Alfred de Musset (18101857). The Story of a White Blackbird.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
IN spite of the resolution I had made and the calm I affected, I was not happy. I found my isolation none the less burdensome for being glorious, and I cloud not think without horror of the necessity of passing my whole life in a state of celibacy. The return of spring, especially, caused me much uneasiness, and I began once more to grow very melancholy, when an unforeseen incident changed the course of my life.
It is needless to say that my writings had crossed the channel, and that the English were snatching them away from each other. The English will snatch at anything, unless it is something that they can understand. One day I received, from London, a letter signed by a young lady blackbird:
It is easy to imagine my surprise and joy. A white blackbird! said I to myself, is it possible? Then I am no longer alone upon the earth! I hastened to answer the fair unknown, and I wrote in a way which showed plainly enough how pleased I was with her proposal. I urged her to come to Paris or to allow me to fly to her. She replied that she preferred to come to me, because her family might give her some trouble, that she would put her affairs in order and that I should see her soon.
Ah, Mademoiselle, I cried, or rather Madame, for I regard you as my lawful wife from this very moment, is it possible that so charming a creature should have existed in the world, without her fame having reached me? I am grateful for my past misfortunes and for the sharp pecks that my father gave me, since heaven had such an unexpected consolation in store for me. Until now, I believed that I was condemned to eternal solitude, and, to speak plainly, it was a heavy burden to carry; but when I look at you, I feel quite like the father of a family. Pray accept my hand at once; let us be married in the English fashion, without ceremony, and we will start for Switzerland together.
That is not my idea at all, answered the young blackbird; I want our wedding to be a magnificent affair, and I want all the blackbirds in France, who have any social standing at all, to be solemnly assembled. Such people as we are owe it to their own high position not to be married like cats in the gutter. I have brought a supply of bank-notes. Send out your invitations, go and do the necessary shopping, and do not skimp on the refreshments.
I followed the white blackbirds orders blindly. Our wedding was almost oppressively luxurious; no less than ten thousand flies were eaten. A Reverend Father Cormorant, who was arch-bishop in partibus, pronounced the nuptial benediction. The day ended with a grand ball. In fact, my happiness was complete.
The more I learned of my charming wifes character, the more my love increased. In her small person, all the graces of mind and body were united. The only defect was a slight prudishness; but I attributed this to the effect of the English fogs in which she had lived hitherto, and I had no doubt that the French climate would soon drive away this one little cloud.
One thing which gave me more serious anxiety, was a sort of mystery with which she would from time to time surround herself, with a strange exclusiveness, locking herself up with her chambermaids, and passing whole hours over her toilette, or so she pretended. Such fanciful behavior about the house is very unpleasing to a husband. Twenty times I had knocked at the door of my wifes room and had failed to induce her to let me in. This conduct tried my patience cruelly. One day, when I found the door locked, I insisted so crossly, that she felt obliged to yield and opened the door rather hastily, complaining bitterly of my persistence. I noticed, as I went in, a large bottle full of a sort of paste made of flour and whiting. I asked my wife what she did with this medicine; she answered that it was an opiate for her chilblains.
This opiate struck me as being a trifle suspicious; but yet how could one suspect so gentle and good a person, who had given herself to me with such warmth and sincerity? I had not known at first that my beloved was a literary lady; she confessed it to me after a while, and even showed me the manuscript of a novel which she had imitated both from Walter Scott and from Scarron. I leave you to imagine how delighted I was with this pleasant surprise. I not only found myself possessed of an incomparable beauty, but I now felt sure that my companions intelligence was fully worthy of my own genius. From that time on, we worked together. While I was composing my poems, she scrawled over reams of paper. I would recite my verses aloud to her, and that did not hinder her from writing at the same time. She hatched out her romances with an ease almost equal to my own, always choosing the most dramatic subjects, such as parricides, seductions, murders, and even pocket-picking, always taking care, in passing, to attack the government and to preach the emancipation of female blackbirds. In a word, no effort was too much for her mind, no tour de force was too much for her modesty; she never crossed out a line, nor formed a plan before beginning to work. She was the very type of a literary blackbird.
At first she seemed a little startled and almost embarrassed, but her training and her society manners soon came to her aid and she recovered her admirable self control. She told me that it was an ink spot, and that she was very apt to get them in her moments of inspiration.
Is it possible that my wife is changing color? I said softly to myself. This thought would not let me sleep. The bottle of paste recurred to my mind. Oh heavens! I cried. What a suspicion! this heavenly being only a daubed and painted creature? Has she been whitening herself to deceive me? When I thought I was pressing to my heart a sister soul, a privileged being created for me alone, was I wedded to nothing but flour?
Haunted by this horrible thought, I formed a plan to allay my doubts. I purchased a barometer, and waited impatiently for it to bring a rainy day. I meant to take my wife into the country, choosing a doubtful Sunday, and try the experiment of a washing. But it was the middle of July and the weather was terribly fine.
The outward signs of happiness and my habit of writing had greatly excited my sensibilities. As I was rather simple, it sometimes happened, while I was working, that my sentiments were more powerful than my ideas, and I would begin to weep while I was waiting for a rhyme. My wife was very fond of these rare occasions: any masculine weakness flatters a womans pride. On a certain night, when I was smoothing over an erasure, according to Boileaus precept, I felt that I must open my heart.
Oh my only beloved! said I to my dear mate, without whom my life is but a dream, who can change the whole world for me with a glance or a smile, heart of my heart, do you know how I love you? A little care and study will easily help me to find words to put into verse some trivial idea that has already been used by other poets; but where shall I ever find words to express to you the inspiration with which your beauty fills me? I do not know whether even the remembrance of my past sufferings could provide me with words with which I could tell you of my present happiness. Before you came to me, my isolation was that of an exiled orphan; today it is that of a king. Do you know, my angel, my beauty, that in this frail body whose semblance I bear until death destroys it, in this feverish little brain where useless thoughts arise, there can be nothing, nothing that is not for you? Only listen to what my brain can tell you, and then feel how much greater is my love! Oh that my genius were a pearl, and that you were Cleopatra!
As I was expressing this lovers folly, I wept over my wife, and she changed color before my eyes. At every tear that I shed, there appeared a feather, not even a good black, but dingy and rusty (I believe that she must have changed color somewhere else already). After some minutes of tender folly, I found myself confronted by a bird quite free from paste and flour, and precisely like the most tiresome and ordinary blackbirds.
What should I do? What should I say? Reproaches were useless. It is true, I could have considered the case as a legal impediment, and annulled my marriage; but how could I dare to publish my disgrace? Was not my sorrow in itself trouble enough? I took my courage in my two claws and resolved to leave the world, to abandon the career of letters, to flee to the desert, and if possible, to avoid forevermore the sight of any living creature, and to seek, like Alceste,
A region remote,
Where a blackbird is free to be white if he choose!