Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of Dead Bird Upon Cyrilla's Hat An Encouragement Of "Slarter"

An essay by George William Curtis

The Dead Bird Upon Cyrilla's Hat An Encouragement Of "Slarter"

Title:     The Dead Bird Upon Cyrilla's Hat An Encouragement Of "Slarter"
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

The story of the butcher who looked out in the soft summer moonlight and announced that something ought to be done on so fine a night, and he guessed he would go out and "slarter," was told to Melissa, who ejaculated pretty ohs and ahs, and said, "But how vulgar." Yet had some dreadful Nathan heard the words, and beheld Melissa as she spoke, he would have raised his voice and pointed his finger and said, "Thou art the woman!" For the delicate Melissa was the wearer of dead birds in her hat, and encouraged the "slarter" of the loveliest and sweetest of innocent song-birds merely to gratify her vanity. The butcher, madam, may be vulgar, but at least he does not kill in order to wear the horns and tails of his victims.

"How hideous!" exclaims Belinda, as she sees the pictured head of the savage islander, "rings in his nose! how hideous!" And the gentle Belinda shakes the rings in her ears in protest against such barbarism. Sylvia, too, laughs gayly at the wife of the Chinese ambassador stumping along upon invisible feet; and Sylvia would laugh more freely except for her invisible waist. "It is so preposterous to squeeze your feet," she remarks; "it is a deformity, it outrages nature;" and the superb and benignant Venus of Milo smiles from her pedestal in the corner, and with her eyes fixed upon Sylvia's waist, echoes Sylvia's words, "It is a deformity, it outrages nature."

The Puritan preacher who, somewhat perverting his text, cried, "Topknot, come down!" declared war upon the innocent ribbons that, carefully trained and twisted and exalted into a towering ornament, doubtless nodded from the head of Priscilla to the heart of John Alden and melted it completely, while the preacher could not even catch his wandering eyes. The preacher's course was clear. Topknots must come down if they allured to a sweeter worship than he inculcated. But those ribbons were made for that pretty purpose of adornment; they were not victims. They silenced no song; they hardened no heart; they rewarded no wanton cruelty; they destroyed no charm of the field or wood. They were not memorials of heartless slaughter. They were simply devices by which maidenly charms were heightened, and a little grace and taste and beauty lent to the sombre Puritan world.

But the topknots of to-day are bought at a monstrous price. Carlyle says of certain enormous fire-flies on an island of the East Indies that, placed upon poles, they illuminate the journeys of distinguished people by night. "Great honor to the fire-flies!" he exclaims; "but--" It is a great honor to the golden-winged woodpecker to be shot and then daintily poised upon the hat of Cyrilla as, enveloped in a cloud of dudes, she promenades the Avenue on Sunday afternoon; great honor to the woodpecker; but--The naughty dog in the country who hunts and kills chickens is made to wear a dead chicken hung around his neck, and is at last shamed out of his murderous fancy. How if Cyrilla, strolling in the summer fields, haply with young Laurence hanging enthralled upon her sweet eyes, her low replies, should chance to meet the cur disgraced with the dead chicken hung around his neck, she with the dead woodpecker upon her head!

The lovely lady puts a premium upon wanton slaughter and unspeakable cruelty. She incites the murderous small boy and all the idlers and vagrants to share and shoot the singing bird, and silence the heavenly music of the summer air. She cries for "slarter," and, like the white cat enchanted into the Princess, who leaps to the floor in hot chase when the mouse appears, the Queen of Beauty, with a feathered corpse for a crown, begins to seem even to Laurence unhappily enchanted.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Dead Bird Upon Cyrilla's Hat An Encouragement Of "Slarter"