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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Alfred de Musset (1810–1857)

The Deluded Avian Husband

I NEED not state that my works had crossed the Channel and that the English were quarreling for copies. They quarrel over everything except what they understand. One day I received a letter from a young hen-blackbird in London.

“I have read your poem,” she said, “and it has inspired me with such admiration for you that I herewith offer you my hand and heart. God has made us for each other; for I, like you, am a white blackbird.”

Imagine my surprise and delight. “A white hen-blackbird?” I said to myself. “Is it possible? Then I need no longer live alone upon earth.” I immediately answered the fair unknown in such a way as to show her how acceptable to me her proposal was. I persuaded her either to come to Paris or to permit me to fly to her. She answered that she would rather come to me, because her parents were worrying her nearly to death. She would put her affairs in order, and then be with me almost at once.

And so, a few days after her letter, she came herself. She was the loveliest little blackbird in the world, whiter even than I.

“Ah, mademoiselle,” I cried, “or rather madame, for from this moment I consider you my wedded wife, is it possible that a creature so charming as yourself could have been living on the same earth with me and I not have heard of it? I can now bless the sufferings that I have endured, and the peckings that my father gave me with his beak, since Heaven has had so sweet a compensation in store for me. I thought until this hour that I should have to pass all my life in loneliness, and the thought, I confess, was a very grievous one; but now that I see you I feel within me all the qualities that a good husband and father needs. Don’t let us delay, but be married without ceremony in English fashion, and fly off to Switzerland!”

“I can’t see the matter in that light,” answered the young lady-blackbird. “Our marriage ought to be celebrated in splendid style, and all the blackbirds in France that have a drop of good blood in their veins ought to be solemnly assembled at it. People of quality have duties toward their station. We can’t be married like a couple of cats in a cellar. I have a bundle of bank-notes with me; so send out your invitations, call on your tradesmen, and see that the marriage-feast be a generous one.”

I followed the directions of my white Merlette to the letter. Our wedding-feast was one of unparalleled luxury; ten thousand flies were consumed at it. The nuptial benediction was bestowed on us by a reverend cormorant father, who was an archbishop. A splendid ball brought the day to an end. There was nothing wanting, in short, to complete my happiness.

The better acquainted that I became with the character and disposition of my charming wife, the more I loved her. All graces of mind and body were united in her small person. A slight prudishness was the only fault I could find in her, but this fault, which I attributed to the English fog, would, I thought, fade away in the smiling sun of France.

A matter that caused me far greater uneasiness was a sort of mystery with which she would sometimes with great stubbornness surround herself. She locked herself in with her maids for hours, pretending to be at her toilet. Whims of this kind are not usually looked upon with favor by husbands. It must have happened twenty times that I knocked at the door of my wife’s room and was not admitted. It tried my patience cruelly. But one day I was so persistent, and in such a horribly bad temper, that she was forced to give in and unlock the door rather hastily, reproaching me at the same time for my importunity. As I entered, my eyes fell on a bottle of paste made of flour and Spanish white. I asked my wife of what use that ointment was to her, and she answered that it was a lenitive for the frostbites that troubled her. It seemed to me at that time that there was something about the lenitive that she did not choose to have me know, but it was surely impossible to be suspicious of a creature so sweet and gentle, who had given me her hand with such readiness and perfect good faith.

At first I did not know that my wife was a literary character, but she confessed it after a while, and even went so far as to show me the manuscript of a novel modeled on Scarron and Scott. One may imagine what a delightful surprise this was to me. Not only was my wife an incomparable beauty, but her intellect, too, was fit to mate with my genius. From that time on we worked together. While I composed my poems she would scribble reams of paper. Although I read my poetry aloud to her, that did not interrupt her or prevent her from continuing to write. Her facility in composition equaled mine. She always selected dramatic subjects for her romances, such as parricides, rapes, murders, or even minor crimes, never neglecting an opportunity to have a slap at the government and agitate for the emancipation of female blackbirds. In a word, there was no obstacle so great but her intelligence could overcome it, and she let no false modesty prevent her from saying a brilliant thing. She never blotted a line, and never sat down to write with any prearranged plot in her head. She was a perfect type of the female literary blackbird.

One day, as she was working with even more than usual industry, and perspiring freely the while, I suddenly saw to my consternation a large black spot on her back.

“Good heavens!” I cried, “what ails you? Are you ill?”

At first she seemed a little frightened, and I even thought I saw an expression of guilt on her face, but her fine breeding soon helped her to recover her self-control and to appear unconcerned.

“Is my wife losing her color?” I asked myself in a frightened whisper. The thought haunted me and robbed me of my sleep. I remembered the bottle of paste. “Heavens!” I cried, “what a suspicion! Can it be that this heavenly creature is nothing but a daub, a thin coat of whitewash? Can she have deceived me by a trick? Was it possible that instead of pressing to my heart the twin-sister of my soul, set aside for me by Providence, I have been cherishing a lot of flour and paste?”

Haunted by this awful suspicion, I devised a plan whereby to gain certainty. I purchased a barometer, and eagerly waited for it to indicate the coming of a rainy day. My plan was to take my wife into the country some Sunday when the mercury was falling, and see what effect a good washing would have on her. But we were in the middle of July, and the weather remained disgustingly fair.

My apparent happiness and my constant habit of composition had wrought my sensibilities to a very high pitch. While working, it would sometimes happen to me that, without waiting for the rime to come, I would, in the innocence of my soul, abandon myself to the luxury of tears. These occasions were a source of much pleasure to my wife. The spectacle of masculine weakness always affords pleasure to feminine pride. One night when, in accordance with Boileau’s precept, I was filing and polishing my verses, the flood-gates of my heart were opened. “Oh, you only and most dearly loved one,” I said to Merlette, “you without whom life were an empty dream, in the light of whose smile the universe is changed for me, life of my heart, do you know how much I love you? It were so easy for me with a little study and labor to record once more in verse the hackneyed ideas of poets, but where shall I find the burning words fit to tell you of all your beauty inspires in my heart? Not even the memory of past suffering can help me to find words for my present bliss. I was a homeless, lonely orphan before you came; to-day my condition is royal. Do you know that in this poor weak frame which I must bear till death strike it down, that in this throbbing brain, ceaselessly astir with barren ideas, do you understand, my beloved, that there is no thought, no feeling, that is not wholly yours? By the little that my intellect can tell you, you may divine how much greater is my love. Oh, that my genius were a pearl, and you were Cleopatra!”

While I was doting in this manner, my tears fell upon my wife, and under them her color faded visibly. Under the tears that my eyes shed her feather became, not merely black, but a dirty, rusty hue. (I believed she must have played the same trick before.) Thus, after having given free reign to my tenderness for some minutes, I found myself in the presence of a bird, unfloured, unpasted, and in every respect like a common, every-day blackbird.