by W. Somerset Maugham
W. Somerset Maugham traveled widely in Southeast Asia and the Far East. Obviously, he was a keen observer of life, society, and culture of the people living in these lands. His mastely-written novels The Gentleman in the Parlor and On a Chinese Screen bear testimony to his keen personal involvement in the psyche and ethos of the people in whose midst he lived. This short absorbing story has the royalty of Siam (modern day Thailand) as the center stage. It is a story based on fantasy. This makes it so endearing for young minds.
Story .. The king of Siam had a fecund wife whom he adored greatly. She bore him a good number of children — nine daughters and four sons in all. The daughters were the first to be born. The king had quite an inventive mind in the matter of naming his offspring. The first two daughters were named ‘Night’ and ‘Day’ respectively.
Soon the queen gave birth to two more daughters. Giving a name to the third and fourth one put the king in a thoughtful mood, until he hit upon the idea of naming the four daughters by the names of the different seasons of the year. Accordingly, the first two daughters were renamed as Spring, and Autumn, and third and the fourth one got the name Winter and Summer respectively.
The queen became mother three times again, and three more daughters soon arrived one after another. The king had a task in hand: he had to name his children suitably so that their names were easy to remember and handle. So, he decided to name them according to the names of the different days of a week.
Again, the royal naming ceremony had to be held. All old names were abandoned, and the seven daughters were re- christened as Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday etc.
The king’s respite from finding new names was brief, but. The queen gave birth to one more daughter – the eighth one. The new arrival set off another round of name-searching process. The king really had a methodical mind. He hit upon the idea of naming his eight daughters according to the names of the year. The queen watched the naming and re-naming of her nine daughters resignedly as she knew no one could change her husband’s mind.
Then arrived the ninth daughter. The king hit upon another idea. The daughters were named according to the names of the months in a year. The eldest got the name ‘January’, then ‘February’ and so on and so forth. The youngest, ninth in the row, got the name ‘September’.
That only leaves October, November and December, chuckled the queen. She had no idea as to what nomenclature the king would follow for the thirteenth child.
After September’s birth, the children to follow were all sons, who were named by alphabets.
The frequent change of names had caused some confusion too. The children didn’t like to be addressed by different names every other day. The eldest two had the highest number of name changes. They resented the practice. Their personalities were distorted. They felt bitter. The youngest child – September – grew up normally to become a sweet little girl of great charm and grace.
The king had another habit that was quite unusual. On his birthday, he gave away gifts to all those who came to felicitate him. Contrary to normal practice, he declined any offering from his subjects. Such generosity, however, led to a gradual depletion of the sovereign repository. The king gave away the precious gifts that the eminent citizens and the Mayors had given in earlier times. Time came when the royal treasury lay empty.
On one of his birthdays, not having anything to give, the king gave each of his nine daughters a nice green parrot kept inside a golden cage. The name of the daughter who possessed the bird was permanently written on the golden cages.
The parrots were pretty, no doubt, but could utter only two sets of words – ‘God save the King’ and ‘Pretty Polly’.
One day September, the most vivacious of the nine princesses, suffered a heartbreak when she found her lovely parrot lying dead inside her cage. She sobbed inconsolably, as the Maids of Honour tried their best to pacify her. After so many futile efforts to calm the princess, they informed the Queen of the plight of September. The Queen, however, brushed aside the Princess’s show of grief as mere nonsense. She ordered the maids to lay her to sleep without supper.
The Maids of Honour lost no time to put September to sleep, and rushed to a party. Sleep eluded the grieving September as she continued to pine for the dead parrot. At this juncture, she found a small bird intruding to her chamber through the window. The princess was taken aback to see the visitor. She sat up on the bed with a sense of bewilderment and joy. To add to her merry, the little bird began to sing melodiously. The sweet voice of the little bird lifted the sad princess’s spirits. The bird sang in praise of the palace garden, the nearby lake and the goldfish in the waters. September nearly forgot all her woes, and was back to her normal jovial mood. She was so delighted that she forgot about the supper she had missed the earlier night.
The visitor and the host developed a rapport in no time. The little bird was lovingly accommodated in the princess’s chamber. It sang its beautiful hostess to sleep with her charming songs. When she got up the next morning, the tiny bird was still there at her bed side. This added to Princess September’s joy.
The Maids of Honour brought in breakfast for the sweet little bird, now the adorable companion of the princess. She made the bird eat rice from her palms and let it bathe in her saucer. She virtually fawned over the little bird pardoning her lack of table manners.
After finishing its breakfast, the little bird started afresh round of singing. Its sweet voice enthralled the Maids of Honour. Princess September was clearly elated and proud of the new possession.
She proceeded to present the singing bird to all her eight elder sisters. Sitting on her hostess’s finger, it went around the palace seeing all her eight sisters. The eldest, January, was visited first because of the precedence: then February, March till August. To the great astonishment of all, she sang a different song for each of the eight sisters. Her singing talent was unparalleled. Finally, the duo went to the King and Queen. The royal couple were really impressed.
In hindsight, the Queen claimed credit for sending her to bed without supper as the reprimand had brought such unexpected reward. The King joined in saying that the bird sang so much better than the parrots.
The Queen was tired of hearing the parrots sing ‘God Save the King’ with the same monotony as the other citizens did. The King, however, said the words did not tire him, as they conveyed a sense of enduring loyalty. But he frowned to hear Pretty Polly over and over again. The princesses, always adoring towards their parrots, protested saying the birds sang Pretty Polly in seven different languages. The King was not convinced.
Such disparaging remarks from their father left the daughters annoyed and parrots sad. Buffeted by frequent change of their names, the daughters had grown up as irritable and humourless morons. Quite contrary to the doom that had descended on the eight sisters, Princess September was cheerful and excited. With the little bird whirling round her, she gamboled all over the palace singing with great glee.
The eight sisters came to September and sat in a circle around her. Their mood was downcast. They told her that they had saved some money to buy her a new parrot to replace the dead one. September turned down the offer rather impolitely. She asserted that her new bird had a golden voice, and its company more than made up for the dead parrot.
The sisters took this as an affront. Possibly they had some sinister plans. All the sisters sniffed one by one (in order of age) to signal their disapproval of September’s love for the new singing bird. To tease her, the sisters said that the bird was not caged and had a free run of the palace. She could soon fly off leaving September high and dry.
They asked where the little bird was at that point of time. September replied that it had gone to its father-in-law’s house. The elder sisters were incredulous. They somehow wanted to drive a fear in September’s mind by making her believe that the bird could have fled away for good. Seeing September showing signs of worry, they advised her to encage the bird if and when he (the bird) returned. September thought otherwise. She loved to see the bird flying around inside the palace.
The eight sisters left with some disapproving gesture. September became worried too pondering the warning given by her sisters. To add to her worries, the bird didn’t return on time. Was he (the bird) trapped in snares or devoured by hawks? Or, did he forget her ? Had he gone over to another host deserting her for good? All these thoughts tormented her.
When she was immersed in these foreboding thoughts, she suddenly thought a ‘tweet-tweet’ sound. The sweet little bird had sneaked in quietly. September’s joy knew no bounds.
To the inquisitive princess the bird said how he had begged leave of his father-in-law’s party and rushed back to her. His concern for September was palpable in his face.
Ominous thoughts crossed September’s mind. What if the bird had stayed back, she pondered. She decided to pre-empt the bird’s abandoning her by putting her firmly inside the cage.
The encaged bird was as much surprised as he was shocked. He found it hard to accept his captivity. Sadly for him, his indiscretion in talking had brought about her incarceration at the hands of the princes he loved so much.
September took the excuse of the predator palace cats, and assured the bird that his safety was uppermost in her mind in encaging him.
The little bird was not reconciled to her loss of freedom. Naively, she blamed the palace cats. There was no way September could assuage the miffed bird. He begged to be freed in the morning.
He ate his supper, began to sing, but faltered in the middle. She stopped, retired to sleep. The princess went to sleep for the night. Early next morning, the bird called out loudly to the princess to wake up. He wanted to be out of the cage to savour the dew and the freshness of the morning air. But, September didn’t relent. She advised the bird to remain inside the cage. It was a beautifully crafted golden cage—a nice place to be in, the princess pleaded.
A lot of conversation followed between the two. The princess stood her ground, while the bird kept pleading for freedom relentlessly.
The bird was too dumbstruck to sing again. She remained silent as grief overtook her.
The princess finally ceded some ground. She took the little bird, still inside her cage, for a walk around the palace garden, always assuring him about her un-diminished love for him. But, the bird’s mood remained gloomy and pensive. It made the princess bewildered and sad too.
September turned to the other eight sisters for counsel. All of them advised her to be firm and not let the bird go out of the cage. They were quite terse in their warning.
September was in a quandary. Her eight elder sisters were arrayed against the tiny bird, but, for the hapless bird’s cry for freedom rang relentlessly in her ears. Finally, she vainly hoped that time would help the bird to get used to the cage. It was just wishful thinking.
The next morning was devastating for her. When she cried out ‘Good morning’ to greet the bird, a deafening silence met her. The precious little singing bird lay motionless and drained in the golden cage. When September coaxed him to cheer up and start singing, the bird replied that the confines of the cage had robbed him of all zeal to sing. Devoid of the freedom to fly unfettered, she could not sing, she maintained.
The bird’s lifeless voice moved the princess. She opened the cage door and brought the bird out to keep it on the window’s sill.
The bird reaffirmed her love for the princess promising to return to sing the most melodious songs for her. No matter how far he went, he would return to sing for the princess, swore the bird. Saying this, the bird vanished into the blue sky. The princess, beset with emotions, eyed her darling little bird till he went out of sight.
The parting was heart-rending for September, but she bore it with grace and fortitude. After all, her dear little one had got his deliverance from the cage where he was slowing rotting to death. In the bird’s happiness lay her happiness, she reasoned.
The sisters got to know of the bird’s departure. They came in force to taunt September.
The loyal bird, however, returned to prove the eight sisters wrong and redeem his loyalty to September. He lovingly sat on her shoulder, ate from her hand, and sang one of the most melodious songs. September’s heart overflew with love for the bird.
September kept her chamber’s window open to let the bird come and go unhindered, as it pleased.
With time, September grew up to be a paragon of beauty. Her youth was exuberant. At the right age, she was married to the King of Cambodia. On the contrary, the eight sisters became uglier and uglier with time. They had never slept with their windows open. They were given away to the councilors with a pound of tea and a Siamese cat. Their wicked minds drove them to such disgrace.
Model questions and answers..
- Why the names of the king’s offspring were changed so often?
Ans .. The Queen gave birth to children with astounding periodicity. As a result, the number of royal offspring rose quickly. Starting with ‘Night’ and ‘Day’, the names went to seasons to names of the week’s days to names of the months.
- What effect it had on the children?
Ans ..The children were puzzled, vexed, and quite unsettled at having to assume a different name every few months. They felt like losing their identity.
- What unusual practice the king followed on her birthday?
Ans .. On his birthdays, the king refused to accept any gift from those who came to felicitate him. Instead, he gave away gifts very generously to his loving subjects.
- What effect it had on his stock of royal possessions?
Ans .. Quite predictably, the royal treasury was depleted of resources, leading to a very embarrassing situation for the palace.
- What the daughters got as their birthday gifts?
The nine daughters could get nothing gorgeous as the treasury was empty. The king, however, gave each of them a nice parrot encaged in a golden cage.
- What effect the parrot’s death had on September?
Ans .. September’s parrot had endeared itself to her greatly. However, the parrot died leaving September devastated with grief. She wept inconsolably for hours and hours, unable to come to terms with the loss of her pet.
- What effect the singing bird had on September?
The singing bird arrived miraculously from nowhere. It befriended the princess in no time and entertained her with its golden voice. Its enchanting singing enthralled everyone in the palace. September’s melancholy disappeared, and she became cheerful again.
8. What freedom the singing bird enjoyed initially?
Ans ..The singing bird had the whole palace to herself. She flew all over the inner chambers without let or hindrance.
9. How did the eight elder sisters feel about the singing bird?
Ans .. The eight sisters were not quite happy to see the adulation and affection the singing bird got from everyone including the king and the queen. The sisters were overtaken by jealousy.
10. What plan they hatched to punish the singing bird?
Ans .. The eight sisters wanted the end of the singing bird’s coveted status. They wanted the bird incarcerated in the cage, so that he (bird) couldn’t fly off. It was a wicked advice with ulterior motive. They hoped, the entrapment could break his (bird’s) spirit and rob him of her sweet voice. In due course, either it would die or driven out.
11. Why did the singing bird leave the palace temporarily?
Ans .. The singing bird left the palace and went on a sojourn to his father-in-law’s house.
12. How did September feel when the bird did not return in time?
Ans .. Angst, apprehension and grief engulfed September’s mind when the bird delayed his return. She wondered how she could cope with her absence.
13. How did the sisters react on seeing the bird not returning to the palace as scheduled?
Ans .. Wicked pleasure made the eight sisters happy at the absence of the singing bird. Instead of feeling sympathy for their grieving and heart-broken sister, they rejoiced.
14. How did September feel to see the singing bird again?
September became ecstatic to see the singing bird back in the palace. Angst ceded place to relief in her mind.
15. Why was the singing bird put inside the cage?
Ans .. The eight sisters prodded September to encage the bird lest he fly away again. The naïve September could not see through their advice. She put the bird back in the cage.
16. How did the bird react on being put inside the cage?
Ans .. The bird was perplexed and dismayed at the unexpected show of cruelty by September. He resented his captivity. Crest-fallen and angry, he stopped singing.
17. How did September feel to encage the bird?
Ans .. Putting the singing bird in the cage was not a very pleasant job for September, but her extreme love for him and the sinister advice given by her sisters made her encage him. She was both sorry and distraught to see the unhappy bird pining for freedom.