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The Frog and the Nightingale

ISSUE:  Summer 1933

James de graffenreid porter was recognized to have an exceedingly deep bass voice for so young a frog. In fact, there was already talk of his becoming a soloist and singing all by himself at the next Inter-Swamp Contest. And his rather light-headed uncle, whose balance was always endangered by the slightest compliment to the family voice, had gone so far as to suggest that he leave their pond and all the near-by streams and waters, and travel far overland to the Great Lake, the center of all the singing and general excitement of the world. This was a long and dangerous journey, and no one who had gone on it had ever come back. But James De Graffen-reid Porter had not been excited by the praise, nor frightened by the dangers his budding greatness might bring upon him. The truth is, that neither his bass voice, indubitably fine as it was, nor the long and difficult journey would take him, so far as he could see, any nearer the one aim of all his longing and desire.

To put it plainly, James was in love with the Moon. Now James of course realized that he was not the first frog who had been in love with the glamour of that far, cool lady; but like all lovers, particularly young ones, he felt firmly convinced that he was more deeply, more lastingly, in love than anyone outside the realm of fiction had ever been before. “And,” argued James, “since this sensation of mine is so unique an experience in the history of emotion, it stands to reason that it was brought about for some very special purpose, and I cannot for a moment doubt that the conclusion will be quite as unusual as my own feelings have been so far.” All of which simply means that he was sure that the Moon was in love with him. Naturally he did not say anything about this to anyone, but his whole demeanor was so full of the combined absent-mindedness and cock-sureness which betoken the lover that even his light-headed uncle realized what was up, and tried to caution James against what had always proved an ignis fatuus in their family. But of course he was merely wasting his breath, for as you have already guessed, James was of that very usual type of young frog who pays not the slightest attention to anything his elders tell him.

He had organized an Evening Choral Society to serenade the Moon every night that she came out, and had gone to no end of trouble to arrange special stations for all his friends, to which, upon the announcement of her distant appearing, they all bounded, stumbling and hopping and colliding in their frenzy to be first upon the ground. Although the organizer of the plan, James was almost the clumsiest one in getting into position, for he insisted on keeping his eyes fixed upon the far-off silver circle, and in consequence pitched himself into more bushes and clashed with more solid rock than any of his less infatuated friends. Once arrived upon the concert ground, the young frogs hastened to throw out upon the translucent silver silence those strange globules of sound for which their race has long been noted.

Now this evening concert had gone on for some time, and James felt that so well organized a demonstration, repeated so regularly, must make an impression on even the least receptive brain. But so far, he had to admit to himself that the lady of his dreams had given not the slightest evidence of being impressed. Of course I cannot say with certainty, as no very reliable records exist, but I seriously doubt if the Moon ever knew the thing was going on at all. Not that she was snobbish, or even selfish; but simply that she was much farther away than James, well educated as he was, could possibly imagine.

It was about this time that James first noticed the Nightingale. There was never from the beginning any real sympathy between them. The Nightingale’s method of singing irritated James exceedingly. But the thing that ate into his soul was his rival’s ability to fly. At bottom James was so well satisfied with his own voice and his own appearance and coloring that though he admitted a possible diversity of tastes, he was comfortably convinced that a choice different from his showed lack of real discrimination. But wings! ah, those were the great desire of James’s life! Wings could carry him up through the colorless night air to the ever-enduring object of his love. And to think that this stupid fellow, silly, affected, and egotistical, could move through the very clouds as James, with all his unusual ability and rare devotion, could never do! So deeply did his jealousy corrode his soul that James came in time to do as most creatures who have been forced to adapt themselves to their surroundings have always done: in the end he managed to consider the Nightingale’s leaving the earth at all as a quite immoral proceeding.

But during all this time the Nightingale was in love with the Rose, a creature whose very warmth of color offended James’s sensibilities. To the Nightingale, however, her pink contours and deep curves were the essence of all desire, and he was constantly bemused out of his very song by her bobbing, swaying coquetry. James said it was the Breeze that moved her most. But the Nightingale would allow none of that. It was his voice, his crystal song; of this he was sure beyond all controversy. Had anyone, he asked petulantly, ever before failed to be stirred by that?

Nevertheless the Rose was most obdurate in refusing to leave her stalk. “You would think,” cried the Nightingale in irritation, “that this small stunted bush were the whole wide world. What I could show you is, I am afraid, past your power of imagining: hillsides folded in lavender mists, and tender green valleys; steel-black lakes at night with jewels set in their polished surfaces; and rivers that at their sources tear themselves with dark struggle from the clutches of the ice and rush headlong through red valleys into a boiling sea.”

At this point the Rose interrupted him with a little shudder of fright, not at his story of far-off sights, but at the immediate appearance of an enormous caterpillar which was crawling slowly up her stem. The Nightingale felt cross at being thus interrupted in his wooing; but seeing the cause of the trouble, he jumped forward and with one quick peck removed the source of the lady’s annoyance and at the same time made a very good meal himself. This occupied him for a while and stilled his song. When he had finished he flew away, to give himself to contemplation of a plan to attract the Rose’s attention by objects more readily in her line of vision than glaciers and distant seas.

His notice had been drawn to the Frog’s slow but persistent attentions to the Moon. “The idea is good,” said the Nightingale, “but the execution is clumsy.” He sat for some hours in silent thought, giving the matter his serious consideration. At the end of that time he had formulated a scheme.

First he set himself to work to write a series of sonnets, all of course addressed to the Rose, in which he lauded her as Queen of the Flowers, Pride of the Garden, Mistress of all Poets’ Adoration. These poems are still ranked among his best early work, and for intensity of passion they have never been surpassed by any of his later compositions. Then the real genius of the fellow showed itself, for in a lyric sequence he managed to convince the Rose that all the succession of flowers in the garden had been arranged by him as a series of ballets and choruses entirely in her honor. Of course if the Rose had been a person of more insight into nature, she would not have accepted this statement so complacently. But coming as she did of a family whose opportunities for travel had been limited, she believed the story and prepared to enjoy with proud satisfaction all that one summer could produce in her garden.

The Nightingale poured out a profuse stream of lyrics as the flowers continued to bloom. But it was a warm damp summer, and he had much ado to keep pace with the general fecundity of nature. When the violets first came, he sang that he had plucked them from the night sky, and if the Rose would look up she could still see in the gaps from which they had been torn away the golden floor of heaven shining through. After this the Rose confidently told her friends that the stars had been created in her honor. Considering the question of the lilies, the Nightingale toyed for some time with the idea that jealousy of her beauty had caused the white lilies to flush with black and orange anger; but in the end he turned the thought the other way and triumphantly announced that the wild Tiger had been purified into the Ascension variety by the spectacle of her loveliness.

It was then that the Butterfly appeared on the scene, and from his first attention to the Rose it was obvious to everyone but the Nightingale that his affair was finished. The Frog sat comfortably under the lily pads and chuckled to himself. “And that wizened drab creature actually thought himself good-looking! What fools we are! But I suppose it is hard to judge others who have not our gifts. How on earth should I feel if I had no fine modeling or rich coloring in my figure? I hardly believe, however, that it would drive me to such immoral behavior as flying.”

There was certainly no question about the beauty of the Butterfly. The whole garden was in a flutter, and so little notice was given her by the other flowers that for the first time the Rose began to question the Nightingale’s songs. Besides, he was ugly, and she had never seen anything so handsome as the Butterfly in his black velvet suit with its lemon lace ruffles and great gold buttons. He constantly hovered over her, caressing gently with the tips of his soft wings. The Frog moved slightly and pushed aside a few grasses so that he could get a clearer view of the spectacle. “She’ll pay for this, the little fool!” he grunted.

But the Rose, who was dizzy with delight, bloomed more gorgeously than before. There was no room in her thoughts for the Nightingale, and he sat disconsolately by, accusing her of faithlessness and cruelty, and in his bitterness forgetting to sing. As one last effort, he tried a new flower. He took the lavender and purple mists of evening in the hollows and the pulsing flame of morning on the hill tops and made asters. But it had no success. Absorbed as she was, the Rose did not know that he had spoken. By this time she had opened out so fully to her lover that he lay upon her breast in utter abandon. And the Nightingale watched him careen away from the tipsy encounters, with her heart’s gold in careless dust upon his elbows.

So the days came and went, growing shorter, and the saddened bird fell to addressing his lonely plaints to the Moon. The Frog was outraged at such an attempt to thrust an earthly love upon Divinity. For he had long since realized that she lay completely outside his world and must therefore be divine. But his deep-voiced disapproval was lost upon the Nightingale, who had now reached the height of his powers, combining a style perfected in bitterness with a pro-founder, more controlled emotion. So marvelous was his song that it transcended the realm of sound and, spreading into all the senses, flowed outwards in great waves of color. The black and white night quivered with the ghost of a spectrum. The shadows were purple, and blue, and green, and where the sterile moonlight bathed the flowers, there glowed for a moment the gold and ruby of the lost Sun’s power. Even the Frog was moved, much against his will. But the Moon never stirred in her curious, cold aloofness. “I believe she is burnt out,” cried the Nightingale.

“That,” roared the Frog, “is sacrilege! She is so beautiful that she must of necessity be beyond our power to understand. Nor may we ever in this life reach her in aught but our thoughts’ far adoration. Nevertheless, by such means, we may be lifted into a realm that only those who enter it may know.”

“After all,” said the Nightingale, “it is probably just as well that she never answered. Now that I come to think of it, it was inevitably the answers that made all the trouble.”

“There is no answer from Divinity except within the heart,” cried the Frog. “She is so beautiful that you could not hope to reach her.”

“I think you have simply reversed the proposition. She is so beautiful because I cannot reach her. All my other loves I have seen too close at hand. And it may well be that vanity and deceit and even cruelty are lost when viewed from such a distance.”

“What you imply is blasphemy,” groaned the Frog, in ineffectual rage, for he longed to kill the Nightingale and stop his comments and his strange, stirring song.

“So at last,” said the Nightingale, “I have found a love to whom I may eternally be true, simply because I may never get close enough to prove the contrary. Casual encounters may come and go with the moving years, but all the while she will remain the enduring but ever distant object of my real devotion. To borrow your word, sir,” he said, turning to the Frog for the first time, “that may well be Divinity.”

But the Frog remained silent. He had decided that it was useless and even worse to discuss sacred matters with such a low fellow. And as far as I know, they have never spoken to each other since — which is probably just as well, as I doubt if the two could ever be brought to agree.


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