Story type: Literature
Child Life In Town And Country 1909
Author: Anatole France
Translator: Alfred Allinson
FANCHON went early one morning, like Little Red Riding-Hood, to see her grandmother, who lives right at the other end of the village. But Fanchon did not stop like little Red Riding-Hood, to gather nuts in the wood. She went straight on her way and she did not meet the wolf. From a long way off she saw her grandmother sitting on the stone step at her cottage door, a smile on her toothless mouth and her arms, as dry and knotty as an old vine-stock, open to welcome her little granddaughter. It rejoices Fanchon’s heart to spend a whole day with her grandmother; and her grandmother, whose trials and troubles are all over and who lives as happy as a cricket in the warm chimney-corner, is rejoiced too to see her son’s little girl, the picture of her own childhood.
They have many things to tell each other, for one of them is coming back from the journey of life which the other is setting out on.
“You grow a bigger girl every day,” says the old grandmother to Fanchon, “and every day I get smaller; I scarcely need now to stoop at all to touch your forehead. What matters my great age when I can see the roses of my girlhood blooming again in your cheeks, my pretty Fanchon?”
But Fanchon asked to be told again–for the hundredth time–all about the glittering paper flowers under the glass shade, the coloured pictures where our Generals in brilliant uniforms are overthrowing their enemies, the gilt cups, some of which have lost their handles, while others have kept theirs, and grandfather’s gun that hangs above the chimney-piece from the nail where he put it up himself for the last time, thirty years ago.
But time flies, and the hour is come to get ready the midday dinner. Fanchon’s grandmother stirs up the drowsy fire; then she breaks the eggs on the black earthenware platter. Fanchon is deeply interested in the bacon omelette as she watches it browning and sputtering over the fire. There is no one in the world like her grandmother for making omelettes and telling pretty stories. Fanchon sits on the settle, her chin on a level with the table, to eat the steaming omelette and drink the sparkling cider. But her grandmother eats her dinner, from force of habit, standing at the fireside. She holds her knife in her right hand, and in the other a crust of bread with her toothsome morsel on it. When both have done eating:
“Grandmother,” says Fanchon, “tell me the ‘Blue Bird.’”
And her grandmother tells Fanchon how, by the spite of a bad fairy, a beautiful Prince was changed into a sky-blue bird, and of the grief the Princess felt when she heard of the transformation and saw her love fly all bleeding to the window of the Tower where she was shut up.
Fanchon thinks and thinks.
“Grandmother,” she says at last, “is it a great while ago the Blue Bird flew to the Tower where the Princess was shut up?”
Her grandmother tells her it was many a long day since, in the times when the animals used to talk.
“You were young then?” asks Fanchon.
“I was not yet born,” the old woman tells her.
And Fanchon says:
“So, grandmother, there were things in the world even before you were born?”
And when their talk is done, her grandmother gives Fanchon an apple with a hunch of bread and bids her:
“Run away, little one; go and play and eat your apple in the garden.”
And Fanchon goes into the garden, where there are trees and grass and flowers and birds.
HER grandmother’s garden was full of grass and flowers and trees, and Fanchon thought it was the prettiest garden in all the world. By this time she had pulled out her pocket-knife to cut her bread with, as they do in the village. First she munched her apple, then she began upon her bread. Presently a little bird came fluttering past her. Then a second came, and a third. Soon ten, twenty, thirty were crowding round Fanchon. There were grey birds, and red, there were yellow birds, and green, and blue. And all were pretty and they all sang. At first Fanchon could not think what they wanted. But she soon saw they were asking for bread and that they were little beggars. Yes, they were beggars, but they were singers as well. Fanchon was too kind-hearted to refuse bread to any one who paid for it with songs.
She was a little country girl, and she did not know that once long ago, in a country where white cliffs of marble are washed by the blue sea, a blind old man earned his daily bread by singing the shepherds’ songs which the learned still admire to-day. But her heart laughed to hear the little birds, and she tossed them crumbs that never reached the ground, for the birds always caught them in the air.
Fanchon saw that the birds were not all the same in character. Some would stand in a ring round her feet waiting for the crumbs to fall into their beaks. These were philosophers. Others again she could see circling nimbly on the wing all about her. She even noticed one little thief that darted in and pecked shamelessly at her own slice.
She broke the bread and threw crumbs to them all; but all could not get some to eat. Fanchon found that the boldest and cleverest left nothing for the others.
“That is not fair,” she told them; “each of you ought to take his proper turn.”
But they never heeded; nobody ever does, when you talk of fairness and justice. She tried every way to favour the weak and hearten the timid; but she could make nothing of it, and do what she would, she fed the big fat birds at the expense of the thin ones. This made her sorry; she was such a simple child she did not know it is the way of the world.
Crumb by crumb, the bread all went down the little singers’ throats. And Fanchon went back very happy to her grandmother’s house.
WHEN night fell, her grandmother took the basket in which Fanchon had brought her a cake, filled it with apples and grapes, hung it on the child’s arm, and said: “Now, Fanchon, go straight back home, without stopping to play with the village ragamuffins. Be a good girl always. Goodbye.”
Then she kissed her. But Fanchon stood thinking at the door.
“Grandmother?” she said. “What is it, little Fanchon?” “I should like to know,” said Fanchon, “if there are any beautiful Princes among the birds that ate up my bread.”
“Now that there are no more fairies,” her grandmother told her, “the birds are all birds and nothing else.”
And Fanchon set off across the meadows for her home, the chimneys of which she could see smoking a long way off against the red sky of sunset.
On the road she met Antoine, the gardener’s little boy. He asked her:
“Will you come and play with me, Fanchon?”
But she answered:
“I won’t stop to play with you, because my grandmother told me not to. But I will give you an apple, because I love you very much.”
Antoine took the apple and kissed the little girl.
They loved each other fondly.
He called her his little wife, and she called him her little husband.
As she went on her way, stepping soberly along like a staid, grown-up person, she heard behind her a merry twittering of birds, and turning round to look, she saw they were the same little pensioners she had fed when they were hungry. They came flying after her.
“Good night, little friends,” she called to them, “good night! It’s bedtime now, so good night!”
And the winged songsters answered her with little cries that mean “God keep you!” in bird language.
So Fanchon came back to her mother’s to the sound of sweet music in the air.
FANCHON lay down in the dark in her little bed, which a carpenter in the village had made long ago of walnut-wood and carved a light railing alongside. The good old man had been resting years and years now under the shadow of the church, in a grass-grown bed; for Fanchon’s cot had been her grandfather’s when he was a little lad, and he had slept where she sleeps now. A curtain of pink-sprigged cotton protects her slumbers; she sleeps, and in her dreams she sees the Blue Bird flying to his sweetheart’s Castle. She thinks he is as beautiful as a star, but she never expects him to come and light on her shoulder. She knows she is not a Princess, and no Prince changed into a blue bird will come to visit her. She tells herself that all birds are not Princes; that the birds of her village are villagers, and that there might be one perhaps found amongst them, a little country lad changed into a sparrow by a bad fairy and wearing in his heart under his brown feathers the love of little Fanchon. Yes, if he came and she knew him, she would give him not bread crumbs only, but cake and kisses. She would so like to see him, and lo! she sees him; he comes and perches on her shoulder. He is a jack-sparrow, only a common sparrow. He has nothing rich or rare about him, but he looks alert and lively. To tell the truth, he is a little torn and tattered; he lacks a feather in his tail; he has lost it in battle–unless it was through some bad fairy of the village. Fanchon has her suspicions he is a naughty bird. But she is a girl, and she does not mind her jack-sparrow being a trifle headstrong, if only he has a kind heart. She pets him and calls him pretty names. Suddenly he begins to grow bigger; his body gets longer; his wings turn into two arms; he is a boy, and Fanchon knows who he is–Antoine, the gardener’s little lad, who asks her:
“Shall we go and play together, shall we, Fanchon?”
She claps her hands for joy, and away she goes…. But suddenly she wakes and rubs her eyes. Her sparrow is gone, and so is Antoine! She is all alone in her little room. The dawn, peeping in between the flowered curtains, throws a white, innocent light over her cot. She can hear the birds singing in the garden. She jumps out of bed in her little nightgown and opens the window; she looks out into the garden, which is gay with flowers–roses, geraniums, and convolvulus–and spies her little pensioners, her little musicians, of yesterday. There they all sit in a row on the garden-fence, singing her a morning hymn to pay her for their crumbs of bread.
THE FANCY-DRESS BALL
HERE we have little boys who are conquering heroes and little girls who are heroines. Here we have shepherdesses in hoops and wreaths of roses and shepherds in satin coats, who carry crooks tied with knots of riband. Oh! what white, pretty sheep they must be these shepherds tend! Here are Alexander the Great and Zaire, and Pyrrhus and Merope, Mahomet, Harlequin, Pierrot, Scapin, Blaise and Babette. They have come from all parts, from Greece and Rome and the lands of Faery, to dance together. What a fine thing a fancy ball is, and how delicious to be a great King for an hour or a famous Princess! There is nothing to spoil the pleasure. No need to act up to your costume, nor even to talk in character.
It would be poor fun, mind you, to wear heroes’ clothes if you had to have a hero’s heart as well. Heroes’ hearts are torn with all sorts of sorrows. They are most of them famous for their calamities. If they had lived happy, we should never have heard of them. Merope had no wish to dance. Pyrrhus was cruelly slain by Orestes just when he was going to wed, and the innocent Zaire perished by the hand of her lover the Turk, philosophical Turk though he was. As for Blaise and Babette, the song says they suffer fond regrets that go on forever.
Why speak of Pierrot and Scapin? You know as well as I do they were scamps, and got their ears pulled more than once. No! glory costs too dear, even Harlequin’s. On the contrary, it is very agreeable to be little boys and girls, and have the look of being great personages. That is why there is no pleasure to compare with a fancy ball, when the dresses are splendid enough. Only to wear them makes you feel brave. Then think how proud and pretty all your little friends are with their feathers and mantles; how gallant and gay and noble they look, and how like the fine folks of olden times.
In the gallery, where you cannot see them, the musicians, with sad, gentle faces, are tuning up their fiddles. A stately quadrille lies open on their stands. They are going to attack the old-fashioned piece. At the first notes our heroes and masks will lead off the dance.
I PROCLAIM Mademoiselle Genseigne’s school the best girls’ school in the world. I declare miscreants and slanderers any who shall think or say the contrary. Mademoiselle Genseigne’s pupils are all well-behaved and industrious, and there is no pleasanter sight to see than all their small figures sitting so still, and all the heads in a straight row. They look like so many little bottles into which Mademoiselle Gen-seigne is busy pouring useful knowledge.
Mademoiselle Genseigne sits very upright at her high desk. She has a gentle, serious face; her neatly braided hair and her black tippet inspire respect and sympathy.
Mademoiselle Genseigne, who is very clever, is teaching her little pupils cyphering.
She says to Rose Benoit:
“Rose Benoit, if I take four from twelve, what have I left?”
“Four?” answers Rose Benoit.
Mademoiselle Genseigne is not satisfied with the answer.
“And you, Emmeline Capel, if I take four from twelve, how much have I left?”
“Eight,” Emmeline Capel answers.
“You hear, Rose Benoit, I have eight left,” insists Mademoiselle Genseigne.
Rose Benoit falls into a brown study. Mademoiselle Genseigne has eight left, she is told, but she has no notion if it is eight hats or eight handkerchiefs, or possibly eight apples or eight feathers. The doubt has long tormented her. She can make nothing of arithmetic.
On the other hand, she is very wise in Scripture History. Mademoiselle Genseigne has not another pupil who can describe the Garden of Eden or Noah’s Ark as Rose Benoit can. Rose Benoit knows every flower in the Garden and all the animals in the Ark. She knows as many fairy tales as Mademoiselle Genseigne herself. She knows all the fables of the Fox and the Crow, the Donkey and the Little Dog, the Cock and the Hen, and what they said to each other. She is not at all surprised to hear that the animals used once to talk. The wonder would be if some one told her they don’t talk now. She is quite sure she understands what her big dog Tom says and her little canary Chirp. She is quite right; animals have always talked, and they talk still; but they only talk to their friends. Rose Benoit loves them and they love her, and that is why she understands what they say. To understand each other there is nothing like loving one another.
To-day Rose Benoit has said her lessons without a mistake. She has won a good mark. Emmeline Capel has a good mark, too, for knowing her arithmetic lesson so well.
On coming out of school, she told her mother she had a good mark. Then she asked her:
“A good mark, mother, what’s the use of it?”
“A good mark is of no use,” Emmeline’s mother answered; “that is the very reason why we should be proud to get one. You will find out one day, my child, that the rewards most highly esteemed are just those that bring honour without profit.”
LITTLE girls long to pluck flowers and stars–it is their nature to. But stars will not be plucked, and the lesson they teach little girls is, that in this world there are longings that are never satisfied. Mademoiselle Marie has gone into the park, where she came upon a bed of hydrangeas; she saw how pretty the flowers were and that made her gather one. It was very difficult; she dragged with both hands, and very nearly tumbled over backwards when the stalk broke. She is pleased and proud at what she has done. But nurse has seen her. She runs up, snatches at Mademoiselle Marie’s arm, scolds her, and sets her to stand and repent, not in the black closet, but at the foot of a great chestnut, under the shade of a huge Japanese umbrella.
There Mademoiselle Marie sits and thinks, in great surprise and perplexity. Her flower in one hand and the umbrella making a bright halo round her, she looks like a little idol from overseas.
Nurse has told her: “Marie, you must not put that flower in your mouth. If you do it when I tell you not, your little dog Toto will come and eat up your ears.” And with these terrible words she walks away.
The young culprit, sitting quite still under her brilliant canopy, looks about her and gazes at earth and sky. It is a big world she sees, big enough and beautiful enough to amuse a little girl for some while. But her hydrangea blossom is more interesting than all the rest put together. She thinks to herself: “It is a flower; it must smell good?” And she puts her nose to the pretty pink and blue ball; she sniffs, but she cannot smell anything. She is not very good at scenting perfume; it is only a short while since she always used to blow at a rose instead of inhaling its odour. You must not laugh at her for that; one cannot learn everything at once.
Besides, if she had as keen a sense of smell as her mother, she would be no better off in this case. A hydrangea has no scent; that is why we get tired of it, for all its loveliness. But now Mademoiselle Marie begins to think: “Perhaps it’s made of sugar, this flower.” Then she opens her mouth very wide and is just going to lift the flower to her lips.
But suddenly, yap! goes her little dog. It is Toto, who comes bounding over a geranium bed and comes to a stand right in front of Mademoiselle Marie, with his ears cocked straight up, and stares hard at her out of his sharp little round eyes.
THE PANDEAN PIPES
THREE children of the same village, Pierre, Jacques, and Jean, stand staring, side by side in a row, where they look for all the world like a mouth-organ or Pandean Pipes, only with three pipes instead of seven. Pierre, to the left, is a tall lad; Jean, to the right, is a short child; Jacques, who is betwixt the two, may call himself tall or short, according as he looks at his left-hand or his right-hand neighbour. It is a situation I would beg you to ponder, for it is your own, and mine, and everybody else’s. Each one of us is just like Jacques, and deems himself great or small according as his neighbours’ inches are many or few.
That is the reason why it is true to say that Jacques is neither tall nor short, and why it is also true to say he is tall and he is short. He is what God chooses him to be. For us, he is the middle reed of our living Pandean Pipes.
But what is he doing, and what are his two comrades doing? They are staring, staring hard, all three. What at? At something that has disappeared in the distance, something that has vanished out of sight; yet they can see it still, and their eyes are dazzled with its splendours. It makes little Jean clean forget his eel-skin whiplash and the peg-top he has always been so fond of keeping for ever spinning with it in the dusty roads. Pierre and Jacques stand stolidly, their hands behind their backs.
What is the wonderful sight that has bewildered all three? A pedlar’s cart, a handcart; they had seen it stop in the village street.
Then the pedlar drew back his oil-cloth covering, and all, men, women, and children, feasted their eyes on knives, scissors, popguns, jumping Jacks, wooden soldiers and lead soldiers, bottles of scent, cakes of soap, coloured pictures, and a thousand other splendid objects. The servant-wenches from the farm and the mill turned pale with longing; Pierre and Jacques flushed red with delight. Little Jean put out his tongue at it all. Everything the barrow held seemed to them rich and rare. But what they coveted most of all were those mysterious articles whose meaning and use they could make nothing of. For instance, there were polished globes like mirrors that reflected their feces with the features ludicrously distorted. There were Epinal wares with figures in impossibly vivid colours; there were little cases and boxes with nobody knows what inside.
The women made purchases of muslins and laces by the yard, and the pedlar rolled the black oil-cloth cover back again over the treasures of his barrow. Then, pulling at the collar, he hauled off his load after him along the highroad. And now barrow and barrow-man have disappeared below the horizon.
IT is a great anxiety keeping a stud. The horse is a delicate animal and needs a lot of looking after. Just ask Roger if it does n’t!
He is busy now grooming his noble chestnut, which would be the pearl of wooden horses, the flower of the Black Forest stud-farms, if only he had not lost half his tail in battle. Roger would so like to know whether wooden horses’ tails grow again.
After rubbing them down in fancy, Roger gives his horses an imaginary feed of oats. That is the proper way to feed these elfin creatures of wood on whose backs little boys gallop through the land of dreams.
Now Roger is off for his ride, mounted on his mettled charger. The poor beast has no ears left and his mane is all notched like an old broken comb; but Roger loves him. Why it would be hard to say! This bay was the gift of a poor man; and the presents of the poor are somehow sweeter perhaps than any others.
Roger is off. He has ridden far. The flowers of the carpet are the blossoms of the tropical forest. Good luck to you, little Roger! May your hobby-horse carry you happily through the world! May you never have a more dangerous mount! Small and great, we all ride ours! Which of us has not his hobby?
Men’s hobbies gallop like mad things along the roads of life; one is chasing glory, another pleasure; many leap over precipices and break their rider’s neck. I wish you luck, little Roger, and I hope, when you are a man, you will bestride two hobbies that will always carry you along the right road; one is spirited, the other gentle-tempered; they are both noble steeds; one is called Courage and the other Kindness.
LOUISON and Frederic are off to school along the village street. The sun shines gaily and the two children are singing. They sing like the nightingale, because their hearts are light like his. They sing an old song their grandmothers sang when they were little girls, a song their children’s children will sing one day; for songs are tender flowers that never die, they fly from lip to lip down the ages. The lips fade and fall silent one after the other, but the song lives on for ever. There are songs come down to us from the days when the men were shepherds and all the women shepherdesses. That is the reason why they speak of nothing but sheep and wolves.
Louison and Frederic sing; their mouths are as round as a flower and the song rises shrill and thin and clear in the morning air.
But listen! suddenly the notes stick in Frederic’s throat.
What unseen power is it has strangled the music on the boy’s lips? It is fear. Every day, as sure as fate, he comes upon the butcher’s dog at the end of the village street, and every day his heart seems to stop and his legs begin to shake at the sight. Yet the butcher’s dog does not fly at him, or even threaten to. He sits peaceably at his master’s shop-door. But he is black, and he has a staring bloodshot eye and shows a row of sharp white teeth. He looks frightful. And then he squats there in the middle of bits of meat and offal and all sorts of horrors–which makes him more terrifying still. Of course it is n’t his fault, but he is the presiding genius. Yes, a savage brute, the butcher’s dog! So, the instant Frederic catches sight of the beast before the shop, he picks up a big stone, as he sees grown-up men do to keep off bad-tempered curs, and he slinks past close, close under the opposite wall.
That is how he behaved this time; and Louison laughed at him.
She did not make any of those daredevil speeches one generally caps with others more reckless still. No, she never said a word; she never stopped singing. But she altered her voice and began singing on such a mocking note that Frederic reddened to his very ears. Then his little head began to buzz with many thoughts. He learned that we must dread shame even more than danger. And he was afraid of being afraid.
So, when school was over and he saw the butcher’s dog, he marched undauntedly past the astonished animal.
History adds that he kept a corner of his eye on Louison to see if she was looking. It is a true saying that, if there were no dames nor damsels in the world, men would be less courageous.
CATHERINE’S “AT HOME”
IT is five o’clock. Mademoiselle Catherine is “at home” to her dolls. It is her “day.” The dolls do not talk; the little Genie that gave them their smile did not vouchsafe the gift of speech. He refused it for the general good; if dolls could talk, we should hear nobody but them. Still there is no lack of conversation. Mademoiselle Catherine talks for her guests as well as for herself; she asks questions and gives the answers.
“How do you do?–Very well, thank you. I broke my arm yesterday morning going to buy cakes. But it’s quite well now.–Ah! so much the better.–And how is your little girl?–She has the whooping-cough.–Ah! what a pity! Does she cough much?–Oh! no, it ‘s a whooping-cough where there’s no cough. You know I had two more children last week.–Really? that makes four doesn’t it?–Four or five, I’ve forgotten which. When you have so many, you get confused.–What a pretty frock you have.–Oh! I ‘ve got far prettier ones still at home.–Do you go to the theatre?–Yes, every evening. I was at the Opera yesterday; but Polichinelle wasn’t playing, because the wolf had eaten him.–I go to dances every day, my dear.–It is so amusing.–Yes, I wear a blue gown and dance with the young men, Generals, Princes, Confectioners, all the most distinguished people.–You look as pretty as an angel to-day, my dear.–Oh! it’s the spring.–Yes, but what a pity it’s snowing.–I love the snow, because it’s white.–Oh! there’s black snow, you know.–Yes, but that’s the bad snow.” There’s fine conversation for you; Mademoiselle Catherine’s tongue goes nineteen to the dozen. Still I have one fault to find with her; she talks all the time to the same visitor, who is pretty and wears a fine frock.
There she is wrong. A good hostess is equally gracious to all her guests. She treats them all with affability, and if she shows any particular preference, it is to the more retiring and the less prosperous. We should flatter the unhappy; it is the only flattery allowable. But Catherine has discovered this for herself. She has guessed the secret of true politeness: a kind heart is everything. She pours out tea for the company, and forgets nobody. On the contrary, she presses the dolls that are poor and unhappy and shy to help themselves to invisible cakes and sandwiches made of dominoes.
Some day Catherine will hold a salon where the old French courtesy will live again.
THEY are sailor boys, regular little sea-dogs. Look at them; they have their caps pulled down over their ears so that the gale blowing in from the sea and bringing the spindrift with it may not deafen them with its dreadful howling. They wear heavy woollen clothes to keep out the cold and wet. Their patched pea-jacket and breeches have been their elders’ before them. Most of their garments have been contrived out of old things of their father’s. Their soul is likewise of the same stuff as their father’s; it is simple, brave, and long-suffering. At birth they inherited a single-hearted, noble temper. Who and what gave it them? After God and their parents, the Sea. The Sea teaches sailors courage by teaching them to face danger. It is a rough but kindly instructor.
That is why our little sailor-boys, though their hearts are childlike still, have the spirit of gallant veterans. Elbows on the parapet of the sea-wall, they gaze out into the offing. It is more than the blue line marking the faint division between sea and sky that they see. Their eyes care little for the soft, changing colours of the ocean or the vast, contorted masses of the clouds. What they see, as they look seawards, is something more moving than the hue of the waves or the shape of the clouds; it is a suggestion of human love. They are spying for the boats that sailed away for the fishing; presently they will loom again on the horizon, laden with shrimp to the gunwales, and bringing home uncles and big brothers and fathers. The little fleet will soon appear yonder betwixt the ocean and God’s sky with its white or brown sails. To-day the sky is unclouded, the sea calm; the flood tide floats the fishers gently to the shore. But the Ocean is a capricious old fellow, who takes all shapes and sings in many voices. To-day he laughs; to-morrow he will be growling in the night under his beard of foam. He shipwrecks the most handy boats, though they have been blessed by the Priest to the chanting of the Te Deum; he drowns the most skilful master mariners, and it is all his fault you see in the village, before the cottage doors where the nets hang to dry beside the fish-creels, so many women wearing black widow’s weeds.
GERMAINE is ill. Nobody knows how it began. The arm which sows fever is invisible like the dustman’s hand, the old fellow who comes every night and makes the little ones so sleepy. But Germaine was not ill very long and she was not very bad, and now she is getting well again. This getting well is even pleasanter than being quite well, which comes next. In the same way hoping and wishing are better, very often, than anything we wish for or hope for. Germaine lies in bed in her pretty, bright room, and her dreams are as bright-coloured as her room.
She looks, a little languidly still, at her doll, which sleeps beside her own bed. There are sympathies that go deep between little girls and their dolls. Germaine’s doll fell ill at the same time as her little mamma, and now she is getting well with her. She will take her first carriage outing sitting by Germaine’s side.
She has seen the doctor too. Alfred came to feel the doll’s pulse. He is Doctor “As-bad-as-can-be.” He talks of nothing but cutting off arms and legs. But Germaine asked him so earnestly that he agreed to cure her dolly without slashing it to pieces. But he prescribed the nastiest medicines.
Illness has one advantage at any rate; it makes us know our friends. Germaine is sure now she can count on Alfred’s goodness; she is certain Lucie is the best of sisters. All the nine days her illness lasted, Lucie came to learn her lessons and do her sewing in the sick room. She insists on bringing the little patient her herb-tea herself. And it is not a bitter potion, such as Alfred ordered; no, it is balmy with the scent of wild flowers.
When she smells its perfume, Germaine’s thoughts fly to the flowery mountain paths, the haunt of children and bees, where she played so often last year. Alfred too remembers the beautiful ways, and the woods, and the springs, and the mules that climbed up and up on the brink of precipices with a sound of tinkling bells.
ACROSS THE MEADOWS
AFTER breakfast Catherine! started off to the meadows with her little brother Jean. When they set out, the day seemed as young and fresh as they were. The sky was not altogether blue; it was grey rather, but of a tenderer grey than any blue. Catherine’s eyes are just the same grey, as if made out of a bit of morning sky.
Catherine and Jean wander all by themselves through the fields. Their mother is a farmer’s wife and is at work at home. They have no nurse-maid to take them, and they don’t need one. They know their way, and all the woods and fields and hills. Catherine can tell the time by looking at the sun, and she has guessed all sorts of pretty secrets of Nature that town-bred children have no suspicion of. Little Jean himself understands a great many things about the woods, the pools, and the mountains, for his little soul is a country soul.
Catherine and Jean go roaming through the flowery meadows. As they go, Catherine gathers a nosegay. She picks blue centauries, scarlet poppies, cuckoo-flowers, and buttercups, which she also knows as little chicks. She picks those pretty purple blossoms that grow in hedgerows and are called Venus’ looking-glasses. She picks the dark ears of the milkwort, and crane’s-bill and lily of the valley, whose tiny white bells shed a delicious perfume at the least puff of wind. Catherine loves flowers because they are beautiful; and she loves them too because they make such pretty ornaments. She is very simply dressed, and her pretty hair is hid under a brown linen cap. She wears a cotton check pinafore over her plain frock, and goes in wooden shoes. She has never seen rich dresses except on the Virgin Mary and the St. Catherine in the parish church. But there are some things little girls know directly they are born. Catherine knows that flowers are becoming to wear, and that pretty ladies who pin nosegays in their bosoms look lovelier than ever. So she has a notion she must be very fine indeed now, carrying a nosegay bigger than her own head. Her thoughts are as bright and fragrant as her flowers. They are thoughts that cannot be put into words; there are no words pretty enough. It wants song tunes for that, the liveliest and softest airs, the sweetest songs. So Catherine sings, as she gathers her nosegay: “Away to the woods alone” and “My heart is for him, my heart is for him.”
Little Jean is of another temper. He follows another line of ideas. He is a broth of a boy, he is; Jean is not breeched yet, but his spirit is beyond his years and there’s no more rollicking blade than he. While he grips his sister’s pinafore with one hand, for fear of tumbling, he shakes his whip in the other like a sturdy lad. His father’s head stableman can hardly crack his any better when he meets his sweetheart, bringing home the horses from watering at the river. Little Jean is lulled by no soft reveries. He never heeds the field flowers. The games he dreams of are stiff jobs of work. His thoughts dwell on wagons stogged in the mire and big carthorses hauling at the collar at his voice and under his lash.
Catherine and Jean have climbed above the meadows, up the hill, to a high ground from which you can make out all the chimneys of the village dotted among the trees and in the far distance the steeples of six parishes. Then you see what a big place the world is. Then Catherine can better understand the stories she has been taught,–the dove from the Ark, the Israelites in the Promised Land, and Jesus going from city to city.
“Let’s sit down there,” she says.
Down she sits, and, opening her hands, she sheds her flowery harvest all over her. She is all fragrant with blossoms, and in a moment the butterflies come fluttering round her. She picks and chooses and matches her flowers; she weaves them into garlands and wreaths, and hangs flower-bells in her ears; she is decked out now like the rustic image of a Holy Virgin the shepherds venerate. Her little brother Jean, who has been busy all this while driving a team of imaginary horses, sees her in all this bravery. Instantly he is filled with admiration. A religious awe penetrates all his childish soul. He stops, and the whip falls from his fingers. He feels that she is beautiful and all smothered in lovely flowers. He tries in vain to say all this in his soft, indistinct speech. But she has guessed. Little Catherine is his big sister, and a big sister is a little mother; she foresees, she guesses; she has the sacred instinct.
“Yes, darling,” cries Catherine, “I am going to make you a beautiful wreath, and you will look like a little king.”
And so she twines together the white flowers, the yellow flowers, and the red flowers, into a chaplet. She puts it on little Jean’s head, and he flushes with pride and pleasure. She kisses her little brother, lifts him in her arms and plants him, all garlanded with blossoms, on a big stone. Then she looks at him admiringly, because he is beautiful and she has made him so.
And standing there on his rustic pedestal, little Jean knows he is beautiful, and the thought fills him with a deep respect for himself. He feels he is something holy. Very upright and still, with round eyes and tight-drawn lips, arms by his side with the palms open and the fingers parted like the spokes of a wheel, he tastes a pious joy to be an idol–he is sure he is an idol now. The sky is overhead, the woods and fields lie at his feet. He is the hub of the universe. He alone is great, he alone is beautiful.
But suddenly Catherine breaks into a laugh. She shouts:
“Oh! how funny you look, little Jean! how funny you do look!”
She runs up and throws her arms round him, she kisses him and shakes him; the heavy wreath of flowers slips down over his nose. And she laughs again:
“Oh! how funny he looks! how very funny!”
But it is no laughing matter for little Jean. He is sad and sorry, wondering why it is all over and he has left off being beautiful. It hurts to come down to earth again!
Now the wreath is unwound and tossed on the grass, and little Jean is like anybody else once more. Yes, he has left off being beautiful. But he is still a sturdy young scamp. He soon has his whip in hand again and now he is hauling his team of six, the six big carthorses of his dreams, out of that rut. Catherine is still playing with her flowers. But some of them are dying. Others are closing in sleep. For the flowers go to sleep like the animals, and look! the campanulas, plucked a few hours ago, are shutting their purple bells and sinking asleep in the little hands that have parted them from life.
A light breeze blows by, and Catherine shivers. It is night coming.
“I am hungry,” says little Jean.
But Catherine has not a bit of bread to give her little brother. She says:
“Little brother, let ‘s go back to the house.”
And they both think of the cabbage soup steaming in the pot that hangs from the hook right under the great chimney. Catherine gathers her flowers in her arm and taking her little brother by the hand, she leads him homewards.
The sun sank slowly down to the ruddy West. The swallows swooped past the two children, almost touching them with their wings, that hardly seemed to move. It was getting dark. Catherine and Jean pressed closer together.
Catherine dropped her flowers one after the other by the way. They could hear, in the wide silence, the untiring chirp-chirp of the crickets. They were afraid, both of them, and they were sad; the melancholy of nightfall had entered into their little hearts. All round them was familiar ground, but the things they knew the best looked strange and uncanny. The earth seemed suddenly to have grown too big and too old for them. They were tired, and they began to think they would never reach the house, where mother was making the soup for all the family. Jean’s whip hung limp and still, and Catherine let the last of her flowers slip from her tired fingers. She was dragging Jean along by the arm, and neither said a word.
At last they saw a long way off the roof of their house and smoke rising in the darkening sky. Then they stopped running, and clapping their hands together, shouted for joy. Catherine kissed her little brother; then they set off running again as fast as ever their weary legs would carry them. When they reached the village, there were women coming back from the fields who gave them good evening. They breathed again. Their mother was on the door-step, in a white cap, soup-ladle in hand.
“Come along, little ones, come along!” she called to them. And they threw themselves into her arms. When she reached the parlour where the cabbage soup was smoking on the table, Catherine shivered again. She had seen night come down over the earth. Jean, seated on the settle, his chin on a level with the table, was already eating his soup.
THE MARCH PAST
RENE, Bernard, Roger, Jacques, and Etienne feel sure there is nothing finer in the world than to be a soldier. Francine agrees with them and she would love to be a boy to join the army. They think so because soldiers wear fine uniforms, epaulettes and gold lace, and glittering swords. There is yet another reason for putting the soldier in the front rank of citizens–because he gives his life for his Country. There is no true greatness in this world but that of sacrifice, and to offer one’s life is the greatest of all sacrifices, because it includes all others. That is why the hearts of the crowd beat high when a regiment goes by.
Rene is the General. He wears a cocked hat and rides a war-horse. The hat is made of paper and the horse is a chair. His army consists of a drummer and four men–of whom one is a girl! “Shoulder arms! Forward, march!” and the march past begins. Francine and Roger look quite imposing under arms. True, Jacques does not hold his gun very valiantly. He is a melancholy lad. But we must not blame him for that; dreamers can be just as brave as those who never dream at all. His little brother Etienne, the tiniest mite in the regiment, looks pensive. He is ambitious; he would like to be a general officer right away, and that makes him sad.
“Forward! forward!” Rene shouts the order. “We are to fall on the Chinese, who are in the dining-room.” The Chinese are chairs. When you play at fighting, chairs make first-rate Chinese. They fall–and what better can the Chinese do? When all the chairs are feet in air, Rene announces: “Soldiers, now we have beaten the Chinese, we will have our rations.” The idea is well received on all hands. Yes, soldiers must eat. This time the Commissariat has furnished the best of victuals–buns, maids of honour, coffee cakes and chocolate cakes, red-currant syrup. The army falls to with a will. Only Etienne will eat nothing. He frowns and looks enviously at the sword and cocked hat which the General has left on a chair. He creeps up, snatches them, and slips into the next room. There he stands alone before the glass; he puts on the cocked hat and waves the sword; he is a general, a general without an army, a general all to himself. He tastes the pleasures of ambition–pleasures full of vague forecastings and long, long hopes.
AUTUMN is here. The wind blowing through the woods whirls about the dead leaves. The chestnuts are stripped bare already and lift their black skeleton arms in the air. And now the beeches and hornbeams are shedding their leaves. The birches and aspens are turned to trees of gold, and only the great oak keeps his coronal of green.
The morning is fresh; a keen wind is chasing the clouds across a grey sky and reddening the youngsters’ fingers. Pierre, Babet, and Jeannot are off to collect the dead leaves, the leaves that once, when they were still alive, were full of dew and songs of birds, and which now strew the ground in thousands and thousands with their little shrivelled corpses. They are dead, but they smell good. They will make a fine litter for Riquette, the goat, and Roussette, the cow. Pierre has taken his big basket; he is quite a little man. Babet has her sack; she is quite a little woman. Jeannot comes last trundling the wheelbarrow.
Down the hill they go at a run. At the edge of the wood they find the other village children, who are come too to lay in a store of dead leaves for the winter. It is not play, this; it is work.
But never think the children are sad, because they are at work. Work is serious, yes; it is not sad. Very often the little ones mimic it in fun, and children’s games, most times, are copies of their elders’ workaday doings.
Now they are hard at it. The boys do their part in silence. They are peasant lads, and will soon be men, and peasants do not talk much. But it is different with the little peasant girls; their tongues go at a fine pace, as they fill the baskets and bags.
But now the sun is climbing higher and warming the country pleasantly. From the cottage roofs rise light puffs of smoke. The children know what that means. The smoke tells them the pease-soup is cooking in the pot. One more armful of dead leaves, and the little workers will take the road home. It is a stiff climb. Bending under sacks or toiling behind barrows, they soon get hot, and the sweat comes out in beads. Pierre, Babet and Jeannot stop to take breath.
But the thought of the pease-soup keeps up their courage. Puffing and blowing, they reach home at last. Their mother is waiting for them on the door-step and calls out: “Come along, children, the soup is ready.”
Our little friends find this capital. There’s no soup so good as what you have worked for.
THE Louvre, as you know, is a museum where beautiful things and ancient things are kept safe–and this is wisely done, for old age and beauty are both alike venerable. Among the most touching of the antiquities treasured in the Louvre Museum is a fragment of marble, worn and cracked in many places, but on which can still be clearly made out two maidens holding each a flower in her hand. Both are beautiful figures; they were young when Greece was young. They say it was the age of perfect beauty. The sculptor who has left us their image represents them in profile, offering each other one of those lotus flowers that were deemed sacred. In the blue cups of their blossoms the world quaffed oblivion of the ills of life. Our men of learning have given much thought to these two maidens. They have turned over many books to find out about them, big books, bound some in parchment, others in vellum, and many in pig-skin; but they have never fathomed the reason why the two beautiful maidens hold up a flower in their hands.
What they could not discover after so much labour and thought, so many arduous days and sleepless nights, Mademoiselle Suzanne knew in a moment.
Her papa had taken her to the Louvre, where he had business. Mademoiselle Suzanne looked wonderingly at the antiques, and seeing gods with missing arms and legs and heads, she said to herself: “Ah! yes, these are the grown-up gentlemen’s dolls; I see now gentlemen break their dollies the same as little girls do.” But when she came to the two maidens who, each of them, hold a flower, she threw them a kiss, because they looked so charming. Then her father asked her: “Why do they give each other a flower?” And Suzanne answered at once: “To wish each other a happy birthday.” Then, after thinking a moment, she added:
“They have the same birthday; they are both alike and they are offering each other the same flower. Girl friends should always have the same birthday.”
Now Suzanne is far away from the Louvre and the old Greek marbles; she is in the kingdom of the birds and the flowers. She is spending the bright spring days in the meadows under shelter of the woods. She plays in the grass, and that is the sweetest sort of play. She remembers to-day is her little friend Jacqueline’s birthday; and so she is going to pick flowers which she will give Jacqueline, and kiss her.
JEAN set out betimes in the morning with his sister Jeanne, a fishing-pole over his shoulder and a basket on his arm. It is holiday time and the school is shut; that is why Jean goes off every day with his sister Jeanne, a rod over his shoulder and a basket on his arm, along the river bank. Jean is a Tourainer, and Jeanne a lass of Touraine. The river is Tourainer too. It runs crystal-clear between silvery sallows under a moist, mild sky. Morning and evening white mists trail over the grass of the water-meadows.’ But Jean and Jeanne love the river neither for the greenery of its banks nor its clear waters that mirror the heavens. They love it for the fish in it. They stop presently at the most likely place, and Jeanne sits down under a pollard willow. Laying down his baskets, Jean unwinds his tackle. This is very primitive–a switch, with a piece of thread and a bent pin at the end of it. Jean supplied the rod, Jeanne gave the line and the hook; so the tackle is the common property of brother and sister. Both want it all to themselves, and this simple contrivance, only meant to do mischief to the fishes, becomes the cause of domestic broils and a rain of blows by the peaceful riverside. Brother and sister fight for the free use of the rod and line. Jean’s arm is black and blue with pinches and Jeanne’s cheek scarlet from her brother’s slaps. At last, when they were tired of pinching and hitting, Jean and Jeanne consented to share amicably what neither could appropriate by force. They agreed that the rod should pass alternately from the brother’s hands to the sister’s after each fish they caught.
Jean begins. But there’s no knowing when he will end. He does not break the treaty openly, but he shirks its consequences by a mean trick. Rather than have to hand over the tackle to his sister, he refuses to catch the fish that come, when they nibble the bait and set his float bobbing.
Jean is artful; Jeanne is patient. She has been waiting six hours. But at last she seems tired of doing nothing. She yawns, stretches, lies down in the shade of the willow, and shuts her eyes. Jean spies her out of one corner of his, and he thinks she is asleep. The float dives. He whips out the line, at the end of which gleams a flash of silver. A gudgeon has taken the pin.
“Ah! it’s my turn now,” cries a voice behind him.
And Jeanne snatches the rod.
THE PENALTIES OF GREATNESS
IT was to go and see their friend Jean that Roger, Marcel, Bernard, Jacques, and Etienne set out along the broad highroad that winds like a handsome yellow riband through the fields and meadows. Now they are off. They start all abreast; it is the best way. Only there is one defect in the arrangement this time; Etienne is too little to keep up.
He tries hard and puts his best foot foremost. His short legs stretch their widest. He swings his arms into the bargain. But he is too little; he cannot go as fast as his companions. He falls behind because he is too small; it is no use.
The big boys, who are older, should surely wait for him, you say, and suit their pace to his. So they should, but they don’t. Forward! cry the strong ones of this world, and they leave the weaklings in the lurch. But hear the end of the story. All of a sudden our four tall, strong, sturdy friends see something jumping on the ground. It jumps because it is a frog, and it wants to reach the meadow along the roadside. The meadow is froggy’s home, and he loves it; he has his residence there beside a brook. He jumps, and jumps.
He is a green frog, and he looks like a leaf that is alive. Now the lads are in the meadow; very soon they feel their feet sinking in the soft ground where the rank grass grows. A few steps more, and they are up to their knees in mud. The grass hid a swamp underneath.
They just manage to struggle out. Shoes, socks, calves are all as black as ink. The fairy of the green field has put gaiters of mire on the four bad boys.
Etienne comes up panting for breath. He hardly knows, when he sees them in this pickle, if he should be glad or sorry. His simple little heart is filled with a sense of the catastrophes that befall the great and strong. As for the four muddy urchins, they turn back piteously the way they came, for how can they, I should like to know, how can they go and see their friend Jean with their shoes and stockings in this state? When they get home again, their mothers will know how naughty they have been by the evidence of their legs, while little Etienne’s innocence will be legible on his sturdy little stumps.
A CHILD’S DINNER PARTY
WHAT fun it is playing at dinner parties! You can have a very plain dinner or a very elaborate one, just as you like. You can manage it with nothing at all. Only you have to pretend a great deal then.
Therese and her little sister Pauline have asked Pierre and Marthe to a dinner in the country. Proper invitations have been issued, and they have been talking about it for days. Mamma has given her two little girls good advice–and good things to eat, too. There will be nougat and sweet cakes, and a chocolate cream. The table will be laid in the arbour.
“If only it will be fine!” cries Therese, who is nine now. At her age one knows the fondest hopes are often disappointed in this world and you cannot always do what you propose. But little Pauline has none of these worries. She cannot think it will be wet. It will be fine, because she wants it to.
And lo! the great day has broken clear and sunny. Not a cloud in the sky. The two guests have come. How fortunate! For this was another subject of anxiety for Therese. Marthe had caught a cold, and perhaps she would not be better in time. As for little Pierre, everybody knows he always misses the train. You cannot blame him for it. It is his misfortune, not his fault. His mother is unpunctual by nature. Everywhere and always little Pierre arrives after everybody else; he has never in his life seen the beginning of anything. This has given him a dull, resigned look.
The dinner is served; ladies and gentlemen, take your places! Therese presides. She is thoughtful and serious; the housewifely instinct is awaking in her bosom. Pierre carves valiantly. Nose in the dish and elbows above his head, he struggles to divide the leg of a chicken. Why, his feet even take their part in the tremendous effort. Mademoiselle Marthe eats elegantly, without any ado or any noise, just like a grown-up lady. Pauline is not so particular; she eats how she can and as much as she can.
Therese, now serving her guests, now one of them herself, is content; and contentment is better than joy. The little dog Gyp has come to eat up the scraps, and Therese thinks, as she watches him crunching the bones, that dogs know nothing of all the dainty ways that make grown-up dinners, and children’s too, so refined and delightful.