Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Sacred Parrot
By Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880)
From ‘Un Cœur Simple’

THE SIGHS which Madame Aubain uttered while knitting beside her window, reached Félicité at her spinning in the kitchen. They often walked up and down together under the trellis, talking of Virginie, and wondering if such and such a thing would have pleased her, or what she would have said upon such an occasion.  1
  All her little belongings were kept in a cupboard in the room with two beds, and Madame Aubain looked them over very seldom. But one day she resigned herself to the task, and moths flew out of the wardrobe.  2
  Virginie’s dresses hung in a row under a shelf, upon which were three dolls, some hoops, a little housekeeping set, and the wash-bowl. They drew out all the skirts, the stockings, the handkerchiefs, and spread them on the two beds before refolding them. The sun shone on all these poor things, and brought out the spots and the creases made by the movements of the body. The air was warm and blue, a blackbird was warbling, everything seemed to live in profound calm. They came across a little brown plush hat with long hairs, all worm-eaten. This Félicité took for her own. Their eyes, meeting each other, filled with tears; at last the mistress opened her arms, the servant threw herself in them, and they clung to each other, satisfying their sorrow in a kiss which made them equal.  3
  It was their first embrace, for Madame Aubain was not of an expansive nature. Félicité felt grateful to her as for a benefit, and cherished her with religious veneration and the devotion of a faithful animal.  4
  Her kindness of heart increased.  5
  When she heard the drums of a regiment in the street, she stepped outside the door with a pitcher of cider and offered the soldiers a drink. When they were ill she cared for them. She was kind to the Poles, and there was one who even wanted to marry her. But this made trouble; for coming back from church one morning, she found that he had gone into her kitchen and made himself a vinegar stew, which he was tranquilly eating.  6
  After the Poles she devoted herself to Father Colmiche, an old man who was said to have taken part in the horrors of ’93. He lived on the river-side in the rubbish of a pig-sty. The street urchins watched him through chinks in the wall, and threw stones which fell on the wretched bed where he lay groaning, shaken by catarrh; with his hair very long, his eyelids inflamed, and on his arm a tumor larger than his head. She took him linen, tried to clean the squalid hole, dreamed of establishing him in her bake-house in some way that would not trouble Madame. When the cancer had gathered, she bandaged it every day. Sometimes she brought him cake, or placed him in the sun on a bunch of straw; and the poor old man, driveling and trembling, thanked her with his dying voice, feared to lose her, and stretched out his hands to her when he saw her going away. He died, and she ordered a mass for the repose of his soul.  7
  That very day a great joy came to her. Just at dinner-time Madame de Larsonnière’s colored man arrived, with the parrot in his cage, and perch, chain, and padlock. A note from the Baroness informed Madame Aubain that her husband had been promoted to a prefecture. They were going away that evening, and she begged Madame Aubain to accept the bird as a remembrance and with her respects.  8
  He had long busied the imagination of Félicité, for he came from America and thus recalled Victor; so she had often asked the negro about the bird. Once she had said, “How happy Madame would be to have him!”  9
  The negro had repeated this speech to his mistress, and as she could not take the parrot with her, she thus disposed of it.  10
  He was called Loulou. His body was green, the ends of his wings pink, his forehead blue, and his throat gilded.  11
  But he had a tiresome mania for biting his perch, pulling out his feathers, and scattering water from his bath, so that he annoyed Madame Aubain, and she gave him to Félicité.  12
  She attempted to teach him, and soon he was able to repeat, “Fine fellow! Your servant, sir! I salute you, Mary!” He was placed near the door, and several people expressed surprise that he did not answer to the name of Jacquot, like other parrots. They called him a ninny and a blockhead, which names were like dagger-thrusts to Félicité! Strange obstinacy of Loulou, who would not speak when any one was looking!  13
  Nevertheless, he was fond of company; for on Sunday when the Mademoiselles Rochefeuille, M. De Houppeville, and some new-comers—Onfroy the apothecary, M. Varin, and Captain Mathieu—had their game of cards, he beat the window-panes with his wings and chattered so furiously that it was impossible to speak.  14
  Bourais’s face seemed to amuse him greatly. As soon as he saw it, he began to laugh, to laugh with all his might. The outbursts of his voice escaped into the court, echo repeated them, the neighbors coming to their windows laughed too; so that to avoid being seen by the parrot, M. Bourais used to creep along the wall, holding up his hat to screen his profile until he reached the river and entered by the garden door. His glances at the bird lacked affection.  15
  Once Loulou, having buried his head in the butcher-boy’s basket, received a fillip, after which he always tried to pinch him through his shirt. Fabu threatened to wring his neck, although he was not a cruel fellow, in spite of his great whiskers and the tattooing on his arms. On the contrary, he had rather a liking for the parrot, so that in his jovial humor he wanted to teach him to swear. Félicité, frightened at this behavior, placed Loulou in the kitchen. His little chain was taken off, and he wandered about the house.  16
  When he went down-stairs he rested the curve of his beak on the step and raised first his right claw and then the left, and she feared these gymnastics would make him dizzy. He fell ill, and could not speak or eat. There was a thick spot under his tongue such as chickens sometimes have, and she cured him by tearing this out with her nails. One day M. Paul was rash enough to blow the smoke of a cigar in his nostrils. Another time, when Madame Lormeau was teasing him with the end of her parasol, he snatched off the ferule. At last he lost himself.  17
  She had placed him on the grass to refresh him, left him a moment, and when she returned,—no parrot! At first she looked for him in the bushes, on the bank of the stream, on the roofs, without heeding her mistress, who was calling, “Be careful! You are mad!” Finally she visited all the gardens of Pont l’Évegne; and she stopped the passers. “Perhaps you have seen my parrot somewhere?” and to those who did not know him she gave a description. All at once she thought she saw something green flying low down behind the mills. But when she reached the top of the bank, it was gone. A peddler assured her that he had just seen him in Mother Simonne’s shop at Saint Mélaine. She hurried there, but they did not know what she was talking about. At last she went home, exhausted, her shoes in rags, sick at heart; and seated near Madame in the middle of the bench, she was telling all her adventures, when a light weight fell on her shoulder,—Loulou! Where the mischief had he been? Promenading in the suburbs, perhaps.  18
  She found this hard to get over; or rather, she never did get over it.  19
  In consequence of a chill she had a sore throat, and soon after an ear-ache. Three years later she was deaf, and talked very loud even in church. Although her sins might have been proclaimed to all the corners of the diocese without disgrace to her or harm to the world, still the priest judged it advisable to hear her confession only in the vestry.  20
  Illusory murmurings began to trouble her. Her mistress often said to her, “Good Heavens! how stupid you are!” and she answered, “Yes, Madame,” looking around her as if for something.  21
  The little circle of her ideas kept on narrowing; and the chiming of the bells, the lowing of the cattle, no longer existed for her. All the beings about her worked with the silence of phantoms. One sound only now reached her ears,—the voice of the parrot.  22
  As if to divert her, he mimicked the tic-tac of the turnspit, the shrill cry of the fish-man, the saw of the carpenter who lived opposite; and when the bell rang he imitated Madame Aubain,—“Félicité! the door! the door!”  23
  They held dialogues together, he uttering to satiety the three sentences of his repertory, and she answering with words as meaningless, but in which her heart overflowed. In her isolation Loulou was almost a son, a lover. He scaled her fingers, nibbled her lips, clung to her fichu; and as she bent her forehead toward him, shaking her head as nurses do, the broad flaps of her cap and his wings vibrated together.  24
  When the clouds gathered and the thunder rumbled, he uttered cries, remembering perhaps the showers of his native forests. The dripping of water excited his frenzy; he flew madly about, went up to the ceiling, upset everything, and flew through the window to dabble in the garden. Then he returned quickly to one of the andirons, and hopping to dry his feathers, showed now his tail and now his beak.  25
  One morning of the terrible winter of 1837, when she had placed him before the fireplace on account of the cold, she found him dead in the middle of his cage, his head down, and his claws in the iron bars. Doubtless a congestion had killed him. She believed that he had been poisoned with parsley, and without the slightest proof she suspected Fabu.  26
  She wept so much that her mistress said, “Well! have him stuffed.”  27
  She consulted the apothecary, who had always been kind to the bird. He wrote to Havre: a certain Fellacher undertook the task. But as packages were sometimes lost from the stage, she decided to carry the bird herself as far as Honfleur.  28
  Leafless apple-trees were ranged along the way. Ice covered the ditches. Dogs barked about the farms; and her hands under her mantle, with her little black sabots and her light basket, she hurried along in the middle of the street.  29
  She crossed the forest, passed Haut-Chêne, and reached Saint-Gatien. Behind her in a cloud of dust and precipitated upon her by the descent, a mail-coach came flashing along on a gallop. Seeing this woman who did not trouble herself to get out of the way, the driver stood up under the hood, and the postilion called too, while the four horses, whom he could not hold in, increased their speed. The first two grazed her; with a pull at the reins the driver jerked them to one side, but furious, he raised his arm with his great whip, and as he flew past he dealt her such a blow that she fell on her back.  30
  Her first movement, when she had regained consciousness, was to open her basket. Happily Loulou had not been hurt. She felt her right cheek burning, and when she put her hand to it she found that blood was flowing.  31
  She sat down on a stone and mopped her face with her handkerchief. Then she ate a crust of bread which she had taken the precaution to put in her basket, and comforted herself by looking at her bird.  32
  When she reached the height of Ecquemauville she saw the lights of Honfleur sparkling in the night like a quantity of stars; farther off the sea stretched confusedly. Then a weakness seized her; and all the misery of her childhood, the deception of her first love, her nephew’s departure, Virginie’s death, came back to her one after another, like the waves of the tide, mounting to her throat and stifling her.  33
  Then she wished to see the captain of the boat; and without telling him what she was sending, she commended it to his care.  34
  Fellacher kept the parrot for a long time. He always promised it for the next week, but after six months he announced that he had sent a case, and thus put an end to the uncertainty. It began to seem as if Loulou would never return. “They must have stolen him!” she was beginning to think.  35
  At last he arrived,—magnificent, erect on the branch of a tree which was screwed into a mahogany base, one foot in the air, his head on one side, and biting a nut, which in his love of effect the taxidermist had gilded.  36
  She shut him in her room. This place, to which she did not often admit people, looked like both a chapel and a bazar, it was so full of religious objects and of oddities. In fault of a stand, Loulou was established on a part of the chimney-piece which protruded into the room. Every morning when she woke up she saw him in the early light, and without sorrow and full of tranquillity she recalled his vanished days and insignificant actions to their least details.  37
  Not communicating with any one, she lived in the torpor of a somnambulist. The processions of Corpus Christi reanimated her. Then she went to the neighbors to beg candlesticks and straw mats for the altar which was raised in the street.  38
  In church she always looked at the picture of the Holy Ghost, and thought it like her parrot. This resemblance impressed her all the more in an image by Épinal, representing the baptism of our Lord. With his purple wings and emerald body, it was a true portrait of Loulou. She bought it and hung it instead of the Count D’Artois, so that in the same glance she could see both. They were associated in her thoughts; the parrot seemed sanctified by this connection to the Holy Ghost, who thus became more living and intelligible to her. The Father could not have chosen a dove to announce him, since that bird has no voice, but rather one of Loulou’s ancestors. And as Félicité prayed she looked at the image, but from time to time she turned a little toward her bird.  39
  She wanted to join the Sisters of the Virgin, but Madame Aubain dissuaded her.  40
  In the month of March 1853 Madame Aubain had a sudden pain in her breast; her tongue seemed covered with smoke; leeches could not calm the oppression, and on the ninth evening she died at exactly the age of seventy-two.  41
  Félicité wept for her as masters are not wept. That Madame should die before her, troubled her mind and seemed contrary to the order of things,—inadmissible and monstrous.  42
  Ten days later (the time to come from Besançon) the heirs arrived. The daughter-in-law searched the drawers, chose some furniture, and sold the remainder. Then they returned to the registry office.  43
  Madame’s arm-chair, her centre-table, her foot-stove, the eight chairs, were gone. The places where the engravings had hung showed in yellow squares on the walls. They had carried off the two beds with their mattresses, and none of Virginie’s belongings remained in the cupboard! Félicité climbed up-stairs, drunk with grief.  44
  The next day there was a sign on the door, and the apothecary cried in her ear that the house was for sale.  45
  She tottered and had to sit down.  46
  What troubled her most was the thought of leaving her room, so convenient for poor Loulou. Covering him with an anguished look, she implored the Holy Ghost, and fell into the idolatrous habit of kneeling before the parrot while she said her prayers. Sometimes the sun, coming in at the dormer window, fell on his glass eye, and it sparkled with a luminous ray which threw her into ecstasy.  47
  Her mistress had left her an income of three hundred and eighty francs. The garden supplied her with vegetables. As to clothes, she had enough for the rest of her life, and she economized lights by going to bed with the dark.  48
  In order to avoid the broker’s shop, where some of Madame’s old furniture was displayed, she scarcely ever went out. After her dizzy turn she dragged one leg, and as her strength grew less, Mother Simonne, who was bankrupt in her little grocery, came every morning to cut wood and draw water.  49
  Her eyes grew weaker. She no longer opened the blinds. Thus many years passed, and the house was neither rented nor sold. In the fear that she might be sent away, Félicité never asked for any repairs. The shingles were rotting on the roof. All one winter her bolster was wet. After Easter she spit blood.  50
  Then Mother Simonne brought a doctor. Félicité wanted to know what she had. But in her deafness only one word came to her—“pneumonia.” It was familiar to her, and she answered gently:—  51
  “Ah! like Madame,” finding it natural to follow her mistress.  52
  The time for the street altars was drawing near.  53
  One was always placed on the shore, a second before the post-office, the third near the middle of the street. There were rivalries as to the position of this last, and finally the parishioners selected the court of Madame Aubain.  54
  The fever and oppression increased. Félicité mourned that she could not do anything for the altar. If she only had something to put on it! Then she thought of the parrot. The neighbors objected that it was not fitting. But the priest gave her permission, and this made her so happy that she begged him to accept Loulou, her one treasure, after her death.  55
  From Tuesday to Saturday, the eve of Corpus Christi, she coughed oftener. That evening her face was drawn, her lips stuck to her gums, she vomited; and the next day, feeling herself very low, she summoned a priest.  56
  Three kind women were with her when she received extreme unction. Then she declared that she must speak to Fabu.  57
  He came in his Sunday clothes, ill at ease in this mournful atmosphere.  58
  “Forgive me,” she said, trying to hold out her arm. “I thought you killed him.”  59
  What did she mean by such nonsense? To suspect a man like him of murder!—and he grew angry and was going to storm. “She has lost her mind, that’s plain enough.”  60
  From time to time Félicité talked to visions. The good women went away. Mother Simonne breakfasted.  61
  A little later she took Loulou and carried him to Félicité.  62
  “Come, say good-by to him!”  63
  He was no longer a body: the worms were eating him; one of his wings was broken, the tow was bursting out of his breast. But blind now, she kissed his head and held him against her cheek. Then Mother Simonne took him back to the altar.  64
  The odor of summer came from the pastures; flies were buzzing. The sun made the river sparkle and warmed the slates.  65
  Mother Simonne, who had returned, was calmly sleeping.  66
  The church bells woke her. Félicité’s delirium left her. As she thought about the procession, she saw it as clearly as if she had followed it.  67
  All the school-children, the choristers, and the firemen were walking on the sidewalks, while in the middle of the street the Swiss with his halberd came first, then the beadle with a great cross, the schoolmaster watching the boys, the nun anxious about her little girls; three of the prettiest looking like angels with their curled hair, throwing rose-leaves in the air; the deacon with outstretched arms leading the music; and two censer-swingers turning toward the Holy Sacrament at every step, as four vestrymen carried it along under a red velvet canopy; then the priest in his fine chasuble. A crowd of people pressed on behind between the white cloths hung along the houses, and thus they reached the shore.  68
  Félicité’s temples were damp with a cold sweat. Mother Simonne wiped it off with a linen cloth, telling herself that some day she too must go through this.  69
  The murmur of the crowd grew plainer, was very strong for a moment, and then began to die away.  70
  A discharge of guns shook the windows. The postilions were saluting the Host. Félicité rolled her eyes and said in the lowest possible tone:—  71
  “Is he all right?”—troubled about the parrot.  72
  Her final agony began. A death-rattle shook her more and more. There were bubbles of foam in the corners of her mouth, and her whole body trembled.  73
  Soon they could hear the music again, the clear voices of the children and the deep voices of men. At intervals all were quiet, and the sound of footsteps, deadened by the flowers, seemed like cattle on the turf.  74
  The clergy entered the court, and Mother Simonne climbed on a chair, so that she could look down upon the altar from the little round window.  75
  Green wreaths were hung on the altar, which was adorned with English lace. In the middle was a little box containing relics; two orange-trees stood in the corners; and along the front were ranged silver candlesticks and china vases with sunflowers, lilies, peonies, foxgloves, and bunches of hydrangea. This mass of sparkling color sloped down from the highest stage to the carpet, and was prolonged on the pavement; and there were curiosities to attract the attention. A bird in silver-gilt had a crown of violets; pendants of Alençon gems sparkled from the moss; two Chinese screens displayed their landscapes. Loulou, hidden behind the roses, showed only his blue crest like a bit of lapis lazuli.  76
  The vestrymen, the choristers, and the children ranged themselves along three sides of the court. The priest slowly mounted the steps and set upon the lace his large golden sun, which sparkled as he did so. All knelt down. There was a solemn silence. And the censers, swinging freely, slipped up and down their slender chains.  77
  A blue vapor mounted to Félicité’s room. She breathed it in with a mystical sensuality, and then closed her eyelids. Her lips were smiling. Her heart beat more and more slowly, more gently and uncertainly like a spring which is growing exhausted, like an echo which is sinking away; and as she breathed for the last time, she seemed to see in the opening heavens a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.  78

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