The King-fisher’s Egg
by L. T. Meade
NOTE: This entry is in draft form; it is currently undergoing the VSFP editorial process.
Introductory Note: In “The King-fisher’s Egg,” young Hal and his sister, Ethel, navigate the days leading up to the judging of a bird egg collection contest. Hal must balance his desire to use whatever means necessary to win the contest with the dictates of his developing moral compass, a process aided by Ethel. This story appeared as part of an annually published collection of stories, tales, poetry, and illustrations. This specific piece functions both as a showcase of gender-specific sibling relationships and a caution against greed and selfishness.
HAL stood and gazed. They really made a splendid collection. Nearly every egg in his native place was represented. He handled them with loving fingers and looked up in great excitement as a gay voice sounded in the passage, and a small girl nearly his own age rushed into the room.
“Oh! are you there, Hal?” she exclaimed in an eager voice, “and are you looking at your collection? Now I do wonder which of us will succeed. Uncle Ralph comes this evening, and we are to bring him our collections at ten o’clock tomorrow morning. I wonder if I shall win the prize. I have planned so often what I will do with my ten shillings.”
“Your ten shillings,” said Hal, giving a contemptuous glance at his little sister; “so you think that your collection is the better one?”
“Oh! I don’t know, perhaps it isn’t; I shan’t be really sorry if you get the prize, only you know it is nice to build castles in the air, and when I sit out in the garden and there’s nobody by, I think perhaps my eggs are the most perfect, and that Uncle Ralph will give me that dear little bit of gold. Think what it will mean to have ten whole shillings all one’s very own! I shall certainly make my money go as far as possible when once I have it.”
“What a little stupid you are” said Hal; “I shall do nothing of the sort. I have planned what I’ll do with my money.”
“What?” asked the little sister.
“Well, I shall buy half a sovereign’s worth of fireworks, and have a good flare-up on the lawn.”
“I wonder which of us will get it?” said Ethel very slowly. “May I take one peep into your collection, Hal?”
“Nothing of the sort,” said Hal, backing as his sister approached the table. “You know the plan was that neither of us was to see the other’s collection, and whoever had the most perfect set, without duplicates was to win the prize.”
“Oh yes, I know,” said Ethel, “and of course I won’t peep; I wouldn’t be so mean.”
She ran off, singing gaily as she did so, and Hal carried his box of treasures to the window, and looked at them again with fresh approval.
“Ethel cannot have as many eggs as I have,” he said to himself; “she is not able to climb so well, nor to go so far, nor to poke about so much. Oh! that wren’s egg, what a beauty it is, and that robin’s egg, and this rook’s, and all the different finches, and the owl’s egg is quite uncommon. If only I had the egg of the kingfisher I believe I have a complete set. I do wish I could get a kingfisher’s egg. Then, of course, Ethel would not have a chance. It would be quite too killing if Ethel did get the prize, but of course she won’t; she hasn’t the ghost of a chance.”
The little boy returned his eggs to their place in the school-room cupboard and ran out. It was a beautiful evening towards the middle of May. He strolled down to the bank of the river, and, throwing himself on the grass, continued to indulge in those brilliant day-dreams in the centre of which lay Uncle Ralph’s prize. If only he could get a kingfisher’s egg the ten shillings would be his.
It was a warm evening for the time of year, and presently Hal dropped off to sleep. He was wakened by the sound of voices quite near him. They came from the other side of a thick hawthorn-tree.
He was just about to sing out “Hullo, who’s there?” when the following words fell distinctly on his ears: “Oh! George, is it possible? Have you really got one to give me?”
“That I have miss; it was only last night I found the nest. There were eight eggs in it, and I took two, one for myself and one for you, Miss Ethel. I always wished to do something for you, missie, because you are not rude to me like Master Hal, and you give me books to read now and then. Here’s the egg, miss; you’re welcome to it.”
“A real kingfisher’s egg, and what a beauty! But I do wish you would give the other one to Hal.”
“I won’t, and that’s flat,” replied the boy. “Here, miss, take your egg; shall I blow it out for you?”
“You’ll be sure not to break it, George?”
“No, miss, I know how to blow eggs.”
There was a pause, and a moment later Ethel’s voice was heard again.
“You’ve done it beautifully,” she cried; “what a lovely, lovely egg, it’s so long and so white! Were there really eight eggs in the nest?”
“Yes, miss, I only took two; you might be punished for stealing the egg of the kingfisher, so I did not dare to take more than two.”
“Where did you say you found the nest? I have been searching all over the place, and so has Hal.”
George uttered a loud gleeful laugh. “Master Hal don’t know everything,” he cried, “nor do you, Miss Ethel. Where the nest is, is my secret, and I’m not going to tell it, not to anybody. But there! you have got your egg, and the other one belongs to me, and that’s as it should be.”
Ethel was heard running away, and Hal, whose heart beat fast, remained motionless by the bank of the river. A passionate rage filled his heart. Without doubt now Ethel would win the prize. The kingfisher’s egg would turn the balance in her favour; he had not a chance. But stay, George had another egg in his pocket.
It mattered nothing to Hal just then that he had always teased George, that he had made the poor boy’s life a burden to him, that he had sent him on false errands, and laughed at him when he was punished as only a rude boy can, and that he had told of him when he stole apples out of the orchard. All these things were forgotten now.
George had secured a kingfisher’s egg for himself. That egg must get into Hal’s possession at any cost. So he crept slowly round the hawthorn-tree on his hands and knees. George had seated himself by the bank, holding the egg in the palm of his hand. He was looking at it lovingly. Hal determined to creep up behind, snatch the kingfisher’s egg, and run off. He had nearly succeeded in getting close to George, when a twig cracked. The gamekeeper’s son sprang to his feet, saw Hal, guessed what he was about to do, and uttered a loud laugh.
“No, you don’t,” he said, “you don’t get this egg. You thought you would snatch it, but you’re just too late.”
“But I say, George,” cried Hal, “don’t be rough on a fellow. I have never even seen a kingfisher’s egg; do show it to me.”
“You keep your distance if I do. Stand there, you don’t come nigh me; you can look at the egg from here.” George tenderly drew the egg out of his pocket and let Hal view it at a distance.
“It’s a very pretty egg; I wish I might see it nearer,” said Hal.
“You don’t see it any nearer.”
“But I say, George, I want that egg; you must give it to me.”
“Must! I like that,” laughed George.
“I’ll fight you for it.”
“No, you won’t, Master Hal; I don’t want to fight, it’s very wrong to fight, and you won’t get the egg whether you fight or not. It’s for my own collection. Why shouldn’t I have collections of eggs as well as little gentlefolks like you? Good night, Master Hal.”
“Stay, George, I have got sixpence in my pocket,” said Hal; “you shall have sixpence if you give me that egg.”
“You can keep your sixpence; you don’t get the kingfisher’s egg.”
George laughed loudly. He slipped the egg back into his pocket and ran away as fast as his legs would carry him. He was a much bigger boy than Hal, and Hal knew that it was useless to follow him. His heart swelled with passion, his face was crimson, he stamped his foot and clenched his fist.
“I’ll be even with George yet,” he muttered; “if he found a nest why shouldn’t I? I’ll begin to look right away. Yes, I’ll find that nest before I go to sleep.”
He commenced his search; he wandered a long way—there was not a nook anywhere near he did not explore, not a likely hole by the bed of the river that he did not thrust his stick into, but search as he would he could nowhere find the kingfisher’s nest. At last he had to own himself beaten and returned home.
That night he could not sleep. The moon was shining into his room; it shone in a straight bar of light, and fell across his pillow. He felt uncomfortable and moved his head. Still the moon with its bright light followed him. At last he got out of bed to draw down the blinds. As he did so he looked out on the moonlit garden.
“How very bright it is,” he said to himself; I do believe if I went out now I might find the kingfisher’s nest; I have a good mind to try.”
No sooner had the thought come to him than he resolved to act on it. He slipped on his clothes, unfastened his room door, and went out. He went quietly downstairs; the moon was shining through the big lobby window, and it made bars of light on the stairs.
All the doors were locked, but he remembered a certain window through which he could squeeze. He got out and found himself in the garden. It was cold at this hour in the garden, and Hal had forgotten his hat. “No matter,” he said to himself, “brave boys do not feel the cold.”
He ran down to the river and began his search. He searched more carefully than ever, and the rabbits came out of their holes and looked at him, and some pigeons cooed in a distracting manner in a tree over his head. Nowhere could he find the kingfisher’s nest. He had to give it up in despair. “But I will not let Ethel win the prize,” he muttered to himself; “all the fellows at school would crow over me. I have talked so much about Uncle Ralph and the prize he is to give me for my collection of eggs.”
He walked slowly home; the moon was setting now, the brightness had left the garden, it was really cold, and the whole place was full of long dark shadows. Suddenly Hal stood still and clasped his hands, while the colour rushed into his face, for a daring thought, a wicked thought also, had come into his little brain. Why should not he go and steal the kingfisher’s egg from George?
No sooner had the thought come to him than he resolved to act upon it. He could surely make it up to George afterwards; he could give him a shilling out of his prize. Anything was better than to be beaten—beaten by a girl too.
He retraced his steps and started off running rapidly towards the gamekeeper’s cottage. The cottage was in the middle of the wood, in a very dark part. He had not gone a dozen yards before he felt the queerest sensation of nervous fear creeping over him. Even if he reached the cottage he would not know where George kept his eggs, and Sultan, the gamekeeper’s mastiff, was loose at night.
He turned away with a little groan. Then another thought, even more wicked than the first, visited him. How silly he was to think of stealing the egg from George; how much easier it would be to take the egg from Ethel. He knew exactly where Ethel kept her collection; he could take the egg and put it amongst his own. He knew Ethel—oh! yes, he knew her well. She was good, she was staunch, she was brave, she might be hurt, but she would never betray him, and when he had got the glory and honour of winning the prize, he would give her back her egg and share the money with her. Yes, she could have half of his prize. What more could a boy do?
He crept back into the house. It was very dark indoors, and in spite of himself his heart beat hard, but his determination to help himself to Ethel’s treasure never faltered. He soon reached the school-room where Ethel kept her collection.
The door of the cupboard was slightly ajar. Hal felt about, found Ethel’s box, and placed it on the table. He then began to feel on the chimney-piece for some matches. He discovered a box, and the next moment had lit a candle. He opened Ethel’s treasure-box and peeped in. When he did so he gave a start of dismay, for the contents of the box were very beautiful. They were not only beautiful in themselves, but they were most neatly and prettily arranged. Ethel had put in cotton wool of different colours, and had made neat little cardboard divisions between the eggs—these she had decorated with a pretty scroll-work from her box of water-colours. Each egg was labelled with its proper name, and the whole thing looked absolutely scientific. Hal quite shivered. What chance had he beside Ethel? Why, Ethel’s collection was perfect. There was the egg of the wren, the robin, the blackbird, and almost every kind of finch, but look as he would—and he was now almost glueing his eyes to the box—nowhere could he find the kingfisher’s egg.
With a very deep sigh of disappointment, owning to himself that Ethel was too deep for him, he returned the box to the cupboard and crept back to bed. He got into bed, lay there shivering for an hour, and then dropped asleep. It was early morning when he was wakened. The sun was shining, the day was beautiful, and standing at the foot of his bed was his little sister.
“I thought I’d wake you, Hal,” she said; “it is nearly seven o’clock, and if we work hard for an hour we may get it all done.”
“Get what done?” said Hal.
“Why, we can put your eggs in order. I want you to have a fair chance of winning the prize. I don’t think you have made your eggs look as nice as I have, and I have brought some cotton wool, both pink and white, and some pretty labels, and if we work for a good hour we shall get them all settled.”
“But it isn’t fair that you should settle my eggs,” said Hal.
His face went very red and his heart thumped against his side, for he could not understand Ethel.
“It’s quite fair, if I like to do it,” she replied; “mine are in perfect, lovely order. I want yours to be the same. See, Hal, how neatly I have printed the labels, and I have got some cardboard divisions too with a pretty pattern on them. We’ll do your eggs in a jiffy. Come, Hal. Why, what is the matter?”
“I can’t,” he said now, and his voice began to shake.
“Oh yes, you can; do get dressed and come down. I’ll be waiting for you in the school-room.”
Ethel ran out of the room, and Hal slowly, as if his limbs were weighted with lead, proceeded to put on his clothes. He certainly did not understand Ethel. She was making him feel terribly uncomfortable; he could not think what was the matter.
A moment later he had joined his little sister in the school-room.
“Get your box out and let’s begin,” she said.
“But I say, Ethel, it isn’t fair; you mustn’t do it. I thought we were both to make the collection without being helped by the other.”
“Yes, but I have changed my mind,” said Ethel. “Hal, darling, I—oh! give me your box.”
Hal brought his box from the cupboard, placed it on the table, and Ethel looked at it.
“You would never get the prize with eggs arranged like this,” she said. “Take them out as quickly as you can.”
He took them out, and Ethel began to put in the divisions.
“What is that division for in the middle?” asked the boy.
“I will tell you in a minute. Here, I am going to put this pink cotton wool inside; it will show up the egg so beautifully.” As she spoke Ethel softly laid a long, white egg on the pink wool. Hal’s eyes began to dance.
“Oh! Ethel, Ethel, it is the kingfisher’s egg. Did George give you two eggs?”
“No, he wants the other for himself.”
“Then what is this one doing here?”
“It is for you, Hal.”
“For me? For me, Ethel?”
“Yes, it is for you.” Ethel’s little face turned very red.
“I was so glad when I got it yesterday,” she said, “that at first I thought of nothing but the prize, and I was so excited I could not sleep. But I had a dream in the night, Hal—a queer dream it was—about you. I thought I had the prize, but that you were miserable. You see, you are a boy and you go to school, and it meant a great deal to you not getting the prize, and I saw you in my dream so miserable, and then I was miserable too, Hal, darling, and the prize did me no good, and towards the end of the dream I seemed to hear a voice saying to me: ‘You will be awfully happy if Hal gets the prize; you won’t know yourself you’ll be so happy.’ And I woke up, and there were tears on my face, and then I made up my mind all in an instant. So you are to have the kingfisher’s egg and you are to have the prize. Why, Hal, what is the matter?”
Hal’s face had grown first white and then red, his eyes felt as if they would start from his head, he had the queerest sensations in his throat as if someone were choking him, and then all of a sudden the tears burst from his eyes and love shone in the tears, and the stiffness went out of his throat, because his lips broke into smiles, and his arms were round Ethel’s neck.
“Oh! Ethel, you’re a brick,” he said, “and I love you with all my heart. There, I’ll tell you what I did in the night. You will hate me, but I must tell you. Sit down, I must tell you.”
So Hal told his story, and all the time he was speaking Ethel’s arms were round his neck, and when he had finished she said to him:
“I know why the dream came; it was because God wanted me to help you. There, Hal, I was never so happy in my life, and of course you’ll get the prize.”
“We will divide it between us and we’ll both be happy, and it will be the prize for us both,” said Hal. “There, let us go down to breakfast. I declare you are the jolliest girl in all the world.”
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11 December 2017
28 September 2018
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