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

Chapter IV

THE SAD effect produced by my singing naturally saddened me also. “Alas, music! Alas, poetry!” I said to myself as I started for Paris once more, “how few are the hearts that understand you!”

As these reflections passed through my mind, I hit my head against that of a bird who was flying in the opposite direction. The blow was so severe and so unexpected, that we both fell into the top of a tree, which fortunately happened to be there. After we had shaken ourselves once or twice, I looked at the new comer, expecting a fight. I saw to my surprise that he was white. In fact, his head was a little bigger than mine, and he had a sort of plume on his forehead which gave him a mock-heroic air. Also he carried his tail very high, in quite a noble style; for the rest, I could not see that he had any disposition to fight. We accosted each other very civilly, and excused ourselves, after which we entered into conversation. I took the liberty of asking his name and from what country he came.

“I am astonished,” said he, “that you do not know me. Are you not one of us?”

“In fact, monsieur,” I replied, “I do not know to whom I belong. Every one asks me the same question and tells me the same thing; I think they must have made a wager.”

“You are joking,” replied he; “your plumage is too becoming for me to fail to recognize you as one of our fraternity. You certainly belong to the ancient and honorable race which is called in Latin cacatua, in the language of the learned kakatoës, and in the vulgar tongue cockatoo.”

“Faith, Sir, that is possible, and I should consider it a great honor. But let us suppose, for the moment, that I do not belong to that kindred, and pray tell me whom I have the honor of addressing.”

“I am.” answered the stranger, “the great poet Kacatogan. I have made long voyages, Monsieur, I have crossed arid tracts, and my wanderings have been cruelly difficult. I have been dealing with rhymes for a long, long time, and my muse has been through many vicissitudes. I sang softly under Louis XVI, Monsieur, I shouted for the Republic, I sang of the Empire in the noble style, I praised the Restoration cautiously, and I have even made an effort recently, and have adapted myself, not without difficulty, to the requirements of this tasteless age. I have given to the world piquant couplets, sublime hymns, graceful dithyrambs, pious elegies, dramas with long hair, romances with curly hair, vaudevilles with powdered hair, and tragedies with bald heads. In a word, I flatter myself that I have added some gay festoons, some somber battlements, and some ingenious arabesques to the temple of the muses. What more could you expect? I have grown old. But my rhymes still flow copiously, Monsieur, and just now, I was dreaming of a poem in one canto, which should have no less than six pages, when you gave me this bump on my forehead. For the rest, if I can be of any use to you, I am entirely at your service.”

“Indeed, Monsieur, you can help me,” I replied, “for at this very moment I am seriously embarrassed as to a poetical matter. I dare not call myself a poet, certainly not a great poet like you,” I added, with a bow, “but nature has given me a throat which torments me with the longing to sing whenever I am very happy or very sad. To tell you the truth, I know absolutely nothing of the rules.”

“I have forgotten them myself,” said Kacatogan, “do not give yourself any concern about that.”

“But something disagreeable always happens to me. My voice produces the same effect upon those who hear it as that of a certain Jean de Nivelle upon.… You know what I mean?”

“I know,” said Kacatogan; “I know that peculiar effect by my own experience. I am not acquainted with the cause, but the effect is indisputable.”

“Very well, Monsieur, do you not know of any remedy for this serious annoyance—you who seem to be the Nestor of poetry?”

“No,” said Kacatogan, “for my part, I have never been able to find a remedy. When I was young, I was very much troubled because I was always hissed; but now, I never think of it any more. I fancy that the repugnance of the audience arises from the fact that they read other writers than ourselves: that distracts their attention.”

“I agree with you; but you must admit, Monsieur, that it is hard for a well meaning creature to have people run away whenever he has a pleasant impulse. Would you please be so good as to listen to me, and give me your candid opinion?”

“Willingly,” said Kacatogan; “I am all ears.”

I began to sing, and had the satisfaction of seeing that Kacatogan neither flew away nor fell asleep. He gazed at me steadily, and, from time to time, nodded his head with an air of approval, or murmured some flattering words. But I soon saw that he was not listening, but only dreaming of his own poem. Taking advantage of a moment when I paused for breath, he suddenly interrupted me.

“I have found the rhyme I wanted, now!” said he, smiling and shaking his head. “It is the sixty thousand seven hundred and fourteenth that my brain has produced! And they dare to say that I am growing old! I shall read this poem to some of my good friends. I shall read it to them, and we shall see what they will say!”

So saying, he spread his wings and flew away, seeming to have no further remembrance of having met me.