Open main menu

VI.

MY WIFE’S BIRDS.

A REMINISCENCE.

MY wife once made up her mind that she wanted a bird. She had, she told me, many reasons for wanting one. One was that the landlady’s son was apprenticed to a bird-cage maker, and had promised to use all his influence with his employer — who, the landlady told my wife, was a very civil man — to get us a cage cheap. Another reason for having a bird was that the old groundsel man at the corner asked her every day if she would not buy a penn’orth of the weed for her dear little birds, and that she felt an impostor (inasmuch as she had no bird) every time she met the groundsel man.

“But, my dear,” said I, “you have not got a bird; and if you only tell him so, he will give up annoying you.”

“He does not annoy me at all,” she replied; “he is a very nice, respectable old man indeed, and I am sure no one could have been angry at his way of asking you to buy his groundsel — and then it was so beautifully fresh!”

“But you don’t mean to say you bought any?” I asked in surprise.

“Yes, I did,” was the answer; “it was so beautifully fresh — and I did so want to have a bird — and so, whenever I refuse to buy any now, he thinks I am too mean to give my birds a pennyworth of groundsel now and then. It is very cruel to birds to keep them without any green food at all.”

I felt at the time that there was something wrong about this line of argument, but could not quite see where to fix the error without going very far back to the beginning (though women, it seems to me, always do this), so I let it pass, not thinking it worth while to point out again that, as she had no bird, the grounsel seller’s animadversions and suspicions were without foundation, and therefore absurd.

And then my wife went on to give other reasons for wanting to have a bird; but the only one I can remember just now was to the effect that the bird would not give any trouble to anybody but herself, and that it could not possibly matter to me whether she had a bird or not. I am not quite sure that I have given that reason right, but it is about as near as I generally get to some of my wife’s reasons for things.

“It will, you see,” she repeated, as she cracked an egg, “be no trouble to anybody but myself. I will look after it myself and — ”

“The Lord in His pitiful mercy keep an eye upon that bird!” I piously ejaculated.

“Oh, John! — and of course I will feed it and wash it — its cage, I mean; not feed the cage, you know, but wash it: and when I go out to do the housekeeping for ourselves,” — which, by the way, always seems to me to consist in meeting friends at the gate and then going off with them to look at new music, — “I will do the bird’s housekeeping, too.”

Now, I really never had any objection to a bird from the first. On the contrary, I like birds, — little ones. But my wife has, all through, insisted on it that I do not love “God’s creatures,” as she calls them, and took from the first a certain complacent pride in having made me more Christian-like in this matter. “You won’t hurt it, will you, John?” she pleaded, pathetically, when she hung up a linnet.

Hurt it!” I said, in astonishment, for I am a very Buddhist in my tenderness to animals. “ On the contrary — ”

“Yes, dear, I know how you hate them; and you are a sweet, good old darling to say you love them, just to please me.”

“You are quite mistaken,” I began, “in supposing — ”

“No, I am not, you good old duck, for you always pretended just in the same way that you liked Lucy (my wife’s cousin), though I know you don’t, for soon after we were married, I remember you called her a gadabout and a gossip.”

And the end of it was that I was mean enough to accept the virtues of self-denial and consideration thus thrust upon me. Consequently, I have had ever since to affect a condescension whenever I take notice of the birds, although when my wife is not there I waste a good deal of time over the pretty things.

But “God’s creatures,” after all, is a term that you can lump most things under. And if my wife had drawn a distinction between the linnet and her great parrot, more like a vulture than a cage-bird, I would have candidly confessed to a difference in my regard for the two fowls. Linnets are very harmless, I fancy. At any rate, ours never does anything more outrageous than splash its water and seed about of a morning. For the rest of the day it is mostly hopping off the floor on to the perch and back again, except when you go to look at it close. It then hops only sideways off the perch on to the wires of the cage, and back again.

But the parrot! It is dead now — and it took as much burying as a horse — was more of a reptile than a bird, I should say. At any rate, it had very few feathers on it after a bit, and the way it worried my wife’s Maltese terrier was most unusual, I fancy, in a bird. The first time it pounced down on Tiny, who was only going to eat some of the parrot’s pudding, we thought it was going to eat the dog, though I found, on looking it up since, that parrots never eat other animals, as vultures and other birds do sometimes. But it wasn’t. It was only pulling fluff off the dog. But Tiny’s fluff grows so fast, and he is so light, that we generally pick him up by it. And so, when the parrot began to pull at it, it rolled the dog all about, and as one of the bird’s claws got caught in the fluff of the dog and the other in the fluff of the hearth-rug, they got rolled up in the corner of it, — the terrier and the parrot together; and the noises that proceeded from those two, and the confusion there was of hearth-rug and fluff and feathers, defies all description. Getting them unmixed took us ever so long. We had first of all to give the parrot a spoon to hold in its mouth, and then a fork in one claw, while we undid the other. And as soon as it was undone, it got its claw fixed round my thumb, and then, dropping the spoon, it took hold of my cuff with its beak. And when I had got the bird off me, it got fastened on to my wife; for the thing was so frightened at itself, it wanted something, it didn’t matter what, to hold on to. But at last we got it on to the curtains, and there it hung half the morning, saying to itself, as it always does when it’s put out, “Polly’s very sick; poor Polly’s going to die.” Tiny, in the mean time, had disappeared into the scullery under the sink, and to the last day of the parrot’s life, whenever the dog heard the parrot scream, it used to make for the same spot. And as the parrot was mostly screeching all day, the dog pretty well lived under the sink. But the parrot died at last, poor beast.

The few feathers it had on must have had something to do with it, I fancy. If I were a bird, I know, and had so few feathers, I should die too. It does not seem much worth living with so few on. One could hardly call one’s self a bird.

So one evening, when I came home, I found Jenny in tears, and there on the hearth-rug, was the poor old parrot, dead, and about as bald as a bird could be — except in a pie. I asked Jenny how it all happened; but she couldn’t speak at first for crying, and when she did tell me, it was heart-breaking to hear her sobs between the words.

“You know,” she began, “Polly hasn’t been eating enough for a long time, and to-day, when I came in from my housekeeping, I saw him looking very sad about something. So I called him, and he came down off his perch. But he couldn’t hop; he was too weak, so he walked quite slowly across the floor to me — and so unsteadily! I knew there was something dreadful going to happen. And when he got to my feet he couldn’t climb up my dress as he generally does. And I said to him, ‘Polly, what’s the matter with you?’ and he said” — but here she broke down altogether for a bit — “and he looked up at me and said, ‘Polly’s very sick,’ And when I picked Mm up he was as light as — oh! so light. And he sat on my lap without moving, only breathing very hard. And then after a little, I saw his head drooping, so I touched him to wake him up. And he started up, and shook himself so hard that he rolled over on his side, and then I heard him saying something to himself, so I put down my head to listen. And he opened his eye again quite wide, and looked at me just as if he knew who I was quite well, and whispered to me, ‘poor Polly’s going to die.’ And then he shut his wings up tight, and stretched out one leg after the other — and — and died.”

I was very sorry for it, after he was really dead, for Jenny was very fond of him, and the parrot, I think, was very fond of her. So when I looked round and saw Tiny eating the dead bird’s pudding, I gave a screech like the parrot used to give, and the little wretch shot off in a flurry of fluff to the sink, where we let him stay until we had buried poor Polly under the laurel-tree. Jenny proposed to have it stuffed; but considering the proposal of stuffing such a naked bird absurd, I evaded the suggestion, nor did she press it.

But all this time I have been anticipating a great deal. It was the first mention of the parrot that set me off on the digression. I have not yet told you how my wife got her birds, or what birds she has got.

Well, I had given my consent, you remember, to a bird being bought; so immediately after breakfast, my wife went out to choose one — “a little one,” she said. Bat before she went out she confided her want to the landlady, who, going out herself soon after, also interested herself in the selection, and told a few bird-fanciers to send up some birds to look at — little ones; moreover, before going out, she told her son that my wife wanted a bird — a little one — so when he went to the cage-maker’s he mentioned the fact, and during the day the cage-maker told about twenty bird-fanciers who came in on business that he could put them in the way of a customer — meaning my wife. “She wants a little bird,” he said.

Well, I woke next morning a little earlier than usual, and with a vague general feeling that I was somewhere in the country — probably at my uncle’s. All the air outside seemed to be full of twittering, just as I remembered hearing in the early mornings at my uncle’s place in the country where sparrows were as thick as the leaves in the ivy on the house, and the robins and wrens, and those kinds of birds, used to swarm in the shrubbery. My wife was awake too, and as soon as she found me stirring she began (as she does on most mornings) to tell me a dream. I always find that other people’s dreams haven’t, as a rule, much plot in them, and so they don’t tell well. Things always seem to come about and end up somehow without much reason.

And what my wife’s dream was about I did not exactly understand at the time, but it was about the Tropical Court at the Crystal Palace. She dreamt that it was on fire, and all the parrots had gone mad with fright and were flying about, and so she ran down to the station, with all the creatures after her; but there was no room for her in the train, as all the parrots, and lovebirds, and lories, and paroquets, and cockatoos, and macaws of the Palace were scrambling for places, and there was such a noise and flurrying of feathers she was quite bewildered; and though she told the guard that the birds were travelling without tickets, he only called out “all right,” to the engine driver, and the train started off. But this frightened all the birds so that they came streaming out through the windows and lamp-holes, and flew about the station till it looked as if all the colors out of the advertisements had got loose and were flying around in strips and patches! And so she ran upstairs to the omnibus, but all the cockatoos and things went with her, and it was just the same here, for when she was going to get in, the conductor said it was full inside, though, when she looked at the window she couldn’t see a soul, but when she opened the door and looked in she found it was full of parrots and macaws; and though she warned the conductor that none of the birds had got any money, he did not seem to take any notice of her, and only sounded his bell, and so the ’bus started. But this frightened the birds again, so that they all came streaming out through the door, and flew up the street with her to the cab-stand; and there it was just the same — and everywhere all day it was just the same; but though she kept trying to explain to people, in an exasperated and, she felt, unsatisfactory way, that it was absurd and unreasonable for all these birds, which she had nothing to do with, to be following her about so, no one took any adequate interest in the matter, or seemed to think it at all irregular or annoying. Her conversations on the subject with policemen were equally inconclusive and absurd; and so the day went on — and very exhausting it was, she said, with the eternal clamor of the birds, and the smothering feeling of having a cloud of feathery things fluttering round you, and so —

I had been listening all this time after only a very drowsy fashion, but while she talked there stole over me an impression that there was a strange confusion of bird voices about the premises, and just as she had got to the words “and so,” and was taking breath to remember what happened next in her dream, there came from down below a very babel of fowls’ languages. In every tongue spoken by birds from China to Peru, we heard screams, squeaks, hootings, and crowings, while behind and through all we were aware of a multitudinous chattering, twittering and chirping, accompanied by a sober obligato of cooing. I stared at my wife and she at me. Was I asleep?

Pinching is a good thing, I remembered, so I pinched my wife. There was no doubt of her being awake. I told her apologetically that I had pinched her in order to see if I was awake, and she was beginning to explain to me that I ought to have pinched myself; when we heard a knock at the door. “If you please, sir” (it was Mary), “but has a cockytoo gone into your dressing-room? It’s got away from the bird-man, — which, sir, if you please there’s several of them at the door!”

· · · · · · ·

All the time I was dressing the volucrine clamor continued unabated, and when I came downstairs I was not surprised at the sight that awaited me. The passage was filled with bird-cages; and through the front door, which was open, I saw that the front “garden” was filled also, and that round the railings had collected a considerable mob of children, whitewashers’ assistants, and errand-boys. I went to the dining-room window and looked out. My appearance was the signal for every bird-man to seize at once two cages and hold them lip for inspection. The contents of the cages screamed wildly; all their friends on the ground screamed in sympathy, and the mob outside cheered the birds on to further demonstrations, by ill-naturedly imitating various cries.

I kept away from the window, therefore, and waited till my wife came down. Her delight at the exhibition seemed to me a little misplaced, the more so as she insisted on holding a levee at once. I began my breakfast therefore alone, but I hope I may never have such a meal again. Every other bird, being warranted tame, was allowed to leave its cage, and very soon there was a parrot in the sugar basin, three macaws on the chandeliers, and a cockatoo on the back of each chair. The food on the table attracted a jackdaw, who dragged a rasher of bacon into the jelly-glass before his designs were suspected, and one wretched bird finding me out under the table, climbed up the leg of my trousers by his beak and claws. But my wife got bewildered at last, and appealed to me to settle matters. I did so summarily by explaining that my wife wanted only one bird, and that a little one, — “a linnet or something of that kind.”

The disgust of the bird fanciers was instantly visible, and every man proceeded gloomily to repossess himself of his property. This was not so easy, however, as letting the birds go, and entailed an hour’s hunting of parrots from corner to corner. Two cockatoos slipped down behind the sideboard and proceeded to fight there. They were only got out after moving the sideboard (the contents being previously taken out), and when they appeared were dirty beyond recognition and covered with cobwebs and fluff. But we found a long-missing salt spoon. At last, however, all seemed satisfactorily disposed of, when it was discovered that one of the cages was still empty, and a pensive voice from the chandelier drew all eyes upward. It was then discovered that a parrot had got its body inside one of the globes, and I volunteered to release it. So standing up on a chair, I took hold of the protruding tail and lifted the bird out. No sooner, however, did it find itself released than it made one violent effort to escape, and succeeded, leaving the tail in my hands!

I hastened to apologize and to offer the owner the tail, but the man would not accept either the apology or the feathers. On the contrary, he insisted that as I had spoiled the bird for sale I ought now to buy it.

And thus it was that we became possessed of the bird whose death I have already narrated. At first it had a dog’s life of it. I was very angry with it for foisting itself upon me; my wife disliked it for its tailless condition; while the parrot itself suspected both of us as having designs upon its remaining feathers. But my wife’s heart warmed to it at last, and the bird reciprocated the attachment. And when it died we were really sorry, and so, I think, was the parrot.

Meanwhile my wife was not satisfied with the purchase, and proceeded to select another bird for herself The result was a canary, as I feared; and lest the canary should be dull with only the parrot, a bullfinch was also bought; and finally, for no better reason that I saw than that “it would be just as easy to attend to three birds as to two,” a linnet. Of course the canary proved to be a hen bird, and the linnet, I still believe, is a sparrow. But of the bullfinch there can be no doubt. He looks a bullfinch all over.

The bullfinch had only just been caught. I thought this a point against the bird. But my wife thought it all in its favor. “For now,” she said, “we can train it exactly as we like.”

Meanwhile the bird, being quite uneducated, was dashing about in its cage, and little feathers came floating down, and all the cage furniture was in a heap in the corner. There was evidently a very clear field for instruction, and my wife was eager to begin at once.

“Bullfinches are very fond of hemp seeds,” said she oracularly, and proceeded to offer one to the bird. The result was eminently discouraging, for the terrified creature went into fits. For a time my wife was very patient, and stood there with the slippery little seed between her fingers. The bird, exhausted at last with its frantic efforts at escape, was on the floor of the cage, panting from fear and fatigue.

“I am sure he will get quite tame,” said my wife, inspirited by this cessation of the bird’s struggles. “Pretty Bully;” and she changed the seed to the left hand, for the other was tired. The motion was sufficient, however, to set the bird off in another paroxysm of fluttering, to which in the same way succeeded another relapse. And so it went on for half an hour, this contest between the wild thing’s terror and the woman’s patience. And the bird won the day.

“You are a very stupid little bird,” said my wife solemnly and emphatically to the open-beaked creature, as she withdrew from the strife to make acquaintance with the canary.

The canary was of another sort altogether, an old hen bird, born and bred in captivity, an artificial person without a scrap of soul.

Nor did its vocal accomplishments recommend it; for being a hen it only chirped, and being very old, it did this drearily. My wife resolved, therefore, to change it. She was offered ninepence for it, and indignantly refused the sum. Finally, she allowed it to go, with seven and sixpence added, in exchange for a young cock bird.

The linnet meanwhile had moulted, and as its new feathers were a long time coming, it came to be looked upon as a shabby creature and the inferior among our pets. It did not resent the invidious comparison nor retaliate for the evident preference shown to the rest, but sitting on its perch at the back window, chuckled good-naturedly to itself all day long, going to sleep early, and growing prodigiously plump.

The bullfinch and canary, however, became soon part of our lives, and every new habit or prettiness was noted and cherished. Both were easily tamed. A friend came in one day, and, going to speak to the bullfinch, was shocked at its wildness.

“Why don’t you tame it?” he asked.

“How?” inquired my wife. “I have been trying hard, but I don’t think they will ever begin to care for me.”

“Oh! starve them,” was the reply.

“Starve them! never!” said my wife firmly. But I made a note of the advice, and that very afternoon, as soon as my wife had left the luncheon table, I nearly emptied the seed-boxes into the fire. Next morning my wife noticed, without suspecting anything, how completely the birds had eaten up their allowances. I was of course absorbed in my newspaper. But when my wife went out to do her housekeeping, I took the liberty of turning round the seed-boxes, so that the birds, who meanwhile had been eating voraciously, could get no more. The barbarous fact escaped observation, and, remorse gnawing at my heart, I awaited the morrow with anxiety. Would the birds be tame? But the thought kept recurring to me in the night watches — would they be dead? They were not dead, however: on the contrary, they were very much alive. Indeed their extraordinary sprightliness attracted my wife’s attention, and all through breakfast she kept drawing my attention to the conversation being kept up by the two birds.

“How happy they are together!” she said. “And how hungry!” I thought.

Breakfast over, she proceeded to attend to her birds, and then the turned boxes were discovered.

“Oh!” she said, “how stupid I have been! Just imagine, these poor birds have had no seed all day! I forgot to turn their seed-boxes round!”

I cut short her self-reproaches and expressions of sympathy.

“Never mind, dear: it has done them no harm apparently. Besides, we can see now whether starving does really tame them. Offer the bullfinch a hemp seed in your fingers.”

And the great experiment was tried. I approached to watch. The hungry bird recognized his favorite morsel, but the fingers had still terrors for his untutored mind. “Have a little patience,” I said, as I saw my wife’s face clouding. The bullfinch mind was grievously agitated. He was very hungry, and there close to him was a hemp seed. But then it was in those dangerous-looking hands. An empty stomach and timid heart fought out the point between them, but the engagement was obstinately contested. The issue trembled a thousand times in the balance. The bullfinch, after sitting for ten minutes with his head very much on one side, would sidle up to the hemp seed and seem on the very point of taking it, when a movement of the dog on the hearth-rug, or the opening of a door, would startle it into its original alarm. My wife held out bravely, and her patience was suddenly and unexpectedly rewarded. The bullfinch had evidently thought the matter out to the end, and had decided that death by starvation was preferable to tempting the terrors of the pretty fingers that offered him food. He was sitting gloomily at the farther end of the perch. But, on a sudden — perhaps it was a twinge inside — he brightened up, pulled himself together, and with a desperate effort pecked at the seed. He did not get it, but the effort had broken the spell, and he soon returned emboldened, and taking more deliberate aim this time, extracted the prize. After this it was plain sailing, and for the rest of the morning, my wife was busy feeding the domesticated bullfinch from her fingers. Meanwhile, the canary had taken its first lesson, and whether it was that hunger was more overpowering, or that (as has since proved the case) it took the bullfinch for its model, it ate from the hand as if to the manner born. The success was complete, and my wife set apart to-morrow for another starvation preparatory to further instruction. But her heart was too soft, and to this day the birds have never been stinted again. Their education, therefore, began and ended together. But I cannot say that I am sorry; for I can think of no accomplishment that would make them more charming company. The cage doors are always open, and the small creatures spend their day as they choose, the bullfinch climbing about among the picture cords, the canary gazing upon his own reflection in the mirror.

Their characters have developed in this freedom, and their individuality is as comic as it is well defined. The bullfinch, sturdy of body, bull-necked, and thick-legged, ranges the room as if all it contained was his own by right of conquest. There is not an article in it which he does not make use of as a perch or plaything, and in every gesture shows himself at home and in possession. As soon as the loaf is put down on the table, he hops on to it, and when my wife replaces the milk-jug, he perches upon that. From there to the nearest tea-cup is only a short hop, and so he makes the round of the breakfast table. When the cloth is removed, he waits, chirping impatiently for his groundsel, and even before it can be arranged for him, he is in the thick of it, his beak stuffed with the flossy flower-heads. The bath, meanwhile, is being prepared, and no sooner is it down on the ground than he perches on the edge, tests its temperature, and pronounces his approval — but does not often bathe. His seed-box has meanwhile been replenished, and in it every morning are put a few hemp seeds. No sooner is it in the cage, than the bullfinch has gone in, and plunging his head down into the seed, is busy picking out the favorite grains. Lest one should be concealed at the bottom, he jerks out as much of the contents as he can, and deliberately empties the remainder by beakfuls. Satisfied that no hemp seed remains, he comes out, and flying to the nearest picture, commences the gymnastics that occupy the greater part of the day. By sunset he is always back in his cage again, and when my wife goes to shut his door, he opens his beak at her threateningly, showing a ridiculous pink throat, and hissing like a miniature goose. This is not the routine of any particular day, but of every day, and so completely has he asserted his position as one of the family, that the ornaments are arranged in reference to his tastes, and when I talked of removing the picture from over the door, the project was at once thrown aside, “for that is Bully’s favorite perch.”

The canary is a curious contrast. He has as much spirit as the bullfinch, for he resented the first attempt at oppression — it was a question of priority of bathing — with such élan, that the bullfinch ceased from troubling, and the two are close friends on the honorable terms of mutual respect. But the canary is conciliatory and retiring. He comes on the breakfast table when it takes his fancy to do so, but he does so unobtrusively, with all the ease of manner that betokens confidence, and yet with all the reserve and modesty of a gentleman. If he wishes for a crumb he takes it, but instead of hopping on the loaf for it, he reaches it off the platter from the table. His day is spent before a looking-glass, in which he studies his own features and gestures, not unhappily, but quietly, as his way is. A jar that holds spills is his usual resort, and, perched on it, he exercises himself in the harmless practice of pulling out the spills. He has never succeeded, but this does not damp his industry. For groundsel he has as great a partiality as the bullfinch, but he waits for his share till it is put in his cage, and then only goes in at his leisure. The bath is a passion with him, and his energy in the water fills the bullfinch — who more often makes believe than really bathes — with such amazement, that while the flurry and splash is going on he watches the canary with all his eyes. The canary sings beautifully, not with the student note that in the trained bird makes a room uninhabitable, but a soft, untutored song that nature whispered to him bar by bar, and so sweet is it that the matter-of-fact bullfinch always listens with attention, until, remembering his own powers, he settles down in a ball of feathers on some favorite vase, and chuckles obstinately through a rustic lay. But my wife ought to have written the account of her own birds herself, for she knows them better than I.

And the little things have found out how gentle and loving she is to God’s creatures; and when the room is quiet, and she is sitting working, the bullfinch will leave off his scrambling among the picture cords, and the canary his fruitless tugging at the spills, to sit down on her lap and shoulder, and tell her, as they best can, how fond they are of her.

For me they entertain only a distant regard; but I like them immensely for all that. At any rate, though I speak of them as my wife’s birds, I should feel hurt if any one thought that they were not my birds too.