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The Parrot by Gouverneur Morris


He had been so buffeted by fortune, through various climates and various applications of his many-sidedness, that when I first met Leslie it was difficult to believe him a fellow countryman. His speech had been welded by the influence of alien languages to a choice cosmopolitanism. His skin, thick and brown from blazing sunshines, puckered monkey-like about his blue, blinking eyes. He never hurried. He was going to Hong-Kong to build part of a dry-dock for the English Government, he said, but his ambitions had dwindled to owning a farm somewhere in New York State and having a regular menagerie of birds and animals.

His most enthusiastic moments of conversation were in arguing and anecdotalizing the virtues and ratiocinations of animals and birds. The monkey, he said, was next to man the most clever, but was inferior to the elephant in that he had no sense of right or wrong. Furthermore, monkeys were immodest. Next came certain breeds of dogs. Very low in the scale he placed horses; very high, parrots.

"Concerning parrots," he said, "people are under erroneous impressions, but copying and imitation are not unreasonable processes. Your parrot, under his bright cynical feathers, is a modest fowl that grasps at every opportunity of education from the best source—man. In a native state his intelligence remains closed: the desire to be like a woodpecker or a humming-bird does not pick at the cover. Just as a boy born in an Indiana village and observing the houses of his neighbors might not wish to become an architect, but if he were transported to Paris or Vienna, to a confrontation of what is excellent in proportion, it might be that art would stir in his spirit and, after years of imitation, would come forth in a stately and exquisite procession of buildings. So in his native woods the parrot recognizes nothing but color that is worthy of his imitation. But in the habitations of man, surrounded by taste, which is the most precious of all gifts, his ambition begins to grow, his ignorance becomes a shame. He places his foot on the first rung of the educational ladder. His bright colors fade, perhaps; the eyes of his mind are turned toward brighter and more ornamental things. What creature but a parrot devotes such long hours to the acquirement of perfection in each trivial stage of progress? What creature remembers so faithfully and so well? We know not what we are, you and I and the rest of us; but if we had had the application, patience, and ambition of the average parrot, we should be greater men. But some people say that parrots are mean, self-centred, and malignant. They have, I admit, a crust of cynicism which might lead to that impression, and not unjustly, but underneath the parrot's crotchets there beats a great and benevolent heart. Let me give you an instance:

"In '88 my luck was down, and as a first step to raising it I shipped before the mast in an English bottom outward bound from Hong-Kong to Java. Jaffray was the cook, a big negro who owned a savage gray parrot—a mighty clever bird but to all intents and purposes of a most unscrupulous and cruel nature. Many a time her cleverness at provoking a laugh was all that saved her from sudden death. She bit whom she could; she stole what she could. She treated us like dogs. Only Jaffray could handle her without a weapon. Him she loved and made love to with a sheepish and resolute abandon. From him she endured the rapid alternations of whippings and caressings with the most stoical fortitude and self-restraint. When he whipped her she would close her eyes and say: 'I could bite him, but I won't. Polly's a bad girl. Hit her again,' When the whipping was over she would say: 'Polly's sore. Poor Polly! How I pity that poor girl!' Love-making usually succeeded a whipping in short order, and then she was at her best. She would turn her head to one side, cast the most laughably provoking glances, hold one claw before her face, perhaps, like a skeleton fan, and say: 'Don't come fooling round me. Go away, you bad man,'

"I tried my best to be friends with her. But only to prove that the knack that I am supposed to have with birds and beasts has its limitations. With one long day following another and opportunity constantly at hand, I failed utterly in obtaining her friendship. Indeed, she was so lacking in breeding as to make public mockings of my efforts. There was no man before the mast but stood higher in her graces than I. My only success was in keeping my temper. But it was fated that we should be friends and comrades, drawn together by the bonds of a common suffering.

"I will tell you the story of the wreck another time. In some ways it was peculiar. I will only tell you now that I swam for a long time (there was an opaque fog) and bumped my head against one of the ship's boats. I seized the gunwale and said, 'Steady her, please, while I climb in,' but had no answer. The boat, apparently, had torn loose from her davits and gone voyaging alone. But as I made to climb in I was fiercely attacked in the face by the wings, beak, and claws of Jaffray's graceless parrot. In the first surprise and discomfiture I let go and sank. Coming up, choking with brine and fury, I overcame resistance with a backhanded blow, and tumbled over the gunwale into the boat. And presently I was aware that violence had succeeded where patience had failed. Polly sat in the stern sheets timidly cooing and offering to shake hands. At another time I should have burst laughing at her—she was so coy, so anxious to please. But I had just arrived from seeing my captain's head broken to pieces by a falling spar, and a good friend of mine stabbed by another good friend of mine, and I was nearer to tears.

"It was cold for that part of the world, and rain fell heavily from time to time. Polly complained bitterly all night and said that she would take her death o' cold, but in the morning (I had fallen asleep) she waked me in her pleasantest and most satisfied voice, saying, 'Tumble up for breakfast.' I pulled myself out of the rain-water into which I had slipped, and sat up. The sky and sea were clear from one horizon to the other and the sun was beginning to scorch.

"'Bully and warm, ain't it?' said Polly.

"'Right you are, old girl,' said I.

"She perched on my shoulder and began to oil and arrange her draggled feathers.

"'What a hell of a wreck that was!' she said suddenly, and, after a pause: 'Where's my nigger?'

"'He's forsaken you, old girl,' said I, 'for Mother Carey's chickens.'

"'Poor Polly,' said she; 'how I pity that poor girl!'

"Now I don't advance for a moment the theory that she understood all that she said, nor even a part of what I said. But her statements and answers were often wonderfully apt. Have you ever known one of those tremendously clever deaf people whom you may talk with for a long time before discovering that they are deaf? Talking with poor Jaffray's parrot was like that. It was only occasionally—not often, mind—that her phrases argued an utter lack of reasoning power. She had been educated to what I suppose to be a point very close to the limit of a parrot's powers. At a fair count she had memorized a hundred and fifty sentences, a dozen songs, and twenty or thirty tunes to whistle. Many savages have not larger vocabularies; many highborn ladies have a less gentle and cultivated enunciation. Let me tell you that had I been alone in that boat, a young man, as I then was, who saw his ambitions and energies doomed to a watery and abrupt finish, with a brief interval of starvation to face, I might easily have gone mad. But I was saved from that because I had somebody to talk to. And to receive confidence and complaint the parrot was better fitted than a human being, better fitted than a woman, for she placed no bar of reticence, and I could despair as I pleased and on my own terms.

"My clothes dried during the first day, and at night she would creep under my coat to sleep. At first I was afraid that during unconsciousness I should roll on her. But she was too wary for that. If I showed a tendency to sprawl or turn over, she would wake and pierce my ears with a sharp 'Take your time! Take your time!'

"At sunrise every day she would wake me with a hearty 'Tumble up for breakfast.'

"Unfortunately there was never any breakfast to be had, but the rain-water in the bottom of the boat, warm as it was and tasting of rotting wood, saved us from more frightful trial.

"Here is a curious fact: After the second night I realized and counted every hour in all its misery of hunger and duration, yet I cannot, to save my soul, remember how many days and nights passed between the wreck and that singular argument for a parrot's power of reasoning that was to be advanced to me. It suffices to know that many days and nights went by before we began to die of hunger.

"In what remained of the rain-water (with the slow oscillations of the boat it swashed about and left deposits of slime on her boards) I caught from time to time glimpses of my face as affected by starvation. And it may interest you to know that it was not the leanness of my face that appalled me but the wickedness of it. All the sins I had ever sinned, all the lies I had told, all the meannesses I had done, the drunks I had been on, the lusts I had sated, came back to me from the bilge-water. And I knew that if I died then and there I should go straight to hell if there was one. I made divers trials at repentance but was not able to concentrate my mind upon them. I could see but one hope of salvation—to die as I had not lived—like a gentleman. It was not a voluminous duty, owing to the limits set upon conduct by the situation, but it was obvious. Whatever pangs I should experience in the stages of dissolution, I must spare Polly.

"In view of what occurred it is sufficiently obvious that I read my duty wrongly. For, when I was encouraging myself to spare the bird I should rather have been planning to save her. She, too, must have been suffering frightfully from the long-continued lack of her customary diet, but it seems that while enduring it she was scheming to save me.

"She had been sitting disconsolately on the gunwale when the means struck suddenly into her tortuously working mind and acted upon her demeanor like a sight of sunflower seeds, of which she was prodigiously fond. If I follow her reasoning correctly it was this. The man who has been so nice to me needs food. He can't find it for himself; therefore I must find it for him. Thus far she reasoned. And then, unfortunately, trusting too much to a generous instinct, and disregarding the most obvious and simple calculation, she omitted the act of turning around, and instead of laying the egg that was to save me in the boat, she laid it in the ocean. It sank."

* * * * *

Long voyages make for dulness. I had listened to the above narrative with so much interest as to lose for a moment my sense of what was patent. In the same absurd way that one man says to another whom he knows perfectly well, "What—is this you?" I said to Leslie very eagerly, "Were you saved?" And he answered, "No; we were both drowned."