defiance — a truculent bravo of a wren, a swaggering, ruffling blade of a wren who bowed to no law and flung vainglorious challenge to the whole avian universe. “Bring out your goshawks! Bring out your kestrels and your wedge-tail eagles! Keep close to me, ladies, and you shall come to no harm. I am Bombastes!”

Indeed, this Bombastes was a wren not to be overlooked or carelessly ignored even by stolid humans, nor could he be easily mistaken for any other cock-wren of like habit and hue. His every extravagant quality convinced us that he was a new-comer and a stranger among the other blue wrens about the garden. He probably came from somewhere in the back bush where (as it is more than likely he told some of his new lady friends) wrens were wrens and huge snakes ate whole families for breakfast. But he had not left because of that. What! He, who had himself slain a great tiger snake single-handed and whose way with a native cat or a falcon was sudden and terrible. He had come away because he was none of your home-staying, prosaic, worm-hoarding blobs of wrens who stuck to the old home town and played safe among the friends of his youth. No fear! He for foreign fields and high adventure. He to carve out a deathless name for himself in the rough and tumble of the great wide world. And any gentleman present chose to doubt his word in any least little detail — well, just let it be whispered, just whispered. For he was Bombastes and, believe him, he was tough!

Nor did he confine his activity to mere boastful threat and dark innuendo. Before the week was through he had fought and vanquished every one of the score or so of cock-wrens whose familiar home was the garden. So that he became the ideal and the hero of every demure little lady hopping daintily about the lawn, and the swaggering overlord of the lowly world of lesser birds who worked out their own absorbing problems of life — of loves and hates and smouldering jealousies — all down among the daisies and the buttercups, the pansies and eschscholtzias; for spring was at its flood in an exulting world of bursting bloom when the sap is up and blood runs hot.

And then, at the very zenith of his triumph, in the full prime of his lusty young wrenhood, his obsession took him; and so began the decline and fall of the great little Bombastes.

I cannot help feeling that there is a moral lesson somewhere about this story. If there is, I leave you to discover it yourself. Like every erring brother who has escaped being an active pharisee, I dread moral lessons. Too often and too aptly they come home to roost.

Our house in the forest is a house of many windows; for, in the murk of forest winters, light becomes a precious thing eagerly desired. But our windows are often the scene and the cause of many a swift tragedy, sometimes with fatal results; for birds great and small, who are fresh from the bush and unused to human habitations, seem unable at first to detect clear glass; so that, while still in full and carefree flight, a sudden and mysterious collision with the invisible leaves, if not a corpse, a very sorry and bewildered bird.

But, bush-born and unsophisticated though he was, a mere house held no terrors for the valiant Bombastes — until the day he discovered in one of the windows of the dining-room, not a mysterious accident, but some uncanny quality that was to a bird of his spirit at once a challenge and a maddening exasperation. For within that hole in the wall there lurked a rival still unconquered: a brutal looking, vainglorious swaggerer, a truculent bully of a blue wren. But Bombastes was not to be bluffed by any boastful posturing, so he dashed madly into battle.

When he recovered he explained to his lady friends that he seemed to have bumped into an unaccountable barrier of solid air: something hitherto outside his experience entirely. Privily he decided that the ill-favoured braggart inside the window wore invisible, enchanted armour of some description — a dirty, underhand trick, sure enough. But even that was not going to bluff the unbeaten holder of the blue-wren belt; so he stropped his bill and spat on his hands, so to speak, and came at it again; but less confidently, more cautiously this time. But, again and again that mysterious, unseen barrier thwarted his every effort.

Then he abandoned the direct attack and experimented with strategy. He would sneak furtively around the edge of the window-frame and surprise the enemy with a sudden rush. But, astonishingly, his rival seemed to sense the move and adopted exactly similar tactics at the same moment. It was all very puzzling.

We allowed him to keep at it for twenty minutes or so and then, in kindness hunted him from the window. He seemed to resent our interference, and went reluctantly, only to discover almost immediately another and exactly similar enemy in the next window. We chased him from there, and, half an hour later, found him at another side of the house trying to get at yet another impregnable foe.

Short of putting someone on sentry to go around the house all day long, there seemed to be no means of saving Bombastes from his own folly. In a day or two he had made the alarming discovery that he, Bombastes the invincible (or so he had imagined), was surrounded by aggressive and mysterious enemies, who would not he subdued. At the end of a week the thing had become an obsession. But by now much of the former dash and exultant pride had gone out of his attack; he fought doggedly but without spirit, sparing an absurdly brief portion of the daylight hours in the quest of sustenance.

Before the end of another week, I greatly fear that his already tottering reason fell completely off its perch, for he began suddenly to fight with all the insane fury of a bird possessed.

By now every vestige of his jaunty, cocksure air had gone. His once proud tail had fallen almost to the horizontal, his wings drooped, and he breathed through open bill, pantingly.

But since every single one of his myriad rivals exhibited precisely similar signs of acute distress, he was encouraged to rally his failing strength and, hopeful to the end, he fought stubbornly on and on. He was a game bird, that Bombastes, I will say that for him.

Just before the end he must have become utterly maniacal. The moon was at its full and, in the dead of night, we used to hear Bombastes the Balmy dashing his poor little body furiously against the pane where the background of some darkened room made its glass doubly reflective.

We found him one morning below a window of the study, a pathetic little bundle of brown and brilliant sapphire, a ruby drop of blood coming from the base of his bill telling how the end had come.

I think it is about here somewhere that the moral lesson should be worked in. Something about the fear complex or the sex urge to male conflict. Something fashionably Freudian or else essentially Jungish. Fortunately I forget which.

But those who would discover a homily in this splendid saga in miniature of the ill-starred Bombastes I advise to conjure a picture of that little scrap of coloured feathers which, with all its flesh and fuss could have gone comfortably into an egg-cup and still left room on top — that deserted casket, absurdly small, yet once holding an amazingly complex collection of pride and passion, of strange fears and unyielding fury, now prone upon the lawn among the fearless daisies.

We buried the little hero beneath a viola, blue as his own sapphire crown. And all his recent lady friends, with rehabilitated gentlemen in attendance, gathered around to search daintily for little worms amongst the grave clods.



Source:
C. J. Dennis, The Singing Garden, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1935, pages 153-158

[Editor: Added a comma after “had imagined)”.]

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