Forester, by Maria Edgeworth

The Canary Bird

At his return, Forester heard, that all Dr. Campbell’s family were going that evening to visit a gentleman who had an excellent cabinet of minerals. He had some desire to see the fossils; but when he came to the gentleman’s house, he soon found himself disturbed at the praises bestowed by some ladies in company upon a little canary bird, which belonged to the mistress of the house. He began to kick his feet together, to hang first one arm and then the other over the back of his chair, with the obvious expression of impatience and contempt in his countenance. Henry Campbell, in the meantime, said, without any embarrassment, just what he thought about the bird. Archibald Mackenzie, with artificial admiration, said a vast deal more than he thought, in hopes of effectually recommending himself to the lady of the house. The lady told him the history of three birds, which had successively inhabited the cage before the present occupier. “They all died,” continued she, “in a most extraordinary manner, one after another, in a short space of time, in convulsions.”

“Don’t listen,” whispered Forester, pulling Henry away from the crowd who surrounded the bird-cage; “how can you listen, like that polite hypocrite, to this foolish woman’s history of her extraordinary favourites? Come down-stairs with me, I want to tell you my adventure with the schoolmistress; we can take a turn in the hall, and come back before the cabinet of minerals is opened, and before these women have finished the ceremony of tea. Come.”

“I’ll come presently,” said Henry; “I really want to hear this.”

Henry Campbell was not listening to the history of the lady’s favourite birds like a polite hypocrite, but like a good-natured sensible person; the circumstances recalled to his memory the conversation that we formerly mentioned, which began about pickled cucumbers, and ended with Dr. Campbell’s giving an account of the effects of some poisons. In consequence of this conversation, Henry’s attention had been turned to the subject, and he had read several essays, which had informed him of many curious facts. He recollected, in particular, to have met with the account2 of a bird that had been poisoned, and whose case bore a strong resemblance to the present. He begged leave to examine the cage, in order to discover whether there were any lead about it, with which the birds could have poisoned themselves. No lead was to be found: he next examined whether there were any white or green paint about it; he inquired whence the water came which the birds had drunk; and he examined the trough which held their seeds. The lady, whilst he was pursuing these inquiries, said she was sure that the birds could not have died either for want of air or exercise, for that she often left the cage open on purpose, that they might fly about the room. Henry immediately looked round the room, and at length he observed in an inkstand, which stood upon a writing table, a number of wafers, which were many of them chipped round the edges; upon sweeping out the bird-cage, he found a few very small bits of wafer mixed with the seeds and dust; he was now persuaded that the birds had eaten the wafers, and that they had been poisoned by the red lead which they contained; he was confirmed in this opinion, by being told, that the wafers had lately been missed very frequently, and it had been imagined that they had been used by the servants. Henry begged the lady would try an experiment, which might probably save the life of her new favourite; the lady, though she had never before tried an experiment, was easily prevailed upon. She promised Henry that she would lock up the wafers; and he prophesied that her bird would not, like his predecessors, come to an untimely end. Archibald Mackenzie was vexed to observe, that knowledge had in this instance succeeded better, even with a lady, than flattery. As for Forester, he would certainly have admired his friend Henry’s ingenuity, if he had been attending to what had passed; but he had taken a book, and had seated himself in an arm-chair, which had been placed on purpose for an old gentleman in company, and was deep in the history of a man who had been cast away, some hundred years ago, upon a desert island.

He condescended, however, to put down his book when the fossils were produced: and, as if he had just awakened from a dream, rubbed his eyes, stretched himself, and joined the rest of the company. The malicious Archibald, who observed that Forester had seated himself, through absence of mind, in a place which prevented some of the ladies from seeing the fossils, instantly made a parade of his own politeness, to contrast himself advantageously with the rude negligence of his companion; but Archibald’s politeness was always particularly directed to the persons in company whom he thought of the most importance. “You can’t see there,” said Forester, suddenly rousing himself, and observing that Dr. Campbell’s daughter, Miss Flora Campbell, was standing behind him; “had you not better sit down in this chair? I don’t want it, because I can see over your head; sit down.” Archibald smiled at Forester’s simplicity, in paying his awkward compliment to the young lady, who had, according to his mode of estimating, the least pretensions to notice of any one present. Flora Campbell was neither rich nor beautiful, but she had a happy mixture in her manners of Scottish sprightliness and English reserve. She had an eager desire to improve herself, whilst a nice sense of propriety taught her never to intrude upon general notice, or to recede from conversation with airs of counterfeit humility. Forester admired her abilities, because he imagined that he was the only person who had ever discovered them; as to her manners, he never observed these, but even whilst he ridiculed politeness he was anxious to find out what she thought polite. After he had told her all that he knew concerning the fossils, as they were produced from the cabinet — and he was far from ignorant — he at length perceived that she knew full as much of natural history as he did, and he was surprised that a young lady should know so much, and should not be conceited. Flora, however, soon sunk many degrees in his opinion; for, after the cabinet of mineralogy was shut, some of the company talked of a ball, which was to be given in a few days, and Flora, with innocent gaiety, said to Forester, “Have you learnt to dance a Scotch reel since you came to Scotland?” “I!” cried Forester with contempt; “do you think it the height of human perfection to dance a Scotch reel? — then that fine young laird, Mr. Archibald Mackenzie, will suit you much better than I shall.” And Forester returned to his arm-chair and his desert island.

2 Falconer, on the Poison of Lead and Copper.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54