Gail Hamilton

Cheri

Cheri is the Canary-bird,—a yellow bird with a white tail, when the cat leaves him any tail at all. He came as a gift, and I welcomed him, but without gratitude. For a gift is nothing. Always behind the gift stands the giver, and under the gift lies the motive. The gift itself has no character. It may be a blunder, a bribe, an offering, according to the nature and design of the giver; and you are outraged, or magnanimous, or grateful. Cheri came to me with no love-token under his soft wings,—only the “good riddance” of his heartless master. Those little black eyes had twinkled, those shining silken feathers had gleamed, that round throat had waved with melody in vain. He had worn his welcome out. Even the virtues which should have throbbed, tender and all-embracing, under priestly vestments, had no tenderness, no embrace for him,—only a mockery and a prophecy, a cold and cynical prediction that I should soon tire of his shrill voice. Yes, Cheri, your sweet silver trills, your rippling June-brook warbles, were to him only a shrew’s scolding. I took the bird wrathfully, his name had been Cherry, and rechristened him on the spot Cheri, in anticipation of the new life that was to dawn upon him, no longer despised Cherry, but Cheri, my cherished one.

He has been with me now nearly a year, and every trick of his voice and head and tail is just as fresh, graceful, and charming as on the first day of his arrival. He is a constant recreation and delight. I put him in my own room, and went up to look at him two or three times the first evening. Every time I looked he would be quite still, but his little black beads of eyes shone wide open in the candle-light, and I recalled how Chaucer’s

Smale foules maken melodie That slepen alle night with open eye,

and reflected that Cheri certainly made melodie enough in the daytime to be ranked with the poetic tribe; but one night, after he had been here long enough to have worn away his nervous excitement, I happened to go into the room very softly, and the black beads had disappeared. The tiny head had disappeared, too, and only a little round ball of feathers was balanced on his perch. Then I remembered that chickens have a way of putting their heads in their pockets when they go to sleep, and poetry yielded to poultry, Cheri stepped out of Chaucer, and took his place in the hencoop.

He has had an eventful life since he came to me. In the summer I hung him on a hook under piazza for the merry company of robins and bluebirds, which he enjoyed excessively. One day, in the midst of a most successful concert, an envious gust swept down the cage, up went the door, and out flew the frightened bird. I could have borne to lose him, but I was sure he would lose himself,—a tender little dilettante, served a prince all the days of his life, never having to lift a finger to help himself, or knowing a want unsatisfied. Now, thrown suddenly upon his own resources, homeless, friendless, forlorn, how could ever make his fortune in this bleak New England, for all he has, according to Cuvier, more brains in his head in proportion to his size than any other created being? I saw him already in midsummer, drenched with cold rains, chilled and perishing; but sharper eyes than mine had marked his flight, and a pair of swift hands plunged after him into the long grass that tangled his wings and kept him back from headlong destruction. Amicable relations between Cheri and the cat are on a most precarious footing. The cat was established in the house before Cheri came,—a lovely, frolicsome kitten, that sat in my lap, purred in my face, rubbed her nose against my book, and grew up, to my horror, out of all possibility of caresses, into a great, ugly, fierce, fighting animal, that comes into the house drenched and dripping from the mud-puddle in which she has been rolling in a deadly struggle with every Tom Hyer and Bill Sayers of the cat kind that make night hideous through the village. This cat seems to be possessed with a devil every time she looks at Cheri. Her green eyes bulge out of her head, her whole feline soul rushes into them, and glares with a hot, greeny-yellow fire and fury of unquenchable desire. One evening I had put the cage on a chair, and was quietly reading in the room below, when a great slam and bang startled the house. “The bird!” shrieked a voice, mine or another’s. I rushed upstairs. The moonlight shone in, revealing the cage upturned on the floor, the water running, the seeds scattered about, and a feather here and there. The cat had managed to elude observation and glide in, and she now managed to elude observation and glide out. Cheri was alive, but his enemy had attacked him in the flank, and turned his left wing, which was pretty much gone, according to all appearances. He could not mount his perch, and for three days, crouching on the floor of his cage, life seemed to have lost its charm. His spirits drooped, his appetite failed, and his song was hushed. Then his feathers grew out again, his spirit returned to him with his appetite, and he hopped about as good as new. To think that cat should have been able to thrust her villanous claw in far enough to clutch a handful of feathers of him before she upset the cage! I have heard that canaries sometimes die of fright. If so, I think Cheri would have been justified in doing it. To have a great overgrown monster, with burning globes of eyes as big as your head and claws as sharp as daggers, come glaring on you in the darkness, overturn your house, and grab half your side with one huge paw, is a thing well calculated to alarm a person of delicate organization.

Then I said to myself, this cat thinks she has struck a placer, and a hundred to one she will be driving her pick in here again directly. So I removed the cage immediately, and set it on a high bureau, with a “whisking-stick” close by it. Sure enough I was awakened the next morning before day by a prolonged and mournful “maeouw” of disappointment from the old dragon at not finding the prey where she had expected. Before she had time to push her researches to success, she and I and the stick were not letting the grass grow under our feet on the stairs. Long after, when the fright and flurry had been forgotten, the cage was again left in a rocking-chair in the upper front entry, where I had been sitting in sunshine all the afternoon with Cheri, who thinks me, though far inferior to a robin or a finch, still better than no company at all. In the course of the evening I happened to open the lower entry door, when the cat suddenly appeared on the lower stair. I should have supposed she had come from the sitting-room with me, but for a certain elaborate and enforced nonchalance in her demeanor, a jaunty air of insouciance, as far removed, on the one hand, from the calm equilibrium of dignity which almost imperceptibly soothes and reassures you, as from the guileless gayety of infantile ignorance, which perforce “medicines your weariness,” on the other,—a demeanor which at once disgusts and alarms you. I felt confident that some underhand work was going on. I went upstairs. There was Cheri again, this time with his right wing gone, and a modicum of his tail. The cage had retained its position, but the Evil One had made her grip at him; and the same routine of weariness, silence, loss of appetite and spirits was to be gone through with again, followed by re-pluming and recuperating. But every time I think of it, I am lost in wonder at the skill and sagacity of that cat. It was something to carry on the campaign in a rocking-chair, without disturbing the base of operations so as to make a noise and create a diversion in favor of the bird; but the cunning and self-control which, as soon as I opened the door, made her leave the bird, and come purring about my feet, and tossing her innocent head to disarm suspicion, was wonderful. I look at her sometimes, when we have been sitting together a while, and say, with steadfast gaze, “Cat-soul, what are you? Where are you? Whence come you? Whither go you?” But she only her whiskers, and gives me no satisfaction.

But I saw at once that I must make a different disposition of Cheri. It would never do to have him thus mauled. To be sure, I suppose the cat might be educationally mauled into letting him alone; but why should I beat the beast for simply acting after her kind? Has not the Manciple, with as much philosophy as poetry, bidden,—

Let take a cat, and foster hire with milke
And tendre flesh, and make hire couche of silke,
And let hire see a mous go by the wall,
Anon she weiveth milke and flesh, and all,
And every deintee that is in that hous,
Swich appetit hath she to ete the mous
Lo, here hath kind hire domination,
And appetit flemeth discretion?

Accordingly I respected the “domination” of “kind,” took the cage into the parlor and hung it up in the folds of the window-curtain, where there is always sunshine, wrapping a strip of brown paper around the lower part of the cage, so that he should not scatter his seeds over the carpet. What is the result? Perversely he forsakes his cup of seed, nicely mixed to suit his royal taste; forsakes his conch-shell, nicely fastened within easy reach; forsakes the bright sand that lies whitely strewn beneath his feet, and pecks, pecks, pecks away at that stiff, raw, coarse brown paper, jagging great gaps in it from hour to hour. I do not mind the waste of paper, even at its present high prices; but suppose there should be an ornithological dyspepsia, or a congestion of the gizzard, or some internal derangement? The possibility of such a thing gave me infinite uneasiness at first; but he has now been at it so long without suffering perceptible harm, that I begin to think Nature knows what she is about, and brown paper agrees with birds. I am confident, however, that he would devout it all the same, whether it were salutary or otherwise, for he is a mule-headed fellow. I let him loose on the flower-stand yesterday, hoping he might deal death to a horde of insects who had suddenly squatted on the soil of the money-plant. He scarcely so much as looked at the insects, but hopped up to the adjoining rose-bush, and proceeded to gorge himself with tender young leaves. I tilted him away from that, and he fluttered across the money-plant over to the geranium opposite. Disturbed there, he flashed to the other side of the stand, and, quick as thought, gave one mighty dab at a delicate little fuchsia that is just “picking up” from the effects of transplanting and a long winter journey. Seeing he was bent on making himself disagreeable, I put him into his cage again, first having to chase him all about the room to catch him, and prying him up at last from between a picture and the wall, where he had flown and settled down in his struggle to get out. For my Cheri is not in the least tame. He is an entirely uneducated bird. I have seen canaries sit on people’s fingers and eat from their tongues, but Cheri flies around like a madman at the first approach of fingers. Indeed, he quite provokes me by his want of trust. He ought to know by this time that I am his friend, yet he goes off into violent hysterics the moment I touch him. He does not even show fight. There is no outcry of anger or alarm, but one “Yang!” of utter despair. He gives up at once. Life is a burden, his “Yang!” says. “Everything is going to ruin. There is no use in trying. I wish I never was born. Yang!” Little old croaker, what are you Yang-ing for? Nobody wishes to harm you. It is your little cowardly heart that sees lions and hyenas in a well-meaning forefinger and thumb. Be sensible.

Another opportunity for the exhibition of his perversity is furnished by his bathing. His personal habits are exquisite. He has a gentleman’s liking for cold water and the appliances of cleanliness; but if I spread a newspaper on the floor, and prepare everything for a comfortable and convenient bath, the little imp clings to his perch immovable. It is not only a bath that he wishes, but fun. Mischief is his sine qua non of enjoyment. “What is the good of bathing, if you cannot spoil anything?” says he. “If you will put the bathtub in the window, where I can splash and spatter the glass and the curtains and the furniture, very well, but if not, why—” he sits incorrigible, with eyes half closed, pretending to be sleepy, and not see water anywhere, the rogue!

One day I heard a great “to-do” in the cage, and found that half the blind was shut, and helped Cheri to a reflection of himself, which he evidently thought was another bird, and he was in high feather. He hopped about from perch to perch, sidled from one side of the cage to the other, bowed and bobbed and courtesied to himself, sung and swelled and smirked, and became thoroughly frantic with delight. “Poor thing!” I said, “you are lonely, no wonder.” I had given him a new and shining cage, a green curtain, a sunny window; but of what avail are these to a desolate heart? Who does not know that the soul may starve in splendor? “Solitude,” says Balzac, I think, “is a fine thing; but it is also a fine thing to have some one to whom you can say, from time to time, that solitude is a fine thing.” I know that I am but a poor substitute for a canary-bird,—a gross and sorry companion for one of ethereal mould. I can supply seed and water and conch-shells, but what do I know of finchy loves and hopes? What sympathy have I to offer in his joyous or sorrowful moods? How can I respond to his enthusiasms? How can I compare notes with him as to the sunshine and the trees and the curtain and views of life? It is not sunshine, but sympathy, that lights up houses into homes. Companionship is what he needs, for his higher aspirations and his everyday experiences,—somebody to whom he can observe “The sand is rather gritty today, isn’t it?”

“Very much as usual, my dear.”

“Here is a remarkably plump seed, my dear, won’t you have it?”

“No, thank you, dear, nothing more. Trol-la-la-r-r-r!”

“Do let me help you to a bit of this hemp. It is quite a marvel of ripeness.”

“Thank you. Just a snip. Plenty.”

“My dear, I think you are stopping in the bathtub too long this morning. I fancied you a trifle hoarse yesterday.”

“It was the company, pet. I strained my voice slightly in that last duet.”

“We shall have to be furnished with a new shell before long. This old one is getting to be rather the last peas of the picking.”

“Yes, I nearly broke my beak over it yesterday. I was quite ashamed of it when the ladies were staring at you so admiringly.”

“Little one, I have a great mind to try that swing. It has tempted me this long while.”

“My love, I beg you will do no such thing. You will inevitably break your neck.”

Instead of this pleasant conjugal chit-chat, what has he? Nothing. He stands looking out at the window till his eyes ache, and then he turns around and looks at me. If any one comes in and begins to talk, and he delightedly joins, he gets a handkerchief thrown over his cage. Sometimes the cat creeps in,—very seldom, for I do not trust her, even with the height of the room between them, and punish her whenever I find her on forbidden ground, by taking her upstairs and putting her out on the porch-roof, where she has her choice to stay and starve or jump off. This satisfies my conscience while giving a good lesson to the cat, who is not fond of saltatory feats, now that she is getting into years. If it is after her kind to prey upon birds, and she must therefore not be beaten, it is also after her kind to leap from anywhere and come down on her feet, and therefore the thing does not harm her. Whenever she does stealthily worm herself in, Cheri gives the pitch the moment he sets eyes on her. Cat looks up steadily at him for five minutes. Cheri, confident, strikes out in a very tempting way. Cat describes a semicircle around the window, back and forth, back and forth, keeping ever her back to the room and her front to the foe, glaring and mewing and licking her chaps. O, what a delicious tit-bit, if one could but get at it! Cheri sings relentlessly. Like Shirley with Louis Moore in her clutches, he will not subdue one of his charms in compassion.

Certes it is NOT of herte, all that he sings.

She leaps into a chair. Not a quarter high enough. She jumps to the window-seat, and walks to and fro, managing the turning-points with much difficulty. Impossible. She goes over to the other window. Still worse. She takes up position on the sofa, and her whole soul exhales into one want.

She mews and licks her chaps alternately. Cheri “pitilessly sweet” sings with unsparing insolence at the top of his voice, and looks indifferently over her head.

That is the extent of his society. “It is too bad,” I said one day, and scoured the country for a canary-bird. Everybody had had one, but it was sold. Then I remembered Barnum’s Happy Family, and went out to the hen-pen, and brought in a little auburn chicken, with white breast, and wings just budding; a size and a half larger than Cheri, it is true, but the smallest of the lot, and very soft and small for a chicken, the prettiest wee, waddling tot you ever saw, a Minnie Warren of a little duck, and put him in the cage. A tempest in a teapot! Cheri went immediately into fits and furies. He hopped about convulsively. You might have supposed him attacked simultaneously with St. Anthony’s fire, St. Vitus’s dance, and delirium tremens. He shrieked, he writhed, he yelled, he raved. The chicken was stupid. If he had exerted himself a little to be agreeable, if he had only shown the smallest symptom of interest or curiosity or desire to cultivate an acquaintance, I have no doubt something might have been accomplished; but he just huddled down in one corner of the cage, half frightened to death, like a logy, lumpy, country bumpkin as he was, and I swept him back to his native coop in disgust. Relieved from the lout’s presence, Cheri gradually laid aside his tantrums, smoothed down his ruffled plumes, and resumed the manners of a gentleman.

My attempt at happy families was nipped in the bud, decidedly.

By and by I went to the market-town, and, having sold my butter and eggs, hunted up a bird-fancier. He had plenty of heliotropes, verbenas, and japonicas, and had had plenty of birds, but of course they were every one gone. Nobody wanted them. He had just about given them away, for a quarter of a dollar or so, and since then ever so many had been to buy them. Could he tell me where I might find one? Yes, he sold one to the barber last week, down near the depot. Didn’t believe but what he would sell it. Was it a female bird? For my ambition had grown by what it fed on, and, instead of contenting myself simply with a companion for Cheri, I was now planning for a whole brood of canaries, with all the interests of housekeeping, baby-tending, and the manifold small cares incident upon domestic life. In short, I was launching out upon an entirely new career, setting a new world a-spinning in that small wire cage. Yes, it was a female bird. A good bird? For I could not understand the marvelously low price. Yes ‘m, prime. Had eight young ones last year. Eight young ones! I rather caught my breath. I wanted a brood, but I thought three was the regular number, and I must confess I could hardly look with fortitude on such a sudden and enormous accession of responsibility. Besides, the cage was not half large enough. And how could they all bathe? And how could I take proper care of so many? And, dear me, eight young ones! And eight more next year is sixteen. And the grandchildren! And the great-grandchildren! Hills on hills and Alps on Alps! I shall be pecked out of house and home. I walked up the street musingly, and finally concluded not to call on the barber just yet.

It was very well I did so, for just afterwards Cheri’s matins and vespers waxed fainter and fainter, and finally ceased altogether. In great anxiety I called in the highest medical science, which announced that he was only shedding his feathers. This opinion was corroborated by numerous little angelic soft fine feathers scattered about in localities that precluded the cat. Cheri is a proud youngster, and I suppose he thought if he must lose his good looks, there was no use in keeping up his voice; therefore he moped and pouted for several months, and would have appeared to very great disadvantage in case I had introduced a stranger to his good graces.

So Cheri is still alone in the world, but when my ship comes home from sea and brings an additional hour to my day, and a few golden eagles to my purse, he is going to have his mate, eight young ones and all, and I shall buy him a new cage, a trifle smaller than Noah’s ark, and a cask of canary-seed and a South Sea turtle-shell, and just put them in the cage and let them colonize. If they increase and multiply beyond all possibility of provision, why, I shall by that time, perhaps have become world-encrusted and hard-hearted, and shall turn the cat in upon them for an hour or two, which will no doubt have the effect of at once thinning them down to wieldy proportions.

Sweet little Cheri. My heart smites me to see you chirping there so innocent and affectionate while I sit here plotting treason against you. Bright as is the day and dazzling as the sunlit snow, you turn away from it all, so strong is your craving for sympathy, and bend your tiny head towards me to pour out the fulness of your song.

And what a song it is! All the bloom of his beautiful islands sheds its fragrance there. The hum of his honey-bees roving through beds of spices, the loveliness of dark-eyed maidens treading the wine-press with ruddy feet, the laughter of young boys swinging in the vines and stained with the scented grapes,—all the music that rings through his orange-groves, all the sunshine of the tropics caught in the glow of fruit and flower, in the blue of sky and sea, in the blinding whiteness of the shore and the amethystine evening,—all come quivering over the western wave in the falls of his tuneful voice. You shall hear it while the day is yet dark in the folds of the morning twilight,—a weak, faint, preliminary “whoo! whoo!” uncertain and tentative, then a trill or two of awakened assurance, and then, with a confident, courageous gush and glory of soul, he flings aside all minor considerations, and dashes con amore into the very middle of things. I am not musical, and cannot give you his notes in technical hieroglyphs, but in exact and intelligible lines such as all may understand, whether musical or not, his song is like this,—and you may rely upon its accuracy, for I wrote it down from his own lips this morning:—

birdsong

(1866)

MLA Citation

Hamilton, Gail. “Cheri.” 1866. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 16 Feb 2007. 26 May 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/hamilton/cheri/>.

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