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THE NUPTIAL FLIGHT




WE will now consider the manner in which the impregnation of the
queen-bee comes to pass. Here again nature has taken extraordinary
measures to favour the union of males with females of a different
stock; a strange law, whereto nothing would seem to compel her; a
caprice, or initial inadvertence, perhaps, whose reparation calls
for the most marvellous forces her activity knows.

If she had devoted half the genius she lavishes on crossed
fertilisation and other arbitrary desires to making life more
certain, to alleviating pain, to softening death and warding off
horrible accidents, the universe would probably have presented an
enigma less incomprehensible, less pitiable, than the one we are
striving to solve. But our consciousness, and the interest we take
in existence, must grapple, not with what might have been, but with
what is.

Around the virgin queen, and dwelling with her in the hive, are
hundreds of exuberant males, forever drunk on honey; the sole reason
for their existence being one act of love. But, notwithstanding the
incessant contact of two desires that elsewhere invariably triumph
over every obstacle, the union never takes place in the hive, nor
has it been possible to bring about the impregnation of a captive
queen.*

*Professor McLain has recently succeeded in causing a few queens to
be artificially impregnated; but this has been the result of a
veritable surgical operation, of the most delicate and complicated
nature. Moreover, the fertility of the queens was restricted and
ephemeral.

While she lives in their midst the lovers about her know not what
she is. They seek her in space, in the remote depths of the horizon,
never suspecting that they have but this moment quitted her, have
shared the same comb with her, have brushed against her, perhaps, in
the eagerness of their departure. One might almost believe that
those wonderful eyes of theirs, that cover their head as though with
a glittering helmet, do not recognise or desire her save when she
soars in the blue. Each day, from noon till three, when the sun
shines resplendent, this plumed horde sallies forth in search of the
bride, who is indeed more royal, more difficult of conquest, than
the most inaccessible princess of fairy legend; for twenty or thirty
tribes will hasten from all the neighbouring cities, her court thus
consisting of more than ten thousand suitors; and from these ten
thousand one alone will be chosen for the unique kiss of an instant
that shall wed him to death no less than to happiness; while the
others will fly helplessly round the intertwined pair, and soon will
perish without ever again beholding this prodigious and fatal
apparition.



I am not exaggerating this wild and amazing prodigality of nature.
The best-conducted hives will, as a rule, contain four to five
hundred males. Weaker or degenerate ones will often have as many as
four or five thousand; for the more a hive inclines to its ruin, the
more males will it produce. It may be said that, on an average, an
apiary composed of ten colonies will at a given moment send an army
of ten thousand males into the air, of whom ten or fifteen at most
will have the occasion of performing the one act for which they were
born.

In the meanwhile they exhaust the supplies of the city; each one of
the parasites requiring the unceasing labour of five or six workers
to maintain it in its abounding and voracious idleness, its activity
being indeed solely confined to its jaws. But nature is always
magnificent when dealing with the privileges and prerogatives of
love. She becomes miserly only when doling out the organs and
instruments of labour. She is especially severe on what men have
termed virtue, whereas she strews the path of the most uninteresting
lovers with innumerable jewels and favours. "Unite and multiply;
there is no other law, or aim, than love," would seem to be her
constant cry on all sides, while she mutters to herself, perhaps:
"and exist afterwards if you can; that is no concern of mine." Do or
desire what else we may, we find, everywhere on our road, this
morality that differs so much from our own. And note, too, in these
same little creatures, her unjust avarice and insensate waste. From
her birth to her death, the austere forager has to travel abroad in
search of the myriad flowers that hide in the depths of the
thickets. She has to discover the honey and pollen that lurk in the
labyrinths of the nectaries and in the most secret recesses of the
anthers. And yet her eyes and olfactory organs are like the eyes and
organs of the infirm, compared with those of the male. Were the
drones almost blind, had they only the most rudimentary sense of
smell, they scarcely would suffer. They have nothing to do, no prey
to hunt down; their food is brought to them ready prepared, and
their existence is spent in the obscurity of the hive, lapping honey
from the comb. But they are the agents of love; and the most
enormous, most useless gifts are flung with both hands into the
abyss of the future. Out of a thousand of them, one only, once in
his life, will have to seek, in the depths of the azure, the
presence of the royal virgin. Out of a thousand one only will have,
for one instant, to follow in space the female who desires not to
escape. That suffices. The partial power flings open her treasury,
wildly, even deliriously. To every one of these unlikely lovers, of
whom nine hundred and ninety-nine will be put to death a few days
after the fatal nuptials of the thousandth, she has given thirteen
thousand eyes on each side of their head, while the worker has only
six thousand. According to Cheshire's calculations, she has provided
each of their antennae with thirty-seven thousand eight hundred
olfactory cavities, while the worker has only five thousand in both.
There we have an instance of the almost universal disproportion that
exists between the gifts she rains upon love and her niggardly doles
to labour; between the favours she accords to what shall, in an
ecstasy, create new life, and the indifference wherewith she regards
what will patiently have to maintain itself by toil. Whoever would
seek faithfully to depict the character of nature, in accordance
with the traits we discover here, would design an extraordinary
figure, very foreign to our ideal, which nevertheless can only
emanate from her. But too many things are unknown to man for him to
essay such a portrait, wherein all would be deep shadow save one or
two points of flickering light.



Very few, I imagine, have profaned the secret of the queen-bee's
wedding, which comes to pass in the infinite, radiant circles of a
beautiful sky. But we are able to witness the hesitating departure
of the bride-elect and the murderous return of the bride.

However great her impatience, she will yet choose her day and her
hour, and linger in the shadow of the portal till a marvellous
morning fling open wide the nuptial spaces in the depths of the
great azure vault. She loves the moment when drops of dew still
moisten the leaves and the flowers, when the last fragrance of dying
dawn still wrestles with burning day, like a maiden caught in the
arms of a heavy warrior; when through the silence of approaching
noon is heard, once and again, a transparent cry that has lingered
from sunrise.

Then she appears on the threshold--in the midst of indifferent
foragers, if she have left sisters in the hive; or surrounded by a
delirious throng of workers, should it be impossible to fill her
place.

She starts her flight backwards; returns twice or thrice to the
alighting-board; and then, having definitely fixed in her mind the
exact situation and aspect of the kingdom she has never yet seen
from without, she departs like an arrow to the zenith of the blue.
She soars to a height, a luminous zone, that other bees attain at no
period of their life. Far away, caressing their idleness in the
midst of the flowers, the males have beheld the apparition, have
breathed the magnetic perfume that spreads from group to group till
every apiary near is instinct with it. Immediately crowds collect,
and follow her into the sea of gladness, whose limpid boundaries
ever recede. She, drunk with her wings, obeying the magnificent law
of the race that chooses her lover, and enacts that the strongest
alone shall attain her in the solitude of the ether, she rises
still; and, for the first time in her life, the blue morning air
rushes into her stigmata, singing its song, like the blood of
heaven, in the myriad tubes of the tracheal sacs, nourished on
space, that fill the centre of her body. She rises still. A region
must be found unhaunted by birds, that else might profane the
mystery. She rises still; and already the ill-assorted troop below
are dwindling and falling asunder. The feeble, infirm, the aged,
unwelcome, ill-fed, who have flown from inactive or impoverished
cities, these renounce the pursuit and disappear in the void. Only a
small, indefatigable cluster remain, suspended in infinite opal. She
summons her wings for one final effort; and now the chosen of
incomprehensible forces has reached her, has seized her, and
bounding aloft with united impetus, the ascending spiral of their
intertwined flight whirls for one second in the hostile madness of
love.



Most creatures have a vague belief that a very precarious hazard, a
kind of transparent membrane, divides death from love; and that the
profound idea of nature demands that the giver of life should die at
the moment of giving. Here this idea, whose memory lingers still
over the kisses of man, is realised in its primal simplicity. No
sooner has the union been accomplished than the male's abdomen
opens, the organ detaches itself, dragging with it the mass of the
entrails; the wings relax, and, as though struck by lightning, the
emptied body turns and turns on itself and sinks down into the
abyss.

The same idea that, before, in parthenogenesis, sacrificed the
future of the hive to the unwonted multiplication of males, now
sacrifices the male to the future of the hive.

This idea is always astounding; and the further we penetrate into
it, the fewer do our certitudes become. Darwin, for instance, to
take the man of all men who studied it the most methodically and
most passionately, Darwin, though scarcely confessing it to himself,
loses confidence at every step, and retreats before the unexpected
and the irreconcilable. Would you have before you the nobly
humiliating spectacle of human genius battling with infinite power,
you have but to follow Darwin's endeavours to unravel the strange,
incoherent, inconceivably mysterious laws of the sterility and
fecundity of hybrids, or of the variations of specific and generic
characters. Scarcely has he formulated a principle when numberless
exceptions assail him; and this very principle, soon completely
overwhelmed, is glad to find refuge in some corner, and preserve a
shred of existence there under the title of an exception.

For the fact is that in hybridity, in variability (notably in the
simultaneous variations known as correlations of growth), in
instinct, in the processes of vital competition, in geologic
succession and the geographic distribution of organised beings, in
mutual affinities, as indeed in every other direction, the idea of
nature reveals itself, in one and the same phenomenon and at the
very same time, as circumspect and shiftless, niggard and prodigal,
prudent and careless, fickle and stable, agitated and immovable, one
and innumerable, magnificent and squalid. There lay open before her
the immense and virgin fields of simplicity; she chose to people
them with trivial errors, with petty contradictory laws that stray
through existence like a flock of blind sheep. It is true that our
eye, before which these things happen, can only reflect a reality
proportionate to our needs and our stature; nor have we any warrant
for believing that nature ever loses sight of her wandering results
and causes.

In any event she will rarely permit them to stray too far, or
approach illogical or dangerous regions. She disposes of two forces
that never can err; and when the phenomenon shall have trespassed
beyond certain limits, she will beckon to life or to death--which
arrives, re-establishes order, and unconcernedly marks out the path
afresh.



She eludes us on every side; she repudiates most of our rules and
breaks our standards to pieces. On our right she sinks far beneath
the level of our thoughts, on our left she towers mountain-high
above them. She appears to be constantly blundering, no less in the
world of her first experiments than in that of her last, of man.
There she invests with her sanction the instincts of the obscure
mass, the unconscious injustice of the multitude, the defeat of
intelligence and virtue, the uninspired morality which urges on the
great wave of the race, though manifestly inferior to the morality
that could be conceived or desired by the minds composing the small
and the clearer wave that ascends the other. And yet, can such a
mind be wrong if it ask itself whether the whole truth--moral
truths, therefore, as well as non-moral--had not better be sought in
this chaos than in itself, where these truths would seem
comparatively clear and precise?

The man who feels thus will never attempt to deny the reason or
virtue of his ideal, hallowed by so many heroes and sages; but there
are times when he will whisper to himself that this ideal has
perhaps been formed at too great a distance from the enormous mass
whose diverse beauty it would fain represent. He has, hitherto,
legitimately feared that the attempt to adapt his morality to that
of nature would risk the destruction of what was her masterpiece.
But to-day he understands her a little better; and from some of her
replies, which, though still vague, reveal an unexpected breadth, he
has been enabled to seize a glimpse of a plan and an intellect
vaster than could be conceived by his unaided imagination; wherefore
he has grown less afraid, nor feels any longer the same imperious
need of the refuge his own special virtue and reason afford him. He
concludes that what is so great could surely teach nothing that
would tend to lessen itself. He wonders whether the moment may not
have arrived for submitting to a more judicious examination his
convictions, his principles, and his dreams.

Once more, he has not the slightest desire to abandon his human
ideal. That even which at first diverts him from this ideal teaches
him to return to it. It were impossible for nature to give ill
advice to a man who declines to include in the great scheme he is
endeavouring to grasp, who declines to regard as sufficiently lofty
to be definitive, any truth that is not at least as lofty as the
truth he himself desires. Nothing shifts its place in his life save
only to rise with him; and he knows he is rising when he finds
himself drawing near to his ancient image of good. But all things
transform themselves more freely in his thoughts; and he can descend
with impunity, for he has the presentiment that numbers of
successive valleys will lead him to the plateau that he expects.
And, while he thus seeks for conviction, while his researches even
conduct him to the very reverse of that which he loves, he directs
his conduct by the most humanly beautiful truth, and clings to the
one that provisionally seems to be highest. All that may add to
beneficent virtue enters his heart at once; all that would tend to
lessen it remaining there in suspense, like insoluble salts that
change not till the hour for decisive experiment. He may accept an
inferior truth, but before he will act in accordance therewith he
will wait, if need be for centuries, until he perceive the
connection this truth must possess with truths so infinite as to
include and surpass all others.

In a word, he divides the moral from the intellectual order,
admitting in the former that only which is greater and more
beautiful than was there before. And blameworthy as it may be to
separate the two orders in cases, only too frequent in life, where
we suffer our conduct to be inferior to our thoughts, where, seeing
the good, we follow the worse--to see the worse and follow the
better, to raise our actions high over our idea, must ever be
reasonable and salutary; for human experience renders it daily more
clear that the highest thought we can attain will long be inferior
still to the mysterious truth we seek. Moreover, should nothing of
what goes before be true, a reason more simple and more familiar
would counsel him not yet to abandon his human ideal. For the more
strength he accords to the laws which would seem to set egoism,
injustice, and cruelty as examples for men to follow, the more
strength does be at the same time confer on the others that ordain
generosity, justice, and pity; and these last laws are found to
contain something as profoundly natural as the first, the moment he
begins to equalise, or allot more methodically, the share he
attributes to the universe and to himself.



Let us return to the tragic nuptials of the queen. Here it is
evidently nature's wish, in the interests of crossed fertilisation,
that the union of the drone and the queen-bee should be possible
only in the open sky. But her desires blend network-fashion, and her
most valued laws have to pass through the meshes of other laws,
which, in their turn, the moment after, are compelled to pass
through the first.

In the sky she has planted so many dangers--cold winds,
storm-currents, birds, insects, drops of water, all of which also
obey invincible laws--that she must of necessity arrange for this
union to be as brief as possible. It is so, thanks to the
startlingly sudden death of the male. One embrace suffices; the rest
all enacts itself in the very flanks of the bride.

She descends from the azure heights and returns to the hive,
trailing behind her, like an oriflamme, the unfolded entrails of her
lover. Some writers pretend that the bees manifest great joy at this
return so big with promise--Buchner, among others, giving a detailed
account of it. I have many a time lain in wait for the queen-bee's
return, and I confess that I have never noticed any unusual emotion
except in the case of a young queen who had gone forth at the head
of a swarm, and represented the unique hope of a newly founded and
still empty city. In that instance the workers were all wildly
excited, and rushed to meet her. But as a rule they appear to forget
her, even though the future of their city will often be no less
imperilled. They act with consistent prudence in all things, till
the moment when they authorise the massacre of the rival queens.
That point reached, their instinct halts; and there is, as it were,
a gap in their foresight.--They appear to be wholly indifferent.
They raise their heads; recognise, probably, the murderous tokens of
impregnation; but, still mistrustful, manifest none of the gladness
our expectation had pictured. Being positive in their ways, and slow
at illusion, they probably need further proofs before permitting
themselves to rejoice. Why endeavour to render too logical, or too
human, the feelings of little creatures so different from ourselves?
Neither among the bees nor among any other animals that have a ray
of our intellect, do things happen with the precision our books
record. Too many circumstances remain unknown to us. Why try to
depict the bees as more perfect than they are, by saying that which
is not? Those who would deem them more interesting did they resemble
ourselves, have not yet truly realised what it is that should awaken
the interest of a sincere mind. The aim of the observer is not to
surprise, but to comprehend; and to point out the gaps existing in
an intellect, and the signs of a cerebral organisation different
from our own, is more curious by far than the relating of mere
marvels concerning it.

But this indifference is not shared by all; and when the breathless
queen has reached the alighting-board, some groups will form and
accompany her into the hive; where the sun, hero of every festivity
in which the bees take part, is entering with little timid steps,
and bathing in azure and shadow the waxen walls and curtains of
honey. Nor does the new bride, indeed, show more concern than her
people, there being not room for many emotions in her narrow,
barbarous, practical brain. She has but one thought, which is to rid
herself as quickly as possible of the embarrassing souvenirs her
consort has left her, whereby her movements are hampered. She seats
herself on the threshold, and carefully strips off the useless
organs, that are borne far away by the workers; for the male has
given her all he possessed, and much more than she requires. She
retains only, in her spermatheca, the seminal liquid where millions
of germs are floating, which, until her last day, will issue one by
one, as the eggs pass by, and in the obscurity of her body
accomplish the mysterious union of the male and female element,
whence the worker-bees are born. Through a curious inversion, it is
she who furnishes the male principle, and the drone who provides the
female. Two days after the union she lays her first eggs, and her
people immediately surround her with the most particular care. From
that moment, possessed of a dual sex, having within her an
inexhaustible male, she begins her veritable life; she will never
again leave the hive, unless to accompany a swarm; and her fecundity
will cease only at the approach of death.



Prodigious nuptials these, the most fairylike that can be conceived,
azure and tragic, raised high above life by the impetus of desire;
imperishable and terrible, unique and bewildering, solitary and
infinite. An admirable ecstasy, wherein death supervening in all
that our sphere has of most limpid and loveliest, in virginal,
limitless space, stamps the instant of happiness in the sublime
transparence of the great sky; purifying in that immaculate light
the something of wretchedness that always hovers around love,
rendering the kiss one that can never be forgotten; and, content
this time with moderate tithe, proceeding herself, with hands that
are almost maternal, to introduce and unite, in one body, for a long
and inseparable future, two little fragile lives.

Profound truth has not this poetry, but possesses another that we
are less apt to grasp, which, however, we should end, perhaps, by
understanding and loving. Nature has not gone out of her way to
provide these two "abbreviated atoms," as Pascal would call them,
with a resplendent marriage, or an ideal moment of love. Her
concern, as we have said, was merely to improve the race by means of
crossed fertilisation. To ensure this she has contrived the organ of
the male in such a fashion that he can make use of it only in space.
A prolonged flight must first expand his two great tracheal sacs;
these enormous receptacles being gorged on air will throw back the
lower part of the abdomen, and permit the exsertion of the organ.
There we have the whole physiological secret--which will seem
ordinary enough to some, and almost vulgar to others--of this
dazzling pursuit and these magnificent nuptials.



"But must we always, then," the poet will wonder, "rejoice in
regions that are loftier than the truth?"

Yes, in all things, at all times, let us rejoice, not in regions
loftier than the truth, for that were impossible, but in regions
higher than the little truths that our eye can seize. Should a
chance, a recollection, an illusion, a passion,--in a word, should
any motive whatever cause an object to reveal itself to us in a more
beautiful light than to others, let that motive be first of all dear
to us. It may only be error, perhaps; but this error will not
prevent the moment wherein this object appears the most admirable to
us from being the moment wherein we are likeliest to perceive its
real beauty. The beauty we lend it directs our attention to its
veritable beauty and grandeur, which, derived as they are from the
relation wherein every object must of necessity stand to general,
eternal, forces and laws, might otherwise escape observation. The
faculty of admiring which an illusion may have created within us
will serve for the truth that must come, be it sooner or later. It
is with the words, the feelings, and ardour created by ancient and
imaginary beauties, that humanity welcomes today truths which
perhaps would have never been born, which might not have been able
to find so propitious a home, had these sacrificed illusions not
first of all dwelt in, and kindled, the heart and the reason
whereinto these truths should descend. Happy the eyes that need no
illusion to see that the spectacle is great! It is illusion that
teaches the others to look, to admire, and rejoice. And look as high
as they will, they never can look too high. Truth rises as they draw
nearer; they draw nearer when they admire. And whatever the heights
may be whereon they rejoice, this rejoicing can never take place in
the void, or above the unknown and eternal truth that rests over all
things like beauty in suspense.



Does this mean that we should attach ourselves to falsehood, to an
unreal and factitious poetry, and find our gladness therein for want
of anything better? Or that in the example before us--in itself
nothing, but we dwell on it because it stands for a thousand others,
as also for our entire attitude in face of divers orders of
truths--that here we should ignore the physiological explanation,
and retain and taste only the emotions of this nuptial flight, which
is yet, and whatever the cause, one of the most lyrical, most
beautiful acts of that suddenly disinterested, irresistible force
which all living creatures obey and are wont to call love? That were
too childish; nor is it possible, thanks to the excellent habits
every loyal mind has today acquired.

The fact being incontestable, we must evidently admit that the
exsertion of the organ is rendered possible only by the expansion of
the tracheal vesicles. But if we, content with this fact, did not
let our eyes roam beyond it; if we deduced therefrom that every
thought that rises too high or wanders too far must be of necessity
wrong, and that truth must be looked for only in the material
details; if we did not seek, no matter where, in uncertainties often
far greater than the one this little explanation has solved, in the
strange mystery of crossed fertilisation for instance, or in the
perpetuity of the race and life, or in the scheme of nature; if we
did not seek in these for something beyond the current explanation,
something that should prolong it, and conduct us to the beauty and
grandeur that repose in the unknown, I would almost venture to
assert that we should pass our existence further away from the truth
than those, even, who in this case wilfully shut their eyes to all
save the poetic and wholly imaginary interpretation of these
marvellous nuptials. They evidently misjudge the form and colour of
the truth, but they live in its atmosphere and its influence far
more than the others, who complacently believe that the entire truth
lies captive within their two hands. For the first have made ample
preparations to receive the truth, have provided most hospitable
lodging within them; and even though their eyes may not see it, they
are eagerly looking towards the beauty and grandeur where its
residence surely must be.

We know nothing of nature's aim, which for us is the truth that
dominates every other. But for the very love of this truth, and to
preserve in our soul the ardour we need for its search, it behoves
us to deem it great. And if we should find one day that we have been
on a wrong road, that this aim is incoherent and petty, we shall
have discovered its pettiness by means of the very zeal its presumed
grandeur had created within us; and this pettiness once established,
it will teach us what we have to do. In the meanwhile it cannot be
unwise to devote to its search the most strenuous, daring efforts of
our heart and our reason. And should the last word of all this be
wretched, it will be no little achievement to have laid bare the
inanity and the pettiness of the aim of nature.

"There is no truth for us yet," a great physiologist of our day
remarked to me once, as I walked with him in the country; "there is
no truth yet, but there are everywhere three very good semblances of
truth. Each man makes his own choice, or rather, perhaps, has it
thrust upon him; and this choice, whether it be thrust upon him, or
whether, as is often the case, he have made it without due
reflection, this choice, to which he clings, will determine the form
and the conduct of all that enters within him. The friend whom we
meet, the woman who approaches and smiles, the love that unlocks our
heart, the death or sorrow that seals it, the September sky above
us, this superb and delightful garden, wherein we see, as in
Corneille's 'Psyche,' bowers of greenery resting on gilded statues,
and the flocks grazing yonder, with their shepherd asleep, and the
last houses of the village, and the sea between the trees,--all
these are raised or degraded before they enter within us, are
adorned or despoiled, in accordance with the little signal this
choice of ours makes to them. We must learn to select from among
these semblances of truth. I have spent my own life in eager search
for the smaller truths, the physical causes; and now, at the end of
my days, I begin to cherish, not what would lead me from these, but
what would precede them, and, above all, what would somewhat surpass
them." We had attained the summit of a plateau in the "pays de
Caux," in Normandy, which is supple as an English park, but natural
and limitless. It is one of the rare spots on the globe where nature
reveals herself to us unfailingly wholesome and green. A little
further to the north the country is threatened with barrenness, a
little further to the south, it is fatigued and scorched by the sun.
At the end of a plain that ran down to the edge of the sea, some
peasants were erecting a stack of corn. "Look," he said, "seen from
here, they are beautiful. They are constructing that simple and yet
so important thing, which is above all else the happy and almost
unvarying monument of human life taking root--a stack of corn. The
distance, the air of the evening, weave their joyous cries into a
kind of song without words, which replies to the noble song of the
leaves as they whisper over our heads. Above them the sky is
magnificent; and one almost might fancy that beneficent spirits,
waving palm-trees of fire, had swept all the light towards the
stack, to give the workers more time. And the track of the palms
still remains in the sky. See the humble church by their side,
overlooking and watching them, in the midst of the rounded lime
trees and the grass of the homely graveyard, that faces its native
ocean. They are fitly erecting their monument of life underneath the
monuments of their dead, who made the same gestures and still are
with them. Take in the whole picture. There are no special,
characteristic features, such as we find in England, Provence, or
Holland. It is the presentment, large and ordinary enough to be
symbolic, of a natural and happy life. Observe how rhythmic human
existence becomes in its useful moments. Look at the man who is
leading the horses, at that other who throws up the sheaves on his
fork, at the women bending over the corn, and the children at play.
. . . They have not displaced a stone, or removed a spadeful of
earth, to add to the beauty of the scenery; nor do they take one
step, plant a tree or a flower, that is not necessary. All that we
see is merely the involuntary result of the effort that man puts
forth to subsist for a moment in nature; and yet those among us
whose desire is only to create or imagine spectacles of peace, deep
thoughtfulness, or beatitude, have been able to find no scene more
perfect than this, which indeed they paint or describe whenever they
seek to present us with a picture of beauty or happiness. Here we
have the first semblance, which some will call the truth."


"Let us draw nearer. Can you distinguish the song that blended so
well with the whispering of the leaves? It is made up of abuse and
insult; and when laughter bursts forth, it is due to an obscene
remark some man or woman has made, to a jest at the expense of the
weaker,--of the hunchback unable to lift his load, the cripple they
have knocked over, or the idiot whom they make their butt.

"I have studied these people for many years. We are in Normandy; the
soil is rich and easily tilled. Around this stack of corn there is
rather more comfort than one would usually associate with a scene of
this kind. The result is that most of the men, and many of the
women, are alcoholic. Another poison also, which I need not name,
corrodes the race. To that, to the alcohol, are due the children
whom you see there: the dwarf, the one with the hare-lip, the others
who are knock-kneed, scrofulous, imbecile. All of them, men and
women, young and old, have the ordinary vices of the peasant. They
are brutal, suspicious, grasping, and envious; hypocrites, liars,
and slanderers; inclined to petty, illicit profits, mean
interpretations, and coarse flattery of the stronger. Necessity
brings them together, and compels them to help each other; but the
secret wish of every individual is to harm his neighbour as soon as
this can be done without danger to himself. The one substantial
pleasure of the village is procured by the sorrows of others. Should
a great disaster befall one of them, it will long be the subject of
secret, delighted comment among the rest. Every man watches his
fellow, is jealous of him, detests and despises him. While they are
poor, they hate their masters with a boiling and pent-up hatred
because of the harshness and avarice these last display; should they
in their turn have servants, they profit by their own experience of
servitude to reveal a harshness and avarice greater even than that
from which they have suffered. I could give you minutest details of
the meanness, deceit, injustice, tyranny, and malice that underlie
this picture of ethereal, peaceful toil. Do not imagine that the
sight of this marvellous sky, of the sea which spreads out yonder
behind the church and presents another, more sensitive sky, flowing
over the earth like a great mirror of wisdom and consciousness--do
not imagine that either sea or sky is capable of lifting their
thoughts or widening their minds. They have never looked at them.
Nothing has power to influence or move them save three or four
circumscribed fears, that of hunger, of force, of opinion and law,
and the terror of hell when they die. To show what they are, we
should have to consider them one by one. See that tall fellow there
on the right, who flings up such mighty sheaves. Last summer his
friends broke his right arm in some tavern row. I reduced the
fracture, which was a bad and compound one. I tended him for a long
time, and gave him the wherewithal to live till he should be able to
get back to work. He came to me every day. He profited by this to
spread the report in the village that he had discovered me in the
arms of my sister-in-law, and that my mother drank. He is not
vicious, he bears me no ill-will; on the contrary, see what a broad,
open smile spreads over his face as he sees me. It was not social
animosity that induced him to slander me. The peasant values wealth
far too much to hate the rich man. But I fancy my good corn-thrower
there could not understand my tending him without any profit to
myself. He was satisfied that there must be some underhand scheme,
and he declined to be my dupe. More than one before him, richer or
poorer, has acted in similar fashion, if not worse. It did not occur
to him that he was lying when he spread those inventions abroad; he
merely obeyed a confused command of the morality he saw about him.
He yielded unconsciously, against his will, as it were, to the
all-powerful desire of the general malevolence. . . . But why
complete a picture with which all are familiar who have spent some
years in the country? Here we have the second semblance that some
will call the real truth. It is the truth of practical life. It
undoubtedly is based on the most precise, the only, facts that one
can observe and test."



"Let us sit on these sheaves," he continued, "and look again. Let us
reject not a single one of the little facts that build up the
reality of which I have spoken. Let us permit them to depart of
their own accord into space. They cumber the foreground, and yet we
cannot but be aware of the existence behind them of a great and very
curious force that sustains the whole. Does it only sustain and not
raise? These men whom we see before us are at least no longer the
ferocious animals of whom La Bruyere speaks, the wretches who talked
in a kind of inarticulate voice, and withdrew at night to their
dens, where they lived on black bread, water, and roots.

"The race, you will tell me, is neither as strong nor as healthy.
That may be; alcohol and the other scourge are accidents that
humanity has to surmount; ordeals, it may be, by which certain of
our organs, those of the nerves, for instance, may benefit; for we
invariably find that life profits by the ills that it overcomes.
Besides, a mere trifle that we may discover to-morrow may render
these poisons innocuous. These men have thoughts and feelings that
those of whom La Bruyere speaks had not." "I prefer the simple,
naked animal to the odious half-animal," I murmured. "You are
thinking of the first semblance now," he replied, "the semblance
dear to the poet, that we saw before; let us not confuse it with the
one we are now considering. These thoughts and feelings are petty,
if you will, and vile; but what is petty and vile is still better
than that which is not at all. Of these thoughts and feelings they
avail themselves only to hurt each other, and to persist in their
present mediocrity; but thus does it often happen in nature. The
gifts she accords are employed for evil at first, for the rendering
worse what she had apparently sought to improve; but, from this
evil, a certain good will always result in the end. Besides, I am by
no means anxious to prove that there has been progress, which may be
a very small thing or a very great thing, according to the place
whence we regard it. It is a vast achievement, the surest ideal,
perhaps, to render the condition of men a little less servile, a
little less painful; but let the mind detach itself for an instant
from material results, and the difference between the man who
marches in the van of progress and the other who is blindly dragged
at its tail ceases to be very considerable. Among these young
rustics, whose mind is haunted only by formless ideas, there are
many who have in themselves the possibility of attaining, in a short
space of time, the degree of consciousness that we both enjoy. One
is often struck by the narrowness of the dividing line between what
we regard as the unconsciousness of these people and the
consciousness that to us is the highest of all."

"Besides, of what is this consciousness composed, whereof we are so
proud? Of far more shadow than light, of far more acquired ignorance
than knowledge; of far more things whose comprehension, we are well
aware, must ever elude us, than of things that we actually know. And
yet in this consciousness lies all our dignity, our most veritable
greatness; it is probably the most surprising phenomenon this world
contains. It is this which permits us to raise our head before the
unknown principle, and say to it: 'What you are I know not; but
there is something within me that already enfolds you. You will
destroy me, perhaps, but if your object be not to construct from my
ruins an organism better than mine, you will prove yourself inferior
to what I am; and the silence that will follow the death of the race
to which I belong will declare to you that you have been judged. And
if you are not capable even of caring whether you be justly judged
or not, of what value can your secret be? It must be stupid or
hideous. Chance has enabled you to produce a creature that you
yourself lacked the quality to produce. It is fortunate for him that
a contrary chance should have permitted you to suppress him before
he had fathomed the depths of your unconsciousness; more fortunate
still that he does not survive the infinite series of your awful
experiments. He had nothing to do in a world where his intellect
corresponded to no eternal intellect, where his desire for the
better could attain no actual good.'

"Once more, for the spectacle to absorb us, there is no need of
progress. The enigma suffices; and that enigma is as great, and
shines as mysteriously, in the peasants as in ourselves. As we trace
life back to its all-powerful principle, it confronts us on every
side. To this principle each succeeding century has given a new
name. Some of these names were clear and consoling. It was found,
however, that consolation and clearness were alike illusory. But
whether we call it God, Providence, Nature, chance, life, fatality,
spirit, or matter, the mystery remains unaltered; and from the
experience of thousands of years we have learned nothing more than
to give it a vaster name, one nearer to ourselves, more congruous
with our expectation, with the unforeseen.

That is the name it bears to-day, wherefore it has never seemed
greater. Here we have one of the numberless aspects of the third
semblance, which also is truth."





Next: THE MASSACRE OF THE MALES

Previous: THE YOUNG QUEENS



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