Tales of To-day and Other Days/Story of a White Blackbird
Story of a White Blackbird.
ALFRED DE MUSSET.
IT is a great thing, in this workaday world of ours, to be something a little above the common run of ordinary blackbirds, but then, too, the eminence is not without its inconveniences. I am not a bird of fable; Monsieur de Buffon has written my description, but woe is me! I am rare and but seldom met with. Would to Heaven I had never emerged from the lowly state in which I was born!
My father and mother were a couple of honest people who had lived for many years in the seclusion of a quiet old garden in the Marais. It was a model household. While my mother, in the depths of some bushy thicket, laid three times a year regularly and hatched out her brood, gently slumbering most of the time, my father, very neat in his attire and very fussy still, notwithstanding his great age, would be pecking, pecking about her all day long, with patriarchal devotion, bringing her nice little insects that he was always careful to seize by the tail, very daintily, so that his wife's delicate stomach might not be offended, and at nightfall he never failed, when the weather was fine, to treat her to a song that delighted all the neighborhood. Never was there such a thing as a quarrel, never had the smallest cloud arisen to darken this sweet union.
I had hardly made my appearance in the world when, for the first time in his life, my father began to display bad temper. Although as yet I was of only a doubtful shade of gray, he failed to recognize in me either the color or the form of his numerous progeny. Sometimes he would cock his head and look at me askance and say:
"There is an untidy child for you; it would seem as if the little blackguard took pains to go and wallow in every mud-hole and plaster-heap that he came to, he is always so ugly and filthy."
"Eh! Mon Dieu, my friend," my mother would answer, looking like nothing so much as a little round ball of feathers in the old earthenware porringer where she had made her nest, "don't you see that it is owing to his age? And you yourself, in your early days, were you not a charming little scapegrace? Give our little blackbirdling time to grow, and you will see how pretty he will be; I don't think that I ever hatched out a finer one."
My mother was not deceived while pleading my cause in this manner; she saw the growth of my ill-omened plumage, which appeared to her a monstrosity; but she acted as all mothers do, who allow themselves to become more strongly attached to their offspring for the very reason that nature has ill-used them, as if the responsibility rested on the maternal shoulders, or as if they rejected in advance the injustice of their unkind destiny.
With the approach of my first moulting season my father became extremely thoughtful and watched me attentively. He continued to treat me with considerable kindness so long as my feathers kept falling out, and would even bring me something to eat when he saw me shivering, almost naked, in my corner, but as soon as the down began to come out on my poor little half-frozen wings, he would fly into such a tearing rage at every white feather he saw that I greatly feared he would leave me featherless for the remainder of my days. Alas! I had no looking-glass; I did not know the cause of his anger, and I wondered why it was that the best of fathers could treat me so cruelly.
One day when a glimpse of sunshine and my growing plumage had cheered me and warmed my heart a little in spite of myself, as I was hopping about an alley I began, tempted by my evil genius, to sing. At the very first note that he heard my father flew up into the air like a sky-rocket.
"What do I hear there?" he shouted. "Is that the way a blackbird whistles? Do I whistle that way? Do you call that whistling?"
And perching beside my mother with a most terrific expression of countenance:
"Wretched bird!" he said, "what stranger has been sharing your nest?"
At these words my mother indignantly threw herself from her porringer, severely injuring one of her claws in doing so; she endeavored to speak, but her sobs choked her; she fell to the ground in a half-fainting condition. I beheld her at the point of expiring; terrified and trembling with fear, I threw myself upon my knees before my father.
"Oh, father!" I said to him, "if I whistle but poorly and if I am meanly clad, let not the punishment fall upon my mother. Is it her fault if nature has not graced me with a voice like yours? Is it her fault if I have not your beautiful yellow bill and your handsome black coat à la Française, which give you the appearance of a churchwarden about to swallow an omelette? If Heaven has seen fit to make me a monster and if someone must pay the penalty, grant, at least, that I alone may bear the burden of misery."
"That has nothing to do with the case," said my father; "what do you mean by taking the liberty of whistling in that ridiculous manner? Who was it that taught you to whistle thus, contrary to every known rule and custom?"
"Alas! sir," I humbly replied, "I whistled as well as I knew how; for I was feeling in good spirits because the weather is fine, and perhaps I had eaten too many flies."
"That is not the way they whistle in my family," my father rejoined, quite beside himself with anger. "We have been whistling for centuries from generation to generation, and let me tell you that when I raise my voice at night there is an old gentleman here on the first floor, and a young grisette up there in the garret, who throw up their windows to listen to me. Is it not enough that my eyes are constantly offended by the horrid color of those idiotic feathers of yours, which make you look like a whitened jack-pudding at a country fair? Were I not the most long-suffering of blackbirds I should have stripped you naked long before this and reduced you to the condition of a barnyard fowl prepared for the spit."
"Very well!" I cried, unable longer to submit to such injustice, "if that is the case, sir, never mind! I will relieve you of my presence; your eyes shall no more be offended by the sight of these poor white tail-feathers by which you are continually pulling me about. I will go away, sir, I will take refuge in flight; since my mother lays thrice a year there will be other children in plenty to console your declining years; I will go and hide my wretchedness in some distant country, and it may be," I added, with a sob, "it may be that along the gutters or in the neighbors' kitchen-garden I shall find some earth-worms or a few spiders to enable me to eke out my miserable existence."
"As you please," replied my father, far from melting at this speech of mine; "only let me never set eyes on you again. You are not my son; you are not a blackbird."
"What am I then, sir, if you please?"
"I have not the slightest idea; but you are not a blackbird."
With these crushing words my father strode slowly away; My mother sadly arose and went limping to her porringer to have tier cry out, while I, for my part, confounded and disconsolate, stretched my wings and took my flight as well as I could, and went and perched upon the gutter of an adjoining house as I had said I would do.
My father was so inhuman as to leave me several days in this mortifying situation. Notwithstanding his violent disposition his heart was in the right place, and I could see by his way of looking at me askant that he would have been glad to forgive and recall me to my home; my mother, too, was constantly gazing upward at me with eyes that were full of tenderness, and now and then she would even venture to address me with a plaintive little chirrup; but my horrible white plumage inspired them, despite their better feelings, with a fear and a repugnance against which I clearly saw there was no remedy.
"I am not a blackbird!" I kept repeating to myself; and, in truth, as I was preening myself one morning and contemplating my form reflected in the water of the gutter, I saw only too clearly, how little resemblance there was between me and the rest of the family. "Kind Heaven!" I said again, "teach me what I am!"
One night when the rain was coming down in bucketfuls and I was getting ready to go to bed, quite worn out with grief and hunger, a bird came and sat down near me, wetter, paler, and more emaciated than I had believed bird could be. He was of something the same color as I, as nearly as I could judge through the torrents of rain that were streaming down on us; he had scarcely sufficient feathers on his body to clothe a sparrow respectably, and yet he was a bigger bird than I. At first I took him to be some poor, needy wanderer, but notwithstanding the storm that pelted pitilessly upon his almost naked poll he maintained a loftiness of demeanor that quite charmed me. I modestly made him a deep bow, to which he replied with a dig of his beak that nearly sent me tumbling off the roof. When he saw me scratch my ear and meekly edge away from him without attempting to answer him in his own language, he asked in a hoarse, thick voice, to correspond with his bald pate:
"Who are you?"
"Alas! my noble lord," I replied (fearing that he might give me another dig), "I cannot tell. I thought that I was a blackbird, but I am convinced now that I am not."
The strangeness of my answer, and my apparent truthfulness, seemed to interest him. He approached me and made me relate my history, which I did in all sadness and humility, as befitted my position and the unpleasantness of the weather.
"If you were a carrier-pigeon like me," he said to me when I had finished, "the pitiful trifles that you are bewailing so would not disturb your mind an instant. We travel—that is the way we make our living—and we have our loves, indeed, but I don't know who my father is. Cleaving the air, making our way through space, beholding plains and mountains lying at our feet, inhaling the pure ether of the skies and not the exhalations of the earth, hastening to an appointed destination that we never fail to reach, therein lie our pleasures and our life. I travel further in one day than a man can in ten."
"Upon my word, sir," said I, plucking up a little courage, "you are a bird of Bohemia."
"That is something that I never bother my head about," he replied. "I have no country; I know but three things: travel, my wife, and my little ones."
"But what is it that you have hanging about your neck there? It looks like an old twisted curl-paper."
"They are papers of importance," he answered, bridling up. "I am on my way to Brussels and I have a piece of intelligence for the celebrated banker . . . that will send the price of rentes down one franc and seventy-eight centimes."
"Great Heavens!" I cried, "what a delightful life yours ought to be, and Brussels, I am sure, must be an extremely interesting city to visit. Can't you take me with you? Perhaps I am a carrier-pigeon, since I am not a blackbird."
"If you had been a carrier-pigeon," he rejoined, "you would have paid me back for the clip of the beak that I gave you a while ago."
"Well! sir, I will pay you; we won't quarrel over a little thing like that. See! the day is breaking and the storm is passing away. Let me go with you, I beseech you! I am undone, I have not a penny in the world—if you refuse me there is nothing left for me to do but drown myself in this gutter."
"Very well! en route! follow me, if you can."
I cast a parting glance upon the garden where my mother was slumbering. A tear fell from my eye! it was swept away by the wind and rain. I spread my wings and started forth.
As I have said, my wings were not very strong as yet. While my guide pursued his flight with the speed of the wind I was puffing and panting at his side; I held out for some time, but soon was seized with such an attack of dizziness that I thought I should faint.
"Have we far to go yet?" I asked in a weak voice.
"No," he replied," "we are at Bourget; we have but sixty leagues to go."
I tried to muster up courage, for I did not wish to show the white feather, and flew along for a quarter of an hour longer, but it was of no use, I was quite knocked up.
"Monsieur," I again stammered, "might we not stop for a moment? I am tormented by a horrible thirst, and if we were just to perch upon a tree——"
"Go to the devil! you are nothing but a blackbird!" the pigeon responded in a rage and, without so much as turning his head, he continued his mad flight. As for me, everything grew dark before my sight and I fell, senseless, into a field of wheat.
How long my unconsciousness lasted I know not. When I came to, my first recollection was the carrier-pigeon's parting remark: "You are nothing but a blackbird," he had said to me. "Oh! my dear parents," I said to myself, "then you are mistaken, after all! I will return to you! you will recognize me as your true and lawful son and will let me have my place again in that dear little bed of leaves down beneath my mother's porringer."
I made an effort to rise, but the fatigue of the journey and the pain resulting from my fall paralyzed my every limb. Scarcely had I got upon my feet when my strength failed me again and I fell over on my side.
Hideous thoughts of death were now beginning to arise before my mind, when I beheld two charming creatures advancing toward me on tip-toe through the poppies and cornflowers. One was a little magpie, very stylishly speckled and of extremely coquettish appearance, and the other was a turtle-dove of a rosy complexion. The turtle-dove stopped when she had approached within a few feet of me, with a great display of modesty and compassion for my misfortune, but the pie came skipping up with the most pleasing manner in the world.
"Eh! Bon Dieu! my poor child, what are you doing there?" she inquired in a merry, silvery voice.
"Alas! Madame la Marquise," I replied (for I thought that she must be a marquise at the very least), "I am a poor devil of a traveler whom his postilion has abandoned here at the roadside, and I am ready to die of hunger."
"Holy Virgin! what is that you tell me?" said she. And forthwith she began to flit about among the surrounding bushes, hopping from one to another and bringing me a great provision of berries and small fruits, which she deposited in a little pile at my side, continuing her fire of questions meanwhile.
"But who are you? Where do you come from? The story of your adventure sounds incredible! And where were you going? To think of your traveling alone, at your age; why, you are only just over your first moulting! What is your parents' business? Where do they belong? How can they let you go about in the condition that you are in? Why, it is enough to make one's feathers stand on end!"
I had raised myself a little upon my side while she was speaking and was eating with a ravenous appetite. The turtle-dove had not stirred from her position and continued to eye me with a look of pity; she remarked, however, that I would turn my head every now and then in a feeble sort of way, and saw that I was thirsty. Upon a leaf of chickweed there remained a drop of the rain that had fallen during the night; she took it in her beak and timidly brought it and offered it to me; it was deliciously cool and refreshing. Had I not been as ill as I was, a person of her modesty would certainly not have ventured thus to transgress the rules of propriety.
As yet I knew not what it was to love, but my heart was beating violently; I was divided between two conflicting emotions and an inexpressible charm pervaded my being. My clerk of the kitchen was so lively, and my butler showed such gentleness and feeling, that I would gladly have protracted my breakfast to all eternity, but everything has an end, unfortunately, even the appetite of a convalescent. When the meal was ended and my strength had in a measure returned to me I appeased the little pie's curiosity, and related the story of my woes with the same candor that I had displayed the day before in telling them to the pigeon. The pie listened with a deeper interest than the recital seemed to call for, and the turtle-dove evinced a degree of sensibility that was most charming. When, however, I came to touch upon the final cause of all my sufferings, that is to say, my ignorance as to my own identity:
"Are you joking?" screamed the pie. "What you, a blackbird! a pigeon, you! Nonsense! you are a pie, my dear child, if pie there ever was, and a very pretty pie, too," she added, giving me a little tap with her wing, as if it had been a fan.
"But, Madame la Marquise," I replied, "it seems to me, respectfully begging your pardon, that I am not of the right color for a pie."
"A Russian pie, my dear, you are a Russian pie! Don't you know that they are white? Poor child, how innocent you are!"
"But how could I be a Russian pie, madame," I rejoined, "when I was born down in the Marais in an old broken porringer?"
"Ah! the simple child! Your folks came here with the invasion, my dear; do you suppose that there are not others in the same case as you? Confide in me and don't allow yourself to worry! I mean to carry you off with me right away and show you the finest things in the world."
"And where to, dear madame, may it please you?"
"To my green palace, pretty one; and you shall see the kind of life we lead there. When you shall once have been a pie for a quarter of an hour you will never want to hear tell of anything else. There are about a hundred of us there, not those great, common, village pies who make a business of begging on the highways, but all noble and of good family, spry and slender and no larger than one's fist. There isn't one of us that has either more or less than seven black and five white spots; the rule is unalterable, and we look with contempt on all the rest of the world. It is true that you have not the black spots, but you will have no difficulty in gaining admission on account of your Russian descent. Our time is spent in two occupations: cackling and prinking ourselves. From morning until midday we prink, and from noon till night we cackle. Each of us selects a tree to perch upon, the tallest and oldest that he can find. In the midst of the forest is a great oak that is uninhabited now, alas! It was tile dwelling of the late king Pie X, and we make pilgrimages to it, heaving many a deep sigh; but, apart from this transitory grief, our life is as pleasant as we could wish. Our women are not prudes nor are our husbands jealous, but our pleasures are pure and honest, because our hearts are as noble as our tongues are merry and unrestrained. Our pride is unbounded, and if a jay or any such common trash happens to intrude his company upon us we pluck him without mercy. For all that, however, we are the most good-natured people in the world, and the sparrows, the finches and the tomtits who live in our copses always find us ready to protect, feed and help them. Nowhere is cackling carried to greater perfection than among us and nowhere is there less scandal. There are plenty of bigoted old hen-pies who do nothing but say their prayers all day, but the friskiest of our young gossips can go right up to the severest old dowager and never get a scratch. To sum it all up, our life consists of pleasure, honor, chatter, glory, and the clothes we put on our backs."
"That is very nice, indeed, ma'am," I answered, "and it would certainly be a piece of very bad manners on my part not to obey your orders. Before doing myself the honor of following you, however, permit me, I pray you, to speak a word to this good damsel here—— Mademoiselle," I continued, addressing the turtle-dove, "I adjure you, speak frankly; do you think that I am really a Russian pie?"
At this question the turtle-dove drooped her head and her complexion changed to a light red, like Lolotte's ribbons.
"Why, sir, I don't know if I can——"
"Speak, mademoiselle, for Heaven's sake! I contemplate nothing that can possibly give you offense; quite the reverse: You both appear so charming to me that I call Heaven to witness, here and now, that I will make offer of my heart and claw to either of you that will accept them, the very instant that I learn whether I am a pie or something else; for," I added, lowering my voice a little to the young creature, "I feel an inexpressible turtle-dovish sensation as I gaze on you that causes a strange disquietude within me."
"Why, truly," said the turtle-dove, blushing more deeply still, "I don't know whether it is the sunlight striking on you through those poppies, but your plumage does seem to me to have a slight tint of——"
She dared say no more.
"Oh, perplexity!" I cried, "how am I to know what to depend on? how am I to decide to whom to give my heart when it is divided thus cruelly between you? O Socrates! how admirable was the precept that you gave us, but how difficult of observance, when you enjoined upon us: 'Know thyself'!"
I had not tried my voice since that day when my most unlucky song had so disturbed my father's equanimity, and now the idea occurred to me of making use of it as a means whereby I might arrive at the truth. "Parbleu!" I said to myself, "since monsieur my father turned me out of doors for the first couplet, it seems a reasonable enough conclusion that the second should produce an effect of some kind on these ladies." So, making a polite bow to start with as if appealing to their indulgence on account of the cold that I had caught in the rain-storm, I commenced by whistling, then I warbled, then I diverted my audience with a few trills, and finally I set to singing in earnest, vociferously, like a Spanish mule-driver in a gale of wind.
The little pie began to back away from me, and the louder I sang the further she retreated, at first with an air of surprise, which quickly changed to one of stupefaction, and finally terminated in a look of terror accompanied by deep disgust. She kept walking around me in a circle, as a cat walks around a piece of bacon, sizzling hot, against which she has burned her nose, but of which she thinks she would like to try another taste, notwithstanding. I saw how my experiment was turning out and wished to carry it to a conclusion, so, the more the poor marquise fretted and fumed, the more deliriously did I sing. She stood my melodious efforts for twenty-five minutes, but at last she succumbed and flew noisily away and retired to her palace of verdure. As for the turtle-dove, she had gone off into a sound slumber almost at the very beginning.
"Delightful effect of harmony!" I thought. "Oh, my dear native marsh! Oh, maternal porringer! More than ever am I firmly resolved to return to you!"
Just as I was poising myself in readiness for flight the turtle-dove opened her eyes.
"Farewell," she said, "pretty and tiresome stranger! My name is Gourouli; don't forget me!"
"Fair Gourouli," I replied, "you are gentle, kind and charming; I would like to live and die for you, but you are of the color of the rose; such happiness was never meant for me!"
The distressing results of my singing could not but sadden me. "Alas, Music! alas, Poetry!" I said to myself as I winged, my way back to Paris, "how few are the hearts that are able to comprehend you!"
While pursuing these reflections I ran full tilt into a bird who was flying in a direction opposite to mine. The shock was so violent and so unexpected that we both fell into a tree, which, by great good luck, happened to be beneath us. When we had shaken ourselves, and pulled ourselves together a bit, I looked at the stranger, fully expecting that there was going to be a quarrel. I saw with surprise that he was white; his head was a little larger than mine, and rising from the middle of his forehead was a kind of plume that gave him an aspect half heroic, half comical. He carried his tail very erect, moreover, in a manner that bespoke an excessive intrepidity of soul; he did not, however, seem to be disposed to quarrel with me. We accosted each other very civilly and made our mutual excuses, after which we entered into conversation. I took the liberty of asking him what was his name and from what country he was.
"I am surprised," he said, "that you do not know me. Are you not one of our people?"
"Truly, sir," I replied, "I know not of what race I am. Every one asks me that very question and tells me the same thing; I think they must be carrying out a bet that they have made."
"You are joking, surely," he replied; "your plumage sets too well upon you that I should fail to recognize a confrère. You indubitably belong to that illustrious and venerable race that is known in Latin as Cacuata, in scientific nomenclature as Kakatoës, and in the vernacular of the vulgar as cockatoos."
"Faith, sir, that may be, and it would be a very great feather in my cap were it so. But favor me by acting as if it were not the case, and have the condescension to tell me to whom I have the honor of addressing myself."
"I am the great poet Kacatogan," the stranger, replied. "I have been a mighty traveler, sir, and many are the tiresome journeys that I have made through arid realms and ways of heaviness. I am not a rhymester of yesterday, and my muse has seen misfortune. I have sung love ditties under Louis XVL, sir; I have brawled for the republic, sung the empire in noble strains, applauded the restoration guardedly; even in these later days I have made an effort and bowed my neck to meet, the demands of this unlettered age. I have given to the world sparkling distichs, sublime odes, graceful dithyrambs, soulful elegies, stirring dramas, blood-curdling romances, vaudevilles in powder and tragedies in wig. In a word, I may flatter myself that I have added to the temple of the Muses some garlands of gallantry, some gloomy battlements and some graceful arabesques. What would you more? I have grown old in harness, but I keep on rhyming still with pristine vigor, and even as you behold me now I had my mind on a poem in one canto, to be not less than six pages long, when you came along and gave me that lump on my forehead. Nevertheless, I am entirely at your service, if I can be of use to you."
"To tell the truth, sir, you can," I replied, "for I am in great poetic tribulation just now. I won't venture to say that I am a poet, and, above all, a great poet like you," I added, with a low bow, "but nature has kindly fitted me with an organ that makes its existence felt whenever I am joyous or sorrowful. To be entirely candid with you I am absolutely ignorant of all the rules of poetry."
"You need not let that trouble you," said Kacatogan; "I myself have forgotten them."
"But there is a very disagreeable circumstance connected with my case," I continued; "my voice produces upon my hearers very much the same effect as did that of a certain Jean de Nivelle upon—— You know what I mean?"
"I know," said Kacatogan. "I have experienced that singular effect in my own person. The cause is unknown to me, but the effect is indisputable."
"Very well, sir. Could you, who seem to me to be the Nestor of poetry, think you, suggest a remedy for this painful state of affairs?"
"No," Kacatogan answered; "speaking for myself, I have never succeeded in finding one. When I was young it worried me exceedingly that I should be constantly hissed, but now I never think of it. I think that this opposition arises from the fact that the public read other works than ours: they seem to like to do so."
"I am of your opinion; still, sir, you must admit that it is hard on a well-meaning creature that his audience should take to their heels the very moment that he is seized by a fine inspiration. Would you do me the favor to listen to me and tell me candidly what you think?"
"With the greatest pleasure in the world," said Kacatogan; "I am all ears."
I began to sing forthwith, and had the satisfaction of seeing that Kacatogan neither ran away nor went to sleep. He kept his eyes fixed intently on me and, every now and then, gave a little approving nod of the head accompanied by a low, flattering murmur. I soon perceived, however, that he was not listening at all and that his mind was on his poem. Taking advantage of a moment when I had stopped to breathe, he suddenly interrupted me.
"Ah, that rhyme! I have found it at last!" he said, with a smile and a toss of the head; "that makes the sixty thousand seven hundred and fourteenth that has emanated from this brain! And yet people dare to say that I show the effects of age! I am going to read that to those good friends of mine; I am going to read it to them, and we'll see what they have to say!"
So saying he took flight and disappeared, seemingly oblivious of the fact that he had ever met me.
Left thus solitary with my disappointment, there remained nothing better for me to do than profit by the daylight while it lasted and reach Paris in a single flight, if possible. Unfortunately I did not know the way; my journey with the carrier-dove had been attended with too much discomfort to leave a distinct impression on my memory, so that instead of keeping straight on I turned to the left at Bourget, and, the darkness descending suddenly upon me, I found myself obliged to look for a night's lodging in the woods of Morfontaine.
When I reached there every one was making ready to retire for the night. The pies and jays, who, as is well known, are the worst sleepers on the face of the earth, were squabbling and wrangling on every side. The sparrows were squalling among the bushes, swarming and treading one another underfoot. On the bank of the stream two herons, the George Dandins of the locality, were stalking gravely to and fro, perched on their tall stilts, patiently waiting for their wives in an attitude of profound meditation. Huge crows, already more than half asleep, settled heavily upon the tops of the tallest trees and commenced to drone out their evening prayer. Below, the amorous tomtits were pursuing one another through the copses, while a disheveled woodpecker, marching in rear of his little household, endeavored to marshal it into the hollow of an old tree. Battalions of hedge-sparrows came in from the fields, whirling in the air like smoke-wreaths, and threw themselves upon a shrub which they quite concealed from sight; finches, blackcaps and redbreasts perched airily upon the projecting branches in little groups, like the crystal pendants on a girandole. From every side came the sound of voices that said as plainly as could be: "Come, wife!—Come, my daughter!—This way, pretty one!—Come here, darling!—Here I am, my dear!—Good-night, dear mistress!—Farewell, friends!—Sleep soundly, children!"
Imagine what a predicament it was for a bachelor to have to take up his quarters in an inn like that! I thought that I would go to some birds of station similar to my own and request their hospitality. All birds are gray in the dark, I said to myself, and besides, what harm can it do people to have a young fellow sleeping beside them if he behaves himself?
I first bent my steps toward a ditch where there was an assemblage of starlings. They were just making their toilet for the night and were devoting the most scrupulous attention to it, and I observed that most of them had their wings gilded and wore patent-leather claws: they were evidently the dandies of the forest. They were good enough fellows in their way and did not notice me, but their conversation was so shallow, they displayed such fatuousness in telling one another of their broils and their love affairs, and they crowded together so coarsely that I could not stand it.
Next I went and perched upon a limb where half-a-dozen birds of different kinds were sitting in a row. I modestly took the last place, away out on the end of the limb, in the hope that they would suffer me to remain there. As my ill-luck would have it my neighbor was a dove well on in years, as withered and juiceless as a rusty weather-cock on a church steeple. At the moment of my approach she was devoting an affectionate solicitude to the scanty feathers that covered her old bones; she pretended to be smoothing them, but she was too much afraid that she might pull one out to do that: she was only counting them over to see if they were all there. I barely touched her with the tip of my wing when she drew herself up as majestically as you please.
"What are you doing here, sir?" she cried, with a modesty that would not have disgraced the severest of British prudes, and giving me a great poke with her elbow she sent me tumbling from the branch with a vigor worthy of a railway baggageman.
I fell into a brake where a big wood-hen was sleeping. My mother herself, in her porringer, never wore such a beatific air. She was so plump, so rotund and comfortable, with her well-filled stomach and her fluffy feathers, that one would have taken her for a pâté from which the crust had been eaten off. I crept furtively up to her. "She won't wake up," I said to myself, "and even if she does, such a jolly, fat old lady can't help but be good-natured." She did not turn out as I expected, however. She lazily opened her eyes half-way, and heaving a faint sigh, said:
"You are crowding me, young fellow; clear out of here."
At the same instant I heard my name called; it was a band of thrushes up in the top of a mountain-ash who were making signals to me to come to them. "There are some charitable souls, at last," thought I. They made room for me, laughing as if they were crazy, and I slipped into the midst of the feathered group as expeditiously as ever you saw a billet-doux disappear in a muff. It soon became evident to me, however, that the ladies had been partaking of the fruit of the vine more liberally than was good for them; it was as much as they could do to keep themselves from falling off their perches, and their equivocal pleasantries, their uproarious bursts of laughter and their indecent songs compelled me to leave their company.
I was beginning to despair, and was about to search for some lonely corner where I might lay my head when a nightingale began to sing. Instantly silence reigned throughout the grove. Ah! how pure was her voice! Her very melancholy, how sweet did it appear! Far from disturbing the slumbers of others, her tuneful strains seemed to soothe them. No one thought of bidding her be silent, no one took it ill that she selected that hour for singing her song; her father did not beat her, her friends did not fly from her presence.
"It is I alone, then," I cried, "to whom it is not given to be happy! Let us go, let us fly from this cruel world! Better is it to seek my way amid the shades of night and run the risk of making a meal for some wandering owl, than to linger here and have my heart lacerated by the spectacle of others' happiness!"
Upon this reflection I started forth, and for a long time wandered without definite aim. The first light of breaking day revealed to me the towers of Notre Dame. Quick as a flash I reached them and from them scanned the horizon; it was long before I recognized our garden. I winged my way to it, swifter than the wind. Alas! it was empty. It was in vain that I called upon my parents: no one responded. The tree where my father had his seat, the bush, my mother's home, the beloved porringer, all had disappeared. The fatal ax had leveled all, and in place of the verdant alley where I was born there remained only a pile of firewood.
The first thing that I did was to search through all the gardens of the neighborhood for my parents, but it was only labor lost; they had doubtless taken refuge in some distant quarter and I never heard of them more.
Sick at heart, I went and perched upon the gutter that had been my first place of exile when driven from my home by my father's cruelty. There I spent days and nights bewailing my sad existence; I could not sleep, I ate scarcely anything; my grief had nearly caused my death.
One day when, as usual, I was giving way to my sorrowful meditations, I thought aloud and said:
"So, then, I am not a blackbird, since my father pulled out my feathers; nor a pigeon, since I fell by the way when I tried to fly to Belgium; nor a Russian pie, since the little marquise stopped her ears as soon as I opened my beak; nor a turtle-dove, since Gourouli, even that good, kind Gourouli, could not help snoring like a trooper while I was singing; nor a parrot, since Kacatogan would not condescend to listen to me; nor a bird of any kind whatever, in fine, since they allowed me to sleep by myself at Morfontaine. And yet I have feathers on my body; those appendages are claws, those are wings. I am not a monster, witness Gourouli and the little marquise herself, who seemed to look on me with eyes of favor. To what inscrutable reason is it owing that these feathers, wings, and claws compose a whole that is nothing more nor less than a nameless mystery? I wonder if I am not——"
I was pursuing my lamentations in this strain when I was interrupted by two women quarreling in the street.
"Ay! parbleu!" one of them said to the other, "if you succeed in doing it I will make you a present of a white blackbird!"
"Great Heavens!" I exclaimed; "that decides it. I am the son of a blackbird and I am white; I am a white blackbird!"
This discovery, as may well be imagined, modified my ideas considerably. I at once ceased to bewail my fate and began to hold up my head and strut about the gutter, looking out on the world with the air of a conquerer.
"It is no small matter to be a white blackbird," said I to myself; "you don't find them growing on every bush. It was a fine thing for me to do, forsooth, to grieve myself to death because I could find no one like me; it is always so with genius; it is my case! It was my wish to fly from the world; now I will astonish it! Since I am that peerless bird whose existence is denied by the vulgar herd, it is my duty, as it is my intention, to bear myself accordingly and look down on the rest of the feathered tribe, with a pride as great as their vaunted Phœnix. I must buy myself Alfieri's memoirs and Lord Byron's poems; those noble works will inspire in me a towering haughtiness in addition to that which God has endowed me with. Yes, if so it may be, I mean to add to the prestige which is mine by birth. Nature has willed that I should be rare, I will make myself mysterious. It shall be a favor, a glory, to look on me—— And why not, indeed," I added, lowering my voice, "exhibit myself, just simply for money?
"Fie on it! What an ignoble thought! I will write a poem, like Kacatogan, not in one canto, but in twenty-four, like other great men; that is not enough; there shall be forty-eight, with notes and an appendix! The whole universe must know of my existence. I will not fail to make my verse tell the pitiful tale of my loneliness, but it shall be done in such a way that the happiest shall envy me. Since Heaven has denied me a mate I will defame most horribly the mates of all my acquaintance; I will demonstrate that all the grapes are green except those that are for my eating. Let the nightingales look out for themselves; I will prove, as sure as two and two make four, that their complainings give rise to heart disease and that their wares are worthless. I must go and find Charpentier. First of all I want to make for myself a strong literary position. I mean to have a court around me, composed not of journalists alone, but of real authors, and even of literary women. I will write a rôle for Mlle. Rachel and, if she declines to act it, I will trumpet it through the land that there are old actresses in the provinces who are her superiors in talent. I will go to Venice, and there, on the banks of the Grand Canal, in the heart of that fairy-like city, I will hire the beautiful Mocenigo Palace that costs four livres and ten sous a day; there I will drink in the inspiration of all the memories that the author of "Lara" must have left there. From the depths of my solitude I will inundate the world with a deluge of terza rima, copied from the verse of Spenser, in which my great soul shall find solace; the grove shall do me reverence, tomtits shall sigh, turtle-doves coo, woodcocks shed bitter tears, and all the old owls shriek enviously. As regards my personal being, however, I will be inexorable and permit no amorous advances, Vainly will the unfortunate females, who shall have been seduced by my sublime strains, approach me with prayers and supplications to have pity on them; my only answer to it all will be: 'Pshaw!' Oh, glory without end! My manuscripts shall sell for their weight in gold, my books shall cross the sea; fame and fortune shall pursue me everywhere; I alone will appear indifferent to the murmur of the multitude that shall crowd about me. In a single word, I will be a perfect white blackbird, a veritable eccentric author, feasted, petted, admired, and envied, but always grumbling and ever insupportable."
It took me only six weeks to bring out my first work. It was, as I had determined it should be, a poem in forty-eight cantos. It is true that there were some passages that showed marks of hasty composition, but that was owing to the prodigious rapidity with which it had been written, and I thought that the public, accustomed as it is to the fine writing that it finds in the feuilletons of the newspapers nowadays, would overlook such a trifling defect.
My success was such as accorded with my merit, that is to say, it was unparalleled. The subject of my work was nothing other than myself; in that I conformed to the ruling fashion of our time. The egotistic unreserve with which I told the story of my late sufferings was charming; I let the reader into the secret of a thousand domestic details of most absorbing interest; the description of my mother's porringer alone filled no less than fourteen cantos. The description was perfect; I enumerated every dent, chink, and cranny, every spot and stain, the places where it had been mended and its varying appearances under different lights; I exhibited it inside and out, top, sides, and bottom, curves and plain surfaces; then, passing to what was within, I made a minute study of the blades of grass, sticks, straws, and bits of wood, the gravel-stones and drops of water, the remains of dead flies and broken cockchafers' legs that were there; the description was simply charming. Do not think, however, that I sent it to the press as an unbroken whole; there are readers who would have known no better than to skip it. I cunningly cut it up into fragments which I interspersed among the episodes of the story in such a way that no part of it was lost, so that, at the most thrilling and dramatic moments, one suddenly came to fifteen pages of porringer. Therein, I think, lies one of the great secrets of our art, and as there is nothing mean about me, let anyone who is inclined to do so profit by it.
All Europe was in a commotion upon the appearance of my book; it greedily devoured the details of private life that I condescended to reveal to it. How could it have been otherwise? Not only had I enumerated every circumstance that had the slightest bearing on my personality, but I gave to the public in addition a finished picture of all the idle reveries that had passed through my head since the time when I was two months old; nay, I even inserted at the most interesting part an ode composed by me when in the shell. It may be supposed that I did not fail to allude cursorily to the great theme that is now occupying the attention of the world; to wit, the future of humanity. This problem had seemed to me to have something of interest in it, and in one of my leisure moments I had roughly drafted a solution of it, which seemed to give general satisfaction.
There was not a day that I failed to receive complimentary verses, congratulatory letters, and anonymous declarations of love. As to callers, I adhered unflinchingly to the resolution that I had formed for my protection: my door was rigorously barred against all the world. Still, I could not help receiving two foreigners who had announced themselves as relatives of mine; they were blackbirds both, one from Senegal, the other from China.
"Ah! sir," said they, with an embrace that nearly drove the breath out of my body, "what a great blackbird you are! How well have you depicted in your immortal lay the pangs of unrecognized genius! If we were not already as uncomprehended as possible, we should become so after having read you. How we sympathize with you in your sorrow, in your sublime scorn for the vulgar! We, too, dear sir, have reason to know something, of our own knowledge, of the secret griefs that you have sung so well. Here are two sonnets that we composed while coming hither and that we beg you will accept."
"Here also is some music," added the Chinese, "that my wife composed on a passage in your preface. It is marvelous in its illustration of the meaning of the author."
"Gentlemen," I said to them, "so far as I can judge, you appear to me to be endowed with great depth of feeling and great brilliancy of intellect; but pardon me for asking you a question. Why are you so sad?"
"Eh, monsieur!" replied the traveler from Senegal, "just look at me and see how I am constructed. My plumage is pleasing to the eye, it is true, and I am dressed in that beautiful shade of green that shines so lustrously on the neck of the duck, but my beak is too small and my foot is too big, and just look at the ridiculous tail that I am tricked out with! It is a great deal longer than my whole body. Is it not enough to tempt one to use profane language?"
"And look at me, too," said the'Chinaman; "my pitiable state is even worse than his. My confrère sweeps the streets with his tail, but at me the little street urchins point their fingers because I have no tail at all."
"Gentlemen," I rejoined, "I pity you from the bottom of my heart; it is always inconvenient to have too much or too little of anything, be it what it may. Allow me to suggest to you, however, that there are several persons very like you in the Jardin des Plantes, where they have been living very quietly for some time past, in a stuffed condition. Even as it does not suffice a woman of letters to cast her modesty to the winds in order to write a good book, so no blackbird can command genius merely by manifesting discontent. I am the only one of my kind, and I am sorry for it; I may be wrong, but I can't help it. I am white, gentlemen; do you become white, too, and then we'll see what you have to say."
Notwithstanding all my resolutions and my affected calmness, I was not happy. My isolation seemed none the less hard to bear for being glorious, and I could never think without a shudder of the cheerless prospect that lay before me of living all my life unmated. The return of spring, in particular, brought with it a mortal feeling of disquietude, and I was beginning to fall back into my old morbid state of mind, when an unforeseen circumstance occurred that shaped my future for me.
It is unnecessary here to state that my writings had crossed the Channel, and that the English were quarreling among themselves for copies, The English quarrel over everything except that which is comprehensible to them. One day I received a letter from London, from a young hen-blackbird.
"I have read your poem," she said, "and the admiration that it inspired in me has induced me to make you the offer of my hand and person. God made us for each other! I am like you; I am a white blackbird!"
My surprise and delight may be readily imagined. "A white hen-blackbird!" I said to myself; "can it be possible? So, then, I am no longer alone upon the earth!" I made haste to answer the fair unknown, and I did it in such a strain as showed how acceptable her proposition was to me. I urged her to come to Paris, or else permit me to fly to her. She responded that she preferred to come to me, because her parents were plaguing her to death, that she was putting her affairs in order, and would be with me almost immediately.
She arrived, in fact, a few days after her letter. Oh, joy! she was the prettiest little blackbird in the world, and was even whiter than I was.
"Ah! mademoiselle," I cried, "or madame, rather for from this moment I look upon you as my lawful wedded wife, is it possible that so charming a creature can have been a dweller upon earth and the tongue of fame have never told me of her existence? Blessed be the ills that I have endured and the peckings that my father gave me with his beak, since kind Heaven has had in store for me a compensation so unhoped-for! Until this day, I believed myself condemned to eternal solitude, and to speak you frankly, the burden was a heavy one to bear, but now that I look on you, I feel within me all the qualities requisite for a good father and husband. Let us not delay; accept my hand; we will be married in English style, without ceremony, and start at once for Switzerland."
"I don't look at the matter in that light," replied the young lady blackbird. "I mean that our espousals shall be celebrated in magnificent style and that all the blackbirds in France that have a drop of good blood in their veins shall be present in solemn conclave. People of our quality owe it to their station not to marry like a couple of cats in a coal-hole. I have a store of banknotes with me; get out your invitations, go to your tradesmen, and see that you don't skimp the refreshments."
I followed implicitly the instructions of my white Merlette. Our wedding-feast was on a scale of unparalleled luxury; ten thousand flies were consumed at it. We received the nuptial benediction at the hands of a reverend Cormorant father, who was archbishop in partibus. The day was brought to an end by a splendid ball; in a word, there was nothing wanting to complete my felicity.
My love for my charming wife increased as I became better acquainted with her character and disposition; in her small person all accomplishments of mind and body were united. The only blemish was that she was a little prudish in her notions, but I attributed that to the influence of the English fog in which she had been living until then, and I doubted not but that this small cloud would quickly melt away in the genial atmosphere of France.
A matter that was cause to me of more serious uneasiness was a sort of mystery in which she would at times enshroud herself with strange inflexibility, shutting herself away under lock and key with her maids, and thus passing, as she pretended, whole hours in making her toilet. Husbands are not generally inclined to look with favor upon whims of this description in their family. Twenty times it had happened that I had gone to my wife's apartment and knocked and she had not opened the door. It tried my patience cruelly. One day, however, I was so persistent and in such a horribly bad temper that she was obliged to yield and unlock the door rather hastily, at the same time reproaching me for my importunity. As I entered my eyes alighted on a great bottle filled with a kind of paste made of flour and Spanish white. I asked my wife what use she put that ointment to. She replied that it was a lenitive for frost-bites that she was troubled with.
It struck me at the time that there was something more about that lenitive than she chose to tell, but how could I distrust such a sweet, well-behaved creature, who had bestowed her hand on me with such gladness and perfect candor? I had been ignorant at first that my wife was a literary character, but she admitted it after a while, and even went so far as to show me the manuscript of a novel for which she had taken Walter Scott and Scarron as her models. It may be imagined how pleased I was by such an agreeable surprise. Not only did I behold myself possessed of a beauty beyond compare, but I was now also fully assured that my companion's intellect was in all respects worthy of my genius. From that time forth we worked together. While I was composing my poems she would bescribble reams of paper. I used to read my poetry aloud to her, and that did not in the least disturb her or prevent her from going on with her writing. She hatched out her romances with a facility that was almost equal to my own, always selecting the most dramatic subjects, such as parricides, rapes, murders, and even small rascalities, and always taking pains to give the government a slap when she could and inculcate the emancipation of female blackbirds. In a word, there was no obstacle of sufficient magnitude to daunt her intelligence, and she allowed no scruples of modesty to keep her from saying a brilliant thing; she never erased a line and never sat down to her work with a plot arranged beforehand. She was the perfect type of the feminine literary blackbird.
She was working away one day with rather more than her usual industry, when I noticed that she was perspiring violently, and at the same time I was surprised to see that she had a great black spot right in the middle of her back.
"Good gracious!" I said, "what ails you? Are you ill?"
She seemed a little frightened at first, and I even thought that there was a guilty expression on her face, but her habit of familiarity with the world quickly enabled her to regain the wonderful control that she always exercised over herself.
"Is my wife losing her color?" I asked myself in a frightened whisper. The thought haunted me and would not let me sleep. The bottle of paste arose before my memory. "Oh, heavens!" I exclaimed, "what a suspicion! Can it be that this celestial creature is nothing more than a painting, a thin coat of white-wash! Can she have made use of such a trick to deceive me! When I thought that I was pressing to my heart the twin-sister of my soul, the privileged being created for my behoof alone, can it be that I was holding in my embrace but so much flour?"
Haunted by this horrible suspicion, I devised a plan to relieve myself of it. I purchased a barometer and eagerly awaited the advent of a rainy day. My idea was to select a Sunday when the mercury was falling, take my wife to the country, and see what effect a good washing would have on her. We were in mid July, however, and the weather remained disgustingly fair.
My apparent happiness and my constant habit of writing had wrought my sensibilities up to a very high pitch. While at work it sometimes happened to me, artless being that I was, that my feeling over-mastered my reason, and then I would abandon myself to the luxury of tears while waiting for a rhyme to come to me. These infrequent occasions were a source of much pleasure to my wife; masculine weakness is a spectacle that always affords pleasure to feminine pride. One night when I was busy filing and polishing, in obedience to Boileau's precept, the flood-gates of my heart were opened.
"O thou!" said I to my dear Merlette, "the only and most fondly loved one! thou, without whom my life is but an empty dream, thou, in whose look, whose smile, the universe is as another world, life of my heart, knowest thou how I love thee? It were easy for me, with a little study and application, to express in verse the hackneyed ideas that have already been employed by other poets, but where shall I find the glowing words in which to tell thee all that thy beauty inspires within my heart? Can the memory even of the suffering that is past supply me with language fitly to portray to thee the bliss that is present? Before thou camest to me my lonely state was that of a homeless orphan; to-day, it is that of a king. Knowest thou, my beautiful one, that in this weak frame whose form I bear until it shall be stricken down in death, in this poor, throbbing brain where fruitless ideas are ceaselessly fermenting, knowest thou, dost understand, my angel, that there is not one atom, not one thought that is not wholly thine? List to what my intelligence can say to thee and feel how infinitely greater is my love. Oh! that my genius were a pearl and thou wert Cleopatra!"
While doting in this manner I was shedding tears over my wife, and her color was fading visibly. At every tear that fell from my eyes a feather became, not black, indeed, but of a dirty, rusty hue (I believe that she had been playing the same trick before somewhere else). After thus indulging my tenderness for a few minutes I found myself in presence of an unfloured, unpasted bird, in every respect exactly similar to a common, everyday blackbird.
What could I do? What could I say? What course was left open to me? Reproaches would have been futile. I might, indeed, have considered the marriage as void on the ground of false representations and secured its annulment, but how could I endure to make my shame public? Was not my misfortune great enough as it was? I took my courage in my two claws, I resolved to quit the world, to abandon the literary career, to fly to a desert, could I find one, where never again might I behold living creature, and, like Alcestis, seek
some lonely spot
Where leave is granted blackbirds to be white.
Thereupon I flew away, still dissolved in tears, and the wind, which is to birds what chance is to men, landed me on a branch in Morfontaine wood. At that hour every one was a-bed. "What a marriage!" I said to myself, "what a catastrophe! That poor child certainly meant well in getting herself up in white, but for all that I am none the less to be pitied, and she is none the less mangy."
The nightingale was singing still. Alone in the silence of the night he was recreating himself with that gift of the Almighty that renders him so superior to the poet, and was pouring out, unhindered, his secrets upon the surrounding stillness. I could not resist the temptation of drawing near and speaking to him.
"What a lucky bird you are!" said I. "Not only can you sing as much as you wish—and very well you do it, too, and every one is pleased to listen to you—but you have a wife and children, your nest, your friends, a comfortable pillow of moss, the full moon, and never a newspaper to criticize you. Rubini and Rossini are nothing compared to you; you are the equal of the one and you interpret the other. I, too, sir, have been a singer, and my case is pitiable. While you have been here in the forest I have been marshaling words like Prussian soldiers in array of battle and dovetailing insipidities. May one know your secret?"
"Yes," replied the nightingale, "but it is not what you think. My wife is tiresome; I do not love her. I am in love with the rose: Saadi, the Persian, has mentioned the circumstance. All night long for her sake do I strain my throat in singing, but she sleeps and hears me not. Her petals are closed now and she has an old scarabee sheltered there——and to-morrow morning, when I seek my bed, worn out with fatigue and suffering, then, then she will open them to receive a bee who is consuming her heart!"
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