THE NEST BUILDER
THE NEST BUILDER
BEATRICE FORBES-ROBERTSON HALE
AUTHOR OF "WHAT WOMEN WANT"
_WITH A FRONTISPIECE BY J. HENRY_
* * * * *
* * * * *
Outbound from Liverpool the Lusitania bucked down the Irish Sea against
a September gale. Aft in her second-class quarters each shouldering from
the waves brought a sickening vibration as one or another of the ship's
great propellers raced out of water. The gong had sounded for the second
sitting and trails of hungry and weary travelers trooping down the
companionway met files of still more uneasy diners emerging from the
saloon. The grinding jar of the vessel the heavy smell of food and the
pound of ragtime combined to produce an effect as of some sordid and
demoniac orgy--an effect derided by the smug respectability of the
Stefan Byrd taking in the scene as he balanced a precarious way to his
seat felt every hypercritical sense rising in revolt. Even the prosaic
but admirably efficient table utensils repelled him. "They are so useful
so abominably enduring" he thought. The mahogany trimmings of doors and
columns seemed to announce from every overpolished surface a pompous
self-sufficiency. Each table proclaimed the aesthetic level of the second
class through the lifeless leaves of a rubber plant and two imitation
cut-glass dishes of tough fruit. The stewards casually hovering lacked
the democracy which might have humanized the steerage as much as the
civility which would have oiled the workings of the first cabin. Byrd
resented their ministrations as he did the heavy English dishes of the
bill of fare. There were no Continental passengers near him. He had left
the dear French tongue behind and his ears homesick already shrank
equally from the see-saw Lancashire of the stewards and the monotonous
rasp of returning Americans.
Byrd's left hand neighbor a clergyman of uncertain denomination had
tried vainly for several minutes to attract his attention by clearing his
throat passing the salt and making measured requests for water bread
and the like.
"I presume sir" he at last inquired loudly "that you are an American
and as glad as I am to be returning to our country?"
"No sir" retorted Byrd favoring his questioner with a withering stare
"I am a Bohemian and damnably sorry that I ever have to see America
The man of God turned away pale to the temples with offense--a high-
bosomed matron opposite emitted a shocked "Oh!"--the faces of the
surrounding listeners assumed expressions either dismayed or deprecating.
Budding conversationalists were temporarily frost-bitten and the watery
helpings of fish were eaten in a constrained silence. But with the
inevitable roast beef a Scot of unshakeable manner decorated with a
yellow forehead-lock as erect as a striking cobra turned to follow up
what he apparently conceived to be an opportunity for discussion.
"I'm not so strongly partial to the States mysel' ye ken but I'll
confess it's a grand place to mak' money. Ye would be going there
perhaps to improve your fortunes?"
Byrd was silent.
"Also" continued the Scot quite unrebuffed "it would be interesting to
know what exactly ye mean when ye call yoursel' a Bohemian. Would ye be
referring to your tastes now or to your nationality?"
His hand trembling with nervous temper Byrd laid down his napkin and
rose with an attempt at dignity somewhat marred by the viselike clutch of
the swivel chair upon his emerging legs.
"My mother was a Bohemian my father an American. Neither happily was
Scotch" said he almost stammering in his attempt to control his extreme
distaste of his surroundings--and hurried out of the saloon leaving a
table of dropped jaws behind him.
"The young man is nairvous" contentedly boomed the Scot. "I'm thinking
he'll be feeling the sea already. What kind of a place would Bohemia be
d'ye think to have a mother from?" turning to the clergyman.
"A place of evil life seemingly" answered that worthy in his high-
pitched carrying voice. "I shall certainly ask to have my seat changed.
I cannot subject myself for the voyage to the neighborhood of a man of
The table nodded approval.
"A traitor to his country too" said a pursy little man opposite
snapping his jaws shut like a turtle.
A bony New England spinster turned deprecating eyes to him. "My" she
whispered shrilly "he was just terrible wasn't he? But so handsome! I
can't help but think it was more seasickness with him than an evil
Meanwhile the subject of discussion who would have writhed far more at
the spinster's palliation of his offense than at the men's disdain lay
in his tiny cabin a prey to an attack of that nervous misery which
overtakes an artist out of his element as surely and speedily as air
suffocates a fish.
Stefan Byrd's table companions were guilty in his eyes of the one
unforgivable sin--they were ugly. Ugly alike in feature dress and
bearing they had for him absolutely no excuse for existence. He felt no
bond of common humanity with them. In his lexicon what was not beautiful
was not human and he recognized no more obligation of good fellowship
toward them than he would have done toward a company of ground-hogs. He
lay back one fine and nervous hand across his eyes trying to obliterate
the image of the saloon and all its inmates by conjuring up a vision of
the world he had left the winsome young cosmopolitan Paris of the art
student. The streets the cafes the studios; his few men his many
women friends--Adolph Jensen the kindly Swede who loved him; Louise
Nanette the little Polish Yanina who had said they loved him; the
slanting-glanced Turkish students the grave Syrians the democratic
un-British Londoners--the smell the glamour of Paris returned to him
with the nostalgia of despair.
These he had left. To what did he go?
In his shivering creaking little cabin suspended as it were by the
uncertain waters between two lives Byrd forced himself to remember the
America he had known before his Paris days. He recalled his birthplace
--a village in upper Michigan--and his mental eyes bored across the
pictures that came with the running speed of a cinematograph to his
The place was a village but it called itself a city. The last he had
seen of it was the "depot" a wooden shed surrounded by a waste of rutted
snow and backed by grimy coal yards. He could see the broken shades of
the town's one hotel which faced the tracks drooping across their dirty
windows and the lopsided sign which proclaimed from the porch roof in
faded gilt on black the name of "C. E. Trench Prop." He could see the
swing-doors of the bar and hear the click of balls from the poolroom
advertising the second of the town's distractions. He could smell the
composite odor of varnish stale air and boots which made the
overheated station waiting-room hideous. Heavy farmers in ear-mitts
peaked caps and fur collars spat upon the hissing stove round which
their great hide boots sprawled. They were his last memory of his fellow
Looking farther back Stefan saw the town in summer. There were trees in
the street where he lived but they were all upon the sidewalk-public
property. In their yards (the word garden he recalled was never used)
the neighbors kept with unanimity in the back washing and in the
front a porch. Over these porches parched vines crept--the town's
enthusiasm for horticulture went as far as that--and upon them
concentrated the feminine social life of the place. Of this intercourse
the high tones seemed to be giggles and the bass the wooden thuds of
rockers. Street after street he could recall from the square about the
"depot" to the outskirts and through them all the dusty heat the
rockers gigglers the rustle of a shirt-sleeved father's newspaper and
the shrill coo-ees of the younger children. Finally the piano--for he
looked back farther than the all-conquering phonograph. He heard "Nita
Juanita;" he heard "Sweet Genevieve."
Beyond the village lay the open country level blindingly hot half-
cultivated with the scorched foliage of young trees showing in the ruins
of what had been forest land. Across it the roads ran straight as rulers.
In the winter wolves were not unknown there; in the summer there were
tramps of many strange nationalities farm hands and men bound for the
copper mines. For the most part they walked the railroad ties or rode
the freight cars; winter or summer the roads were never wholly safe and
children played only in the town.
There on the outskirts was a shallow stony river but deep enough at
one point for gingerly swimming. Stefan seemed never to have been cool
through the summer except when he was squatting or paddling in this hole.
He remembered only indistinctly the boys with whom he bathed; he had no
friends among them. But there had been a little girl with starched white
skirts huge blue bows over blue eyes and yellow hair whom he had
admired to adoration. She wanted desperately to bathe in the hole and he
demanded of her mother that this be permitted. Stefan smiled grimly as he
recalled the horror of that lady who had boxed his ears for trying to
lead her girl into ungodliness and to scandalize the neighbors. The
friendship had been kept up surreptitiously after this with interchange
of pencils and candy until the little girl--he had forgotten her name
--put her tongue out at him over a matter of chewing-gum which he had
insisted she should not use. Revolted he played alone again.
The Presbyterian Church Stefan remembered as a whitewashed praying box
resounding to his father's high-pitched voice. It was filled with heat
and flies from without in summer and heat and steam from within in
winter. The school whitewashed again he recalled as a succession of
banging desks flying paper pellets and the drone of undigested lessons.
Here the water bucket loomed as the alleviation in summer or the red hot
oblong of the open stove in winter time. Through all these scenes by an
egotistical trick of the brain he saw himself moving a small brown-
haired boy with olive skin and queer greenish eyes entirely alien
absolutely lonely completely critical. He saw himself in too large
ill-chosen clothes the butt of his playfellows. He saw the sidelong
interested glances of little girls change to curled lips and tossed heads
at the grinning nudge of their boy companions. He saw the harassed eyes
of an anaemic teacher stare uncomprehendingly at him over the pages of an
exercise book filled with colored drawings of George III and the British
flag instead of a description of the battle of Bunker Hill. He
remembered the hatred he had felt even then for the narrowness of the
local patriotism which had prompted him to this revenge. As a result he
saw himself backed against the schoolhouse wall facing with contempt a
yelling jumping tangle of boys who from a safe distance called upon
the "traitor" and the "Dago" to come and be licked. He felt the rage
mount in his head like a burning wave saw a change in the eyes and faces
of his foes felt himself spring with a catlike leap his lips tight
above his teeth and his arms moving like clawed wheels saw boys run
yelling and himself darting between them down the road to fall at last
a trembling sobbing bundle of reaction into the grassy ditch.
In memory Stefan followed himself home. The word was used to denote the
house in which he and his father lived. A portrait of his mother hung
over the parlor stove. It was a chalk drawing from a photograph crudely
done but beautiful by reason of the subject. The face was young and very
round the forehead beautifully low and broad under black waves of hair.
The nose was short and proud the chin small but square the mouth gaily
curving around little even teeth. But the eyes were deep and somber;
there was passion in them and romance. Stefan had not seen that face for
years he barely remembered the original but he could have drawn it now
in every detail. If the house in which it hung could be called home at
all it was by virtue of that picture the only thing of beauty in it.
Behind the portrait lay a few memories of joy and heartache and one
final one of horror. Stefan probed them still with his nervous hand
across his eyes. He listened while his mother sang gay or mournful little
songs with haunting tunes in a tongue only a word or two of which he
understood. He watched while she drew from her bureau drawer a box of
paints and some paper. She painted for long hours day after day through
the winter while he played beside her with longing eyes on her brushes.
She painted always one thing--flowers--using no pencil drawing their
shapes with the brush. Her flowers were of many kinds nearly all strange
to him but most were roses--pink yellow crimson almost black.
Sometimes their petals flared like wings; sometimes they were close-
furled. Of these paintings he remembered much but of her speech little
for she was silent as she worked.
One day his mother put a brush into his hand. The rapture of it was as
sharp and near as to-day's misery. He sat beside her after that for many
days and painted. First he tried to paint a rose but he had never seen
such roses as her brush drew and he tired quickly. Then he drew a bird.
His mother nodded and smiled--it was good. After that his memory showed
him the two sitting side by side for weeks or was it months?--while the
snow lay piled beyond the window--she with her flowers he with his
First he drew birds singly hopping on a branch or simply standing
claws and beaks defined. Then he began to make them fly alone and again
in groups. Their wings spread across the paper wider and more
sweepingly. They pointed upward sharply or lay flat across the page.
Flights of tiny birds careened from corner to corner. They were blue
gold scarlet and white. He left off drawing birds on branches and drew
them only in flight smudging in a blue background for the sky.
One day by accident he made a dark smudge in the lower left-hand corner
of his page.
"What is that?" asked his mother.
The little boy looked at it doubtfully for a moment unwilling to admit
it a blot. Then he laughed.
"Mother Mother that is America." (Stefan heard himself.) "Look!" And
rapidly he drew a bird flying high above the blot with its head pointed
to the right away from it.
His mother laughed and hugged him quickly. "Yes eastward" she said.
After that all his birds flew one way and in the left-hand lower corner
there was usually a blob of dark brown or black. Once it was a square
red white and blue.
On her table his mother had a little globe which revolved above a brass
base. Because of this he knew the relative position of two places
--America and Bohemia. Of this country he thought his mother was unwilling
to speak but its name fell from her lips with sighs with--as it now
seemed to him--a wild longing. Knowing nothing of it he had pictured it
a paradise a land of roses. He seemed to have no knowledge of why she
had left it; but years later his father spoke of finding her in Boston in
the days when he preached there penniless searching for work as a
teacher of singing. How she became jettisoned in that--to her--cold and
inhospitable port Stefan did not know nor how soon after their marriage
the two moved to the still more alien peninsula of Michigan.
Into his memories of the room where they painted a shadow constantly
intruded chilling them such a shadow deep and cold as is cast by an
iceberg. The door would open and his father's face high and white with
ice-blue eyes would hang above them. Instantly the man remembered the
boy would cower like a fledgling beneath the sparrow-hawk but with as
much distaste as fear in his cringing. The words that followed always
seemed the same--he could reconstruct the scene clearly but whether it
had occurred once or many times he could not tell. His father's voice
would snap across the silence like a high tight-drawn string--
"Still wasting time? Have you nothing better to do? Where is your sewing?
And the boy--why is he not outside playing?"
"This helps me Henry" his mother answered hesitating and low. "Surely
it does no harm. I cannot sew all the time."
"It is a childish and vain occupation however and I disapprove of the
boy being encouraged in it. This of course you know perfectly well. Under
ordinary circumstances I should absolutely forbid it; as it is I condemn
"Henry" his mother's voice trembled "don't ask me to give up his
companionship. It is too cold for me to be outdoors and perhaps after
the spring I might not be with him."
This sentence terrified Stefan who did not know the meaning of it. He
was glad for once of his father's ridicule.
"That is perfectly absurd the shallow excuse women always make their
husbands for self-indulgence" said the man turning to go. "You are a
healthy woman and would be more so but for idleness."
His wife called him back pleadingly. "Please don't be angry with me I'm
doing the best I can Henry--the very best I can." There was a sweet
foreign blur in her speech Stefan remembered.
His father paused at the door. "I have shown you your duty my dear. I am
a minister and you cannot expect me to condone in my wife habits of
frivolity and idleness which I should be the first to reprimand in my
flock. I expect you to set an example."
"Oh" the woman wailed "when you married me you loved me as I was--"
With a look of controlled annoyance her husband closed the door. Whether
the memory of his father's words was exact or not Stefan knew their
effect by heart. The door shut his mother would begin to cry quietly at
first then with deep catching sobs that seemed to stifle her so that
she rose and paced the room breathlessly. Then she would hold the boy to
her breast and slowly the storm would change again to gentle tears. That
day there would be no more painting.
These his earliest memories culminated in tragedy. A spring day of
driving rain witnessed the arrival of a gray plain-faced woman who
mounted to his mother's room. The house seemed full of mysterious bustle.
Presently he heard moans and rushed upstairs thinking his mother was
crying and needed him. The gray-haired woman thrust him from the bedroom
door but he returned again and again calling his mother until his
father emerged from the study downstairs and seizing him in his cold
grip pushed him into the sanctum and turned the key upon him.
Much later a man whom Stefan knew as their doctor entered the room with
his father. A strange new word passed between them and in his high-
strung state impressed the boy's memory. It was "chloroform." The doctor
used the word several times and his father shook his head.
"No doctor" he heard him saying "we neither of us approve of it. It is
contrary to the intention of God. Besides you say the case is normal."
The doctor seemed to be repeating something about nerves and hysteria.
"Exactly" his father replied "and for that self-control is needed and
not a drug that reverses the dispensation of the Almighty."
Both men left the room. Presently the boy heard shrieks. Lying a grown
man in his berth Stefan trembled at the memory of them. He fled in
spirit as he had fled then--out of the window down the roaring swimming
street where he knew not pursued by a writhing horror. Hours later as
it seemed he returned. The shades were pulled down across the windows of
his house. His mother was dead.
Looking back the man hardly knew how the conviction had come to the
child that his father had killed his mother. A vague comprehension
perhaps of the doctor's urgings and his father's denials--a head-shaking
mutter from the nurse--the memory of all his mother's tears. He was
hardly more than a baby but he had always feared and disliked his
father--now he hated him blindly and intensely. He saw him as the cause
not only of his mother's tears and death but of all the ugliness in the
life about him. "Bohemia" he thought would have been theirs but for
this man. He even blamed him in a sullen way for the presence in their
house of a tiny little red and wizened object singularly ugly which the
gray-haired woman referred to as his "brother." Obviously the thing was
not a brother and his father must be at the bottom of a conspiracy to
deceive him. The creature made a great deal of noise and when by and
by it went away and they told him his brother too was dead he felt
nothing but relief.
So darkened the one bright room in his childhood's mansion. Obscured it
left the other chambers dingier than before and filled with the ache of
loss. Slowly he forgot his mother's companionship but not her beauty
nor her roses nor "Bohemia" nor his hatred of the "America" which was
his father's. To get away from his native town to leave America became
the steadfast purpose of his otherwise unstable nature.
The man watched himself through high school. He saw himself still hating
his surroundings and ignoring his schoolfellows--save for an occasional
girl whose face or hair showed beauty. At this time the first step in his
plan of escape shaped itself--he must work hard enough to get to college
to Ann Arbor where he had heard there was an art course. For the boy
painted now in all his spare time not merely birds but dogs and
horses boys and girls all creatures that had speed that he could draw
in action leaping flying or running against the wind. Even now Stefan
could warm to the triumph he felt the day he discovered the old barn
where he could summon these shapes undetected. His triumph was over the
arch-enemy his father--who had forbidden him paint and brushes and
confiscated the poor little fragments of his mother's work that he had
hoarded. His father destined him for a "fitting" profession--the man
smiled to remember it--and with an impressive air of generosity gave him
the choice of three--the Church the Law or Medicine. Hate had given him
too keen a comprehension of his father to permit him the mistake of
argument. He temporized. Let him be sent to college and there he would
discover where his aptitude lay.
So at last it was decided. A trunk was found a moth-eaten bag. His
cheap ill-cut clothes were packed. On a day of late summer he stepped