From Understudies (Harper & Brothers; New York: 1901)
The parrot was a superb bird — a vociferous symmetry of green and gold and ruby red, with eyes like jewels, with their identical irresponsibility of fire, with a cling, not of loving dependence, but of ruthless insistence, to his mistress's hand, or the wires of his cage, and a beak of such a fine curve of cruelty as was never excelled.
The parrot's mistress was a New England woman, with the influence of a stern training strong upon her, and yet with a rampant force of individuality constantly at war with it. She lived alone, except for the parrot, in a sharply angled village house, looking upon the world with a clean, repellent glare of windows and white broadside of wall, in a yard whose grass seemed as if combed always by one wind, so evenly slanted was it. There was a decorously trimmed rose-bush on either side of the front door, and one elm-tree at the gate which leaned decidedly to the south with all its green sweep of branches, and always in consequence gave the woman a vague and unreasoning sense of immorality.
Inside, the house showed stiff parallelograms of white curtains, and dull carpets threadbare with cleanliness, and little pools of reflected light from the polished surfaces of old tables and desks, and one glass-doored bookcase filled with works on divinity bound uniformly in rusty black.
The woman's father had been a Congregational clergyman, and this was his old library. She had read every book over and over with a painful concentration, and afterwards admitted her crime of light-mindedness, and prayed to be forgiven, and have her soul so wrought upon by grace that she might truthfully enjoy these godly publications. She had never read a novel; she looked upon cards as wiles of the devil; once, and once only, had she been to a concert of strictly secular music in the town-hall, and had felt thereby contaminated for days, having a temperament which was strangely wrought upon by music, and yet a total ignorance of it. She felt guilty under the influence of all harmonies which did not, through being linked to spiritual words, turn her soul to thoughts of heaven; and yet sometimes, to her sore bewilderment, the tunes which she heard in church did not so sway her wayward fancy; and then she accused herself of being perverted in her comprehension of good through the influence of that worldly concert.
This woman went nowhere except to church, to prayer-meeting, to the village store, and once a month to the missionary sewing-circle, and to the supper and sociable in the evening. She dressed always in black, her face was delicately spare, her lips were a compressed line of red, and yet she was pretty, with a prettiness almost of youth, from that undiminished fire of the spirit which dwelt within her, as securely caged by her training and narrowness of life as was the parrot by the strong wires of his house.
The parrot was the one bright thing in the woman's life; he was the link with that which was outside her, and yet with that which was of her truest inwardness of self. This tropical thing, screaming and laughing, and shrieking out dissonant words, and oftentimes speeches, with a seemingly diabolical comprehension of the situation, was the one note of utter freedom and irresponsibility in her life. She adored him, but always with a sense of guilt upon her. Often she said to herself that some judgment would come upon her for so loving such a bird, for there was in truth about him as much utter gracelessness as can be conceived of in one of the lower creation. He swore such oaths that his mistress would fairly fly out of the door with hands to her ears. Always, when she saw a caller coming, she would remove his cage to a distant room and shut all the doors between. She felt that if any one heard him sending forth those profane shrieks, possibly to his spiritual contamination, she might be driven by her sense of duty to have the bird put to death. She knew, as she believed, that she risked her own soul by listening and yet loving, but that she had no courage to forego.
As for the parrot, he loved his mistress, if he loved anything. He would extend an ingratiating but deceitful claw towards her between his cage wires whenever she approached. If ever she had a torn finger in consequence, she made light of it, like any wound of love. He would take morsels of food from between her thin lips.
When she talked to him with that language of love which every soul knows by instinct, and which is intelligible to all who are not too deadened and deafened with self, he would cock his glittering head and look at her with that inscrutable jewel-eye of his. Then he would thrust out a claw towards her with that insistence which was ruthless, and yet not more ruthless than the insistence of love, and often say something which confounded her with its apparent wisdom of sequence, and then the doubt and the conviction which at once tormented and enraptured her would seize upon her.
She tried to conceal it from herself, she held it as the rankest atheism, she thought vaguely of the idols of wood and stone in the hymn-book, of Baal, and the golden calf, and the witch of Endor, and every forbidden thing which is the antithesis of holiness, and yet she could not be sure that her parrot had not a soul. Sometimes she wondered if she ought to speak of her state of mind to the minister, and ask his advice, but she shrank from doing that, both because of her natural reserve and because he was unmarried, and she knew that people had coupled his name with hers. He was of suitable age, and it was urged that a match for him with the solitary daughter of the former minister would be eminently appropriate.
The woman had never considered the possibility of such a thing, although she had heard of the plan of the parish from many a female friend. She had had her stifled dreams in her early youth, but she had not been one to attract lovers, being perchance bound as to her true graces somewhat too much after the fashion of her father's old divinity books. No man in her whole life had ever looked at her with a look of love, and she had never heard the involuntary break of it in his voice. Sometimes on summer evenings, she, sitting by her open window, saw village lovers going past with covert arms of affection around slim, girlish waists. One night she saw, half shrinking from the sight, a fond pair standing in the shadow of the elm-tree at her gate, and clasped in each other's arms, and saw the girl's face raised to the young man's for his eager kisses, the while a murmur of love, like a song in an unknown tongue, came to her ears.
It was a warm night, and the parrot's cage was slung for coolness on a peg over the window, and he shrieked out, with his seemingly unholy apprehension of things, “What is that? What is that? Do you know what that is, Martha?” Then ended his query with such a wild clamor of laughter that the lovers at the gate fled, and his mistress, Martha, rose and took the bird in.
She set him on the sitting-room table along with the Bible and the Concordance, and a neat little pile of religious papers, while she lighted a lamp. Then she looked half affrightedly, half with loving admiration, at the gorgeous thing, swinging himself frantically on the ring in his cage.
Then, swifter than lightning, down on his perch he dropped, cast a knowing eye like a golden spark at the solitary woman, and shrieked out again:
“What was that? What was that, Martha? Martha, Martha, Martha, Martha. Polly don't want a cracker; Polly don't want a cracker; Polly will be damned if she eats a cracker. You don't want a cracker, do you, Martha? Martha, Martha, Martha, want a cracker? What was that, Martha? Martha, want a cracker? Martha will be damned if she eats a cracker. Martha, Martha, Martha!”
Then the bird was off in such another explosion of laughs, thrusting a claw through his wires at his mistress, that the house rang with them. Martha took the extended claw tenderly; she put her pretty, delicate, faded face to that treacherous beak; she murmured fond words. Then ceased suddenly as she heard a step on the walk, and the parrot cried out, with a cry of sharpest and most sardonic exultation:
“He's coming, he's coming, Martha!”
Then, to Martha's utter horror, before she had time to remove the bird, a knock came on her front door, which stood open, and there was the minister.
He had called upon her before, in accordance with his pastoral duty, but seldom, and always with his mother, who kept his house with him. This time he was alone, and there was something new in his manner.
He was a handsome man, no younger than she, but looking younger, with a dash of manner which many considered unministerial. He would not allow Martha to remove the parrot, though she strove tremblingly to do so, and laughed with a loud peal like a boy when the parrot shrieked, to his mistress's sore discomfiture:
“He's come, Martha, damned if he ain't. Martha, Martha, where in hell is that old cracker?”
Martha felt as if her hour of retribution had come, and she was vaguely and guiltily pleased and relieved when the minister not only did not seem shocked with the free speaking of her bird, but was apparently amused.
She watched him touch the parrot caressingly, and heard him talk persuasively, coaxing him to further speech, and for the first time in her life a complete sense of human comradeship came to her.
After a while the parrot resolved himself into a gorgeous plumy ball of slumber on his perch, then his mistress sat an hour in the moonlight with the minister.
She had put out the lamp at his request, timidly, and yet with a conviction that such a course must be strictly proper, since it was proposed by the minister.
The two sat near each other at the open window, and the soft sweetness of the summer night came in, and the influence of the moonlight was over them both. The lovers continued to stroll past the gate, and a rule of sequence holds good in all things. Presently, for the first time in her life, this solitary woman felt a man's hand clasping her own little slender one in her black cashmere lap. The minister made no declaration of love in words, but the tones of his voice were enough.
When he spoke of exchanging with a neighboring clergyman in two weeks, the speech was set to the melody of a love-song, and there was no cheating ears which were attuned to it, no matter if it had been long in coming.
When the minister took his leave, and Martha lighted her lamp again, the parrot stirred and woke, and brought that round golden eye of his to bear upon her face flushed like a girl's, and cried out:
“Why, Martha! why, Martha! what is the matter?”
Then Martha dropped on her knees beside the cage, and touched the bird's head with a finger of tenderest caressing.
“Oh, you darling, you darling, you precious!” she murmured, and began to weep. And the parrot did not laugh, but continued to eye her.
“He has come, hasn't he, Martha?” said he.
Then Martha was more than ever inclined to think that the bird had a soul; still she doubted, because of the unorthodoxy of it, and the remembrance of man and man alone being made in God's own image.
Still, through having no friend in whom to confide her new hope and happiness, the parrot became doubly dear to her. Curiously enough, in the succeeding weeks he was not so boisterous, he did not swear so much, but would sit watching his mistress as she sat dreaming, and now and then he said something which seemed inconceivable to her simple mind, unless he had a full understanding of the situation.
The minister came oftener and oftener; he stayed longer. He came home on Sunday nights with her after meeting. He kissed her at the door. He always held her little hand, which yielded to his with an indescribably gentle and innocent maidenliness, while he talked about the mission work in foreign lands, and always his lightest speech was set to that love-melody.
Martha began to expect to marry him. She overlooked her supply of linen. Visions of a new silk for a wedding-dress, brown instead of black, flashed before her eyes. She talked more than usual to the parrot in those days, using the words and tone which she might have used towards the minister, had not the restraints of her New England birth and training enclosed her like the wires of a cage, and the parrot eyed her with wise attentiveness which grew upon him, only now and then uttering one of his favorite oaths.
Then suddenly the disillusion of the poor soul as to her first gospel of love came. She went to the sewing-circle one Wednesday in early spring, after the minister had been to see her for nearly a year, and she wore her best black silk, thinking he would be there, and she had crimped her hair and looked as radiant as a girl when she entered the low vestry filled with the discordant gabble of sewing-women.
Then she heard the news. It was told her with some protest and friendly preparation, for everybody had thought that the match between herself and the minister was as good as made. There was a whispered discussion among groups of women, with sly eyes upon her face; then one, who was a leader among them, a woman of affectionate glibness, approached her, after Martha had heard a feminine voice lingering in the outskirts of a sudden hush say:
“And she's got on her best silk, too, poor thing.”
Martha now looked up, and her radiant face paled slowly as the woman began to talk to her. The news seemed to smite her like some hammer of fate, her brain reeled, and her ears rang with it.
The minister was engaged, and had, in fact, gone to be married. He would bring his bride home the next week; another minister was to occupy his pulpit the next Sunday. He was to marry a woman to whom he had been attached for years, but the marriage had been delayed.
Martha listened, then suddenly the color flashed back into her white cheeks — she had stanch blood in her.
“Well, I am glad to hear it,” she said, and lied with no compunction for the first time in her life, and never repented it. “I have always thought it was much better for a minister to be married,” she said. “I have always thought that his usefulness would be much enhanced. Father used to say so.” Then she took out her needle and thread and went to work with the others.
The women eyed her furtively, but she made no sign of noticing it. When one said to her that she had kind of thought that maybe the minister was shining up to her, she only laughed, and said gently that they were very good friends, but there had never been a word of anything else between them.
She overheard one woman whisper to another that, “if Martha was cut up, she would deceive the very elect,” and the other reply, “that maybe he had told Martha all about the woman he was going to marry.”
Martha stayed as usual to the supper and the entertainment. A young couple sat on a settee in front of her while some singing was going on, and at a tender passage she saw the boy furtively press the girl's hand, and she set her lips hard.
But at last she was free to go home, and when she had unlocked the door and entered her lonely house, down upon the floor in her sitting-room she flung herself, with all the floodgates of her New England nature open at last. She wept and wailed her grief and anger aloud like a Southern woman.
Then in the midst of it all came a wild wailing cry from the parrot, a cry of uncanny sympathy and pain and tenderness outside the pale of humanity.
“Why, Martha! why, Martha! what's the matter?”
Then the woman rose and went to the cage, her delicate face and lips so swollen with grief that she was appalling; she had even trailed her best black silk in the mud on her way home. She was past the bounds of decency in her frenzy of misery. She opened the cage door, and the parrot flew out and to her slender shoulder, and she sobbed out her grief to him amid his protesting cries.
“Poor Martha, why, poor Martha,” he said, and she felt almost certain that he had a soul, and she no longer felt so shocked by her leaning towards that belief, but was comforted.
But all of a sudden the parrot on her shoulder gave a tweak at her hair, and shrieked out:
“That was a damned cracker, Martha,” and her belief wavered.
She put him back in his cage and locked up her house for the night, and put out her lamp and went to bed, but she could not go to sleep, for the loss of her old dream of love gave the whole world and all life such a hollowness and emptiness that it was like thunder in her ears, and forced its waking realization upon her.
All during the next week, if it had not been for the parrot, she felt that she would have gone mad. She went out in her small daily tracks to the village store, and the prayer-meetings, and on Sunday to church, her agony of concern being that no one should know that she was fretting over the minister's desertion of her.
She talked about the engagement and marriage with her gentle stateliness of manner, which never failed her, but when she got home to her parrot, and the healing solitariness of her own house, she felt like one who had a cooling lotion applied to a burn.
And she wondered more and more if the parrot had not verily a soul, and could not approach her with a sympathy which was better than any human sympathy, since it was so beyond all human laws, but she was not fully convinced of it until the minister brought his new wife to call upon her a few weeks after his marriage.
She had wondered vaguely if he would do it, if he could do it, but he came in with all his dashing grace of manner, and his bride was smiling at his side, in her wedding silks, and Martha greeted them with no disturbance of her New England calm and stiffness, but inwardly her very soul stormed and protested; and as they were sitting in the parlor there came of a sudden from the next room, where he had been at large, the parrot, like a very whirlwind of feathered rage, and, with a wild shriek, he dashed upon the bridal bonnet, plucking furiously at roses and plumes.
Then there was a frightened and flurried exit, with confusion and apologies, and screams of baffled wrath, and rueful smoothing of torn finery.
And after the minister and his bride had gone, Martha looked at her parrot, and his golden eyes met hers, and she recognized in the fierce bird a comradeship and an equality, for he had given vent to an emotion of her own nature, and she knew forevermore that the parrot had a soul.