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   Chapter 30 COUNTRY CHILDREN

Monsieur, Madame, and Bebe -- C By Gustave Droz Characters: 9678

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:02


I love the baby that runs about under the trees of the Tuileries; I love the pretty little fair-haired girls with nice white stockings and unmanageable crinolines. I like to watch the tiny damsels decked out like reliquaries, and already affecting coquettish and lackadaisical ways. It seems to me that in each of them I can see thousands of charming faults already peeping forth. But all these miniature men and women, exchanging postage stamps and chattering of dress, have something of the effect of adorable monstrosities on me.

I like them as I like a bunch of grapes in February, or a dish of green peas in December.

In the babies' kingdom, my friend, my favorite is the country baby, running about in the dust on the highway barefoot and ragged, and searching for black birds' and chaffinches' nests on the outskirts of the woods. I love his great black wondering eye, which watches you fixedly from between two locks of un combed hair, his firm flesh bronzed by the sun, his swarthy forehead, hidden by his hair, his smudged face and his picturesque breeches kept from falling off by the paternal braces fastened to a metal button, the gift of a gendarme.

Ah! what fine breeches; not very long in the legs, but, then, what room everywhere else! He could hide away entirely in this immense space which allows a shirt-tail, escaping through a slit, to wave like a flag. These breeches preserve a remembrance of all the garments of the family; here is a piece of maternal petticoat, here a fragment of yellow waistcoat, here a scrap of blue handkerchief; the whole sewn with a thread that presents the twofold advantage of being seen from a distance, and of not breaking.

But under these patched clothes you can make out a sturdy little figure; and, besides, what matters the clothes? Country babies are not coquettish; and when the coach comes down the hill with jingling bells and they rush after it, stumbling over their neighbors, tumbling with them in the dust, and rolling into the ditches, what would all these dear little gamins do in silk stockings?

I love them thus because they are wild, taking alarm, and fleeing away at your approach like the young rabbits you surprise in the morning playing among the wild thyme. You must have recourse to a thousand subterfuges in order to triumph over their alarm and gain their confidence. But if at length, thanks to your prudence, you find yourself in their company, at the outset play ceases, shouts and noise die away; the little group remain motionless, scratching their heads, and all their uneasy eyes look fixedly at you. This is the difficult moment.

A sharp word, a stern gesture, may cause an eternal misunderstanding with them, just as a kind remark, a smile, a caress will soon accomplish their conquest. And this conquest is worth the trouble, believe me.

One of my chief methods of winning them was as follows: I used to take my watch out of my pocket and look at it attentively. Then I would see my little people stretch their necks, open their eyes, and come a step nearer; and it would often happen that the chickens, ducklings, and geese, which were loitering close by in the grass, imitated their comrades and drew near too. I then would put my watch to my ear and smile like a man having a secret whispered to him. In presence of this prodigy my youngsters could no longer restrain themselves, and would exchange among themselves those keen, simple, timid, mocking looks, which must have been seen to be understood. They advanced this time in earnest, and if I offered to let the boldest listen, by holding out my watch to him, he would draw back alarmed, although smiling, while the band would break into an outburst of joy; the ducklings flapping their wings, the white geese cackling, and the chickens going chk, chk. The game was won.

How many times have I not played this little farce, seated under a willow on the banks of my little stream, which ripples over the white stones, while the reeds bend tremblingly. The children would crowd round me to hear the watch, and soon questions broke forth in chorus to an accompaniment of laughter. They inspected my gaiters, rummaged in my pockets and leant against my knees. The ducklings glided under my feet, and the big geese tickled my back.

How enjoyable it is not to alarm creatures that tremble at everything. I would not move for fear of interrupting their joy, and was like a child who is building a house of cards and who has got to the third story. But I marked all these happy little faces standing out against the blue sky; I watched the rays of the sun stealing into the tangles of their fair hair, or spreading in a patch of gold on their little brown necks; I followed their gestures full of awkwardness and grace; I sat down on the grass to be the nearer to them; and if

an unfortunate chicken came to grief, between two daisies, I quickly stretched out my arm and replaced it on its legs.

I assure you that they were all grateful. If one loves these little people at all, there is one thing that strikes you when you watch them closely. Ducklings dabbling along the edge of the water or turning head over heels in their feeding trough, young shoots thrusting forth their tender little leaves above ground, little chickens running along before their mother hen, or little men staggering among the grass-all these little creatures resemble one another. They are the babies of the great mother Nature; they have common laws, a common physiognomy; they have something inexplicable about them which is at once comic and graceful, awkward and tender, and which makes them loved at once; they are relations, friends, comrades, under the same flag. This pink and white flag, let us salute it as it passes, old graybeards that we are. It is blessed, and is called childhood.

All babies are round, yielding, weak, timid, and soft to the touch as a handful of wadding. Protected by cushions of good rosy flesh or by a coating of soft down, they go rolling, staggering, dragging along their little unaccustomed feet, shaking in the air their plump hands or featherless wing. See them stretched haphazard in the sun without distinction of species, swelling themselves with milk or meal, and dare to say that they are not alike. Who knows whether all these children of nature have not a common point of departure, if they are not brothers of the same origin?

Since men with green spectacles have existed, they have amused themselves with ticketing the creatures of this world. These latter are arranged, divided into categories and classified, as though by a careful apothecary who wants everything about him in order. It is no slight matter to stow away each one in the drawer that suits him, and I have heard that certain subjects still remain on the counter owing to their belonging to two show-cases at once.

And what proves to me, indeed, that these cases exist? What is there to assure me that the whole world is not one family, the members of which only differ by trifles which we are pleased to regard as everything?

Have you fully established the fact of these drawers and compartments? Have you seen the bars of these imaginary cages in which you imprison kingdoms and species? Are there not infinite varieties which escape your analysis, and are, as it were, the unknown links uniting all the particles of the animated world? Why say, "For these eternity, for those annihilation?"

Why say, "This is the slave, that is the sovereign?" Strange boldness for men who are ignorant of almost everything!

Man, animal or plant, the creature vibrates, suffers or enjoys-exists and encloses in itself the trace of the same mystery. What assures me that this mystery, which is everywhere the same, is not the sign of a similar relationship, is not the sign of a great law of which we are ignorant?

I am dreaming, you will say. And what does science do herself when she reaches that supreme point at which magnifying glasses become obscure and compasses powerless? It dreams, too; it supposes. Let us, too, suppose that the tree is a man, rough skinned dreamy and silent, who loves, too, after his fashion and vibrates to his very roots when some evening a warm breeze, laden with the scents of the plain, blows through his green locks and overwhelms him with kisses. No, I do not accept the hypothesis of a world made for us. Childish pride, which would be ridiculous did not its very simplicity lend it something poetic, alone inspires it. Man is but one of the links of an immense chain, of the two ends of which we are ignorant. [See Mark Twain's essay: 'What is Man.' D.W.]

Is it not consoling to fancy that we are not an isolated power to which the remainder of the world serves as a pedestal, that one is not a licensed destroyer, a poor, fragile tyrant, whom arbitrary decrees protect, but a necessary note of an infinite harmony? To fancy that the law of life is the same in the immensity of space and irradiates worlds as it irradiates cities and as it irradiates ant-hills. To fancy that each vibration in ourselves is the echo of another vibration. To fancy a sole principle, a primordial axiom, to think the universe envelops us as a mother clasps her child in her two arms; and say to one's self, "I belong to it and it to me; it would cease to be without me. I should not exist without it." To see, in short, only the divine unity of laws, which could not be nonexistent, where others have only seen a ruling fancy or an individual caprice.

It is a dream. Perhaps so, but I have often dreamed it when watching the village children rolling on the fresh grass among the ducklings.

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