Mischief by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Old Mother Magpie was about the busiest character in the forest.
But you must know that there is a great difference between being busy
and being industrious. One may be very busy all the time, and yet not
in the least industrious; and this was the case with Mother Magpie.
She was always full of everybody's business but her own—up and
down, here and there, everywhere but in her own nest, knowing
everyone's affairs, telling what everybody had been doing or ought to
do, and ready to cast her advice gratis at every bird and beast of the
Now she bustled up to the parsonage at the top of the oak-tree, to
tell old Parson Too-Whit what she thought he ought to preach for his
next sermon, and how dreadful the morals of the parish were becoming.
Then, having perfectly bewildered the poor old gentleman, who was
always sleepy of a Monday morning, Mother Magpie would take a peep
into Mrs. Oriole's nest, sit chattering on a bough above, and pour
forth floods of advice, which, poor little Mrs. Oriole used to say to
her husband, bewildered her more than a hard north-east storm.
"Depend upon it, my dear," Mother Magpie would say, "that this way
of building your nest, swinging like an old empty stocking from a
bough, isn't at all the thing. I never built one so in my life, and I
never have headaches. Now you complain always that your head aches
whenever I call upon you. It's all on account of this way of
swinging and swaying about in such an absurd manner."
"But, my dear," piped Mrs. Oriole timidly, "the Orioles always have
built in this manner, and it suits our constitution."
"A fiddle on your constitution! How can you tell what agrees with
your constitution unless you try? You own you are not well; you are
subject to headaches; and every physician will tell you that a
tilting motion disorders the stomach and acts upon the brain. Ask
old Dr. Kite. I was talking with him about your case only yesterday,
and says he, 'Mrs. Magpie, I perfectly agree with you.'"
"But my husband prefers this style of building."
"That's only because he isn't properly instructed. Pray, did you
ever attend Dr. Kite's lectures on the nervous system?"
"No, I have no time to attend lectures. Who would sit on the
"Why, your husband, to be sure; don't he take his turn in sitting?
If he don't, he ought to. I shall speak to him about it. My husband
always sits regularly half the time, that I may have time to go about
"O Mrs. Magpie, pray don't speak to my husband; he will think I've
"No, no, he won't. Let me alone. I understand just how to say the
thing. I've advised hundreds of young husbands in my day, and I
never gave offence."
"But I tell you, Mrs. Magpie, I don't want any interference between
my husband and me, and I will not have it," says Mrs. Oriole, with
her little round eyes flashing with indignation.
"Don't put yourself in a passion, my dear; the more you talk, the
more sure I am that your nervous system is running down, or you
wouldn't forget good manners in this way. You'd better take my
advice, for I understand just what to do,"—and away sails Mother
Magpie; and presently young Oriole comes home all in a flutter.
"I say, my dear, if you will persist in gossiping over our private
family matters with that old Mother Magpie—"
"My dear, I don't gossip. She comes and bores me to death with
talking, and then goes off and mistakes what she has been saying for
what I said."
"But you must CUT her."
"I try to, all I can; but she won't BE cut."
"It's enough to make a bird swear," said Tommy Oriole.
Tommy Oriole, to say the truth, had as good a heart as ever beat
under bird's feathers; but then he had a weakness for concerts and
general society, because he was held to be, by all odds, the
handsomest bird in the woods, and sung like an angel; and so the
truth was he didn't confine himself so much to the domestic nest as
Tom Titmouse or Billy Wren. But he determined that he wouldn't have
old Mother Magpie interfering with his affairs.
"The fact is," quoth Tommy, "I am a society bird, and Nature has
marked out for me a course beyond the range of the commonplace, and
my wife must learn to accommodate. If she has a brilliant husband,
whose success gratifies her ambition and places her in a
distinguished public position, she must pay something for it. I'm
sure Billy Wren's wife would give her very bill to see her husband in
the circles where I am quite at home. To say the truth, my wife was
all well enough content till old Mother Magpie interfered. It is
quite my duty to take strong ground, and show that I cannot be
So, after this, Tommy Oriole went to rather more concerts, and
spent less time at home than ever he did before, which was all that
Mother Magpie effected in that quarter. I confess this was very bad
in Tommy; but then birds are no better than men in domestic matters,
and sometimes will take the most unreasonable courses, if a meddlesome
Magpie gets her claw into their nest.
But old Mother Magpie had now got a new business in hand in another
quarter. She bustled off down to Water-Dock Lane, where, as we said
in a former narrative, lived the old music-teacher, Dr. Bullfrog. The
poor old doctor was a simple-minded, good, amiable creature, who had
played the double-bass and led the forest choir on all public
occasions since nobody knows when. Latterly some youngsters had
arisen who sneered at his performances as behind the age. In fact,
since a great city had grown up in the vicinity of the forest, tribes
of wandering boys broke up the simple tastes and quiet habits which
old Mother Nature had always kept up in those parts. They pulled the
young checkerberry before it even had time to blossom, rooted up the
sassafras shrubs and gnawed their roots, fired off guns at the birds,
and on several occasions, when old Dr. Bullfrog was leading a
concert, had dashed in and broken up the choir by throwing stones.
This was not the worst of it. The little varlets had a way of
jeering at the simple old doctor and his concerts, and mimicking the
tones of his bass-viol. "There you go, Paddy-go-donk, Paddy-go-donk-
-umph—chunk," some rascal of a boy would shout, while poor old
Bullfrog's yellow spectacles would be bedewed with tears of honest
indignation. In time, the jeers of these little savages began to
tell on the society in the forest, and to corrupt their simple
manners; and it was whispered among the younger and more heavy birds
and squirrels that old Bullfrog was a bore, and that it was time to
get up a new style of music in the parish, and to give the charge of
it to some more modern performer.
Poor old Dr. Bullfrog knew nothing of this, however, and was doing
his simple best, in peace, when Mother Magpie called in upon him one
"Well, neighbour, how unreasonable people are! Who would have
thought that the youth of our generation should have no more
consideration for established merit? Now, for my part, _I_ think
your music-teaching never was better; and as for our choir, I
maintain constantly that it never was in better order, but—Well, one
may wear her tongue out, but one can never make these young folks
listen to reason."
"I really don't understand you, ma'am," said poor Dr. Bullfrog.
"What! you haven't heard of a committee that is going to call on
you, to ask you to resign the care of the parish music?"
"Madam," said Dr. Bullfrog, with all that energy of tone for which
he was remarkable, "I don't believe it,—I CAN'T believe it. You must
have made a mistake."
"I mistake! No, no, my good friend; I never make mistakes. What I
know, I know certainly. Wasn't it I that said I knew there was an
engagement between Tim Chipmunk and Nancy Nibble, who are married
this very day? I knew that thing six weeks before any bird or beast
in our parts; and I can tell you, you are going to be scandalously
and ungratefully treated, Dr. Bullfrog."
"Bless me, we shall all be ruined!" said Mrs. Bullfrog; "my poor
"Oh, as to that, if you take things in time, and listen to my
advice," said Mother Magpie, "we may yet pull you through. You must
alter your style a little,—adapt it to modern times. Everybody now
is a little touched with the operatic fever, and there's Tommy Oriole
has been to New Orleans and brought back a touch of the artistic. If
you would try his style a little,—something Tyrolean, you see."
"Dear madam, consider my voice. I never could hit the high notes."
"How do you know? It's all practice; Tommy Oriole says so. Just
try the scales. As to your voice, your manner of living has a great
deal to do with it. I always did tell you that your passion for water
injured your singing. Suppose Tommy Oriole should sit half his days
up to his hips in water, as you do,—his voice would be as hoarse and
rough as yours. Come up on the bank and learn to perch, as we birds
do. We are the true musical race."
And so poor Mr. Bullfrog was persuaded to forego his pleasant
little cottage under the cat-tails, where his green spectacles and
honest round back had excited, even in the minds of the boys,
sentiments of respect and compassion. He came up into the garden, and
established himself under a burdock, and began to practise Italian
The result was, that poor old Dr. Bullfrog, instead of being
considered as a respectable old bore, got himself universally laughed
at for aping fashionable manners. Every bird and beast in the forest
had a gibe at him; and even old Parson Too-Whit thought it worth his
while to make him a pastoral call, and admonish him about courses
unbefitting his age and standing. As to Mother Magpie, you may be
sure that she assured every one how sorry she was that dear old Dr.
Bullfrog had made such a fool of himself; if he had taken her advice,
he would have kept on respectably as a nice old Bullfrog should.
But the tragedy for the poor old music-teacher grew even more
melancholy in its termination; for one day, as he was sitting
disconsolately under a currant-bush in the garden, practising his
poor old notes in a quiet way, THUMP came a great blow of a hoe,
which nearly broke his back.
"Hallo! what ugly beast have we got here?" said Tom Noakes, the
gardener's boy. "Here, here, Wasp, my boy."
What a fright for a poor, quiet, old Bullfrog, as little wiry,
wicked Wasp came at him, barking and yelping. He jumped with all his
force sheer over a patch of bushes into the river, and swam back to
his old home among the cat-tails. And always after that it was
observable that he was very low-spirited, and took very dark views of
life; but nothing made him so angry as any allusion to Mother Magpie,
of whom, from that time, he never spoke except as OLD MOTHER MISCHIEF.