The case of Long John Silver
We have always made it a matter of justice that we should feed the magpies as well as the other and lowlier birds about this little clearing in the forest.
We are meticulous about this, because we know that appearances are often deceptive, and, although magpies generally, with their aggressive aspect and fearless habit, seem well able to look after and fend for themselves, one never knows what injustice may be done by making distinctions in one’s charity to the birds.
So we fed the magpies regularly, but they received little of our sympathy until there came upon the scene one cold, autumn day, Long John Silver and his mate, Limpy.
I don’t know whether fellow feeling had drawn these two strange birds together, or whether they had been mates before disaster overtook them; but the curious fact remained that they were each possessed of only one leg!
In each case, it was to be surmised, a barbarous rabbit-trap had accounted for the other limb. John Silver’s had been severed high up so that nothing remained but a pathetic stump. His wife, Limpy, had lost little more than a foot.
Of course, the sentimentalist of the household was roused to loud wailings when she first beheld this pair of avian cripples, and I will admit that they certainly did look forlorn — or else were putting up a rather good bluff. It was hard to say which.
John Silver’s method of approaching sustenance was especially provoking of pity. On his one good leg he would hop rather painfully to within striking distance of some proffered morsel of food; then he would sit down on his stomach and, by some strange means that I have never been able to discover, wriggle forward to the food.
Limpy was more spry on her remaining limb; nor did her brown eye hold that piteous glance of appeal that came into John Silver’s whenever he chanced to catch the eye of the almoner.
Well, of course, special arrangements had to be made for these two pensioners. They had, for instance, to have a separate feeding time when other, and younger and stronger magpies, were not there to bully them.
Yet, in spite of all precautions, brawls and piratical raids were frequent, and frequently, too, a wild and angry squawking in the back paddock brought us hurriedly out of doors to the rescue of our pair of invalids. Or rather, that is what we thought at the time.
“We shall never be able to save them!” said the sentimentalist. “Those hefty young ones will kill them eventually. The law of the wild is atrociously cruel.”
I was of much the same opinion and had foreseen for Silver and Limpy a very brief remainder to their mortal span, until ——
One morning I happened to be strolling through the rather dense scrub that adjoins this clearing when I heard a wild hullabaloo that told of magpies in dire distress — almost in mortal agony.
“This is the end,” thought I, “of Silver and Limpy.” And I crept slowly through the scrub to see what I could see.
What I did see was this: John Silver, full of fight and fury, on top of a hefty young bird who was yelling for mercy, while, a few yards away, Limpy was dealing with another aggressor even more strenuously! Severed feet or missing legs seemed to incommode them not in the least.
These indiscreet interlopers had raided Silver’s private and particular feeding grounds. They had to be dealt with. They were being dealt with.
And then, whether it was that he was aware his hypocritical pose had been discovered I do not know, but very shortly after that Long John Silver and his mate disappeared.
“I knew it had to happen,” wailed the sentimentalist. “Those two poor cripples have been brutally done to death by those ruthless younger birds.”
I wondered at the time if such were the case, though that look of swaggering self-confidence I had seen in Long John’s eye when last we met caused me to doubt.
More than twelve months later I was talking to an old bush friend who grew eloquent about his little crippled daughter’s influence over the bush birds.
“Feeds right fair out of her hand they do,” he assured me. “Wrens an’ robins an’ thrushes an’ the queerest pair of magpies you ever seen. Only got two legs between them the pair of them.
“Only for my Jenny feeding them the like she does, them two poor mags wouldn’t last a week. Keeps the young ones from tackling them, my Jenny does. Real pretty to see her.”
And then I knew that Long John Silver, with a low cunning worthy of his namesake, had found a “better ’ole.”
“Awful kind to birds an’ animals an’ things, my Jenny is,” continued the bushman. “Runs in our family, that does. All of us likes treatin’ dumb things gentle like. Ah well, I can’t stand yappin’ all day,” he concluded. “Got to get along home and kill a couple of pigs.”
C. J. Dennis, The Singing Garden, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1935, pages 115-118
mag = an abbreviation of “magpie”
Vernacular spelling in the original text: