03 Nov The Mother-Bird
The Mother-Bird culled from The Daughter of the Storage by William Dean Howells
She wore around the turned-up brim of her bolero-like toque a band of violets not so much in keeping with the gray of the austere November day as with the blue of her faded autumnal eyes. Her eyes were autumnal, but it was not from this, or from the lines of maturity graven on the passing prettiness of her little face, that the notion and the name of Mother-Bird suggested itself. She became known as the Mother-Bird to the tender ironic fancy of the earliest, if not the latest, of her friends, because she was slight and small, and like a bird in her eager movements, and because she spoke so instantly and so constantly of her children in Dresden: before you knew anything else of her you knew that she was going out to them.
She was quite alone, and she gave the sense of claiming their protection, and sheltering herself in the fact of them. When she mentioned her daughters she had the effect of feeling herself chaperoned by them. You could not go behind them and find her wanting in the social guarantees which women on steamers, if not men, exact of lonely birds of passage who are not mother-birds. One must respect the convention by which she safeguarded herself and tried to make good her standing; yet it did not lastingly avail her with other birds of passage, so far as they were themselves mother-birds, or sometimes only maiden-birds. The day had not ended before they began to hold her off by slight liftings of their wings and rufflings of their feathers, by quick, evasive flutterings, by subtle ignorances of her approach, which convinced no one but themselves that they had not seen her. She sailed with the sort of acquaintance-in-common which every one shares on a ship leaving port, when people are confused by the kindness of friends coming to see them off after sending baskets of fruit and sheaves of flowers, and scarcely know what they are doing or saying. But when the ship was abreast of Fire Island, and the pilot had gone over the side, these provisional intimacies of the parting hour began to restrict themselves. Then the Mother-Bird did not know half the women she had known at the pier, or quite all the men.
It was not that she did anything obvious to forfeit this knowledge. Her behavior was if anything too exemplary; it might be thought to form a reproach to others. Perhaps it was the unseasonable band of violets around her hat-brim; perhaps it was the vernal gaiety of her dress; perhaps it was the uncertainty of her anxious eyes, which presumed while they implored. A mother-bird must not hover too confidently, too appealingly, near coveys whose preoccupations she does not share. It might have been her looking and dressing younger than nature justified; at forty one must not look thirty; in November one must not, even involuntarily, wear the things of May if one would have others believe in one’s devotion to one’s children in Dresden; one alleges in vain one’s impatience to join them as grounds for joining groups or detached persons who have begun to write home to their children in New York or Boston.
The very readiness of the Mother-Bird to give security by the mention of well-known names, to offer proof of her social solvency by the eager correctness of her behavior, created reluctance around her. Some would not have her at all from the first; others, who had partially or conditionally accepted her, returned her upon her hands and withdrew from the negotiation. More and more she found herself outside that hard woman-world, and trying less and less to beat her way into it.
The women may have known her better even than she knew herself, and it may have been through ignorance greater than her own that the men were more acquiescent. But the men too were not so acquiescent, or not at all, as time passed.
It would be hard to fix the day, the hour, far harder the moment, when the Mother-Bird began to disappear from the drawing-room and to appear in the smoking-room, or say whether she passed from the one to the other in a voluntary exile or by the rigor of the women’s unwritten law. Still, from time to time she was seen in their part of the ship, after she was also seen where the band of violets showed strange and sad through veils of smoke that were not dense enough to hide her poor, pretty little face, with its faded blue eyes and wistful mouth. There she passed by quick transition from the conversation of the graver elderly smokers to the loud laughter of two birds of prey who became her comrades, or such friends as birds like them can be to birds like her.
From anything she had said or done there was no reason for her lapse from the women and the better men to such men; for her transition from the better sort of women there was no reason except that it happened. Whether she attached herself to the birds of prey, or they to her, by that instinct which enables birds of all kinds to know themselves of a feather remained a touching question.
There remained to the end the question whether she was of a feather with them, or whether it was by some mischance, or by some such stress of the elements as drives birds of any feather to flock with birds of any other. To the end there remained a distracted and forsaken innocence in her looks. It was imaginable that she had made overtures to the birds of prey because she had made overtures to every one else; she was always seeking rather than sought, and her acceptance with them was as deplorable as her refusal by better birds. Often they were seen without her, when they had that look of having escaped, which others wore; but she was not often seen without them.
There is not much walking-weather on a November passage, and she was seen less with them in the early dark outdoors than in the late light within, by which she wavered a small form through the haze of their cigars in the smoking-room, or in the grill-room, where she showed in faint eclipse through the fumes of the broiling and frying, or through the vapors of the hot whiskies. The birds of prey were then heard laughing, but whether at her or with her it must have been equally sorrowful to learn.
Perhaps they were laughing at the maternal fondness which she had used for introduction to the general acquaintance lost almost in the moment of winning it. She seemed not to resent their laughter, though she seemed not to join in it. The worst of her was the company she kept; but since no better would allow her to keep it, you could not confidently say she would not have liked the best company on board. At the same time you could not have said she would; you could not have been sure it would not have bored her. Doubtless these results are not solely the sport of chance; they must be somewhat the event of choice if not of desert.
For anything you could have sworn, the Mother-Bird would have liked to be as good as the best. But since it was not possible for her to be good in the society of the best, she could only be good in that of the worst. It was to be hoped that the birds of prey were not cruel to her; that their mockery was never unkind if ever it was mockery. The cruelty which must come came when they began to be seen less and less with her, even at the late suppers, through the haze of their cigars and the smoke of the broiling and frying, and the vapors of the hot whiskies. Then it was the sharpest pang of all to meet her wandering up and down the ship’s promenades, or leaning on the rail and looking dimly out over the foam-whitened black sea. It is the necessity of birds of prey to get rid of other birds when they are tired of them, and it had doubtless come to that.
One night, the night before getting into port, when the curiosity which always followed her with grief failed of her in the heightened hilarity of the smoking-room, where the last bets on the ship’s run were making, it found her alone beside a little iron table, of those set in certain nooks outside the grill-room. There she sat with no one near, where the light from within fell palely upon her. The boon birds of prey, with whom she had been supping, had abandoned her, and she was supporting her cheek on the small hand of the arm that rested on the table. She leaned forward, and swayed with the swaying ship; the violets in her bolero-toque quivered with the vibrations of the machinery. She was asleep, poor Mother-Bird, and it would have been impossible not to wish her dreams were kind.