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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Starling
By Laurence Sterne (1713–1768)
 

I WAS interrupted in the heyday of this soliloquy with a voice which I took to be that of a child, which complained it could not get out. I looked up and down the passage, and seeing neither man, woman, nor child, I went out without further attention.  1
  In my return back through the passage, I heard the same words repeated twice over, and looking up, I saw it was a starling hung in a little cage. “I can’t get out! I can’t get out!” said the starling.  2
  I stood looking at the bird; and to every person who came through the passage it ran fluttering to the side towards which they approached it, with the same lamentation of its captivity. “I can’t get out!” said the starling.  3
  “God help thee!” said I, “but I’ll help thee out, cost what it will;” so I turned about the cage to get to the door;—it was twisted and double twisted so fast with wire, there was no getting it open without pulling the cage to pieces. I took both hands to it.  4
  The bird flew to the place where I was attempting his deliverance, and thrusting his head through the trellis, pressed his breast against it as if impatient.  5
  “I fear, poor creature,” said I, “I cannot set thee at liberty.”  6
  “No,” said the starling; “I can’t get out! I can’t get out!” said the starling.  7
  I vow I never had my affections more tenderly awakened; nor do I remember an incident in my life where the dissipated spirits, to which my reason had been a bubble, were so suddenly called home. Mechanical as the notes were, yet so true in tune to nature were they chanted, that in one moment they overthrew all my systematic reasonings upon the Bastile; and I heavily walked up-stairs, unsaying every word I had said in going down them.  8
  “Disguise thyself as thou wilt, still, Slavery,” said I,—“still thou art a bitter draught! and though thousands in all ages have been made to drink thee, thou art no less bitter on that account. ’Tis thou, thrice sweet and gracious goddess,” addressing myself to Liberty, “whom all in public or in private worship; whose taste is grateful, and ever will be so, till Nature herself shall change. No tint of words can spot thy snowy mantle, or chemic power turn thy sceptre into iron; with thee to smile upon him as he eats his crust, the swain is happier than his monarch from whose court thou art exiled. Gracious Heaven!” cried I, kneeling down upon the last step but one in my ascent, “grant me but health, thou great Bestower of it, and give me but this fair goddess as my companion; and shower down thy mitres, if it seems good unto thy Divine providence, upon those heads which are aching for them.”  9
  The bird in his cage pursued me into my room. I sat down close to my table, and leaning my head upon my hand, I began to figure to myself the miseries of confinement. I was in a right frame for it, and so I gave full scope to my imagination.  10
  I was going to begin with the millions of my fellow-creatures born to no inheritance but slavery; but finding, however affecting the picture was, that I could not bring it near me, and that the multitudes of sad groups in it did but distract me,—I took a single captive, and having first shut him up in his dungeon, I then looked through the twilight of his grated door to take his picture.  11
  I beheld his body half wasted away with long expectation and confinement, and felt what kind of sickness of heart it is which arises from hope deferred. Upon looking nearer, I saw him pale and feverish: in thirty years, the western breeze had not once fanned his blood; he had seen no sun, no moon, in all that time, nor had the voice of friend or kinsman breathed through his lattice!—his children—  12
  But here my heart began to bleed, and I was forced to go on with another part of the portrait.  13
  He was sitting upon the ground, upon a little straw in the furthest corner of his dungeon, which was alternately his chair and bed: a little calendar of small sticks was laid at the head, notched all over with the dismal days and nights he had passed there; he had one of these little sticks in his hand, and with a rusty nail he was etching another day of misery to add to the heap.  14
  As I darkened the little light he had, he lifted up a hopeless eye towards the door; then cast it down, shook his head, and went on with his work of affliction. I heard his chains upon his legs, as he turned his body to lay his little stick upon the bundle. He gave a deep sigh.—I saw the iron enter into his soul!  15
  —I burst into tears.—I could not sustain the picture of confinement which my fancy had drawn. I started up from my chair, and calling La Fleur, I bid him bespeak me a remise, and have it ready at the door of the hotel by nine in the morning.  16
  “I’ll go directly,” said I to myself, “to Monsieur le Duc le Choiseul.”  17
  La Fleur would have put me to bed; but not willing he should see anything upon my cheek which would cost the honest fellow a heartache, I told him I would go to bed myself, and bid him do the same.  18
  I got into my remise the hour I proposed; La Fleur got up behind, and I bid the coachman make the best of his way to Versailles.  19
  As there was nothing in this road, or rather nothing which I look for in traveling, I cannot fill up the blank better than with a short history of this selfsame bird, which became the subject of the last chapter.  20
  Whilst the Honorable Mr. —— was waiting for a wind at Dover, it had been caught upon the cliffs, before it could well fly, by an English lad who was his groom: who not caring to destroy it, had taken it in his breast into the packet; and by course of feeding it, and taking it once under his protection, in a day or two grew fond of it, and got it safe along with him to Paris.  21
  At Paris, the lad had laid out a livre in a little cage for the starling; and as he had little to do better, the five months his master stayed there, he taught it in his mother’s tongue the four simple words (and no more) to which I owed myself so much its debtor.  22
  Upon his master’s going on for Italy the lad had given it to the master of the hotel.  23
  But his little song for liberty being in an unknown language at Paris, the bird had little or no store set by him; so La Fleur bought him and his cage for me for a bottle of burgundy.  24
  In my return from Italy, I brought him with me to the country in whose language he had learned his notes; and telling the story of him to Lord A, Lord A begged the bird of me; in a week Lord A gave him to Lord B; Lord B made a present of him to Lord C; and Lord C’s gentleman sold him to Lord D’s for a shilling; Lord D gave him to Lord E; and so on—half round the alphabet. From that rank he passed into the lower house, and passed the hands of as many commoners. But as all these wanted to get in, and my bird wanted to get out, he had almost as little store set by him in London as at Paris.  25
  It is impossible but many of my readers must have heard of him; and if any by mere chance have ever seen him, I beg leave to inform them that that bird was my bird, or some vile copy set up to represent him.  26
  I have nothing farther to add upon him, but that from that time to this I have borne this poor starling as the crest to my arms:—And let the herald’s officers twist his neck about if they dare.  27
 
 
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