But Buddie got no farther. The sound of music came to her ears, and she stopped to listen. The music was faint and sweet, with the sighful quality of an Æolian harp. Now it seemed near, now far.
“What can it be?” said Buddie.
“Wait here and I’ll find out,” said Snowfeathers. He darted away and returned before you could count fifty.
“A traveling musician,” he reported. “Come along. It’s only a little way.”
Back he flew, with Buddie scrambling after. A few yards brought her to a little open place, and here was the queerest sight she had yet seen in this queer wood.
On a bank of reindeer moss, at the foot of a great white birch, a mouse-colored donkey sat playing a lute. Over his head, hanging from a bit of bark, was the sign:
WHILE YOU WAIT
OLD SAWS RESET
After the many strange things that Buddie had come upon in Queerwood, nothing could surprise her very much. Besides, as she never before had seen a donkey, or a lute, or the combination of donkey and lute, it did not strike her as especially remarkable that the musician should be holding his instrument upside down, and sweeping the strings with one of his long ears, which he was able to wave without moving his head a jot. And this it was that gave to the music its soft and furry-purry quality.
The Donkey greeted Buddie with a careless nod, and remarked, as if anticipating a comment he had heard many times:
“Oh, yes; I play everything by ear.”
“Please keep on playing,” said Buddie, taking a seat on another clump of reindeer moss.
“I intended to,” said the Donkey; and the random chords changed to a crooning melody which wonderfully pleased Buddie, whose opportunities to hear music were sadly few. As for the White Blackbird, he tucked his little head under his wing and went fast asleep.
“Well, what do you think of it?” asked the Donkey, putting down the lute.
“Very nice, sir,” answered Buddie, enthusiastically; though she added to herself: The idea of saying sir to an animal! “Would you please tell me your name?” she requested.
The Donkey pawed open a saddle-bag, drew forth with his teeth a card, and presented it to Buddie, who spelled out the following:
TEACHER OF SINGING ALL METHODS
CONCERTS AND RECITALS
While Buddie was reading this the Donkey again picked up his instrument and thrummed the strings.
“Did you ever see a donkey play a lute?” said he. “That’s an old saw,” he added.
“I never saw a donkey before,” said Buddie.
“You haven’t traveled much,” said the other. “The world is full of them.”
“This is the farthest I’ve ever been from home,” confessed Buddie, feeling very insignificant indeed.
“And how far may that be?”
Buddie couldn’t tell exactly.
“But it can’t be a great way,” she said. “I live in the log house by the lake.”
“Pooh!” said the Donkey. “That’s no distance at all.” Buddie shrank another inch or two. “I’m a great traveler myself. All donkeys travel that can. If a donkey travels, you know, he may come home a horse; and to become a horse is, of course, the ambition of every donkey!”
“Is it?” was all Buddie could think of to remark. What could she say that would interest a globe-trotter?
“Perhaps you have an old saw you’d like reset,” suggested the Donkey, still thrumming the lute-strings.
Buddie thought a moment.
“There’s an old saw hanging up in our woodshed,” she began, but got no farther.
“Hee-haw! hee-haw!” laughed the Donkey. “Thistles and cactus, but that’s rich!” And he hee-hawed until the tears ran down his nose. Poor Buddie, who knew she was being laughed at but didn’t know why, began to feel very much like crying and wished she might run away.
“Excuse these tears,” the Donkey said at last, recovering his family gravity. “Didn’t you ever hear the saying, A burnt child dreads the fire?”
Buddie nodded, and plucked up her spirits.
“Well, that’s an old saw. And you must have heard that other very old saw, No use crying over spilt milk.”
Another nod from Buddie.
“Here’s my setting of that,” said the Donkey; and after a few introductory chords, he sang: “
‘Oh, why do you cry, my pretty little maid,
With a Boo-hoo-hoo and a Heigho?’
‘I’ve spilled my milk, kind sir,’ she said,
And the Cat said, ‘Me-oh! my-oh!’
‘No use to cry, my pretty little maid,
With a Boo-hoo-hoo and a Heigho.’
‘But what shall I do, kind sir?’ she said,
And the Cat said, ‘Me-oh! my-oh!’
‘Why, dry your eyes, my pretty little maid,
With a Boo-hoo-hoo and a Heigho.’
‘Oh, thank you, thank you, sir,’ she said,
And the Cat said, ‘Me-oh! my-oh!’”
“How do you like my voice?” asked the Donkey, in a tone that said very plainly: “If you don’t like it you’re no judge of singing.”
Buddie did not at once reply. A professional critic would have said, and enjoyed saying, that the voice was of the hit-or-miss variety; that it was pitched too high (all donkeys make that mistake); that it was harsh, rasping and unsympathetic, and that altogether the performance was “not convincing.”
Now, Little One, although Buddie was not a professional critic, and neither knew how to wound nor enjoyed wounding, even she found the Donkey’s voice harsh; but she did not wish to hurt his feelings—for donkeys have feelings, in spite of a popular opinion to the contrary. And, after all, it was pretty good singing for a donkey. Critics should not, as they sometimes do, apply to donkeys the standards by which nightingales are judged. So Buddie was able to say, truthfully and kindly:
“I think you do very well; very well, indeed.”
It was a small tribute, but the Donkey was so blinded by conceit that he accepted it as the greatest compliment.
“I ought to sing well,” he said. “I’ve studied methods enough. The more methods you try, you know, the more of a donkey you are.”
“Oh, yes,” murmured Buddie, not understanding in the least.
“Yes,” went on the Donkey; “I’ve taken the Donkesi Method, the Sobraylia Method, the Thistlefixu Method—”
“I’m afraid I don’t quite know what you mean by ‘methods,’” ventured Buddie.
The Donkey regarded her with a pitying smile.
“A method,” he explained, “is a way of singing ‘Ah!’ For example, in the Thistlefixu Method, which I am at present using, I fill my mouth full of thistles, stand on one leg, take in a breath three yards long, and sing ‘Ah!’ The only trouble with this method is that the thistles tickle your throat and make you cough, and you have to spray the vocal cords twice a day, which is considerable trouble, especially when traveling, as I always am.”
“I should think it would be,” said Buddie. “Won’t you sing something else?”
“I’m a little hoarse,” apologized the singer.
“That’s what you want to be, isn’t it?” said Buddie, misunderstanding him.
“Hee-haw!” laughed the Donkey. “Is that a joke? I mean my throat is hoarse.”
“And the rest of you is donkey!” cried Buddie, who could see a point as quickly as any one of her age.
“There’s something to that,” said the other, thoughtfully. “Now, if the hoarseness should spread—”
“And you became horse all over—”
“Think of another old saw,” said the Donkey, picking up his lute.
“No; I don’t believe I can remember any more old saws,” said Buddie, after racking her small brain for a minute or two.
“Pooh!” said the Donkey. “They’re as common as, Pass the butter, or, Some more tea, please. Ever hear, Fair words butter no parsnips?”
Buddie shook her head.
“The wolf does something every day that keeps him from church on Sunday—?”
Again Buddy shook her head.
“It is hard to shave an egg—?”
Still another shake.
“A miss is as good as a mile? You can not drive a windmill with a pair of bellows? Help the lame dog over the stile? A hand-saw is a good thing, but not to shave with? Nothing venture, nothing have? Well, you haven’t heard much, for a fact,” said the Donkey, contemptuously, as Buddie shook her head after each proverb. “I’ll try a few more; there’s no end to them. Ever hear, When the sky falls we shall all catch larks? Too many cooks spoil the broth?”
“I’ve heard that,” said Buddie, eagerly.
“It’s a wonder,” returned the Donkey. “Well, I have a very nice setting of that.” And he sang:
“Some said, ‘Stir it fast,’
Some said, ‘Slow’;
Some said, ‘Skim it off,’
Some said, ‘No’; Some said, ‘Pepper,’
Some said, ‘Salt’;—
All gave good advice,
All found fault.
Poor little Tommy Trottett!
Couldn’t eat it when he got it.”
“I like that,” said Buddie. “Oh, and I’ve just thought of another old ax—I mean saw, if it is one—Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched. Do you sing that?”
“One of my best,” replied the Donkey. And again he sang:
“‘Thirteen eggs,’ said Sammy Patch,
‘Are thirteen chickens when they hatch.’
The hen gave a cluck, but said no more;
For the hen had heard such things before.
The eggs fall out from tilted pail
And leave behind a yellow trail;
But Sammy,—counting, as he goes,
Upon his fingers,—never knows.
Oh, Sammy Patch, your ‘rithmetic
Won’t hatch a solitary chick.”
“I like that the best,” said Buddie, who knew what it was to tip over a pail of eggs, and felt as sorry for Sammy Patch as if he really existed.
“It’s one of my best,” said the Donkey. “I don’t call it my very best. Personally I prefer, Look before you leap. You’ve heard that old saw, I dare say.”
“No; but that doesn’t matter. I shall like it just as well,” replied Buddie.
“That doesn’t follow, but this does,” said the Donkey, and once more he sang:
“A foolish Frog, one summer day,
While splashing round in careless way,
Observed a man
With large tin can,
And manner most suspicious.
‘I think I know,’ remarked the Frog,
‘A safer place than on this log;
For when a man
Comes with a can
His object is malicious.’
Thus far the foolish Frog was wise;
But had he better used his eyes,
He would have seen,
Close by, a lean
Old Pike—his nose just showing.
Kersplash! The Pike made just one bite….
The moral I need scarce recite:
Before you leap
Just take a peep
To see where you are going.”
Buddie, however, clung to her former opinion. “I like Sammy Patch the best,” said she.
“That,” rejoined the singer, “is a matter of taste, as the donkey said to the horse who preferred hay to thistles. Usually the public likes best the very piece the composer himself cares least about. So wherever I go I hear, ‘Oh, Professor, do sing us that beautiful song about Sammy Patch.’ And I can’t poke my head inside the Thistle Club but some donkey bawls out, ‘Here’s Bray! Now we’ll have a song. Sing us Sammy Patch, old fellow.’ Really, I’ve sung that song so many times I’m tired of the sound of it.”
“It must be nice to be such a favorite,” said Buddie.
“Suppose we go up to the Corner and see what’s stirring,” suggested the Donkey, with a yawn.
“Oh, are you going up to the Corner, too?” cried Buddie. “I am to meet the Rabbit there at two o’clock. I hope it isn’t late.”
The Donkey glanced skyward.
“It isn’t noon yet,” said he.
“How do you tell time?” inquired Buddie.
“By the way it flies. Time flies, you know. You can tell a great many birds that way, too.” As he spoke the Donkey put his lute into one of his bags and took down his sign.
“You can ride if you wish,” he offered graciously.
“Thank you,” said Buddie. And leaving the White Blackbird asleep on his perch,—for, as Buddie said, he was having such a lovely nap it would be a pity to wake him,—they set off through the wood.
It was bad traveling for a short distance, but presently they came out on an old log-road; and along this the Donkey ambled at an easy pace. On both sides grew wild flowers in wonderful abundance, but, as Buddie noticed, they were all of one kind—Enchanter’s Nightshade.
Buddie had also noticed, when she climbed to her comfortable seat, a peculiar marking on the Donkey’s broad back. It was bronze in color, and in shape like a cross.
“Perhaps it’s a strawberry mark,” she thought, “and he may not want to talk about it.” But curiosity got the better of her.
“Oh, that?” said the Donkey, carelessly, in reply to a question. “That’s a Victoria Cross. I served three months with the British army in South Africa, and was decorated for gallantry in leading a charge of the ambulance corps. I shall have to ask you not to hang things on my neck. It’s all I can do to hold up my head.”
“Oh, excuse me,” said Buddie, untying the sign, Old Saws Reset While You Wait.
“Hang it round your own neck,” said the Donkey, and Buddie did so.
“I often wonder,” she said, “whether a horse doesn’t sometimes get tired holding his head out at the end of his neck. And as for a giraffe, I don’t see how he stands it.”
“Well, a giraffe’s neck runs out at a more convenient angle,” said the Donkey. “Still, it is tiresome without a check-rein. You hear a great deal about a check-rein being a cruel invention, but, on the contrary, it’s a great blessing. Now, a nose-bag is a positive outrage, and the more oats it contains the more of an imposition it is. People have the queerest ideas!”