In Praise of Parrots

WHEN Madame de Sérigny finally embraced me she said, ‘And now I am going to give you a little souvenir of the Sacré Cœur: I have told Manuel to carry Jo to your hotel to-night, cage and all, to take on your long journey home. Guard him well, dear child, for the sake of your old friends at the convent.’ I was much too overcome to thank the Madame Superior adequately. For two years I had gone to the convent regularly, every Thursday afternoon, ostensibly to visit my sister (no boy of five is ever much excited about that), actually to see the charming ladies of the Sacré Cœur, — and chiefly to walk through the adorable gardens with the never-to-be-forgotten Madame de Bardon, whom I stoutly regarded as the most beautiful saint outside of the calendar. I can realize now, thirty-five years later, that she must have been very young, and that she must have been exquisitely pretty in her white veil, not being then fully ‘professed.’

The objective of our walk was always the lodge of Manuel, the old gardener, with whom either I — or perhaps Madame de Bardon — was a prime favorite, for he always had a generous goûter for us, consisting of a kind of gingerbread full of currants, and some deliciously mild wine, which I have never been able subsequently to identify. I don’t remember whether Madame de Bardon ever took any of the goûter, because I was always much too excited over Jo, who, in his turn, swung excitedly in his cage, talking Spanish which I could not understand, and invariably ending with a wild laugh, after which, as if out of breath, he would gasp, ‘O, là-là-là!’ Whenever I would ask him ‘Comment ça va, Jo?’

— or, lapsing into American, ‘Hello, Polly! ’ — he would merely wink knowingly. But at ‘Tu veux du goûter, hein?’ he would carefully take a bit of gingerbread from my fingers, put his bill up in the air, and gravely exclaim, in Manuel’s deep guttural voice, ‘Deo gratias!’ to the ill-concealed delight of Manuel and the obvious perplexity of Madame de Bardon.

My intercourse with Jo was never really satisfactory, because his conversation was almost exclusively in Spanish, the white-haired gardener being an expatriated Andalusian. What little French he knew was delivered in Manuel’s, to me, puzzling Iberian accent, — and, of course, he had no English at all. ‘He’s too old to learn French,’ explained Manuel. ‘I try to learn him these eighteen years, eh, old José? — but he come to me from the Azores with only Spanish — but of a profanity, Madame

— now corrected, thank God.’ Nevertheless I would chatter gayly with Jo, for would he not chuckle when I laughed, and would he not groan sympathetically when I told him the story of St. Laurent, or St. Estephe, learned perhaps that morning at the Brothers’ Academy, and would he not whistle perfectly enchantingly? Surely there was never a more intelligent or sympathetic creature. It was always too soon when Madame de Bardon whispered to me that the hour of Vespers was near. After shaking hands with Manuel and thanking him, I would say good-bye to Jo in the little Spanish the gardener had taught me, at which Jo would reply, first cordially, then sinking to a plaintive whisper, then ending with a rheumatic mumble: ‘ Adios, señor, — adios — adios — adios. O, là-là-là.’

Sometimes as we hurried along the rose-bordered path of pinkish gravel, Madame de Bardon and I, I could hear, as if from beyond the now vanishing gardener’s lodge, a strange sudden uproar, like the cawing of an infuriated crow or the warning screams of a malignant peacock. But Madame de Bardon was always silently whispering her ‘preparation,’ and I could n’t ask her about the noise. And then as we neared the convent, quiet haven of mellow Caen stone with two slender poplars before the side portal, I naturally forgot everything else. If I then remembered Jo, he was simply an adorable little gray-and-green fluff on the very fringe of my consciousness.

On this day of parting, however, my beloved Madame de Bardon, because, probably, of some religious duties, did not accompany me on my little tournée of the gardens, but, instead, the stately Superior, Madame de Sérigny. This was a great honor, of course, but I none the less keenly regretted the substitution, — until this wholly unexpected golden gift of Jo, which rendered me so ecstatically incoherent that I could remember my manners only well enough to kiss Madame’s slender white hand, and babble childish ineptitudes in French and English. Then with an armful of Malmaison roses — ‘ pour Madame ta mère, avec tous mes vœux de bon voyage’ — I took my final adieux of the convent, never to see it again.

That evening Jo arrived at our apartments, but after I had been put to bed. With him came a little note which I found on my plate at breakfast. ‘My dear François,’ it began, in the elegant, angular, long-looped convent script (the barbarous ‘Franklin’ of my name had been promptly changed two years before from its abbreviated ‘Frank’ into its softer Gallic equivalent) —

‘My dear François, I regret that I could not give you in person my parting wishes, but I am kindly permitted to send them to you. That you will ever be a good little boy, and therefore happy, will be in my prayers. I trust you will cherish little Jo; and remember, in so doing, that our good St. François, your Patron, preached even to the birds of the air. That he may always guard you is the wish of your friend in Notre Seigneur, Marie-Hélène Bardon de Segonzac, R.S.C.’

And so Jo was really mine, and began with me a new life in New York. After the long voyage, during which I saw little of him, he was at last installed with high ceremony in the dining-room at home. His cage was ever the first thing to greet my eyes when I hurried in to breakfast each day; and after performing my filial duties, I had to go over and wish Jo good-morning before I could think of porridge or other grosser matters. His cage stood on a console in front of one of the long French windows that opened on the little garden, or ‘yard,’ at the back of the house, and the grape arbor that arched above the window shaded him pleasantly from the morning sun. The cage seemed to me enormous: and indeed it really was an extraordinary fantasy in gilt wire, shaped, to my mind, somewhat like the mortuary chapel of the Orléans family at Dreux, which I had seen the year before. There were two perches at different levels, and above the upper one was a delightful swing.

The floor was sanded, and the two porcelain semi-circular cups on the rez-de-chaussée were usually filled, one with hemp-seed and the other with cold café-au-lait. A third cup, like an upper balcony, was reserved for more fleeting delicacies, such as a leaf of lettuce, a green pepper, or a Malaga grape or two, which he adored.

The coffee for a long time perplexed me. I was not allowed to have coffee; chocolate for breakfast with a great deal of hot milk, and occasionally in the afternoon an exciting cup of cambric tea was all I might aspire to. Why, then, was my comparatively tiny graygreen friend permitted this mature, dignified beverage? Nothing was too good for Jo, of course, but still I had to find out the reason for this discrimination. ‘But, my dear,’ explained my mother, ‘you know you are only a little boy yet—five “going on six,” is n’t it? — while Jo is quite a grownup parrot.’ And then I unexpectedly remembered that Manuel had spoken of Jo’s failure to master French in eighteen years, — and he must have learned Spanish before even that! It suddenly flashed across me that Jo was very old indeed. And from being merely an obvious delight, he slowly became, in addition, a baffling personality, possessed of the great wisdom of ripened years, — twenty, twenty-one, who knew? — and unable to express it in a way that I could understand. At once each farrago of nonsense that he occasionally rattled off became charged with a serious, if unknowable, import, and as I could never hope, until I was grown up, to learn Spanish, I determined to spare no pains in teaching Jo English.

Looking back thirty-five years, I wonder at the patience of the little boy who daily spent an hour after his own tasks, trying to teach a third language to an absurdly ruffled little bundle of parti-colored feathers, to whom old Manuel’s efforts of eighteen years had failed to impart a second. I can remember how Jo would cock his head on one side, his eyes never leaving me as he dilated and contracted their amber pupils, while I gravely attempted endless verbal experiments, sometimes even singing rhymes to him in hope that the music would lighten his difficulties. He generally would attempt some vocalization in harmony with the rhymes. He would at least always laugh gently when I sang:—

Cackle! cackle! cackle! said the old white hen;
Gobble! gobble! gobble! said the turkey then;
Ba! ba! ba! said the old black sheep;
Bow! wow! wow! said the doggie in his sleep.

And he would croon a soft, wordless accompaniment when I sang one of my mother’s favorite little songs: —

Some one stole my heart away,
Riding on a load of hay, —

At any rate, I know ‘Handsome, sunburned Johnny Brown’ was one of Jo’s favorites also. ‘ Ding, dong, bell, — Pussy’s in the well,’ he never cared for, but then, neither did I; but ‘Kitty of Coleraine,’ on the other hand, he found quite stirring, and his thick grayishpink tongue would cluck stumblingly over a meaningless attempt at its pattering rhythm. The fact remains, however, that poor Jo never mastered more than an absurdly few English phrases. But discouragement was far in the future for me then, for did he not eventually learn to say, with quite tolerable distinctness, ‘How d’ ye do, Jo?’ and ‘All right!’ And although it disturbed me, I nevertheless felt a secret pride in him when his ‘ O, là-là-là! ’ became finally, thanks to Norah, who tended his cage, a deprecating ‘O Lord, Lord, Lord! ’

Perhaps Jo’s most engaging trait, as the years slowly passed, was his love of music, or, rather, his sensitiveness to it. Every afternoon from half-past three till five my sister used to practice on the piano, and I thought then that no one ever played more charmingly. I used to snuggle into a big chair in the library off the drawing-room, with a favorite book, Ivanhoe, or LeatherStocking, or even Don Quichotte, full of enchanting little French engravings. And then I would try to read and listen to the music at the same time, — a difficult feat. And Jo, from the diningroom, would follow the music even more attentively. The first twenty minutes of the ‘ Gradus ad Parnassum,’ or the ’Well-Tempered Clavichord,’ always bothered him, and he would wander from perch to perch, hanging on to the wires with his bill while one claw groped for the next wooden bar; then, after landing, he would shake himself till the little green feathers about his neck were ruffled out to twice their usual circumference. If scales and arpeggi were the programme for the moment, he would simply burrow his bill into the cup of hemp-seed and scatter it about recklessly—obviously, like myself, preferring anything to scales and arpeggi. But when what I called the ‘real music’ came, Jo was a different creature. Usually it began with the little waltz of Chopin, where the cat is chasing its tail, — music to which only a Columbine could dance. Jo now would raise excitedly first one claw and then the other in the air, or he would draw himself to his full height, hunching his shoulders and stretching his neck; and then he would emit the most ecstatic little laugh, very soft, but very high, somewhat the way Columbine herself might laugh. But this always stopped at the more lyrical second theme, when he would quietly sway from side to side with half-closed eyes, only to break into the ghost of a chuckle at the resumption of the first theme,—and then, ‘da capo.’

During some of the Polonaises he would chatter vehemently in Spanish; but perhaps the second sonata, that in B flat minor, moved him most of all. With the ‘Marche Funèbre’ he would begin muttering, for all the world like the bassoons in Berlioz’s ‘Marche au supplice,’ and I could even catch occasionally his deprecating ‘O Lord, Lord, Lord!’ With the transition into D flat major, he would begin to cry, very gently, but as if there were little more in life for him; and I know that my sister used to wring the last drop of sentimentality out of the theme just to hear Jo’s exquisitely delicate grief. By this time, on autumn afternoons, the light was growing ‘entre chien et loup,’ and I would forego my Don Quichotte and wait luxuriously for the final rondo of the sonata. When this came crashing to its close, Jo would give a little trilling falsetto Hur-r-r-ah!’ which I had managed to teach him; and then all three of us would laugh together and have a piece of gingerbread in the dusk of the dining-room.

I must not, however, give the impression that Jo was always good; indeed, I doubt if half his trespasses were ever told me at the time. But I remember well the fright he gave us one morning, when he nipped Norah’s finger as she was giving him fresh coffee. Then, as she drew back, and as the door of his cage was open at the moment, he flew forth valiantly into the room, and with a swoop of unaccustomed flight, alighted on the gilded frame of the portrait of my grandfather above the chimney-piece, and poised there jabbering and laughing shrilly. I can see his little angry figure now, ruffling itself above my grandfather in his white stock and velvet coat-collar, and I can remember our corporate excitement. My mother hurriedly threw a napkin over her lace breakfastcap (not even very old ladies wear those charming morning-caps any longer, alas!), and my sister fled to the glass door leading to the library. At length my father succeeded in calming Jo enough to induce him to step gingerly off the picture-frame and on to the ivory handle of his walking-stick, which I had run for; and I had the final triumph of putting him back into his cage, where he walked to and fro excitedly, rolling out an occasional defiant ‘All right! — all right!’ When several years later I first read ‘ The Raven,’ I don’t think that that bird of omen moved me half so much as Jo did; and, somehow, the bust of Pallas always seemed benignantly to resemble my grandfather. At any rate, the mental picture the poem created was robbed of the thrill of the unexpected, thanks to little Jo.

Although he had done no real harm, it was decided to clip one of his wings. After that, he was every now and then let out (given ‘shore liberty,’ my father called it), and one no longer feared for one’s hair. But I have never yet understood why all women assume that bats and parrots will promptly rush for their coiffures and destroy them; because they really don’t.

Jo walking on terra firma was not very graceful; his ambling gait was a fairly uncertain waddle, and every little while in his hurry he would give a side stroke to the floor with his bill to help himself along. His objective was invariably the leg of a chair or anything to climb. Sometimes, however, it would be discovered that his wing feathers had grown faster than was expected; and one April morning, lured by a hurdy-gurdy at the front of the house, a little green projectile whirled out of the open drawing-room window and landed high in the budding branches of the chestnut tree at the edge of the sidewalk. Here his gay chattering roused the neighborhood, a rattle of Spanish interspersed with hilarious laughter and clucking. Norah and I presently stood at the edge of the small crowd that promptly gathered, Norah wringing her hands, and I acutely embarrassed and fearful for Jo’s safety. At last Mr. Flynn shoved his way through us (Mr. Flynn, the policeman, was a great crony of Norah’s and mine), and seeing the trouble, prepared for action. I had the unspeakable privilege of holding his brass-buttoned coat and helmet while he climbed the tree (after that, whenever I read of Zaccheus I never knew which to think of, Jo or Mr. Flynn), and we all encouraged his upward progress. When he got well within range, and held out his huge hand for Jo to perch upon it, Jo, of course, nipped his finger, and retreated higher. Mr. Flynn put his finger to his mouth, ruminated, and then descended to the first branch. On his second ascent he carried Norah’s apron with him. After a breathless struggle he at last entered the house with an agitated white bundle, and the cheering crowd rapidly dispersed. When domestic peace was finally restored, Mr. Flynn was much petted by Norah and the cook, and my mother sent him down a glass of port; while I enjoyed the occasion which permitted me to examine his stick, his gloves, his whistle — in short, all of his wonderful equipment. I could just hear Jo upstairs, scolding himself.

But one trait of Jo’s I have withheld till I can conceal it no longer: he would scream, and a more distressing noise I have rarely heard. Now a dog howls when he is lonely, a cat wauls (the word must be right, for it comes from ‘caterwaul’) because of some combative or amative impulse; but a parrot screams through sheer boredom. I sometimes think it is the only creature that shares with us that secondary curse which followed our ejection from Eden, — ennui. And I know that if Noah fed his animals well, and if they had plenty of room for exercise, the only creatures who rebelled vocally against the dire tedium of the voyage, and the creatures who made the most noise, bar none, were the two little papingoes (as our forefathers used to call them). At any rate, Jo would scream, and I now realized the source of the fearful din that sometimes disturbed me as I left old Manuel’s lodge with Madame de Bardon. At breakfast or at luncheon everything would be progressing peacefully, when suddenly, for no reason at all, there would come from Jo a succession of piercing, raucous yells. Conversation at once became impossible. Then Norah or I would rush to his cage and offer him a frantic variety of food, anything, everything at hand. But all would be impatiently rejected or ignored, and the uproar would go on until exhaustion set in, or until Jo was removed to the library and a cloth was thrown over his cage.

I remember once, at his removal in disgrace, my father, with a little laugh that scarcely hid an ebbing patience, exclaimed, ‘And really, my dear, I used sometimes to wonder at Madame de Sérigny’s generosity in her little gift of our Jo!’ My mother hurriedly brushed aside the remark, the meaning of which I did n’t at all grasp at the time, although I understand it now. And yet I wonder now which of us would do much better than little Jo, caged far away from the beautiful enchanted land of our early years, were it not for the growth of new and different ambitions, or, they being thwarted, for the quieting discipline of Christian patience. ‘I can’t get out!’ was the plaintive cry of Sterne’s starling; but I never believed in that starling (his creator was a rank sentimentalist), and I can understand Jo’s robustly pagan, frenzied hubbub far better.

So here you have Jo’s small personality: his virtues, which may seem trivial enough to one who has not loved him since childhood, his vagrancies, and the one great flaw in his charm. A very ordinary little bird, you will say, but I cannot see him, as I should, with the critical vision of middle life. I will admit that he has shown a flash of genius but once in his long and possibly futile career. That was when, because of my sister’s illness, he was sent away on a visit to old Mrs. Renfrew. His occasional noise and laughter was a disturbing note in the hushed house; and as Mrs. Renfrew owned a famously talkative parrot, it was thought that Jo might pick up a few phrases from a teacher of his own species. Of course, Jo did not. But it is still told how on one memorable day Mrs. Renfrew’s parrot burst into a wild hullabaloo, crying at the top of its voice, ‘Fire! fire! fire! — turn out — turn out! — here they come! — Hi-yiyi-yi! ’ — a long, deafening uproar. Jo, in his adjoining cage, raised one claw, then the other, and blinked. When the racket subsided, he gave a little gasp and exclaimed slowly, ‘O my God!’

One cannot account for these startlingly apposite reactions in a ‘lower’ animal, in what Descartes called a ‘bête machine.’ Perhaps—very probably — they mean nothing. But sometimes (though, thank God, rarely) when an acquaintance or friend reacts on something I have said, I wonder if the feeling that prompts his reply, or the mind that directs it, is, ultimately, at all like my own. The philosophers, at least some of them, say that we can never really, finally, know. And speculation in this direction, for all except the philosophers, leads to a haunting doubt of most things; one has to take one’s own kind on trust. So when I extend this form of trust even to Jo’s elementary little reactions, I know that I shall be thought unscientific, and probably childish; but then, the good Saint Francis was wonderfully both when he besought his little feathered flock to trust in the goodness of God. And life is surely a pleasanter thing this way.

A few years more, and I went away to school, where my life was filled with fresh interests and excitements. Holidays and long vacations, however, brought me home, and there not the least friendly fact was Jo, who always gave me, it seemed, a very special welcome. Gradually the years ran each a little more swiftly, till I reached the University and beyond. And then, one by one, Jo’s little circle departed this life, until only he and I were left to cherish the happy memories of our long journey together. Jo still seems to me very old indeed, for to his thirtyfive years with me I must add at least his eighteen with Manuel (now, undoubtedly, a faithful gardener to Our Lady, to whom, in the old days, he so humbly dedicated his choicest flowers). Fifty-three,at least! — ‘fifty-four, going on fifty-five’? — who knows? Years ago I would occasionally read with awe some stray newspaper paragraph, in which would be told the length of life of various animals: whales, I remember (or was it turtles?), were said to live to an incredible age, — I forget the exact tale; but parrots, with what accuracy I cannot say, were nearly always allotted a round century. How near this cycle my venerable little friend may be, I do not know; I can give only the authentic records that I have. Jo’s declining days are carefully shielded; and once every year at least, I pay him a visit at my dear old aunt’s, in whose quiet dining-room he now dw’ells. Pie will still let me gently rub the top of his little green head; and when I ask him, ‘How d’ye do, Jo?’ he will still answer cheerfully, ‘All right!’ So I know that although he no longer has a little boy to play writh, or the charming music of long ago to listen to, and although he seems to grow’ a bit more silent each year, it is still well with Jo.

Several years since, I was journeying in southwestern Mexico, through a jungle chiefly of cactus, twenty feet high and more. I had long grown accustomed to the brilliant flowers and the fantastic vines and orchids that flung themselves high overhead; and as the afternoon waned I had lapsed into a brown study, punctuated only by the hoof-beats of my horse and the quicker patter of the burro behind, on which rode my little mozo, Porfirio, — a silent Don Quichotte and a silent squire. Suddenly there was a fluttering whir of wings and a gay cry from Porfirio: ‘Look, Don Francisco! — the pretty parrots!’ And a rippling little green cloud of birds whirled up from the thicket and away to the left, — the first I had ever seen in freedom. A flash of brilliant emerald as the sunlight struck them, a few sharp cries on a high note, and they were gone. When I relapsed into my brown study, my thoughts were thousands of leagues away, with little Jo as their curiously persistent focus; and a sudden nostalgia seized me, of a kind that comes to a man rarely, but sometimes with an exquisite poignancy, — the nostalgia for one’s childhood, that enchanted, lost country, which I hope Heaven will resemble, at least a little bit.

And then I wondered what my next long journey would be. Perhaps to the convent of the Sacré Cœur! Madame de Sérigny would be gone these many years. But Madame de Bardon might be there, a gentle, beautiful old nun of sixty. She would not recall the name on my visitingcard when it reached her; but when she received me, I should surely make her remember. Then of course we should visit the Chapel first, and I should have her arrange for a candle to be lighted, — not, perhaps, in honor of Saint Francis, to whose care she commended me so long ago, but surely in honor of Saint Margaret, my sister’s Patron, and one for Saint Katharine, my mother’s. And then perhaps we should walk through the gardens to the lodge, and if only little Jo could be there, I know he would air to Madame de Bardon his later accomplishments; I know he would say at last, in a little boy’s childish treble, ‘All right! — all right!’ Or perhaps he would revert to old Manuel’s deeper tones, and cry out, ’Deo gratias!’