The Way of the Vandal [story by C. J. Dennis]

[Editor: This story by C. J. Dennis was published in The Singing Garden (1935).]

The Way of the Vandal

“Never kick a bird.”

I was well on the way to middle-age before I became aware of that entirely humane maxim attributed to the dear old lady who sought to reprove a petulant small boy, who had aimed a kick at his pet magpie.

“Willie, be kind to animals; and never, never kick a bird.”

How much more pleasure might I have derived from the first quarter century of life had I known and heeded that maxim and all that it implies. For I fear that, during that period, my sole interest in birds had to do with their destruction.

As a small boy I had my inevitable but fortunately brief enthusiasm for egg collecting. And I still retain a vivid picture of a gang of country urchins, myself among them, each with his trusty catapult, ruthlessly hunting a purblind and stupid snowy owl through the sunlit gums on a pleasant river bank, because an equally stupid lady teacher desired the wings to decorate a hat.

Some time later, and while I was yet in my late “teens,” I became aware of the brilliant scientific attainments of a certain legal gentleman in our town. I remember him as a somewhat taciturn and unconventional legal gentleman who disliked — in fact, affected to despise the pursuit of law. He spent, on an average, about three hours each day at his legal office and divided the remainder of his time between alcohol and ornithology, with a slight bias in favour of alcohol.

During one expansive hour he condescended to show me his quite remarkable collection of bird-skins, for some of which he had travelled far afield. Each skin, with plumage intact and unruffled, was filled neatly with cotton-wool and, each in its neat paper cylinder, duly labelled with its Latin tab, was stored in a large cabinet.

There were, I think, some hundred skins in the collection, some of them rarely beautiful still, as to colour. But I never troubled to discover whether my savant drank at intervals to get away from the remorse his silly hobby evoked, or whether he went after the birds to get away from the alcohol.

But the mere sight of that cabinet and its paper cylinders and particularly the Latin tabs had immediately fired my young enthusiasm. Here, I felt, was the highest expression of scientific achievement. Here was deep learning and a high-road to a place far above my earthly associates. Oh, human vanity!

Noting my interest, the savant consented to instruct me in the painfully tedious process of separating a dead bird from its useless skin.

“One must,” he explained, rather apologetically, “in one’s uttah aisolation, so to speak, faind some kaind of — ah — culchahed employment in this awful place, or one would go quaite insane. The natives are, of course, quaite ——” He shrugged despondently. (He had never been out of his native Australia, but he affected an exaggerated “Oxford” accent and a tired manner by which he sought to suggest altitudes of erudition).

Then he grew more animated as he proceeded to instruct me in the details of his repulsive hobby. First, exactly where to make the incision, how carefully to draw forth each thigh-bone, strip it of flesh, replace this by a winding of cotton-wool and gently push the bone back into place again. Then — most ticklish and tedious process of all — how, with the pathetic little body hooked to a “gallows,” to draw the skin inside out over the skull, extract the brain, and so on, ad nauseam.

I cannot understand now why the poor man did not give the whole of his spare time to alcohol. I imagine he must have had a weak stomach for some things. For that gratuitous butchery strikes me now as an utterly asinine, futile and filthy business.

But on that night “Science” was knocking at my door. Within a week I had bought a small rifle capable of taking dust-shot cartridges, also an inaccurate book on birds, forceps, arsenical soap, and what not. And, going out into the pleasant places of the land, I slew beauty wherever I came upon it, and silenced song even as it lifted to its triumph.

I had collected, I think, some twenty-five or thirty “specimens” when the iconoclast, or Nemesis or somebody made a sudden and dramatic appearance.

He came in the shape of a small, bald German chemist who also had a lot of spare time, which he divided between alcohol and the painting of atrocious pictures of bush scenes and bush birds. This pharmaceutical gentleman disliked the legal gentleman and scorned his ornithology; while the scientist derided the artist and scoffed at the glaring inaccuracies of his art. In each the degree of enmity was controlled largely by the measure of his cups.

On the day of the crisis, as I remember, I had trudged many weary miles to the slaughter of my first and only bee-eater, or rainbow bird, that shy bush beauty with the remarkable tail feathers and raiment in which so many vivid warring colours miraculously harmonize in a triumph of art that is beyond all Art.

Merops ornatus I had already printed neatly on a gummed label (after consulting my book) as, early on that winter evening I sat in my room absorbed in the unclean rites of amateur taxidermy.

While I was so engrossed, the door was roughly thrust open and Nemesis entered — small, bald and decidedly “blotto”; but still acutely sentient and unpleasantly active. Ignoring entirely my falsely jovial greeting, he swayed in the doorway for a time, very solemnly taking in the details of my unlovely employ.

“Vy it iss?” he asked, quite suddenly and passionately. “Vy it iss you do dis — dis butcher veeork?”

Seeking discretion in silence, I went on with the job.

“Chah!” he said, scornfully, and somewhat wetly. Then, tacking around the table, came suddenly to anchor on a chair opposite. I did not glance up and, for a time, but for the pleasantly rhythmic cadence of his hiccoughs, I might have thought he slept.

When he spoke again, his voice had found a note of pathetic entreaty.

“Ah, dose beeootiful beeords!” he almost wept. “Vy it iss?”

I had to glance up, and was astonished to encounter his staring eyes awash with tears of pity. Seeking to hold my regard, he threw out his hand in a wide gesture of appeal, and it came to rest and closed nervously upon my learned book on birds.

“Vy it iss?” he pleaded. “Dose beeootiful, beeootiful beeords! You kill him und peel him und dere iss nodding — nodding only silly skins. Vy it iss you do not paint him, und he iss alife mit his leedle vuns yet, alreatty.”

I considered a reply, thought better of it, and turned back to my work which was just at that critical stage when, with forceps and scalpel, I was engaged in the delicate task of drawing the skin over merops’s skull, and the job claimed nearly all my attention.

But, shortly afterwards, I became aware that my sozzled German friend had begun to breathe heavily. Knowing him of old, I toyed with the idea of sudden violence, delivered more in kindness than in anger, before matters became too heated.

But I decided otherwise; and fierce rancour sounded in his next remark.

“Dot man!” he bellowed. “Dot man it iss who teach you to do der veeork of der wicious wandall. Vot iss it but butcher veeork, und der teachings of der slaughter-haus? Dot man, mit der brain of a lice, he kill, he vount, he maim der lofty beeord dat iss for songs und der beauty of dis airt!” He paused, breathing hard. “Und now you; you so young, so foolish. Ach! Vy it iss?”

Merops was proving a little difficult. The skin and skull were parting reluctantly and, intent upon my horrible trade, I replied absently. I forget exactly what I said; but certainly it was nothing in the least degree provocative.

But, next moment, my book on birds came hurtling across the table, reduced the cadaver of merops to mere mangled remains, scattered my tools about the room, and smashed for ever my frail and filthy “gallows.”

Before I could arise in wrath, my bald accuser had rushed to my beloved cabinet and, dragging precious paper cylinders from the shelves, crumpled them and their contents with strong hands, savagely.

As I rushed around the table to rescue what remained of my treasure, the berserk pushed me in the face with one of my largest “specimens” — as I had time and wit to notice. (It was Theskiornis spinicollis, no less — a hardly-won straw-necked ibis.)

Then I fell backward over a footstool and sprawled upon the floor.

Before I was minded to rise, the destruction had been completed. Some he cast into the fire; others he trampled viciously underfoot; the remainder he tore to pieces with his teeth in his rage to have done swiftly and beyond repair. And all the time he was wailfully vocal, spluttering skin and feathers, as he voiced a multilingual threnody that had for its burden “Dose lofly, beeootiful beeords!”

When at last I was up and ready to do him violence, he had sunk upon a couch and was weeping in bitter and unashamed abandon.

The room was littered with feathers; and it was as if the martyred birds would do honour to their avenger. For, as he sat and wept, his bald, pink head was encircled by a conqueror’s chaplet of fine feathers and down which clung to his nimbus of sparse fair hair. All that remained of Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris was there with the last of Patroica phoenicea to crown the triumph of their champion.

And above his anguished brow there glowed, exactly central, a scrap of that cerulean gem which had once bedecked in glory a radiant blue wren.

Even an outraged ornithologist, baulked in his beloved necrophilism, hardly ever becomes quite savage enough to use violence upon a small, bald German who offers no defence and is indifferent to the fiercest and coarsest recriminations. So I left him there, and resuming my seat, glowered upon the wreckage of all my scientific hopes, while sobbing wrung his vitals.

After a time, I think he slept briefly, for he was very still. I gazed upon his sagging body with “eyes of brooding hate.” (This was the phrase which occurred to me at the time as singularly apt.)

Then, quite suddenly, he got up and, navigating around the table, put a gently affectionate hand upon my resentful shoulder. Tears were still in his eyes.

I looked up sulkily; and the last impression I had of him on that stormy evening comprehended two light blue eyes wide with that damp, appealing pathos which one sees sometimes in the eyes of too abjectly affectionate dogs. A button of a nose glowed pinkly between and, beneath that, his little blond moustache was festooned with tiny feathers of many hues. They reminded me quite absurdly of those little multicoloured flags with which he was wont to festoon his shop veranda when the town celebrated some gala occasion; and they fluttered gaily in the gentle zephyr of a long, soft sigh as, patting my shoulder with rare forgiveness, he turned and went out into the night, closing the door with elaborate care for silence, as upon one who watched beside his dead.

A great ornithologist may have been lost to the world that night; and the world is no worse off for that. It was the end of my high dreaming of a collection that would far surpass that of my legal friend. And, whether it was that I was discouraged by the prospect of beginning all over anew, or because the girl whom I was seeking to impress with my deep learning left the district about that time, or because I had really been moved by my bald friend’s display of gross sentimentality, it is now difficult to say. But after that night I never skinned another bird.

And I have since been deeply grateful to my tipsy sentimentalist, for it may well be that he rescued me in time from that paralysing fate which, since that day, I have seen overwhelm so many good and earnest men who, in their plastic youth mistaking erudition for insight, have lived and ossified and died with nothing won.

So once again birds went out of my life until I built my house in this forest place and learned the value of their shining friendship.

In this book no attempt is made to add to man’s scientific knowledge of our birds. I write rather as one would write of valued friends, seeking not to analyse their physical attributes, but accepting most of them for what they are — trusting friends whose faults I am eager to overlook, while their virtues I extol.

In the procession of seasons in this green land birds play an important part, and it is of them that I write chiefly — but only of the birds I know.

For nearly thirty years I have lived here in my Singing Garden, seeking patiently to win pleasure from its every aspect of sight and song and scent. If, now, I can impart some of that very real joy to my readers this book will have achieved its purpose.



Source:
C. J. Dennis, The Singing Garden, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1935, pages 5-13

Editor’s notes:
ad nauseam = (Latin; literally “to sickness”) regarding something which has been done so often that observers have become sick of it (especially used regarding someone who has been speaking at length on the same subject); regarding something which has been done, or said, so much, or so often, as to become annoying or tiresome (a reference to the idea that such excessive annoyance would supposedly cause sickness or nausea)

blotto = (slang) drunk

cerulean = (also spelt “caerulean”) sky-blue; a deep blue colour; blue the colour of a clear blue sky

pathos = compassion or pity; or an experience, or a work of art, that evokes feelings of compassion or pity

sozzled = (slang) drunk

threnody = a lament; a song, hymn, or poem expressing lamentation or sorrow for the dead

zephyr = a breeze from the west, especially a gentle breeze (from Zephyrus, or Zephyr, god of the west wind in Greek mythology)

Vernacular spelling in the original text:
airt (earth) [German]
aisolation (isolation) [English]
alife (alive) [German]
alreatty (already) [German]
beeootiful (beautiful) [German]
beeords (birds) [German]
culchahed (cultured) [English]
der (the) [German]
dere (there) [German]
dis (this) [German]
dose (those) [German]
dot (that) [German]
faind (find) [English]
iss (is) [German]
kaind (kind) [English]
leedle (little) [German]
lofly (lovely) [German]
mit (with) [German]
nodding (nothing) [German]
quaite (quite) [English]
slaughter-haus (slaughter-house) [German]
und (and) [German]
uttah (utter) [English]
veeork (work) [German]
vot (what) [German]
vount (wound) [German]
vun (one) [German]
vy (why) [German]
wandall (vandal) [German]
wicious (vicious) [German]

[Editor: Added an opening quotation mark before “Never kick a bird”.]

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