The past recalled by a sound—A caged cardinal—A memory of childhood—The clergyman's cardinal—My first caged bird—History of its escapades and ultimate fate.
A ONCE familiar but long unheard sound coming unexpectedly to us will sometimes affect the mind as it is occasionally affected through the sense of smell, restoring a past scene and state so vividly that it is less like a memory than a vision. It is indeed more than a vision, seeing that this is an illusion, something apparently beheld with the outer or physical eyes; the other is a transformation, a return to that state—that forgotten self—which was lost for ever, yet is ours again; and for a glorious moment we are what we were in some distant place, some long-vanished time, in age and freshness of feeling, in the brilliance of our senses, our wonder and delight at this visible world.
Recently I had an experience of that kind on hearing a loud glad bird-note or call from overhead when walking in a London West-End thoroughfare. It made me start and stand still; when, casting up my eyes, I caught sight of the bird in its cage, hanging outside a first-floor window. It was the beautiful cardinal of many memories.
This is a bird of the finch family of southern South America—about the size of a starling, but more gracefully shaped, with a longer tail; the whole upper plumage clear blue-grey, the underparts pure white; the face, throat, and a high pointed crest an intense brilliant scarlet.
It had actually seemed to me at the moment of hearing, then of seeing it, that the bird had recognised me as one from the same distant country—that its loud call was a glad greeting to a fellow-exile seen by chance in a London thoroughfare. It was even more than that: this was my own bird, dead so many, many years, living again, knowing me again so far from home, in spite of all the changes that time had wrought in me. And he, my own cardinal, the first cardinal I ever knew, remembered it all even as I did—all the little incidents of our life together; the whole history was in both our minds at that same moment of recognition.
I was a boy, not yet eight years old, when my mother took me on one of her yearly visits to Buenos Ayres. It was a very long day's journey for us in those pre-railroad times; for, great and prosperous as that city and republic now are, it was not so then, when the people were divided, calling themselves Reds and Whites (or Blues), and were occupied in cutting one another's throats.
In Buenos Ayres we stayed at the house of an English missionary clergyman, in a street near the waterside. He was a friend of my parents and used to come out with his family to us in the summer, and in return my mother made his house her home for a month or so in winter. This was my first visit, and I remember the house was like a luxurious palace to my simple mind accustomed to rude surroundings. It had a large paved courtyard, with ornamental shrubs and orange and lemon trees growing in it, and many prettily decorated rooms; also a long passage or balcony at the back, and, at its far end, facing the balcony, the door of the study. This balcony at the back had an irresistible attraction for me, for on the wall were hung many cages containing beautiful birds, some unknown to me. There were several canaries, a European goldfinch, and other kinds; but the bird that specially attracted me was a cardinal in fine plumage, with a loud, glad, musical call-note—just such a note as that with which the bird in a London thoroughfare had pierced my heart. But it did not sing, and I was told that it had no song except that one note, or not more than two or three notes, and that it was kept solely for its beauty. To me it was certainly most beautiful.
Every day during our six or seven weeks' visit I used to steal out to the balcony and stand by the hour watching the birds, above all the cardinal with his splendid scarlet crest, thinking of the joy it would be to possess such a bird. But though I could not keep away from the spot, I was always ill at ease when there, always glancing apprehensively at the closed door at the end—for it was a glass door, and in his study behind it the clergyman, a grave studious man, was sitting over his books. It made me tremble to think that, though invisible to me in that dim interior, he would be able to see me through the glass, and, worse still, that at any moment he might throw open the door and come out to catch me gazing at his birds. Nor was this feeling strange in the circumstances, for I was a timid, somewhat sensitive little boy, and he a very big stern man with a large clean- shaved colourless face that had no friendliness in it; nor could I forget an unhappy incident which occurred during his visit to us in the country more than half a year before. One day, rushing in, I stumbled in the verandah and struck my head against the door- handle, and, falling down, was lying on the floor crying loudly with the pain, when the big stern man came on the scene.
"What's the matter with you!" he demanded.
"Oh, I've hit my head on the door and it hurts me so!" I sobbed.
"Does it!" he said, with a grim smile. "Well, it doesn't hurt me," and, stepping over me, he went in.
What wonder that I was apprehensive, would shrink almost in terror, when by chance he came suddenly out to find me there, and, after staring or glaring at me through his gold-rimmed glasses for a few moments, would pass me by without a word or smile! How strange, how unnatural, it seemed that this man I feared and hated should be a lover of birds and the owner of that precious cardinal!
The long visit came to an end at last, and, glad to return to the birds I had left—to the purple cow-birds, the yellow-breasted and the crimson- breasted troupials, the tyrant birds, the innumerable sweet-voiced little crested song-sparrows, and a hundred more—yet sad to leave the cardinal which I admired and had grown to love above all birds, I was taken back to my distant home on the great green plains. So passed the winter, and the swallow returned and the peach-trees blossomed once more; the long, long dry hot summer season followed; then autumn —the three beautiful months of March, April, and May, when the sunshine was soft and we were among the trees, feasting on ripe peaches every day and all day long.
Then again winter and the annual visit to the distant town; but none of us children were taken on this occasion. My mother's return after one of these long absences was always a great joy and festival to us children. To have her with us again, and the toys and the books and delicious things she brought us, made us wild with happiness; and on this occasion she brought me something compared with which all the other gifts—all the gifts I had ever received in my life—were as nothing. She had a large object covered from sight with a shawl, and, drawing me to her side, asked me if I remembered my visit to the city over a year ago, and how the birds at the parsonage had attracted me? Well, our friend the clergyman, she went on to say, had gone back to his own country and would never return. His wife, who was a very gentle, sweet woman, had been my mother's dearest friend, so that she could hardly speak of her loss without tears. Before going away he distributed his birds among his closest friends. He was anxious that every bird should have an owner who would love it as much as he had loved it himself and tend it as carefully; and remembering how he had observed me day after day watching the cardinal, he thought that he could not leave it in better hands than mine. And here was the bird in its big cage!
The cardinal was mine! How could I believe it, even when I pulled the shawl off and saw the beautiful creature once more and heard the loud note! The gift of that bird from the stern ice-cold man who had looked at me as if he hated me, even as I had certainly hated him, now seemed the most wonderful thing which had ever happened in the world.
It was a blissful time for me during that late winter season, when I lived for the bird; then, as the days grew longer and brighter with the return of the sun, I was happier every day to see my cardinal's increasing delight in his new surroundings. It was certainly a great and marvellous change for him. The cardinals are taken as fledglings from the nests in forests on the upper waters of the Plata river, and reared by hand by the natives, then sent down to the bird-dealers in Buenos Ayres; so that my bird had practically known only a town life, and was now in a world of greenest grass and foliage, wide blue skies, and brightest sunshine for the first time. By day his cage was hung under the grape-vines outside the verandah; there the warm fragrant wind blew on him and the sun shone down through the translucent red and green young vine-leaves. He was mad with excess of joy, hopping wildly about in his cage, calling loudly in response to the wild birds in the trees, and from time to time bursting out in song: not the three or four to half a dozen notes the cardinal usually emits, but a continuous torrent, like the soaring lark's, so that those who heard it marvelled and exclaimed that they had never known a cardinal with such a song. I can say for myself that I have, since then, listened to the singing of hundreds of cardinals, both wild and caged, and never heard one with a song so passionate and sustained.
So it went on from day to day, until the vine-leaves, grown large, spread a green roof to keep the hot sun from him—a light roof of leaves which, stirred by the wind, still let the sparkling sunbeams fall through to enliven him, while outside the sheltering vines the bright world was all before him. If any person, even the wisest, had then told me that my cardinal was not the happiest bird in the world—that not being free to fly he could not be as happy as others—I should not have believed it; consequently it came as a shock to me when one day I discovered the cage empty—that my cardinal had made his escape! The cage, as I have said, was large, and the wires were so far apart that a bird the size of a linnet or siskin could not have been confined in it; but for the larger cardinal it was a safe prison. Unfortunately one of the wires had become loose—perhaps the bird had loosened it—and by working at it he had succeeded in bending it and finally had managed to squeeze through and make his escape. Running out into the plantation I was soon apprised of his whereabouts by his loud call-note; but though he could not fly, but only hop and flutter from branch to branch—his wings never having been exercised—he refused to be caught. I was advised to wait until he was hungry, then to try him with the cage. This I did, and, taking the cage, placed it on the ground under the trees and retired a few paces, holding it open by means of a string which when released would cause the door to fly to. He became greatly excited on seeing the cage, and being very hungry soon came down to the ground and, to my joy, hopped up to it. But he did not go in: it seemed to me that he was considering the matter, if the state he was in of being pulled in opposite directions by two equally importunate impulses may be so described. "Must I go in and satisfy my hunger—and live in prison; or stay out and keep my freedom and go hungry!" He stood at the door of the cage, looking in at the seed, then turned and looked at me and at the trees, then looked at the seed again, and raised and lowered his shining crest and flirted his wings and tail, and was excited and in two minds and a quandary; finally, after taking one more look at the tempting seed, he deliberately flew or fluttered up to the nearest branch, then to another, and so on, till he had gone to the very top of the tree, as if to get as far from the tempting cage as he could!
It was a great disappointment, and I now determined to hunt him down; for it was late in the day, and he was not a cunning wild bird to save himself from rats and owls and black and yellow opossums and other subtle enemies who would come presently on the scene. I hunted him from the first tree on to the next, then to another, until I had driven him out of the plantation to an open place, where he fluttered over the surface until he came to the bank of the huge ditch or foss, about twelve feet deep and half as wide as the Regent's Park canal. He would drop into it, I thought, and I would then be able to capture him; but after a moment's rest on the bank he rose and succeeded in flying across, pitching on the other side. "Now I have him!" I exclaimed, and, getting over the foss, I was quickly in hot pursuit after him; for outside the foss the earth spread out level and treeless, with nothing but grass and giant thistles growing on it. But his wings were now getting stronger with exercise, and he led me on and on for about a mile, then disappeared in a clump of giant thistles, growing on a warren or village of the vizcachas—the vizcacha being a big rodent that lives in communities in a dozen or twenty huge burrows, their mouths placed close together. He had escaped down one of these holes, and I waited in vain for him to come out, and in the end was compelled to go home without him.
I don't know if I slept that night, but I was up and out an hour before sunrise, and, taking the cage, set out to look for him, with little hope of finding him, for there were foxes in that place—a family of cubs which I had seen—and, worse still, the large blood-thirsty black weasels of that country. But no sooner was I at the spot where I had lost him than I was greeted with his loud note. And there he was, hopping out from among the thistles, a most forlorn-looking object, his plumage wet and draggled, and his feet thickly covered with wet clay! And he was glad to see me! As soon as I put the cage down he came straight to it and, without a moment's hesitation, hopped in and began feasting on the seed.
It was a happy ending. My bird had had a lesson which he would not forget; there would be no more tugging at the wires, nor would he ever wish to be free again. So I imagined. But I was wrong. From that time the bird's disposition was changed: ever in a restless anxious state, he would flit from side to side of his cage, chirping loudly, but never singing—never one note; the gladness that had made him sing so wonderfully had quite gone out of him. And invariably, after hopping about for a few moments, he would go back to the wire which had been loosened and bent—the one weak spot which was now repaired—and tug at and shake it again. And at last, greatly to my surprise, he actually succeeded in bending the same wire once more and making his escape!
Once more I went to look for him with the cage in my hand, but when I found him he refused to be tempted. I left him for a day to starve, then tried him again; and then again many and many times on many following days, for he was now much too strong on the wing to be hunted down; but though he invariably greeted and appeared to welcome me with his loud chirp, he refused to come down, and after excitedly hailing me and flirting his feathers for a few moments he would fly away.
Gradually I grew reconciled to my loss, for, though no longer my captive—my own bird—he was near me, living in the plantation and frequently seen. Often and often, at intervals of a few or of many days, when my lost, yet not wholly lost, cardinal was not in my mind, I would come upon him, sometimes out on the plain, feeding with a flock of purple cow-birds, or yellow-breasted troupials, or some other species; and when they would all rise up and fly away at my approach, he alone, after going a little distance with them, would drop out of the crowd and pitch on a stalk or thistle-bush, just, as it would appear, to look at me and hail me with his loud note—to say that he remembered me still; then off he would fly after the others.
That little action of his went far to reconcile me to his loss—to endear him still more to me, changing my boyish bitterness to a new and strange kind of delight in his happiness.
But the end of the story is not yet: even at this distance, after so many changing and hardening years, I experience a certain reluctance or heaviness of heart in telling it.
The warm bright months went by and it was winter again—the cold season from May to August, when the trees are bare, the rainy south wind blows, and there are frosty nights, frosts that would sometimes last all day or even several days. Then it was that I missed my bird and wondered often what had become of him. Had he too flown north to a warmer country with the swallows and other migrants? It could not be believed. But he was no longer in the plantation—that little sheltering island of trees in the level grassy sea-like plain; and I should never see him more or know what his fate had been.
One day, in August, the men employed about the place were engaged in a grand annual campaign against the rats—a sort of spring-cleaning in and out of doors. The shelter of the huge old foss, and of the trees and thickets, wood-piles, many out-buildings and barns full of raw or untanned hides, attracted numbers of these unpleasant little beasts and made it a sort of rats' metropolis; and it was usual to clear them out in early spring before the new grass and herbage sprang up and covered the ground. They were suffocated with smoke, made deadly with brimstone and tobacco, pumped into their holes. I was standing by one of the men who was opening one of the runs after the smoking process, when I caught sight of a gleam of scarlet colour in a heap of straw and rubbish he was turning over with his spade, and, jumping down, I picked up the shining red object. It was my lost cardinal's crest! And there too were his grey wing and tail feathers, white feathers from his breast, and even some of his bones. Alas! he had found it too cold to roost in the naked trees in the cold wind and rain, and, seeking a more sheltered roosting-place on the ground, had been caught and carried into its den and devoured by a rat.
I experienced a second and greater grief at his miserable end—a feeling so poignant that the memory has endured till now. For he was my loved cardinal—my first caged bird. And he was also my last. I could have no other, the lesson he had taught me having sunk into my heart—the knowledge that to a bird too the world is very beautiful and liberty very sweet. I could even rejoice, when time had softened my first keen sorrow, that my cardinal had succeeded in making his escape, since at the last he had experienced those miraculous months of joyous existence, living the true bird-life for which nature had fashioned and fitted him. In all the years of his captivity he could never have known such a happiness, nor can any caged bird know it, however loudly and sweetly it may sing to win a lump of sugar or a sprig of groundsel from his tender-hearted keeper and delude him with the idea that it is well with his prisoner—that no injustice has been done.
[...3700 words, extracts from pp12-24]