Early on St. Stephen’s Day–which is the day after Christmas–young John Cara, son of old John Cara, the smith of Porthennis, took down his gun and went forth to kill small birds. He was not a sportsman; it hurt him to kill any living creature. But all the young men in the parish went slaughtering birds on St. Stephen’s Day; and the Parson allowed there was warrant for it, because, when St. Stephen had almost escaped from prison, a small bird (by tradition a wren) had chirped, and awakened his gaolers.
Strange to say, John Cara’s dislike of gunning went with a singular aptitude for it. He had a quick sense with birds; could guess their next movements just as though he read their minds; and rarely missed his aim if he took it without giving himself time to think.
Now the rest of youths, that day, chose the valley bottoms as a matter of course, and trooped about in parties, with much whacking of bushes. But John went up to Balmain–which is a high stony moor overlooking the sea–because he preferred to be alone, and also because, having studied their ways, he knew this to be the favourite winter haunt of the small birds, especially of the wrens and the titlarks.
His mother had set her heart on making a large wranny-pie (that is, wren-pie, but actually it includes all manner of birdlings). It was to be the largest in the parish. She was vain of young John’s prowess, and would quote it when old John grumbled that the lad was slow as a smith. “And yet,” said old John, “backward isn’t the word so much as foolish. Up to a point he understands iron ‘most so well as I understand it myself. Then some notion takes him, and my back’s no sooner turned than he spoils his job. Always trying to make iron do what iron won’t do–that’s how you may put it.” The wife, who was a silly woman, and (like many another such) looked down on her husband’s trade, maintained that her boy ought to have been born a squire, with game of his own.
Young John went up to Balmain; and there, sure enough, he found wrens and titlarks flitting about everywhere, cheeping amid the furze-bushes on the low stone hedges and the granite boulders, where the winter rains had hollowed out little basins for themselves, little by little, working patiently for hundreds of years. The weather was cold, but still and sunny. As he climbed, the sea at first made a blue strip beyond the cliff’s edge on his right, then spread into a wide blue floor, three hundred feet below him, and all the width of it twinkling. Ahead and on his left all the moorland twinkled too, with the comings and goings of the birds. The wrens mostly went about their business–whatever that might be–in a sharp, practical way, keeping silence; but the frail note of the titlarks sounded here, there, everywhere.
Young John might have shot scores of them. But, as he headed for the old mine-house of Balmain and the cromlech, or Main-Stone, which stands close beside it–and these are the only landmarks–he did not even trouble to charge his gun. For the miracle was happening already.
It began–as perhaps most miracles do–very slowly and gently, without his perceiving it; quite trivially, too, and even absurdly. It started within him, upon a thought that wren-pie was a foolish dish after all! His mother, who prided herself upon making it, did but pretend to enjoy it after it was cooked. His father did not even pretend: the mass of little bones in it cheated his appetite and spoiled his temper. From this, young John went on to consider. “Was it worth while to go on killing wrens and shamming an appetite for them, only because a wren had once informed against St. Stephen? How were these wrens guilty? And, anyway, how were the titlarks guilty?” Young John reasoned it out in this simple fashion. He came to the Main-Stone, and seating himself on the turf, leaned his back against one of the blocks which support the huge monolith. He sat there for a long while, puckering his brows, his gun idle beside him. At last he said to himself, but firmly and aloud: