site logo


I am back in the village, in my father's house. I am now seven

years old; and it is high time that I went to school. Nothing

could have turned out better: the master is my godfather. What

shall I call the room in which I was to become acquainted with the

alphabet? It would be difficult to find the exact word, because

the room served for every purpose. It was at once a school, a

kitchen, a bedroom, a dining room an
, at times, a chicken house

and a piggery. Palatial schools were not dreamt of in those days;

any wretched hovel was thought good enough.

A broad fixed ladder led to the floor above. Under the ladder

stood a big bed in a boarded recess. What was there upstairs? I

never quite knew. I would see the master sometimes bring down an

armful of hay for the ass, sometimes a basket of potatoes which the

housewife emptied into the pot in which the little porkers' food

was cooked. It must have been a loft of sorts, a storehouse of

provisions for man and beast. Those two apartments composed the

whole building.

To return to the lower one, the schoolroom: a window faces south,

the only window in the house, a low, narrow window whose frame you

can touch at the same time with your head and both your shoulders.

This sunny aperture is the only lively spot in the dwelling, it

overlooks the greater part of the village, which straggles along

the slopes of a slanting valley. In the window recess is the

master's little table.

The opposite wall contains a niche in which stands a gleaming

copper pail full of water. Here the parched children can relieve

their thirst when they please, with a cup left within their reach.

At the top of the niche are a few shelves bright with pewter

plates, dishes and drinking vessels, which are taken down from

their sanctuary on great occasions only.

More or less everywhere, at any spot which the light touches, are

crudely colored pictures, pasted on the walls. Here is Our Lady of

the Seven Dolours, the disconsolate Mother of God opening her blue

cloak to show her heart pierced with seven daggers. Between the

sun and moon, which stare at you with their great, round eyes, is

the Eternal Father, whose robe swells as though puffed out with the

storm. To the right of the window, in the embrasure, is the

Wandering Jew. He wears a three-cornered hat, a large, white

leather apron, hobnailed shoes and a stout stick. 'Never was such

a bearded man seen before or after,' says the legend that surrounds

the picture. The draftsman has not forgotten this detail: the old

man's beard spreads in a snowy avalanche over the apron and comes

down to his knees. On the left is Genevieve of Brabant,

accompanied by the roe, with fierce Golo hiding in the bushes,

sword in hand. Above hangs The Death of Mr. Credit, slain by

defaulters at the door of his inn; and so on and so on, in every

variety of subject, at all the unoccupied spots of the four walls.

I was filled with admiration of this picture gallery, which held

one's eyes with its great patches of red, blue, green and yellow.

The master, however, had not set up his collection with a view to

training our minds and hearts. That was the last and least of the

worthy man's ambitions. An artist in his fashion, he had adorned

his house according to his taste; and we benefited by the scheme of


While the gallery of halfpenny pictures made me happy all the year

round, there was another entertainment which I found particularly

attractive in winter, in frosty weather, when the snow lay long on

the ground. Against the far wall stands the fireplace, as

monumental in size as at my grandmother's. Its arched cornice

occupies the whole width of the room, for the enormous redoubt

fulfils more than one purpose. In the middle is the hearth, but,

on the right and left, are two breast-high recesses, half wood and

half stone. Each of them is a bed, with a mattress stuffed with

chaff of winnowed corn. Two sliding planks serve as shutters and

close the chest if the sleeper would be alone. This dormitory,

sheltered under the chimney mantel, supplies couches for the

favored ones of the house, the two boarders. They must lie snug in

there at night, with their shutters closed, when the north wind

howls at the mouth of the dark valley and sends the snow awhirl.

The rest is occupied by the hearth and its accessories: the three-

legged stools; the salt box, hanging against the wall to keep its

contents dry; the heavy shovel which it takes two hands to wield;

lastly, the bellows similar to those with which I used to blow out

my cheeks in grandfather's house. They consist of a mighty branch

of pine, hollowed throughout its length with a red-hot iron. By

means of this channel, one's breath is applied, from a convenient

distance, to the spot which is to be revived. With a couple of

stones for supports, the master's bundle of sticks and our own logs

blaze and flicker, each of us having to bring a log of wood in the

morning, if he would share in the treat.

For that matter, the fire was not exactly lit for us, but, above

all, to warm a row of three pots in which simmered the pigs' food,

a mixture of potatoes and bran. That, despite the tribute of a

log, was the real object of the brushwood fire. The two boarders,

on their stools, in the best places, and we others sitting on our

heels formed a semicircle around those big cauldrons, full to the

brim and giving off little jets of steam, with puff-puff-puffing

sounds. The bolder among us, when the master's eyes were engaged

elsewhere, would dig a knife into a well cooked potato and add it

to their bit of bread; for I must say that, if we did little work

in my school, at least we did a deal of eating. It was the regular

custom to crack a few nuts and nibble at a crust while writing our

page or setting out our rows of figures.

We, the smaller ones, in addition to the comfort of studying with

our mouths full, had every now and then two other delights, which

were quite as good as cracking nuts. The back door communicated

with the yard where the hen, surrounded by her brood of chicks,

scratched at the dung hill, while the little porkers, of whom there

were a dozen, wallowed in their stone trough. This door would open

sometimes to let one of us out, a privilege which we abused, for

the sly ones among us were careful not to close it on returning.

Forthwith, the porkers would come running in, one after the other,

attracted by the smell of the boiled potatoes. My bench, the one

where the youngsters sat, stood against the wall, under the copper

pail to which we used to go for water when the nuts had made us

thirsty, and was right in the way of the pigs. Up they came

trotting and grunting, curling their little tails; they rubbed

against our legs; they poked their cold pink snouts into our hands

in search of a scrap of crust; they questioned us with their sharp

little eyes to learn if we happened to have a dry chestnut for them

in our pockets. When they had gone the round, some this way and

some that, they went back to the farmyard, driven away by a

friendly flick of the master's handkerchief. Next came the visit

of the hen, bringing her velvet-coated chicks to see us. All of us

eagerly crumbled a little bread for our pretty visitors. We vied

with one another in calling them to us and tickling with our

fingers their soft and downy backs. No, there was certainly no

lack of distractions.

What could we learn in such a school as that! Let us first speak of

the young ones, of whom I was one. Each of us had, or rather was

supposed to have, in his hands a little penny book, the alphabet,

printed on gray paper. It began, on the cover, with a pigeon, or

something like it. Next came a cross, followed by the letters in

their order. When we turned over, our eyes encountered the

terrible ba, be, bi, bo, bu, the stumbling block of most of us.

When we had mastered that formidable page, we were considered to

know how to read and were admitted among the big ones. But, if the

little book was to be of any use, the least that was required was

that the master should interest himself in us to some extent and

show us how to set about things. For this, the worthy man, too

much taken up with the big ones, had not the time. The famous

alphabet with the pigeon was thrust upon us only to give us the air

of scholars. We were to contemplate it on our bench, to decipher

it with the help of our next neighbor, in case he might know one or

two of the letters. Our contemplation came to nothing, being every

moment disturbed by a visit to the potatoes in the stew pots, a

quarrel among playmates about a marble, the grunting invasion of

the porkers or the arrival of the chicks. With the aid of these

distractions, we would wait patiently until it was time for us to

go home. That was our most serious work.

The big ones used to write. They had the benefit of the small

amount of light in the room, by the narrow window where the

Wandering Jew and ruthless Golo faced each other, and of the large

and only table with its circle of seats. The school supplied

nothing, not even a drop of ink; every one had to come with a full

set of utensils. The inkhorn of those days, a relic of the ancient

pen case of which Rabelais speaks, was a long cardboard box divided

into two stages. The upper compartment held the pens, made of

goose or turkey quills trimmed with a penknife; the lower

contained, in a tiny well, ink made of soot mixed with vinegar.

The master's great business was to mend the pens--a delicate work,

not without danger for inexperienced fingers--and then to trace at

the head of the white page a line of strokes, single letters or

words, according to the scholar's capabilities. When that is over,

keep an eye on the work of art which is coming to adorn the copy!

With what undulating movements of the wrist does the hand, resting

on the little finger, prepare and plan its flight! All at once, the

hand starts off, flies, whirls; and, lo and behold, under the line

of writing is unfurled a garland of circles, spirals and

flourishes, framing a bird with outspread wings, the whole, if you

please, in red ink, the only kind worthy of such a pen. Large and

small, we stood awestruck in the presence of these marvels. The

family, in the evening, after supper, would pass from hand to hand

the masterpiece brought back from school: 'What a man!' was the

comment. 'What a man, to draw you a Holy Ghost with a stroke of

the pen!'

What was read at my school? At most, in French, a few selections

from sacred history. Latin recurred oftener, to teach us to sing

vespers properly. The more advanced pupils tried to decipher

manuscript, a deed of sale, the hieroglyphics of some scrivener.

And history, geography? No one ever heard of them. What

difference did it make to us whether the earth was round or square!

In either case, it was just as hard to make it bring forth


And grammar? The master troubled his head very little about that;

and we still less. We should have been greatly surprised by the

novelty and the forbidding look of such words in the grammatical

jargon as substantive, indicative and subjunctive. Accuracy of

language, whether of speech or writing, must be learnt by practice.

And none of us was troubled by scruples in this respect. What was

the use of all these subtleties, when, on coming out of school, a

lad simply went back to his flock of sheep!

And arithmetic? Yes, we did a little of this but not under that

learned name. We called it sums. To put down rows of figures, not

too long, add them and subtract them one from the other was more or

less familiar work. On Saturday evenings, to finish up the week,

there was a general orgy of sums. The top boy stood up and, in a

loud voice, recited the multiplication table up to twelve times. I

say twelve times, for in those days, because of our old duodecimal

measures, it was the custom to count as far as the twelve times

table, instead of the ten times of the metric system. When this

recital was over, the whole class, the little ones included, took

it up in chorus, creating such an uproar that chicks and porkers

took to flight if they happened to be there. And this went on to

twelve times twelve, the first in the row starting the next table

and the whole class repeating it as loud as it could yell. Of all

that we were taught in school, the multiplication table was what we

knew best, for this noisy method ended by dinning the different

numbers into our ears. This does not mean that we became skilful

reckoners. The cleverest of us easily got muddled with the figures

to be carried in a multiplication sum. As for division, rare

indeed were they who reached such heights. In short, the moment a

problem, however insignificant, had to be solved, we had recourse

to mental gymnastics much rather than to the learned aid of


When all is said, our master was an excellent man who could have

kept school very well but for his lack of one thing; and that was

time. He devoted to us all the little leisure which his numerous

functions left him. And, first of all, he managed the property of

an absentee landowner, who only occasionally set foot in the

village. He had under his care an old castle with four towers,

which had become so many pigeon houses; he directed the getting in

of the hay, the walnuts, the apples and the oats. We used to help

him during the summer, when the school, which was well attended in

winter, was almost deserted. All that remained, because they were

not yet big enough to work in the fields, were a few children,

including him who was one day to set down these memorable facts.

Lessons at that time were less dull. They were often given on the

hay or on the straw; oftener still, lesson time was spent in

cleaning out the dovecote or stamping on the snails that had

sallied in rainy weather from their fortresses, the tall box

borders of the garden belonging to the castle.

Our master was a barber. With his light hand, which was so clever

at beautifying our copies with curlicue birds, he shaved the

notabilities of the place: the mayor, the parish priest, the

notary. Our master was a bell ringer. A wedding or a christening

interrupted the lessons: he had to ring a peal. A gathering storm

gave us a holiday: the great bell must be tolled to ward off the

lightning and the hail. Our master was a choir singer. With his

mighty voice, he filled the church when he led the Magnificat at

vespers. Our master wound up and regulated the village clock.

This was his proudest function. Giving a glance at the sun, to

ascertain the time more or less nearly, he would climb to the top

of the steeple, open a huge cage of rafters and find himself in a

maze of wheels and springs whereof the secret was known to him


With such a school and such a master and such examples, what will

become of my embryo tastes, as yet so imperceptible? In that

environment, they seem bound to perish, stifled for ever. Yet no,

the germ has life; it works in my veins, never to leave them again.

It finds nourishment everywhere, down to the cover of my penny

alphabet, embellished with a crude picture of a pigeon which I

study and contemplate much more zealously than the

A B C. Its round eye, with its circlet of dots, seems to smile

upon me. Its wing, of which I count the feathers one by one, tells

me of flights on high, among the beautiful clouds; it carries me to

the beeches raising their smooth trunks above a mossy carpet

studded with white mushrooms that look like eggs dropped by some

vagrant hen; it takes me to the snow-clad peaks where the birds

leave the starry print of their red feet. He is a fine fellow, my

pigeon friend: he consoles me for the woes hidden behind the cover

of my book. Thanks to him, I sit quietly on my bench and wait more

or less till school is over.

School out of doors has other charms. When the master takes us to

kill the snails in the box borders, I do not always scrupulously

fulfil my office as an exterminator. My heel sometimes hesitates

before coming down upon the handful which I have gathered. They

are so pretty! Just think, there are yellow ones and pink, white

ones and brown, all with dark spiral streaks. I fill my pockets

with the handsomest, so as to feast my eyes on them at my leisure.

On hay making days in the master's field, I strike up an

acquaintance with the frog. Flayed and stuck at the end of a split

stick, he serves as bait to tempt the crayfish to come out of his

retreat by the brook side. On the alder trees I catch the Hoplia,

the splendid scarab who pales the azure of the heavens. I pick the

narcissus and learn to gather, with the tip of my tongue, the tiny

drop of honey that lies right at the bottom of the cleft corolla.

I also learn that too long indulgence in this feast brings a

headache; but this discomfort in no way impairs my admiration for

the glorious white flower, which wears a narrow red collar at the

throat of its funnel.

When we go to beat the walnut trees, the barren grass plots provide

me with locusts spreading their wings, some into a blue fan, others

into a red. And thus the rustic school, even in the heart of

winter, furnished continuous food for my interest in things. There

was no need for precept and example: my passion for animals and

plants made progress of itself.

What did not make progress was my acquaintance with my letters,

greatly neglected in favor of the pigeon. I was still at the same

stage, hopelessly behindhand with the intractable alphabet, when my

father, by a chance inspiration, brought me home from the town what

was destined to give me a start along the road of reading. Despite

the not insignificant part which it played in my intellectual

awakening, the purchase was by no means a ruinous one. It was a

large print, price six farthings, colored and divided into

compartments in which animals of all sorts taught the A B C by

means of the first letters of their names.

Where should I keep the precious picture? As it happened, in the

room set apart for the children at home, there was a little window

like the one in the school, opening in the same way out of a sort

of recess and in the same way overlooking most of the village. One

was on the right, the other on the left of the castle with the

pigeon house towers; both afforded an equally good view of the

heights of the slanting valley. I was able to enjoy the school

window only at rare intervals, when the master left his little

table; the other was at my disposal as often as I liked. I spent

long hours there, sitting on a little fixed window seat.

The view was magnificent. I could see the ends of the earth, that

is to say, the hills that blocked the horizon, all but a misty gap

through which the brook with the crayfish flowed under the alders

and willows. High up on the skyline, a few wind-battered oaks

bristled on the ridges; and beyond there lay nothing but the

unknown, laden with mystery.

At the back of the hollow stood the church, with its three steeples

and its clock; and, a little higher, the village square, where a

spring, fashioned into a fountain, gurgled from one basin into

another, under a wide arched roof. I could hear from my window the

chatter of the women washing their clothes, the strokes of their

beaters, the rasping of the pots scoured with sand and vinegar.

Sprinkled over the slopes are little houses with their garden

patches in terraces banked up by tottering walls, which bulge under

the thrust of the earth. Here and there are very steep lanes, with

the dents of the rock forming a natural pavement. The mule, sure-

footed though he be, would hesitate to enter these dangerous passes

with his load of branches.

Further on, beyond the village, half-way up the hills, stood the

great ever-so-old lime tree, the Tel, as we used to call it, whose

sides, hollowed out by the ages, were the favorite hiding places of

us children at play. On fair days, its immense, spreading foliage

cast a wide shadow over the herds of oxen and sheep. Those solemn

days, which only came once a year, brought me a few ideas from

without: I learnt that the world did not end with my amphitheater

of hills. I saw the inn keeper's wine arrive on mule back and in

goat skin bottles. I hung about the market place and watched the

opening of jars full of stewed pears, the setting out of baskets of

grapes, an almost unknown fruit, the object of eager covetousness.

I stood and gazed in admiration at the roulette board on which, for

a sou, according to the spot at which its needle stopped on a

circular row of nails, you won a pink poodle made of barley sugar,

or a round jar of aniseed sweets, or, much oftener, nothing at all.

On a piece of canvas on the ground, rolls of printed calico with

red flowers, were displayed to tempt the girls. Close by rose a

pile of beechwood clogs, tops and boxwood flutes. Here the

shepherds chose their instruments, trying them by blowing a note or

two. How new it all was to me! What a lot of things there were to

see in this world! Alas, that wonderful time was of but short

duration! At night, after a little brawling at the inn, it was all

over; and the village returned to silence for a year.

But I must not linger over these memories of the dawn of life. We

were speaking of the memorable picture brought from town. Where

shall I keep it, to make the best use of it? Why, of course, it

must be pasted on the embrasure of my window. The recess, with its

seat, shall be my study cell; here I can feast my eyes by turns on

the big lime tree and the animals of my alphabet. And this was

what I did.

And now, my precious picture, it is our turn, yours and mine. You

began with the sacred beast, the ass, whose name, with a big

initial, taught me the letter A. The boeuf, the ox, stood for B;

the canard, the duck, told me about C; the dindon, the turkey, gave

me the letter D. And so on with the rest. A few compartments, it

is true, were lacking in clearness. I had no friendly feeling for

the hippopotamus, the kamichi, or horned screamer, and the zebu,

who aimed at making me say H, K and Z. Those outlandish beasts,

which failed to give the abstract letter the support of a

recognized reality, caused me to hesitate for a time over their

recalcitrant consonants. No matter: father came to my aid in

difficult cases; and I made such rapid progress that, in a few

days, I was able to turn in good earnest the pages of my little

pigeon book, hitherto so undecipherable. I was initiated; I knew

how to spell. My parents marveled. I can explain this unexpected

progress today. Those speaking pictures, which brought me amongst

my friends the beasts, were in harmony with my instincts. If the

animal has not fulfilled all that it promised in so far as I am

concerned, I have at least to thank it for teaching me to read. I

should have succeeded by other means, I do not doubt, but not so

quickly nor so pleasantly. Animals forever!

Luck favored me a second time. As a reward for my prowess, I was

given La Fontaine's Fables, in a popular, cheap edition, crammed

with pictures, small, I admit, and very inaccurate, but still

delightful. Here were the crow, the fox, the wolf, the magpie, the

frog, the rabbit, the ass, the dog, the cat: all persons of my

acquaintance. The glorious book was immensely to my taste, with

its skimpy illustrations on which the animal walked and talked. As

to understanding what it said, that was another story! Never mind,

my lad! Put together syllables that say nothing to you as yet; they

will speak to you later and La Fontaine will always remain your


I come to the time when I was ten years old and at Rodez College.

My functions as a serving boy in the chapel entitled me to free

instruction as a day boarder. There were four of us in white

surplices and red skull-caps and cassocks. I was the youngest of

the party and did little more than walk on. I counted as a unit;

and that was about all, for I was never certain when to ring the

bell or move the missal. I was all of a tremble when we gathered

two on this side and two on that, with genuflection's, in the

middle of the sanctuary, to intone the Domine, salvum fac regern at

the end of mass. Let me make a confession: tongue-tied with

shyness, I used to leave it to the others.

Nevertheless, I was well thought of, for, in the school, I cut a

good figure in composition and translation. In that classical

atmosphere, there was talk of Procas, King of Alba, and of his two

sons, Numitor and Amulius. We heard of Cynoegirus, the strong

jawed man, who, having lost his two hands in battle, seized and

held a Persian galley with his teeth, and of Cadmus the Phoenician,

who sowed a dragon's teeth as though they were beans and gathered

his harvest in the shape of a host of armed men, who killed one

another as they rose up from the ground. The only one who survived

the slaughter was one as tough as leather, presumably the son of

the big back grinder.

Had they talked to me about the man in the moon, I could not have

been more startled. I made up for it with my animals, which I was

far from forgetting amid this phantasmagoria of heroes and

demigods. While honoring the exploits of Cadmus and Cynoegirus, I

hardly ever failed, on Sundays and Thursdays [the weekly half-

holiday in French schools], to go and see if the cowslip or the

yellow daffodil was making its appearance in the meadows, if the

Linnet was hatching on the juniper bushes, if the Cockchafers were

plopping down from the wind shaken poplars. Thus was the sacred

spark kept aglow, ever brighter than before.

By easy stages, I came to Virgil and was very much smitten with

Meliboeus, Corydon, Menalcas, Damoetas and the rest of them. The

scandals of the ancient shepherds fortunately passed unnoticed; and

within the frame in which the characters moved were exquisite

details concerning the bee, the cicada, the turtle dove, the crow,

the nanny goat and the golden broom. A veritable delight were

these stories of the fields, sung in sonorous verse; and the Latin

poet left a lasting impression on my classical recollections.

Then, suddenly, goodbye to my studies, goodbye to Tityrus and

Menalcas. Ill luck is swooping down on us, relentlessly. Hunger

threatens us at home. And now, boy, put your trust in God; run

about and earn your penn'orth of potatoes as best you can. Life is

about to become a hideous inferno. Let us pass quickly over this


Amid this lamentable chaos, my love for the insect ought to have

gone under. Not at all. It would have survived the raft of the

Medusa. I still remember a certain pine cockchafer met for the

first time. The plumes on her antennae, her pretty pattern of

white spots on a dark brown ground were as a ray of sunshine in the

gloomy wretchedness of the day.

To cut a long story short: good fortune, which never abandons the

brave, brought me to the primary normal school at Vaucluse where I

was assured food: dried chestnuts and chickpeas. The principal, a

man of broad views, soon came to trust his new assistant. He left

me practically a free hand, so long as I satisfied the school

curriculum, which was very modest in those days. Possessing a

smattering of Latin and grammar, I was a little ahead of my fellow

pupils. I took advantage of this to get some order into my vague

knowledge of plants and animals. While a dictation lesson was

being corrected around me, with generous assistance from the

dictionary, I would examine, in the recesses of my desk, the

oleander's fruit, the snapdragon's seed vessel, the wasp's sting

and the ground beetle's wing-case.

With this foretaste of natural science, picked up haphazard and by

stealth, I left school more deeply in love than ever with insects

and flowers. And yet I had to give it all up. That wider

education, which would have to be my source of livelihood in the

future, demanded this imperiously. What was I to take in hand to

raise me above the primary school, whose staff could barely earn

their bread in those days? Natural history could not bring me

anywhere. The educational system of the time kept it at a

distance, as unworthy of association with Latin and Greek.

Mathematics remained, with its very simple equipment: a blackboard,

a bit of chalk and a few books.

So I flung myself with might and main into conic sections and the

calculus: a hard battle, if ever there was one, without guides or

counselors, face to face for days on end with the abstruse problem

which my stubborn thinking at last stripped of its mysteries. Next

came the physical sciences, studied in the same manner, with an

impossible laboratory, the work of my own hands.

The reader can imagine the fate of my favorite branch of science in

this fierce struggle. At the faintest sign of revolt, I lectured

myself severely, lest I should let myself be seduced by some new

grass, some unknown Beetle. I did violence to my feelings. My

natural history books were sentenced to oblivion, relegated to the

bottom of a trunk.

And so, in the end, I am sent to teach physics and chemistry at

Ajaccio College. This time, the temptation is too much for me.

The sea, with its wonders, the beach, whereon the tide casts such

beautiful shells, the maquis of myrtles, arbutus and mastic trees:

all this paradise of gorgeous nature has too much on its side in

the struggle with the sine and the cosine. I succumb. My leisure

time is divided into two parts. One, the larger, is allotted to

mathematics, the foundation of my academical future, as planned by

myself; the other is spent, with much misgiving, in botanizing and

looking for the treasures of the sea. What a country and what

magnificent studies to be made, if, unobsessed by x and y, I had

devoted myself wholeheartedly to my inclinations!

We are the wisp of straw, the plaything of the winds. We think

that we are making for a goal deliberately chosen; destiny drives

us towards another. Mathematics, the exaggerated preoccupation of

my youth, did me hardly any service; and animals, which I avoided

as much as ever I could, are the consolation of my old age.

Nevertheless, I bear no grudge against the sine and the cosine,

which I continue to hold in high esteem. They cost me many a

pallid hour at one time, but they always afforded me some first

rate entertainment: they still do so, when my head lies tossing

sleeplessly on its pillow.

Meanwhile, Ajaccio received the visit of a famous Avignon botanist,

Requien by name, who, with a box crammed with paper under his arm,

had long been botanizing all over Corsica, pressing and drying

specimens and distributing them to his friends. We soon became

acquainted. I accompanied him in my free time on his explorations

and never did the master have a more attentive disciple. To tell

the truth, Requien was not a man of learning so much as an

enthusiastic collector. Very few would have felt capable of

competing with him when it came to giving the name or the

geographical distribution of a plant. A blade of grass, a pad of

moss, a scab of lichen, a thread of seaweed: he knew them all. The

scientific name flashed across his mind at once. What an unerring

memory, what a genius for classification amid the enormous mass of

things observed! I stood aghast at it. I owe much to Requien in

the domain of botany. Had death spared him longer, I should

doubtless have owed more to him, for his was a generous heart, ever

open to the troubles of novices.

In the following year, I met Moquin-Tandon, with whom, thanks to

Requien, I had already exchanged a few letters on botany. The

illustrious Toulouse professor came to study on the spot the flora

which he proposed to describe systematically. When he arrived, all

the hotel bedrooms were reserved for the members of the general

council which had been summoned; and I offered him board and

lodging: a shakedown in a room overlooking the sea; fare consisting

of lampreys, turbot and sea urchins: common enough dishes in that

land of Cockayne, but possessing no small attraction for the

naturalist, because of their novelty. My cordial proposal tempted

him; he yielded to my blandishments; and there we were for a

fortnight chatting at table de omni re scibili after the botanical

excursion was over.

With Moquin-Tandon, new vistas opened before me. Here it was no

longer the case of a nomenclator with an infallible memory: he was

a naturalist with far-reaching ideas, a philosopher who soared

above petty details to comprehensive views of life, a writer, a

poet who knew how to clothe the naked truth in the magic mantle of

the glowing word. Never again shall I sit at an intellectual feast

like that: 'Leave your mathematics,' he said. 'No one will take

the least interest in your formula. Get to the beast, the plant;

and, if, as I believe, the fever burns in your veins, you will find

men to listen to you.'

We made an expedition to the center of the island, to Monte Renoso,

with which I was already familiar. I made the scientist pick the

hoary everlasting (Helichrysum frigidum), which makes a wonderful

patch of silver; the many-headed thrift, or mouflon grass (Armeria

multiceps), which the Corsicans call erba muorone; the downy

marguerite (Leucanthemum tomosum) ,which, clad in wadding, shivers

amid the snows; and many other rarities dear to the botanist.

Moquin-Tandon was jubilant. I, on my side, was much more attracted

and overcome by his words and his enthusiasm than by the hoary

everlasting. When we came down from the cold mountaintop, my mind

was made up: mathematics would be abandoned.

On the day before his departure, he said to me: 'You interest

yourself in shells. That is something, but it is not enough. You

must look into the animal itself. I will show you how it's done.'

And, taking a sharp pair of scissors from the family work-basket

and a couple of needles stuck into a bit of vine shoot which served

as a makeshift handle, he showed me the anatomy of a snail in a

soup plate filled with water. Gradually he explained and sketched

the organs which he spread before my eyes. This was the only,

never-to-be-forgotten lesson in natural history that I ever

received in my life.

It is time to conclude. I was cross-examining myself, being unable

to cross-examine the silent Beetle. As far as it is possible to

read within myself, I answer as follows: 'From early childhood,

from the moment of my first mental awakening, I have felt drawn

towards the things of nature, or, to return to our catchword, I

have the gift, the bump of observation.'

After the details which I have already given about my ancestors, it

would be ridiculous to look to heredity for an explanation of the

fact. Nor would any one venture to suggest the words or example of

my masters. Of scientific education, the fruit of college

training, I had none whatever. I never set foot in a lecture hall

except to undergo the ordeal of examinations. Without masters,

without guides, often without books, in spite of poverty, that

terrible extinguisher, I went ahead, persisted, facing my

difficulties, until the indomitable bump ended by shedding its

scanty contents. Yes, they were very scanty, yet possibly of some

value, if circumstances had come to their assistance. I was a born

animalist. Why and how? No reply.

We thus have, all of us, in different directions and in a greater

or lesser degree, characteristics that brand us with a special

mark, characteristics of an unfathomable origin. They exist

because they exist; and that is all that any one can say. The gift

is not handed down: the man of talent has a fool for a son. Nor is

it acquired; but it is improved by practice. He who has not the

germ of it in his veins will never possess it, in spite of all the

pains of a hothouse education.

That to which we give the name of instinct when speaking of animals

is something similar to genius. It is, in both cases, a peak that

rises above the ordinary level. But instinct is handed down,

unchanged and undiminished, throughout the sequence of a species;

it is permanent and general and in this it differs greatly from

genius, which is not transmissible and changes in different cases.

Instinct is the inviolable heritage of the family and falls to one

and all, without distinction. Here the difference ends.

Independent of similarity of structure, it breaks out like genius,

here or elsewhere, for no perceptible reason. Nothing causes it to

be foreseen, nothing in the organization explains it. If cross-

examined on this point, the Dung beetles and the rest, each with

his own peculiar talent, would answer, were we able to understand

them: 'Instinct is the animal's genius.'