An old Danish shipowner sat and thought of his young days and of how he had, when he was sixteen years old, spent a night in a brothel in Singapore. He had come in there with the sailors of his father’s ship, and had sat and talked with an old Chinese woman. When she heard that he was a native of a distant country she brought out an old parrot, that belonged to her. Long, long ago, she told him, the parrot had been given her by a high-born English lover of her youth. The boy thought that the bird must then be a hundred years old. It could say various sentences in the languages of all the world, picked up in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the house. But one phrase the old China-woman’s lover had taught it before he sent it to her, and that she did not understand, neither had any visitor ever been able to tell her what it meant. So now for many years she had given up asking. But if the boy came from far away perhaps it was his language, and he could interpret the phrase to her.
The boy had been deeply, strangely moved at the suggestion. When he looked at the parrot, and thought that he might hear Danish from that terrible beak, he very nearly ran out of the house. He stayed on only to do the old Chinese woman a service. But when she made the parrot speak its sentence, it turned out to be classic Greek. The bird spoke its words very slowly, and the boy knew enough Greek to recognize it; it was a verse from Sappho:
“The moon has sunk and the Pleiads,
And midnight is gone,
And the hours are passing, passing,
And I lie alone.”
The old woman, when he translated the lines to her, smacked her lips and rolled her small slanting eyes. She asked him to say it again, and nodded her head.