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Alfred de Musset (1810–1857). The Story of a White Blackbird.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Chapter III

I HAVE already said that my wings were not yet very strong. While my leader went like the wind, I was out of breath trying to keep up with him; I held out for some time, but presently I became so dizzy, that I felt as if I should soon faint away.

“Is it much further?” I asked in a weak voice.

“No,” answered he, “we have reached Bourget; we only have to go sixty leagues more.”

I tried to pluck up courage, not wanting to look like a wet hen, and I flew for another quarter of an hour, but for the time being, I was exhausted.

“Monsieur,” I stammered once more, “couldn’t we stop a moment? I am frightfully thirsty, and, if we should perch on a tree…”

“Go to the devil! You are nothing but a blackbird!” the carrier pigeon answered angrily.

And without condescending to turn his head, he continued his furious flight. As for me, stunned and half blind, I fell into a wheat field.

I do not know how long my swoon lasted. When I recovered consciousness, the first thing that I remembered was the pigeon’s parting word: “You are nothing but a blackbird,” he had said. Oh my dear parents, I thought, you were mistaken, then! I will go home to you; you will recognize me as your own legitimate child, and you will allow me a place in that nice little pile of leaves under my mother’s porringer.

I made an effort to rise; but the fatigue of the voyage and the pain caused by my fall paralyzed all my limbs. As soon as I stood upon my feet, my faintness returned, and I fell back on my side.

My mind was already fixed upon the terrible thought of death, when I saw two charming ladies coming towards me on tiptoes, between the poppies and corn-flowers. One was a very prettily spotted and extremely coquettish little magpie, and the other a rose colored turtle dove. The dove paused a few steps from me, looking very modest and sympathetic; but the magpie came skipping towards me in the most delightful way.

“Heaven above! What are you doing there, my poor child?” she asked caressingly in a silvery voice.

“Alas! Madame la Marquise,” I replied (for she must have been at least a Marquise), “I am a poor devil of a traveller whose postilion has abandoned him on the road, and I am dying of hunger.”

“Holy Virgin! What are you telling me?” replied she.

And she began immediately to fly here and there among the bushes near by, going and coming this way and that, and bringing me a quantity of berries and fruits, which she put in a heap near me, all the while asking me questions.

“But who are you? Where did you come from? Your adventure seems perfectly unbelievable! And where were you going? Travelling alone, so young, for you are only getting through with your first moulting! What are your parents about? Where do they belong? How could they let you go in such a state? Why, it is enough to make one’s feathers stand on end!”

While she was talking, I had raised myself a little on my elbow, and was eating greedily. The turtle dove still stood motionless, gazing at me with pitying eyes. However, she noticed that I kept turning my head with a languid air, and she realized that I was thirsty. A drop of the rain that had fallen during the night still lingered on a sprig of chickweed; she took this drop timidly in her beak, and brought it to me quite fresh. Surely, if I had not been so ill, such a modest person would never have done such a thing.

I did not yet know what love was, but my heart beat violently. Torn between two conflicting emotions, I was overpowered by an inexplicable charm. She who had brought my food was so gay, and my cup bearer was so gentle and affectionate, that I could have wished my breakfast to last through all eternity. Unfortunately, all things come to an end, even the appetite of a convalescent. When the meal was finished and my strength had returned, I satisfied the little magpie’s curiosity, and told her my troubles just as truthfully as I had told them to the pigeon the evening before. The magpie listened more attentively than one would have expected her to do, and the turtle dove showed the most charming signs of emotion. But, when I came to touch upon the principal cause of all my trouble, that is, my ignorance about myself:

“Are you joking?” exclaimed the magpie. “You, a blackbird! You, a pigeon! For shame! You are a magpie, my dear child, if ever there was one, and a very pretty magpie,” she added, touching me lightly with her wing, as one might wave a fan.

“But, Madame la Marquise,” I replied, “it seems to me that, for a magpie, I am such a color, saving your presence…”

“A Russian magpie, my dear, you are a Russian pie! Did you not know that they are white? Poor boy, what innocence!”

“But, Madame,” I replied, “how could I be a Russian magpie, when I was born in the heart of the Marais, in an old broken porringer?”

“Ah, how simple you are! You belong to the invasion, my dear; do you imagine that you are the only one? Trust to me, and let yourself go; I will take you away with me at once and show you the most beautiful things in the world.”

“And where shall we go, Madame, if you please?”

“To my green palace, my darling; you shall see how we live there. By the time you have been a magpie for a quarter of an hour, you will never want to hear of anything else. There are about a hundred of us there, not those big, village magpies who beg for alms along the public roads, but noble, well-bred society birds, quick and slender, and no larger than one’s fist. Not one of us has either more or less than seven black marks and five white marks; that is invariable, and we despise the rest of the world. To be sure, you have not the black marks, but your standing as a Russian will suffice to gain you admission. Our life consists of two things: chattering and prinking. From morning till noon, we adorn ourselves, and from noon till evening, we chatter. Each of us perches on a tree, the highest and oldest that we can find. In the midst of the forest there stands an immense oak, which, alas, is uninhabited! It was the dwelling of the late King Pie X, the goal of all our pilgrimages which cost us so many sighs; but apart from this mild sorrow, we enjoy ourselves wonderfully. With us, the wives are not prudish nor the husbands jealous, but our pleasures are pure and honest, because our hearts are as noble as our language is free and joyous. Our pride knows no bounds, and, if a jay or any other plebeian bird happens to come amongst us, we pluck him mercilessly. But for all that, we are the best people in the world, and the sparrows, the tom-tits, and the goldfinches, that live in our thicket, find us always ready to help, or feed, or defend them. There is no more constant chattering anywhere than we keep up, and nowhere is there less slanderous talk. Of course we have some religious old pies who say their prayers all day long, but the giddiest of our young females can pass close by the severest old dowager without any fear of being pecked. In a word, our life is made up of pleasure, honor, small-talk, glory, and finery.”

“All that is certainly very fine, Madame,” I replied, “and I should certainly be very ill bred not to obey the commands of such a person as you. But before I permit myself the honor of following you, allow me, if you please, to say a word to this sweet young lady.—Mademoiselle,” I continued, addressing the turtle dove, “tell me frankly, I beg you; do you think that I am really a Russian magpie?”

At this question, the dove hung her head, and turned pale red, like Lolotte’s ribbons.

“But, Monsieur,” said she, “I don’t know if I can…”

“For heaven’s sake, speak, Mademoiselle! My intentions are not such as to offend you, quite the contrary. Both of you seem to me so charming, that I register a vow to offer my hand and my heart to whichever will accept me, the moment I succeed in finding out whether I am a magpie or some other kind of bird. Because, when I am looking at you,” I added, speaking a little more softly to the young lady, “I feel a sensation curiously like a turtle dove, and it troubles me strangely.”

“But, truly,” said the turtle dove blushing still more deeply, “I do not know whether it is the sunlight reflected upon you from the poppies, but your plumage seems to me to have a slight tinge…”

She dared to say no more.

“Oh perplexity!” I cried, “how can I tell what to believe? How can I give my heart to either one of you, when it is so cruelly torn asunder? Oh Socrates! how admirable is your precept: ‘Know thyself!’ but how difficult it is to follow.”

Since the day when my unfortunate song had made my father so terribly angry, I had never used my voice again. But now, it occurred to me to try it as a means of finding out the truth. “Good gracious!” thought I, “since my father turned me out of doors at the very first couplet, the least I can expect is, that the second will produce some sort of an effect upon these ladies!” Therefore, after having bowed politely, as if to ask them to make allowances because of the rain to which I had been exposed, I began first to whistle, then to warble, then to trill, and then to sing with all my might like a Spanish muleteer in the open air.

The more I sang, the more the little magpie moved away from me with an air of surprise which soon changed to astonishment, and then to fright and annoyance. She circled around me like a cat around a bit of hot bacon which has just burned her, but which she is tempted to taste once more. Observing the effects of my experiment, and desiring to carry it to a conclusion, the more impatient the poor Marquise seemed, the louder I sang. She held out for twenty-five minutes in spite of my melodious efforts; finally, being unable to stand it any longer, she flew away with a rush, and went back to her green palace. As for the turtle dove, she had fallen sound asleep almost at the beginning of my song.

“Wonderful effect of harmony!” thought I. “I am more than ever determined to return to the Marais, to my mother’s porringer.”

Just as I was starting to fly away, the turtle dove opened her eyes again.

“Farewell” said she, “farewell, charming stranger, so charming and yet so troublesome! My name is Gourouli; remember me!”

“Lovely Gourouli,” I answered, “you are good, gentle, and charming; I wish that I could live and die for you. But you are couleur de rose. So much happiness is not for me!”