Some of the images suggested to him by the forms of animals are so beautiful that certain of his descriptions might well serve to inspire an artist, or suggest new motives of decoration in the arts of enamelling, gem-engraving, jewellery, etc.
Instead of eternally copying ancient things, or seeking inspiration in lifeless texts, why not turn our attention to the numerous and interesting motives which are scattered all around us, whose originality consists precisely in the fact that they have never yet been employed? Why torture the mind to produce more painful elaborations of awkward, frozen, poverty- stricken combinations, when Nature herself is at hand, offering the inexhaustible casket of her living marvels, full of the profoundest logic and as yet unexamined?
If the bee by means of the hexagonal prism has anticipated all the geometers in the problem of the economy of space and matter; if the Epera and the mollusc have invented the logarithmic spiral and its transcendent properties; if all creatures "inspired by an aesthetic which nothing escapes, achieve the beautiful" (12/11.), surely human art, which can but imitate and remember, has only to employ to its profit and transfigure into ideal images the natural beauties so profusely furnished by the Unconscious.
Modern art, influenced more especially by the subtle Japanese, is already treading this path.
What artist could ever engrave on rare metals or model in precious substances a more beautiful subject than the wonderful picture of the Tarantula offering, at the length of her extended limbs, her white sac of eggs to the sun; or the transparent nymph of the Onthophagus taurus, "as though carved from a block of crystal, with its wide snout and its enormous horns like those of the Aurochs"? (12/12.) What an undiscovered subject he might find in the nymph of the Ergatus (12/13.), with its almost incorporeal grace, as though made of "translucent ivory, like a communicant in her white veils, the arms crossed upon the breast; a living symbol of mystic resignation before the accomplishment of destiny"; or in the still more mysterious nymph of the Scarabaeus sacer, first of all "a mummy of translucent amber, maintained by its linen cerements in a hieratic pose; but soon upon this background of topaz, the head, the legs, and the thorax change to a sombre red, while the rest of the body remains white, and the nymph is slowly transfigured, assuming that majestic costume which combines the red of the cardinal's mantle with the whiteness of the sacerdotal alb."
On the other hand, what Sims or Bateman ever imagined weirder caricature than the grotesque larva of the Oniticella, with its extravagant dorsal hump; or the fantastic and alarming silhouette of the Empusa, with its scaly belly raised crozierwise and mounted on four long stilts, its pointed face, turned-up moustaches, great prominent eyes, and a "stupendous mitre": the most grotesque, the most fantastic freaks that creation can ever have evolved? (12/14.)
CHAPTER 13. THE EPIC OF ANIMAL LIFE.
Although in his portraits and descriptions Fabre is simple and exact, and so full of natural geniality; although he can so handle his words as to render them "adequate" to reproduce the moving pictures of the tiny creatures he observes, his style touches a higher level, flashes with colour, and grows rich with imagery when he seeks to interpret the feelings which animate them: their loves, their battles, their cunning schemes, and the pursuit of their prey; all that vast drama which everywhere accompanies the travail of creation.
It is here in particular that Fabre shows us what horizons, as yet almost unexplored, what profound and inexhaustible resources science is able to offer poetry.
The breaking of egg or chrysalid is in itself a moving event; for to attain to the light is for all these creatures "a prodigious travail."
The hour of spring has sounded. At the call of the field-cricket, the herald of the spring, the germs that slumber in nymph or chrysalis have broken through their spell.
What haste and ingenuity are required to emerge from the natal darkness, to unwrap the swaddling-bands, to break the subterranean shells, to demolish the waxen bulkheads, to perforate the soil or to escape from prisons of silk!
The woodland bug, whose egg is a masterpiece, invents I know not what magical centre-bit, what curious piece of locksmith's work, in order to unlock its natal casket and achieve its liberty.
For days the grasshopper "butts its head against the roughness of the soil, and wars upon the pebbles; by dint of frantic wriggling it escapes from the womb of the earth, bursts its old coat, and is transfigured, opening its eyes to the light, and leaping for the first time."
The Bombyx of the pine-tree "decks its brow with points of diamond, spreads its wings, and erects its plumes, and shakes out its fleece to fly only in the darkness, to wed the same night, and to die on the morrow."
What marvellous inventions, what machinery, what incredible contrivances, "in order that a tiny fly can emerge from under ground"!
The Anthrax assumes a panoply of trepans, an assortment of gimlets and knives, harpoons and grapnels, in order to perforate its ceiling of cement; then the lugubrious black fly appears, all moist as yet with the humours of the laboratory of life, steadies itself upon its trembling legs, dries its wings, quits its suit of armour, and takes flight."
The blue-fly, buried in the depth of the sand, "cracks its barrel-shaped coffin," and splits its mask, in order to disinter itself; the head divides into two halves, between which we see emerging and disappearing by turns a monstrous tumour, which comes and goes, swells and shrivels, palpitates, labours, lunges, and retires, thus compressing and gradually undermining the sand, until at last the newborn fly emerges from the depth of the catacombs. (13/1.)
Certain young spiders, in order to emancipate themselves, to conquer space, and disperse themselves about the world, resort to an ingenious system of aviation. They gain the highest point of the thicket, and release a thread, which, seized by the wind, carries them away suspended. Each shines like a point of light against the foliage of the cypresses. There is a continuous stream of tiny passengers, leaping and descending in scattered sheaves under the caresses of the sun, like atomic projectiles, like the fountain of fire at a pyrotechnic display. What a glorious departure, what an entry into the world! Gripping its aeronautic thread, the insect ascends in apotheosis! (13/2.)
But if all are called all are not chosen. "How many can move only at the greatest peril under the rugged earth, proceeding from shock to shock, in the harsh womb of universal life, and, arrested by a grain of sand, succumb half-way"!
There are others whom slower metamorphoses condemn to vegetate still longer in the subterranean night, before they are permitted to assume their festival attire, and share in their turn in the gladness of creation.
Thus the Cicada is forced to labour for long gloomy years in the darkness before it can emerge from the soil. At the moment when it issues from the earth the larva, soiled with mire, "resembles a sewer-man; its eyes are whitish, nebulous, squinting, blind." Then "it clings to some twig, it splits down the back, rejects its discarded skin, drier than horny parchment, and becomes the Cigale, which is at first of a pale grass-green hue." Then,
"Half drunken with her joy, she feasts In a hail of fire";
And all day long drinks of the sugared sap of tender bark, and is silent only at night, sated with light and heat. The song, which forms part of the majestic symphony of the harvest-tide, announces merely its delight in existence. Having passed years underground, the cigale has only a month to reign, to be happy in a world of light, under the caressing sun. Judge whether the wild little cymbals can ever be loud enough "to celebrate such felicity, so well earned and so ephemeral"! (13/3.)
All sing for happiness, each after its kind, through the calm of the summer days. Their minds are intoxicated; it is their fashion of praying, of adoring, of expressing "the joys of life: a full crop and the sun on the back." Even the humble grasshopper rubs its flanks to express its joy, raises and lowers its shanks till its wing-cases squeak, and is enchanted with its own music, which it commences or terminates suddenly "according to the alternations of sun and shade." Each insect has its rhythm, strident or barely perceptible; the music of the thickets and fallows caressed by the sun, rising and falling in waves of joyful life.
The insects make merry; they hold uproarious festival; and they mate insatiably; even before forming a mutual acquaintance; in a furious rush of living, for "love is the sole joy of the animal," and "to love is to die."
Hardly unwrapped, still dusty from the strenuous labour of deliverance, "the female of the Scolia is seized by the male, who does not even give her time to wash her eyes." Having slept over a year underground, the Sitares, barely rid of their mummy-cases, taste, in the sunlight, a few minutes of love, on the very site of their re-birth; then they die. Life surges, burns, flares, sparkles, rushes "in a perpetual tide," a brief radiance between two nights.
A world of a myriad fairies fills the rustling forest: day and night it unfolds a thousand marvellous pictures; about the root of a bramble, in the shadow of an old wall, on a slope of loose soil, or in the dense thickets.
"The insect is transfigured for the nuptial ceremony; and each hopes, in its ritual, to declare its passion." Fabre had some thought of writing the Golden Book of their bridals and their wedding festivals (13/4.); the Kamasutra of their feasts and rules of love; and with what art, at once frank and reserved, has he here and there handled this wonderful theme! In the radiant garden of delight, where no detail of truth is omitted, but where nothing shocks us, Fabre reveals himself as he is in his conversation; evading the subject where it takes a licentious turn; fundamentally chaste and extremely reserved.
At the foot of the rocks the Psyche "appears in the balcony of her boudoir, in the rays of the caressing sun; lying on the cloudy softness of an incomparable eider-down." She awaits the visit of the spouse, "the gentle Bombyx," who, for the ceremony, "has donned his feathery plumes and his mantle of black velvet." "If he is late in coming, the female grows impatient; then she herself makes the advances, and sets forth in search of her mate."
Drawn by the same voluptuous and overwhelming force, the cricket ventures to leave his burrow. Adorned "in his fairest attire, black jacket, more beauteous than satin, with a stripe of carmine on the thigh," he wanders through the wild herbage, "by the discreet glimmer of twilight," until he reaches the distant lodging of the beloved. There at last he arrives "upon the sanded walk, the court of honour that precedes the entry." But already the place is occupied by another aspirant. Then the two rivals fall upon one another, biting one another's heads, "until it ends by the retreat of the weaker, whom the victor insults by a bravura cry." The happy champion bridles, assuming a proud air, as of one who knows himself a handsome fellow, before the fair one, who feigns to hide herself behind her tuft of aphyllantus, all covered with azure flowers. "With a gesture of a fore-limb he passes one of his antennae through his mandibles as though to curl it; with his long-spurred, red-striped legs he shuffles with impatience; he kicks the empty air; but emotion renders him mute." (13/5.)
In the foliage of the ash-tree the lover of the female Cantharis thrashes his companion, who makes herself as small as she can, hiding her head in her bosom; he bangs her with his fists, buffets her with his abdomen, "subjects her to an erotic storm, a rain of blows"; then, with his arms crossed, he remains a moment motionless and trembling; finally, seizing both antennae of the desired one, he forces her to raise her head "like a cavalier proudly seated on horse and holding the reins in his hands."
The Osmiae "reply by a click of the jaws to the advances of their lovers, who recoil, and then, doubtless to make themselves more valiant, they also execute a ferocious mandibular grimace. With this byplay of the jaws and their menacing gestures of the head in the empty air the lovers have the air of intending to eat one another." Thus they preface their bridals by displays of gallantry, recalling the ancient betrothal customs of which Rabelais speaks; the pretenders were cuffed and derided and threatened with a hearty pummelling. (13/6.)
On the arid hillsides, where the doubtful rays of the moon pierce the storm-clouds and illumine the sultry atmosphere, the pale scorpions, with short-sighted eyes, hideous monsters with misshapen heads, "display their strange faces, and two by two, hand in hand, stalk in measured paces amid the tufts of lavender. How tell their joys, their ecstasies, that no human language can express...!" (13/7.)
However, the glow-worm, to guide the lover, lights its beacon "like a spark fallen from the full moon"; but "presently the light grows feebler, and fades to a discreet nightlight, while all around the host of nocturnal creatures, delayed in their affairs, murmur the general epithalamium." (13/8.)
But their happy time is soon over; tragedy is about to follow idyll.
One must live, and "the intestine rules the world."
All creatures that fill the world are incessantly conflicting, and one lives only at the cost of another.
On the other hand, in order that the coming generations may see the light, the present generations must think of the preservation of the young. "Perish all the rest provided the brood flourish!" And in the depth of burrows the future larvae who live only for their stomachs, "little ogres, greedy of living flesh," must have their prey.
To hunger and maternity let us also add love, which "rules the world by conflict."
Such are the components of the "struggle for existence," such as Fabre has described it, but with no other motive than to describe what he has observed and seen. Such are the ordinary themes of the grandiose battles which he has scattered through his narratives, and never did circus or arena offer more thrilling spectacles; no jungle ever hid more moving combats in its thickets."
"Each has its ruses of war, its methods of attack, its methods of killing."
What tactics—"studied, scientific, worthy of the athletes of the ancient palaestra"—are those which the Sphex employs to paralyse the Cricket and the Cerceris to capture the Cleona, to secure them in a suitable place, so as to operate on them more surely and at leisure!
Beside these master paralysers, so expert in the art of dealing slow death, there are those which, with a precision no less scholarly, kill and wither their victims at a single stroke, and without leaving a trace: "true practitioners in crime."
On the rock-rose bushes, with their great pink flowers, "the pretty Thomisus, the little crab-spider, clad in satin," watches for the domestic bee, and suddenly kills it, seizing the back of the head, while the Philanthus, also seizing it by the head, plunges its sting under the chin, neither too high nor too low, but "exactly in the narrow joint of the neck," for both insects know that in this limited spot, in which is concentrated a small nervous mass, something like a brain, is "the weak point, most vulnerable of all," the fault in the cuirass, the vital centre. Others, like the Araneidae, intoxicate their prey, and their subtle bite, "which resembles a kiss," in whatever part of the body it is applied, "produces almost immediately a gradual swoon."
Thus the great hairy Bourdon, in the course of its peregrinations across the wastes of thyme, sometimes foolishly strays into the lair of the Tarantula, whose eyes glimmer like jewels at the back of his den. Hardly has the insect disappeared underground than a sort of shrill rattling is heard, a "true death-song," immediately followed by the completest silence. "Only a moment, and the unfortunate creature is absolutely dead, proboscis outstretched and limbs relaxed. The bite of the rattlesnake would not produce a more sudden paralysis."
The terrible spider "crouching on the battlements of his castle, his heavy belly in the sun, attentive to the slightest rustling, leaps upon whatever passes, fly or Libellula, and with a single stroke strangles his victim, and drains its body, drinking the warm blood."
"To dislodge him from his keep needs all the cunning strategy of the Pompilus; a terrible duel, a hand-to-hand combat, stupendous, truly epic, in which the subtle address and the ingenious audacity of the winged insect eventually triumph over the dreadful spider and his poisoned fangs." (13/9.)
On the pink heather "the timid spider of the thickets suspends by ethereal cables the branching whorl of his snare, which the tears of the night have turned into chaplets of jewels...The magical jewellery sparkles in the sun, attracting mosquitoes and butterflies; but whosoever approaches too closely perishes, a victim of curiosity." Above the funnel is the trap, "a chaos of springs, a forest of cordage; like the rigging of a ship dismembered by the tempest. The desperate creature struggles in the shrouds of the rigging, then falls into the gloomy slaughter-house where the spider lurks ready to bleed his prey."
Death is everywhere.
Each crevice of bark, each shadow of a leaf, conceals a hunter armed with a deadly weapon, all his senses on the alert. Everywhere are teeth, fangs, talons, stings, pincers, and scythes.
Leaping in the long grasses, the Decticus with the ivory face "crunches the heads of grasshoppers in his mandibles."
A ferocious creature, the grub of the Hemerobius, disembowels plant-lice, making of their skins a battle-dress, covering its back with the eviscerated victims, "as the Red Indian ties about his loins the tresses of his scalped enemies."
Caterpillars are surrounded by the implacable voracity of the Carabidae:
"The furry skins are gaping with wounds; their contents escape in knots of entrails, bright green with their aliment, the needles of the pine-tree; the caterpillars writhe, struggling with loop-like movements, gripping the sand with their feet, dribbling and gnashing their mandibles. Those as yet unwounded are digging desperately in the attempt to escape underground. Not one succeeds. They are scarcely half buried before some beetle runs to them and destroys them by an eviscerating wound."
At the centre of its net, which seems "woven of moonbeams," in the midst of its snare, a glutinous trap of infernal ingenuity, or hidden at a distance in its cabin of green leaves, the Epera fasciata waits and watches for its prey. Let the terrible hornet, or the Libellula auripennis, flying from stem to stem, fall into the limed snare; the insect struggles, endeavours to unwind itself; the net trembles violently as though it would be torn from its cables. Immediately the spider darts forward, running boldly to the intruder. With rapid gestures the two hinder limbs weave a winding- sheet of silk as they rotate the victim in order to enshroud it...The ancient Retiarius, condemned to meet a powerful beast of prey, appeared in the arena with a net of cordage lying upon his left shoulder; the animal sprang upon him; the man, with a sudden throw, caught it in the meshes; a stroke of the trident despatched it. Similarly the Epera throws its web, and when there is no longer any movement under the white shroud the spider draws closer; its venomous fangs perform the office of the trident. (13/10.)
The Praying Mantis, that demoniac creature which alone among the insects turns its head to gaze, "whose pious airs conceal the most atrocious habits," remains on the watch, motionless, for hours at a time. Let a great grasshopper chance to come by: the Mantis follows it with its glance, glides between the leaves, and suddenly rises up before it; "and then assumes its spectral pose, which terrifies and fascinates the prey; the wing-covers open, the wings spring to their full width, forming a vast pyramid which dominates the back; a sort of swishing sound is heard, like the hiss of a startled adder; the murderous fore-limbs open to their full extent, forming a cross with the body, and exhibiting the axillae ornamented with eyes vaguely resembling those of the peacock's tail, part of the panoply of war, concealed upon ordinary occasions. These are only exhibited when the creature makes itself terrible and superb for battle. Then the two grappling-hooks are thrown; the fangs strike, the double scythes close together and hold the victim as in a vice." (13/11.)
There is no peace; night falls and the horrible conflict continues in the darkness. Atrocious struggles, merciless duels, fill the summer nights. On the stems of the long grasses, beside the furrows, the glow-worm "anaethetizes the snail," instilling into it its venom, which stupefies and produces sleep, in order to immobilize its prey before devouring it.
Having chorused their joy all the day long in the sunshine, in the evening the Cicadae fall asleep among the olives and the lofty plane-trees. But suddenly there is a sound as of a cry of anguish, short and strident; it is the despairing lamentation of the cicada, surprised in repose by the green grasshopper, that ardent hunter of the night, which leaps upon the cicada, seizes it by the flank, and devours the contents of the stomach. After the orgy of music comes night and assassination.
Such is the gloomy epic which goes forward among the flowers, amidst the foliage, under the shadowy boughs, and on the dusty fallows. Such are the sights that nature offers amid the profound peace of the fields, behind the flowering of the sudden spring-tide and the splendours of the summer. These murders, these assassinations are committed in a mute and silent world, but "the ear of the mind" seems to hear
"A tiger's rage and cries as of a lion Roaring remotely through this pigmy world."
Was it to these thrilling revelations that Victor Hugo intended to apply these so wonderfully appropriate lines? Was it he who bestowed upon Fabre, according to a poetic tradition, the name of "the Homer of the insects," which fits him so marvellously well?
It is possible, although Fabre himself can cite no evidence to support these suggestions; but let us respect the legend, simply because it is charming, and because it adds an exact and picturesque touch to the portrait of Fabre.
In this drama of a myriad scenes, in which the little actors in their rustic stage play each in his turn their parts at the mercy of occasion and the hazard of encounter, the humblest creatures are personages of importance.
Like the human comedy, this also has its characters privileged by birth, clothed in purple, dazzling with embroidery, "adorned with lofty plumes," who strut pretentiously; "its idle rich," covered with robes of gold of rustling splendour, who display their diamonds, their topazes and their sapphires; who gleam with fire and shine like mirrors, magnificent of mien; but their brains are "dense, heavy, inept, without imagination, without ingenuity, deprived of all common sense, knowing no other anxiety than to drink in the sunlight at the heart of a rose or to sleep off their draughts in the shadow of a leaf.
Those who labour, on the contrary, do not attract the eye, and the most obscure are often the most interesting. Necessitous poverty has educated and formed them, has excited in them "feats of invention," unsuspected talents, original industries; a thousand curious and unexpected callings, and no subject of poetry equals in interest the detailed history of one of these tiny creatures, by which we pass without observing them, amid the stones, the brambles, and the dead leaves. It is these above all that add an original and epic note to the vast symphony of the world.
But death also has its poetry. Its shadowy domains hold lessons no less magnificent, and the most putrid carrion is to Fabre a "tabernacle" in which a divine comedy is enacted.
The ant, that "ardent filibuster, comes first, and commences to dissect it piecemeal."
The Necrophori "exhaling the odour of musk, and bearing red pompons at the end of their antennae," are "transcendent alchemists."
The Sarcophagi, or grey flesh flies, "with red bloodshot eyes, and the stony gaze of a knacker"; the Saprinidae, "with bodies of polished ebony like pearls of jet"; the Silpha aplata, with large and sombre wing-cases in mourning; the shiny slow-trotting Horn-beetle; the Dermestes, "powdered with snow beneath the stomach"; the slender Staphylinus; the whole fauna of the corpse, the whole horde of artisans of death, "intoxicating themselves with purulence, probing, excavating, mangling, dissecting, transmuting, and stamping out infection."
Fabre gives a curious exposition of "that strange art" by which the grub of the grey bot-fly, the vulgar maggot, by means of a subtle pepsine, disintegrates and liquefies solid matter; and it is because this singular solvent has no effect upon the epidermis that the fly, in its wisdom, chooses by preference the mucous membranes, the corner of the eye, the entrance of the nostrils, the borders of the lips, the live flesh of wounds, there to deposit its eggs.
With what penetration this original mind has analysed "the operation of the crucible in which all things are fused that they may recommence" and has expounded the marvellous lesson which is revealed by decomposition and putridity!
CHAPTER 14. PARALLEL LIVES.
We have now seen what entomology becomes in the hands of the admirable Fabre. The vast poem of creation has never had a more familiar and luminous interpreter, and you will nowhere find other work like his.
How far he outstrips Buffon and his descriptions of animals—so general, so vague, so impersonal—his records unreliable and his entire erudition of a second-hand quality!
It is with Raumur that we are first of all tempted to compare him; and some have chosen to see in him only one who has continued Raumur's work. In reality he has eagerly read Raumur, although at heart he does not really enjoy his writings; he has drunk from this fruitful source, but he owes him no part of his own rich harvest.
But there are many affinities between them; they have many traits in common, despite the points of difference between them.
The illustrious son of Rochelle was born, like Fabre, with a love of all natural things, and before attacking the myriad problems of physics and natural history, wherein he was to shine by so many curious discoveries, he also had prepared himself by a profound study of mathematics.
Luckier than Fabre, however, Raumur enjoyed not only the advantages of birth, but all the material conditions necessary to his ardent intellectual activity. Fortune overwhelmed her favourite with gifts, and played no small part in his glory by enabling him, from an early age, to profit by his leisure and to give a free rein to his ruling passions. He was no less modest than the sage of Srignan; self-effacing before others, says one of his biographers, so that they were never made to feel his superiority. (14/1.)
In the midst of the beautiful and spacious gardens at the end of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, where he finally made his home, he also contrived to create for himself a Harmas after his own heart.
It was there that in the as yet virgin domain of entomology he unravelled the riddle of the marvellous republic of the bees, and was able to expound and interpret a large number of those tiny lives which every one had hitherto despised, and which indeed they continued to despise until the days of Fabre, or at least regarded as absolutely unimportant. He was the first to venture to suspect their connection with much "that most nearly concerns us," or to point out "all the singular conclusions" which may be drawn therefrom. (14/2.)
How many details he has enshrined in his interesting "Memoirs," and how many facts we may glean from this great master! He, like Fabre, had the gift of charming a great number of his contemporaries. Tremblay, Bonnet, and de Geer owed their vocations to Raumur, not to speak of Huber, whose genius he inspired.
A physicist before all, and accustomed to delicate and meticulous though comparatively simple tasks, he had admirably foreseen the extraordinary complication of these inquiries; so much so that, with the modesty of the true scientist that he was, he regarded his own studies, even the most substantial, as mere indications, intended to point the way to those that followed him.
As methodical, in short, as the author of the "Souvenirs," the scrupulous Raumur wrote nothing that he himself had not proved or verified with the greatest care; and we may be sure that all that he records of his personal and immediate observations he has really seen with his own eyes.
In the wilderness of error he had, like Fabre, an infallible compass in his extraordinary common sense; and, equally skilled in extracting from the false the little particle of truth which it often contains, he was no less fond of listening at the gate of legends, of tracing the source of traditions; rightly considering that before deriding them as old-wives' tales we should first probe in all directions into their origin and foundation. (14/3.)
He was also tempted to experiment, and he well knew that in such problems as those he attacked observation alone is often powerless to reveal anything. It is enough to recall here one of the most promising and unexpected of the discoveries which resulted from his experiments. Raumur was the first to conceive the ingenious idea of retarding the hatching of insects' eggs by exposing them to cold, thus anticipating the application of cold to animal life and the discoveries of Charles Tellier, whose more illustrious forerunner he was; at the same time he discovered the secret of prolonging, in a similar fashion, the larval existence of chrysalids during a space of time infinitely superior to that of their normal cycle; and what is more, he succeeded in making them live a lethargic life for years and even for a long term of years, thus repeating at will the miracle of the Seven Sleepers. (14/4.)
Too much occupied, however, with the smaller aspect of things, he had not the art of forcing Nature to speak, and in the province of psychical aptitudes he was barely able to rise above the facts.
As he was powerless to enter into real communion with the tiny creatures which he observed, although his observations were conducted with religious admiration; as he saw always only the outside of things, like a physicist rather than a poet or psychologist, he contented himself with noting the functioning of their organs, their methods of work, their properties, and the changes which they undergo; he did not interpret their actions. The mystery of the life which quivers within and around them eludes him. This is why his books are such dry reading. He is like a bright garden full of rare plants; but it is a monotonous garden, without life or art, without distant vistas or wide perspectives. His works are somewhat diffuse and full of repetitions; entire monographs, almost whole volumes, are devoted to describing the emerging of a butterfly; but they form part of the library of the curious lover of nature; they are consulted with interest, and will always be referred to, but it cannot be said that they are read.
After Raumur, according to the dictum of the great Latreille, entomology was confined to a wearisome and interminable nomenclature, and if we except the Hubers, two unparalleled observers, although limited and circumscribed, the only writer who filled the interregnum between Raumur and Fabre was Lon Dufour.
In the quiet little town whither he went to succeed his father, this military surgeon, turned country doctor, lived a busy and useful life.
While occupied with his humble patients, whom he preferred to regard merely as an interesting clinic, and while keeping the daily record of his medical observations, he felt irresistibly drawn "to ferret in all the holes and corners of the soil, to turn over every stone, large or small; to shrink from no fatigue, no difficulty; to scale the highest peaks, the steepest cliffs, to brave a thousand dangers, in order to discover an insect or a plant. (14/5.)
A disciple of Latreille, he shone above all as an impassioned descriptive writer.
No one was more skilled in determining a species, in dissecting the head of a fly or the entrails of a grub, and no spectacle in the world was for him so fascinating as the triple life of the insect; those magical metamorphoses, which he justly considered as one of the most astonishing phenomena in creation. (14/6.)
He saw further than Raumur, and burned with the same fire as Fabre, for he also had the makings of a great poet. His curiosity had assembled enormous collections, but he considered, as Fabre considered, that collecting is "only the barren contemplation of a vast ossuary which speaks only to the eyes, and not to the mind or imagination," and that the true history of insects should be that of their habits, their industries, their battles, their loves, and their private and social life; that one must "search everywhere, on the ground, under the soil, in the waters, in the air, under the bark of trees, in the depth of the woods, in the sands of the desert, and even on and in the bodies of animals."
Was not this in reality the ambitious programme which Fabre was later to propose to himself when he entered into his Harmas and founded his living laboratory of entomology; he also having set himself as his exclusive object the study of "the insects, the habits of life, the labours, the struggles and the propagation of this little world, which agriculture and philosophy should closely consider"? (14/7.)
Dufour also had admirably grasped the place of the insect in the general harmony of the universe, and he clearly perceived that parasitism, that imbrication of mutually usurping lives, is "a law of equilibration, whose object is to set a limit to the excessive multiplication of individuals of the same type," that the parasites are predestined to an imprescriptible mission, and that this mysterious law "defies all explanation."
On the other hand, he did not become very intimate with these tiny peoples; his attention was dispersed over too many points; perhaps he was fundamentally incapable of concentrating himself for a long period upon a circumscribed object; perhaps he lacked that first condition of genius, patience, so essential to such researches: although he enriched science by an infinite multitude of precious facts and has recorded a quantity of details concerning the habits of insects, he did not succeed in representing any one of these innumerable little minds. He had an intense feeling for nature, but he was not able to interpret it, and his immense volume of work, scattered through nearly three hundred monographs, remains ineffective.
Let us compare with his work the vast epic of the "Souvenirs." We become familiar with the whole life of the least insect, and all its unending related circumstances; we obtain sudden glimpses of insight into our own organization, with its abysses and its lacunae, and also into those rich provinces or faculties which we are only beginning to suspect in the depths of our unconscious activity.
In the evening twilight, after the vast andante of the cicadae is hushed, at the hour when the shining glow-worms "light their blue fires," and the "pale Italian cricket, delirious with its nocturnal madness, chirrups among the rosemary thickets," while in the distance sounds the melodious tinkle of the bell-ringer frogs, replying from one hiding-place to another, the old master shows us that profound and mysterious magic with which matter is endowed by the faintest glimmer of life.
He shows us the intimate connection of things, the universal harmony which so intimately allies all creatures; and he shows us also that everywhere and all around us, in the smallest object, poetry exists like a hidden flame, if only we know how to seek it.
And in revealing so many marvellous energies in even the lowest creatures, he helps us to divine the infinity of phenomena still unguessed-at, which the subtlety of the unknowable force which thrills through the whole universe hides from us under the most trivial appearances.
For he has not told everything; this incommensurable region, which had hitherto remained unworked, is far from being exhausted.
How many unknown and hidden things are still left to be gleaned! There will be a harvest for all. Remember that "even the humblest species either has no history, or the little that has been written concerning it calls for serious revision" (14/8.); that a single bush, such as the bramble, suffices to rear more than fifty species of insects, and that each species, according to the just observation of Raumur, "has its habits, its tricks of cunning, its customs, its industries, its art, its architecture, its different instincts, and its individual genius."
What a stupendous alphabet to decipher, of which we have as yet only commenced to read the first few letters! When we are able to read it almost entirely, when observers are more numerous and have concerted their efforts, mutually illuminating, completing and correcting one another, then, and then only, we shall succeed, if not in resolving some of those high problems which have never ceased to interest mankind, at least in seizing some reflected knowledge of ourselves, and in seeing a little farther into the kingdom of the mind.
CHAPTER 15. THE EVENINGS AT SRIGNAN.
But it will doubtless be long before a new Fabre will resume, with the same heroic ardour, the life of solitary labour, varied only by a few austere recreations.
Rising at six o'clock, he would first of all pace the tiles of his kitchen, breakfast in hand; so imperious in him was the need of action, if his mind was to work successfully, that even at this moment of morning meditation his body must already be in movement. Then, after many turns among the bushes of the enclosure, all irised with drops of dew which were already evaporating, he went straight to his cell: that is, to the silence of his laboratory.
There, in unsociable silence, invisible to all, he worked hard and steadily until noon; pursuing an observation or carrying out some experiment, or recording what he saw or what he had seen the day before, or re-drafting his records in their final form.
How many who have come hither to knock upon the door in these morning hours, or to ring at the little gate, silent as the tomb, which gives upon the private path frequented only by foot-passengers on their way to the fields, have undertaken a fruitless journey! But without such discipline would it have been possible to accomplish such a task as his?
At last he would leave his workroom; jaded, exhausted by the excessive intensity of his work, "face pale and features drawn." (15/1.)
Now he is "at leisure: the half-day is over" (15/2.); and he can satisfy his immense need not of repose, but of relaxation and distraction in less severe occupations; for he is never at any time nor anywhere inactive; incessantly making notes, with little stumps of pencil which he carries about in his pockets, and on the first scrap of paper that comes to hand, of all that passes through his mind. Those eternal afternoons, which usually, in the depth of the French provinces, prove so dull and wearisome, seem short enough to him. Now he will halt before his plants, now stoop to the ground, the better to observe a passing insect; always in search of some fresh subject of study; or now bending over his microscope. (15/3.) Then he undertakes, for his later-born children at Srignan, the duties which he formerly performed for the elder family at Orange: he teaches them himself; he has much to do with them, for their sake and for his own as well, for he is jealous of possessing them, and he regrets parting with them. They too have their tasks arranged in advance.
They are his assistants, his appointed collaborators, who keep and relieve guard, undertaking, in his absence, some observation already in hand, so that no detail may be lost, no incident of the story that unrolls itself sometimes with exasperating slowness beneath the bell-covers of the laboratory or on some bush in the garden. He inspires the whole household with the fire of his own genius, and all those about him are almost as interested as he.
At home, in the house, always wearing his eternal felt hat, and absorbed in meditation, he speaks little, holding that every word should have its object, and only employing a term when he has tested its weight and meaning. Silence at mealtimes again is a rule that no one of his household would infringe. But he unbends his brow when he receives a friend at his hospitable table, where but lately his smiling wife would sit, full of little attentions for him. (15/4.)
Frugal in all respects, he barely touches the dishes before him; avoiding all meats, and saving himself wholly for the fruits; for is not man naturally frugivorous, by his teeth, his stomach, and his bowels? Certain dishes repel him, for reasons of sentiment rather than through any real disgust; such as pat de foie gras, which reminds him too forcibly of the so cruelly tortured goose; such cruelty is too high a price to pay for a mere greasy mouthful. (15/5.) On the other hand, he drinks wine with pleasure, the harsh, rough "wine of the country" of the plains of Srignan. He is also well able to appreciate good things and appetizing cookery; no one ever had a finer palate; but he is happiest in seeing others appreciate the pleasures of the table. Witness that breakfast worthy of Gargantua, which he himself organized in honour of his guests, whom he had invited to an excursion over the Ventoux Alp; where he seems expressly to have commanded "that all should come in shoals." What a tinkling of bottles, what piles of bread! There are green olives "flowing with brine," black olives "seasoned with oil," sausages of Arles "with rosy flesh, marbled with cubes of fat and whole peppercorns," legs of mutton stuffed with garlic "to dull the keen edge of hunger"; chickens "to amuse the molars"; melons of Cavaillon too, with white pulp, not forgetting those with orange pulp, and to crown the feast those little cheeses, so delightfully flavoured, peculiar to Mont Ventoux, "spiced with mountain herbs," which melt in the mouth. (15/6.)
But his greatest pleasure is his pipe; a briar, which in absence of mind he is always allowing to go out, and always relighting.
Respectful of all traditions, he has kept up the observance of old customs; no Christmas Eve has ever been passed under the roof of his Harmas without the consecrated meats upon the table; the heart of celery, the nougat of almonds, the dish of snails, and the savoury-smelling turkey. Then, stuck into the Christmas bread (15/7.), the sprigs of holly, the verbouisset, the sacred bush whose little starry flowers and coral berries, growing amid evergreen leaves, affirm the eternal rebirth of indestructible nature.
At Srignan Fabre is little known and little appreciated. To tell the truth, folk regard him as eccentric; they have often surprised him in the country lying on his stomach in the middle of a field, or kneeling on the ground, a magnifying glass in hand, observing a fly or some one of those insignificant creatures in which no sane person would deign to be interested.
How should they know him, since he never goes into the village? When he did once venture thither to visit his friend Charrasse, the schoolmaster, his appearance was an event of which every one had something to say, so greatly did it astonish the inhabitants. (15/8.)
Yet he never hesitates to place his knowledge at the service of all, and welcomes with courtesy the rare pilgrims in whom a genuine regard is visible, although he is always careful never to make them feel his own superiority; but he very quickly dismisses, sometimes a trifle hastily, those who are merely indiscreet or importunate; pedantic and ignorant persons he judges instantaneously with his piercing eyes; with such people he cannot emerge from his slightly gloomy reserve; he shuts himself up like the snail, which, annoyed by some displeasing object, retires into its shell, and remains silent in their presence.
Professors come to consult him: asking his advice as to their programmes of instruction, or begging him to resolve some difficult problem or decide some especially vexed question; and his explanations are so simple, so clear, so logical that they are astonished at their own lack of comprehension and their embarrassment. (15/9.)
But there are few who venture within the walls of that enclosure, which seems to shut out all the temptations of the outer world; the only intimate visitors to the Harmas are the village schoolmaster—first Laurent, then Louis Charrasse (15/10.), and later Jullian—and a blind man, Marius.
This latter lost his sight at the age of twenty. Then, to earn a living, he began to make and repair chairs, and in his misfortune, although blind and extremely poor, he kept a calm and contented mind.
Fabre had discovered the sage and the blind man on his arrival at Srignan, and also Favier (15/11.), "that other native, whose jovial spirit was so prompt to respond, and who helped to dig up the Harmas; to set up the planks and tiles of the little kitchen-garden; a rude task, since this scrap of uncultivated ground was then but a terrible desert of pebbles." To Favier fell the care of the flowers, for the new owner was a great lover of flowers. Potted plants, sometimes of rare species, were already, as to-day, crowded in rows upon the terrace before the house, where all the summer they formed a sort of vestibule in the open air, on either side of the entrance; and these Fabre never ceased to watch over with constant and meticulous care. Both spoke the same language, and the words they exchanged were born of a like philosophy; for Favier also loved nature in his own way, and at heart was an artist; and when, after the day's work, sitting "on the high stone of the kitchen hearth, where round logs of green oak were blazing," he would evoke, in his picturesque and figurative language, the memories of an old campaigner, he charmed all the household and the evening seemed to pass with strange rapidity.
When this precious servant and boon companion had disappeared, after two years of digging, sowing, weeding, and hoeing, all was ready; the frame was completed and the work could be commenced. It was then that Marius became the master's appointed collaborator, and it is he who now constructs his apparatus, his experimental cages; stuffs his birds, helps to ransack the soil, and shades him with an umbrella while he watches under the burning sun. Marius cannot see, but so intimate is his communion with his master, so keen his enthusiasm for all that Fabre does, that he follows in his mind's eye, and as though he could actually see them, all the doings at which he assists, and whose inward reflection lights up his wondering countenance.
Marius was not only rich in feeling and the gift of inner vision; he had also a marvellously correct ear. He was a member of the "Fanfare" of Srignan, in which he played the big drum, and there was no one like him for keeping perfect time and for bringing out the clash of the cymbals.
Charrasse was no less fervent a disciple; he worshipped science and all beautiful things; and he could even conceive a noble passion for his exhausting trade of school-teaching.
Like Marius, he ate "a bitter bread"; and Fabre would get on with them all the better in that they, like himself, had lived a difficult life. "Man is like the medlar," he liked to tell them; "he is worth nothing until he has ripened a long time in the attic, on the straw."
"L'homme est comme la nfle, il n'est rien qui vaille S'il n'a mri longtemps, au grenier, sur la paille."
These humble companions afforded him the simple conversation which he likes so well; so natural, and so full of sympathy and common sense. They customarily spent Thursday and Sunday afternoons at the Harmas; but these beloved disciples might call at any hour; the master always welcomed them, even in the morning, even when he was entirely absorbed in his work and could not bear any one about him. They were his circle, his academy; he would read them the last chapter written in the morning; he shared his latest discoveries with them; he did not fear to ask advice of their "fertile ignorance." (15/12.)
Charrasse was a "Flibre," versed in all the secrets of the Provenal idiom, of which he knew all the popular terms, the typical expressions and turns of speech; and Fabre loved to consult him, to read some charming verses which he had just discovered, or to recite some delightful rustic poem with which he had just been inspired; for in such occupations he found one of his favourite relaxations, giving free vent to his fancy, a loose rein to the poet that dwells within him. These poems the piety of his brother has preserved in the collection entitled "Oubreto." It is at such a moment that one should see his black eyes, full of fire; his power of mimicry and expression, his impassioned features, lit up by inspiration, truly idealized, almost transfigured, are at such times a thing to be remembered.
Sometimes, again, in the shadow of the planes, on summer afternoons, when the cigales were falling silent; or in the winter, before the blazing fireplace, in that dining-room on the ground floor in which he welcomed his visitors; when out of doors the mistral was roaring and raging, or the rain clattering on the panes, the little circle was enlarged by certain new- comers, his nephews, nieces, a few intimates, of whom, a little later, I myself was often one. At such times his humour and imagination were given full play, and it was truly a rare pleasure to sit there, sipping a glass of mulled wine, during those delightful and earnest hours; to taste the charm of his smiling philosophy, his picturesque conversation, full of exact ideas, all the more profound in that they were founded on experience and pointed or adorned by proverbs, adages, and anecdotes. Thanks to the daily reading of the "Temps," which one of his friends regularly sends him, Fabre is in touch with all the ideas of the day, and expresses his judgment of them; for example, he does not conceal his scepticism with regard to certain modern inventions, such as the aeroplane, whose novelty rather disturbs his mind, and whose practical bearing seems to him to be on the whole somewhat limited.
Thus even the most recent incidents find their way into the solitude of the Harmas and help to sustain the conversation.
"The first time we resume our Srignan evenings," he wrote to his nephew on the morrow of one of these intimate gatherings, "we will have a little chat about your Justinian, whom the recent drama of "Thodora" has just made the fashion. Do you know the history of that terrible hussy and her stupid husband? Perhaps not entirely; it is a treat I am keeping for you." (15/13.)
The only subject which is hardly ever mentioned during these evenings at Srignan is politics, although Fabre, strange as it may seem, was one year appointed to sit on the municipal council.
The son of peasants, who has emerged from the people yet has always remained a peasant, has too keen a sense of injustice not to be a democrat; and how many young men has he not taught to emancipate themselves by knowledge? But above all he is proud of being a Frenchman; his mind, so lucid, so logical, which has never gone abroad in search of its own inspirations, and has never been influenced by any but those old French masters, Franois Dufour and Raumur, and the old French classics, has always felt an instinctive repugnance, which it has never been able to overcome, for all those ideas which some are surreptitiously seeking to put forward in our midst in favour of some foreign trade-mark.
Although his visit to the court of Napoleon III left him with a rather sympathetic idea of the Emperor, whose gentle, dreamy appearance he still likes to recall, he detested the Empire and the "brigand's trick" which established it.
On the day of the proclamation of the Republic he was seen in the streets of Avignon in company with some of his pupils. He was agreeably surprised at the turn events had taken, and delighted by the unforeseen result of the war.
A spirit as proud and independent as his was naturally the enemy of any species of servitude. State socialism of the equalitarian and communistic kind was to him no less horrifying. Was not Nature at hand, always to remind him of her eternal lessons?
"Equality, a magnificent political label, but scarcely more! Where is it, this equality? In our societies shall we find even two persons exactly equal in vigour, health, intelligence, capacity for work, foresight, and so many other gifts which are the great factors of prosperity?...A single note does not make a harmony: we must have dissimilar notes; discords even, which, by their harshness, give value to the concords; human societies are harmonious only thus, by the concourse of dissimilarities." (15/14.)
And what a puerile Utopia, what a disappointing illusion is that of communism! Let us see under what conditions, at the price of what sacrifices, nature here and there realizes it.
Among the bees "twenty thousand renounce maternity and devote themselves to celibacy to raise the prodigious family of a single mother."
Among the ants, the wasps, the termites "thousands and thousands remain incomplete and become humble auxiliaries of a few who are sexually gifted."
Would you by chance reduce man to the life of the Processional caterpillars, content to nibble the pine-needles among which they live, and which, satisfied to march continually along the same tracks, find within reach an abundant, easy, and idle subsistence? All have the same size, the same strength, the same aptitudes. No initiative. "What one does the others do, with equal zeal, neither better nor worse." On the other hand, there is "no sex, no love." And what would be a society in which there was no work done for pleasure and from which love and the family were banished? What would be the effect upon its progress, its welfare, its happiness? Would not all that make the charm of life disappear for good? However imperfect our present society may be, however mysterious its destinies, it is not in socialism that Fabre foresees the perfection of future humanity, for to him the true humanity does not as yet exist; it is making its way, it is slowly progressing, and in this evolution he wishes with all his heart to believe. Modern humanity is as yet only a shapeless grimacing caricature, and its life is like a play written by madmen and played by drunken actors; according to those profound words of the great poet, with which his mind is in some sort imbued; which he often repeats, and which he has transcribed at the head of one of his last records as an epigraph and a constant reminder.
And you who groan over the distressing problem of depopulation, lend an ear to the lesson of the Copris, "which trebles its customary batch of offspring in times of abundance, and in times of dearth imitates the artisan of the city who has only just enough to live on, or the bourgeois, whose numerous wants are more and more costly to satisfy, limiting the number of its offspring lest they should go in want, often reducing the number of its children to a single one." (15/15.)
Instead of running after so many false appearances and false pleasures, learn to return to simpler tastes, to more rustic manners; free yourselves from a mass of factitious needs; steep yourself anew in the antique sobriety, whose desires were sager; return to the fields, the source of abundance, and the earth, the eternal foster-mother!
And in this appeal to return to nature, which perhaps since the time of Rousseau has never been worded so eloquently, Fabre has in view if not the strong, the predestined, who are called elsewhere, and who are actuated by the sense of great tasks to be performed, at least all those of rural origin, all those for whom the love of the family, the daily task, and a peaceful heart are really the great things of life, the things that count, the things that suffice.
He himself, although he was one of the strong, did not care to break any of the ties that bound him to his origins. Like the Osmia, "which retains a tenacious memory of its home," the beloved village of his childhood has never been effaced from his memory, and for a long time the desire to leave his bones there haunted him. His mind often returned to it; he thought that there, better than anywhere else, he would find peace; that it would please him to wander among the rocks, the trees, the stones which he had so loved, in the old days, and that all these things would recognize him too.
One day, however, when I was begging him to make up his mind on this point- -it was one of those peaceful evenings which are troubled under the plane- trees only by the tinkling of the fountain—he confided to me that his beloved Srignan had at last, in his secret preferences, obliterated the old longing. As he advanced in life, in fact, although he never forgot his rude natal countryside, he felt that new links were daily binding him more closely to those heaths and mountains on which his heart had been so often thrilled with the intense joy of discovery, and that it was indeed in this soil, to him so full of delight, amid its beautiful hymenoptera and scarabaei, that he would wish to be buried.
Fabre is by no means the misanthrope that some have chosen to think him. He delights in the society of women, and knows how to welcome them gracefully; and more than any one he is sensitive to the pleasant and stimulating impressions produced by the conversation of cultivated people.
He is no less fond of the arts, provided he finds in them a sincere interpretation of life. This is why the theatre, with its false values, its tinsel and affectation, has to him seemed a gross deformation of the reality, ever since the day when at Ajaccio he attended a performance of "Norma," in which the moon was represented by a round transparent disc, lit from behind by a lantern hanging at the end of a string, whose oscillation revealed by turns first the luminary and then the transparency. This was enough to disgust him for ever with the theatre and the opera, whose motionless choruses, contrasting with the sometimes frantic movement of the music, left him with a memory of an insane and illogical performance.
Nevertheless, he adored music, of which he knew something, having learned it, as he learned his drawing, without a master; but he preferred the naive songs of the country, or the melody of a flute; to the most scholarly concert-music. (15/16.) In the intimacy of the modest chamber which serves as the family salon, with its few shabby and old-fashioned pieces of furniture, he plays on an indifferent harmonium little airs of his own composition, the subjects of which were at first suggested by his own poetry. Like Rollinat, Fabre rightly considers that music should complete, accentuate, and release that which poetry has perforce left incomplete or indefinite. This is why he makes the bise laugh and sing and roar; why he imitates the organ-tones of the wind in the pines, and seeks to reproduce some of the innumerable rhythms of nature; the frenzy of the lizard, the wriggling of the stickle-back, the jumping gait of the frog, the shrill hum of the mosquito, the complaint of the cricket, the moving of the Scarabaei, and the flight of the Libellulae.
Too busy by day to find time for much reading, it was at night that he would shut himself up. Retiring early to his little chamber, with bare walls and bare tile floor, and a window opening to the garden, he would lie on his low bed, with curtains of green serge, and would often read far into the night.
This philosopher, to whose books the philosophers of the future will resort for new theories and original ideas, refuses to have any commerce with other philosophers, disdaining their systems and preferring to go straight to the facts. Even when he took up Darwin's "Origin of Species" he did little more than open the book; so wearisome and uninteresting, he told me, did he find the reading of it. On the other hand, he is full of the ancient philosophers, and as he did not read them very extensively in his youth and middle age, he has returned to them finally with love and predilection for "these good old books." Unlike many thinkers of the day, he is persuaded that we cannot with impunity dispense with classic studies; and he rightly considers that science and the humanities are not rivals, but allies. Above all he has a particular affection for Virgil; one may say that he is steeped in his poetry; and he knows La Fontaine by heart. The style of the latter is curiously like his own, and Fabre owns himself as his disciple; certainly La Fontaine's is the most active influence which his work reveals. He has a profound acquaintance with Rabelais, who was always his "friend" and who constantly crops up in his conversation and his chance remarks.
After these his intellectual foster-parents have been Courrier, Toussenel, of whom he is passionately fond, and Rousseau, of whom he cares for little but his "Lettres sur la botanique," full of such fresh impressions, in which we feel not the literary man but the "craftsman"; he also cherishes Michelet; so full of intuition, although he never handled actual things and knew nothing of the practice of the sciences; not learned, but overflowing with love; his magic pen, his powers of evocation, and his deft brushwork delight Fabre, despite the poverty and insufficiency of his fundamental facts (15/17.); sometimes Michelet had been his inspiration. The two do really resemble one another; Michelet was no less fitted than Fabre to play the confidant to Nature, and his heart was of the same mettle.
Since I have spoken of his favourites, let me also speak of his dislikes; Racine, whom he cannot bear; Molire, whom he does not really like; Buffon, whom he frankly detests for his too fluent prose, his ostentatious style, and his vain rhetoric. The only naturalist whom he might really have delighted in, had he possessed his works and been able to read them at leisure, is Audubon, the enthusiastic painter of the birds of America. In him he felt the presence of a mind and a temper almost identical with his own.
CHAPTER 16. TWILIGHT.
How he has laboured in this solitude! For he considers that he is still far from having completed his task. He feels more and more that he has scarcely done more than sketch the history of this singular and almost unknown world. "The more I go forward," he wrote to his brother in 1903, "the more clearly I see that I have struck my pick into an inexhaustible vein, well worthy of being exploited." (16/1.)
What studies he has undertaken, what observations he has carried out, "almost at the same time, the same moment!" His laboratory is crowded with these subjects of experiments. "As though I had a long future before me"— he was then just eighty years old—"I continue indefatigably my researches into the lives of these little creatures." (16/2.)
Work in solitude seems to him, more and more, the only life possible, and he cannot even imagine any other.
"The outer world scarcely tempts me at all; surrounded by my little family, it is enough for me to go into the woods from time to time, to listen to the fluting of the blackbirds. The very idea of the town disgusts me. Henceforth it would be impossible for me to live in the little cage of a citizen. Here I am, run wild, and I shall be so till the end." (16/3.)
For him work has become more than ever an organic function, the true corollary of life. "Away with repose! For him who would spend his life properly there is nothing like work—so long as the machine will operate."
Is this not the great law for all creatures so long as life lasts?
Why should the man who has made a fortune, who has neither children nor relations, and who may die tomorrow, continue to work for himself alone, to employ his days and his energies in useless labours which will profit neither himself nor his kind?
Ask of the Halictus, which, no longer capable of becoming a mother, makes herself guardian of a city, in order still to labour within the measure of her means.
Ask of the Osmia, the Megachile, the Anthidium, which "with no maternal aim, for the sole joy of labour, strive to expend their forces in the accomplishment of their vain tasks, until the forces of life fail."
Ask of the bee, which inaction leaves passive and melancholy so that she presently dies of weariness; of the Chalicodoma, so eager a worker that she will "let herself be crushed under the feet of the passer-by rather than abandon her task."
Ask it of all nature, which knows neither halt nor repose, and who, according to the profound saying of Goethe "has pronounced her malediction upon all that retards or suspends her progress."
Let us then labour, men and beasts, "so that we may sleep in peace; grubs and caterpillars in that torpor which prepares them for the transformation into moths and butterflies, and ourselves in the supreme slumber which dissolves life in order to renew it."
Let us work, in order to nourish within ourselves that divine intuition thanks to which we leave our original impress upon nature; let us work, in order to bring our humble contribution to the general harmony of things, by our painful and meritorious labour; in order that we may associate ourselves with God, share in His creation, and embellish and adorn the earth and fill it with wonders. (16/4.)
Forward then! always erect, even amid the tombs, to forget our griefs. Fabre finds no better consolation to offer his brother, who has lost almost in succession his wife and his eldest daughter:
"Do not take it ill if I have not condoled with you on the subject of your recent losses. Tried so often by the bitterness of domestic grief, I know too well the inanity of such consolations to offer the like to my friends. Time alone does a little cicatrize such wounds; and, let us add, work. Let us keep on our feet and at work as long as we are able. I know no better tonic." (16/5.)
And this exhortation to work, which recurs so often in the first letters of his youth, was to be the last word of the last volume which so splendidly terminates the incomparable series of his "Souvenirs": "Laboremus."
Age has killed neither his courage nor his energies, and he continues to work with the same zeal at nearly ninety years of age, and with as much eagerness as though he were destined to live for ever.
Although his physical forces are failing him, although his limbs falter, his brain remains intact, and is giving us its last fruit in his studies on the Cabbage caterpillar and the Glow-worm, which mark a sudden rejuvenescence of thought on his part, and the commencement of a new cycle of studies, which promise to be of the greatest originality.
To him the animal world has always been full of dizzy surprises, and the insects led him "into a new and barely suspected region, which is ALMOST ABSURD." (16/6.)
The glow-worms, motionless on their twigs of thyme, light their lamps of an evening, in the cool of the beautiful summer nights. What do these fires signify? How explain the mystery of this phosphorescence? Why this slow combustion, "this species of respiration, more active than in the ordinary state"? and what is the oxidizable substance "which gives this white and gentle luminosity"? Is it a flame of love like that which lights the Agaric of the olive-tree "to celebrate its nuptials and the emission of its spores"? But what reason can the larva have for illuminating itself? Why is the egg, already enclosed in the secrecy of the ovaries, already luminous?
"The soft light of the Agaric has confounded our ideas of optics; it does not refract, it does not form an image when passed through a lens, it does not affect ordinary photographic plates." (16/7.)
But here are other miracles:
"Another fungus, the Clathrix, with no trace of phosphorescence, affects photographic plates almost as quickly as would a ray of sunlight. The Clathrix tenebrosa does what the Agaricus olearius has no power to do." (16/8.)
And if the beacon of the Glow-worm recalls the light of the Agaric, the Clathrix reminds us of another insect, the Greater Peacock moth.
In the obscurity of a dark chamber this splendid moth emits phantasmal radiations, perhaps intermittent and reserved for the season of nuptials, signals invisible to us, and perceptible only to those children of the night, who may have found this means to communicate one with another, to call one another in the darkness, and to speak with one another. (16/9.)
Such are the interesting subjects which only yesterday were occupying this great worker; the occult properties, the radiant energies of organic matter; of phosphorescence, of light, the living symbols of the great universal Eros.
But embarrassment long ago succeeded the ephemeral prosperity which marked the first years of his installation at Srignan, and that period of plenty was followed by a period of difficulty, almost of indigence. His class- books, which had succeeded marvellously, and from which the royalties had quickly attained to nearly 640 pounds sterling, which was the average figure for nearly ten years, were then no longer in vogue. Already the times had changed. France was in the crisis of the anti-clerical fever. Fabre made frequent allusions in his books of a spiritual nature, and many primary inspectors could not forgive what they regarded as a blemish.
We must also mention the keen competition caused by the appearance of similar books, usually counterfeit, and the more harmful for that; and as their adoption depended entirely on the caprice of commissions or the choice of interested persons, those of Fabre were gradually ceasing to sell.
It was from 1894 especially that their popularity declined so rapidly:
"Despite all my efforts here I am more anxious than ever about the future," he wrote to his publisher on the 27th of January, 1899; "two more of my books are about to disappear, a prelude to total shipwreck...I begin to despair." (16/10.)
He was not the man to have saved much money; numerous charges were always imposing themselves on him, and his first wife, careless of expenditure, had been somewhat extravagant.
While his position as teacher deteriorated his "Souvenirs" brought him little more than a nominal profit; for to most people he was still completely unknown among the potentates who monopolize the attention of the crowd.
"Work such as a Raumur might be proud of will leave me a beggar, that goes without saying, but at least I shall have left my grain of sand. I would long ago have given up in despair, had I not, to give me courage, the continual research after truth in the little world whose historian I have become. I am hoarding ideas, and I make shift to live as I can." (16/11.)
Yet his reputation had long ago crossed the frontiers of his country. He had been a corresponding member of the Institute of France since 1887, and a Petit d'Ormoy prizeman. (16/12.) He was a member of the most celebrated foreign academies, and the entomological societies of the chief capitals of Europe; but his fame had not passed the walls of these academies and the narrow boundaries of the little world of professional biologists and philosophers.
Even in these circles, where he was almost exclusively read and appreciated, he was little known, and although he was much admired, although he was readily given credit for his admirable talent and exceptional knowledge, his readers were far from realizing the real powers of this world of life which he has called into being. His books are of those whose fertilizing virtues remain long hidden, to shine only at a distance, when much frothy writing, that has made a sudden noise in its time, has fallen into oblivion.
Every two or three years, after much fond polishing, he would open the door to yet another volume which was ready to go forth; adding astonishing chapters of the history of insects, wonderful fragments of animal psychology, but always obtaining only the same circumscribed success; that is, exciting no public curiosity, and remaining unperceived in the midst of general indifference.
His books interested only a select class, who, it is true, welcomed them eagerly, and read them with wonder and delight. If they excited the curiosity of a few philosophers, of scientists and inquirers, and here and there determined a vocation, still more, perhaps, did they charm writers and poets; they consoled Rostand at the end of a serious illness, their virtue, in some sort healing, procuring him both moral repose and a delightful relaxation. (16/13.) For all these, we may say, he has been one of those ten or twelve authors whom one would wish to take with one into a long exile, were they reduced to choosing no more before leaving civilization for ever.
Yet we must admit that this work has certain undeniable faults. The title, in the first place, has nothing alluring about it, and is calculated to deter rather than to attract purchasers, by evoking vague ideas of repulsive studies, too arduous or too special.
People have no idea of the wonderful fairyland concealed by this unpopular title; no conception that these records are intended, not merely for the scientist pure and simple, but in reality for every one.
Moreover, the first few volumes were in no way seductive. They boasted not the most elementary drawings to help the reader; not the slightest woodcut to give a direct idea of the insects described; of their shape, aspect, or physiognomy; and a simple sketch, however poor, is often worth more than long and laborious descriptions. The first volumes especially, printed economically, at the least possible expense, were not outwardly attractive.
It is also true that he had never founded any great hopes on the sale of such works.
Very few people are really interested in the lower animals, and Fabre has been reproached with wasting his time over "childish histories, unworthy of serious attention and unlikely to make money," of wasting in frivolous occupations the time which is passing so quickly and can never return. And why should he have still further wasted so many precious hours in executing minute drawings whose reproduction would have involved an expenditure which his publisher would not dare to venture upon, and which he himself could not afford?
For this universal inquirer was well fitted for such a task, and all these creatures which he had depicted he is capable of representing with brush and pencil as faithfully as with his pen. He had it in him to be not only a writer, but an excellent draughtsman, and even a great painter. He has reproduced in water-colour, with loving care, the decorations of the specimens of prehistoric pottery which his excavations have revealed, and which he has endeavoured to reconstruct, with all the science of an archaeologist. He has displayed the same skill in water-colour in that astonishing iconography, in which he has detailed, with marvellous accuracy, all the peculiarities of the mycological flora of the olive- growing districts. (16/14.)
As for those "paltry figures" insufficient or flagrantly incorrect in drawing, with which many people are satisfied, he regards them as "intolerable" in his own books, and as absolutely contradicting the rigorous accuracy of his text. (16/15.)
Of late years photography and the skill of his son Paul have supplied this deficiency. He taught his son to fix the insects on the sensitive plate in their true attitudes, in the reality of their most instantaneous gestures. However valuable such documents may be, how much we should prefer fine drawings, giving relief not only to forms and colours, but also to the most characteristic features and the whole living physiognomy of the creature! This is the function of art; but the great artist that was in Fabre was capable in this domain of rivalling the magical talent of an Audubon.
Such work was relinquished, although so many romances of nature, so much dishonest patch-work, won the applause due to success.
Fabre fell more and more into a state bordering on indigence, and finally he was quite forgotten. An opponent of evolution, he was out of the fashion. The encyclopaedias barely mentioned him. Lamarckians and Darwinians, who still made so much noise in the world, ignored him; and no one came now to open the gate behind which was ageing, in obscurity and deserted, "one of the loftiest and purest geniuses which the civilized world at that moment possessed; one of the most learned naturalists and one of the most marvellous of poets in the modern and truly legitimate sense of the word." (16/16.)
In the department of Vaucluse, where he lived for more than sixty years, in Avignon itself, where he had taught for twenty years, the prefect Belleudy, who had succeeded in approaching him, was astonished and distressed to find "so great a mind so little known"; for even those about him scarcely knew his name. (16/17.)
But what matter! The hermit of Srignan was not discouraged; he was disturbed only by the failure of his strength, and the fear that he could not much longer exercise that divine faculty which had always consoled him for all his sorrows and his disappointments. He could scarcely drag his weary limbs across the pebbles of his Harmas; but he bore his eighty-seven years with a fine disdain for age and its failings, and although the fire of his glance and that whole, eager countenance still expressed his passion for the truth, his abrupt gestures, touched with irony, his simple bearing, and the extreme modesty of his whole person, spoke sufficiently of his profound indifference toward outside contingencies, for the baubles of fame and all the stupidities of life.
At a few miles' distance, in another village, that other great peasant, Mistral, the singer of Provence, the poet of love and joy, the minstrel of rustic labour and antique faiths, was pursuing, amid the homage of his apotheosis, the incredible cycle of his splendid existence.
This glory had come to him suddenly; this fame "whose first glances are sweeter than the fires of dawn," and which was never to desert him for fifty long years.
The wind of favour which had sweetened his youth continued to propel him in full sail. He had only to show himself to be at once surrounded, felicitated, worshipped; and his mere presence would sway a crowd as the black peaks of the high cypresses are swayed by the great wind that bears his name. Like Fabre, he had remained faithful to his native soil; that soil which the great naturalist had never been able to leave without at once longing impatiently to return to its dusty olives where the cigale sings, its ilex trees and its thickets; and so he lived far from the cities, in a quiet village, with the same horizon of plains and hills that were balmy with thyme, leading in his little home an equal life full of wisdom and simplicity.
The hermit of Srignan was the Lucretius of this Provence, which had already found its Virgil. With a very different vision, each had the same rustic tastes, the same love of the free spaces of wild nature and the scenes of rural life. But Mistral, wherever he looked, saw human life as happy and simple, through the prism of his creative imagination and the optimism of his happy life. Fabre, on the contrary, behind the sombre realities which he studied, saw only the ferocious engagement of confused living forces, and a frightful tragedy.
Thus their two lives, which were like parallel lines, never meeting, were in keeping with their work. And while Mistral, still young and triumphant despite the years, was at Maillane overwhelmed with honours and consideration, the poor great man of Srignan lived an obscure and inglorious existence.
He had the greatest trouble to live and rear his family, and almost his sole income consisted of an uncertain sum of 120 pounds sterling annually, which he had for some years received, in the guise of a pension, by the generosity of the Institute, as the Gegner prize.
Finally his situation was so precarious that he decided to sell to a museum that magnificent collection of water-colour plates in which he had represented, life-size and with an astonishing truth of colour, all the fungi which grow in Provence.
He wrote to Mistral on the subject, after the visit which the latter paid him in the spring of 1908: the only visit of the kind. Before meeting in Saint-Estelle, the Paradise of the Flibres, they had wished not to die before at least meeting on this earth.
Fabre wrote to mistral the following letter, which I owe to the kindness of the great poet:—
"I have never thought of profiting by my humble fungoid water- colours...Fate will perhaps decide otherwise.
"In this connection, permit me to make a confession, to which your nobility of character encourages me. Until latterly I had lived modestly on the product of my school-books. To-day the weathercock has turned to another quarter, and my books no longer sell. So here I am, more than ever in the grip of that terrible problem of daily bread. If you think, then, that with your help and that of your friends, my poor pictures might help me a little, I have decided to let them go, but not without bitterness. It is like tearing off a piece of my skin, and I still hold to this old skin, shabby as it may be; a little for my own sake, much more for my family's, and much more again for the sake of my entomological studies, studies which I feel obliged to pursue, persuaded that for a long time to come no one will care to resume them, so ungrateful is the calling." (16/18.)
At the instigation of the poet the prefect Belleudy took it upon him to intercede with the Minister, from whom he finally wrung a grant of 40 pounds sterling, "in encouragement of the sciences." Finally he ventured to reveal the situation to the General Council of Vaucluse, and to require it to contribute at least its share, in order to ensure a peaceful and decent old age to a man who was not only the greatest celebrity of the department, but also one of the highest glories of the nation. He pleaded so well and so nobly that the assembly granted Fabre an annual sum of 20 pounds sterling, "as the public homage which his compatriots pay to his lofty science and HIS EXCESSIVE MODESTY." (16/19.) At the same time, in a generous impulse, the Council placed at his disposal all the scientific equipment of the departmental laboratory of agricultural analysis, which was no longer used; there was indeed talk of suppressing it.
Now that the burden of his days weighed so heavily on him, and his task was virtually finished, everything, by the customary irony of things, was coming his way simultaneously: not only what was necessary and indispensable, but even something that was superfluous.
So one day all these delicate instruments, useless to a biologist who by the very nature of his labours had done without them all his life, and had never wearied of denying their utility, arrived at Srignan. He did not possess even one modest thermometer; and as for the superb microscope over which he so often bent, the only costly instrument in his rustic laboratory, it was a precious present which, at the instigation of Duruy, Dumas the chemist had given him years before; but a simple lens very often sufficed him. "The secrets of life," he somewhere writes, "are to be obtained by simple, makeshift, inexpensive means. What did the best results of my inquiry into instinct cost me? Only time, and above all, patience."
It was then that a few of his disciples, finally affected by such abandonment, decided to celebrate his jubilee, hoping thus to reveal both his name and his wonderful books to the crowd that knew nothing of him. (16/20.)
It was time; a little longer, and, according to his racy phrase, "the violins would have come too late." The old master is daily nearer his decline; his sight, once so piercing, is now so obscured that he can barely see to sign his name, in a small, tremulous hand, confused and illegible. His muscles are so feeble now that he can walk only in short steps, on his wife's arm, leaning on a cane; and he would soon be piteously exhausted were not some seat available within immediate reach. Very soon now he will no longer hope to make the tour of this Harmas, which his feet have trodden daily for thirty years. In this failure of the body, all that survives are the two sparkling cavities of his eyes and his extraordinary memory.
But he is far from being mournful: he feels only an immense lassitude, and an infinite regret that perhaps he will not be able to bring his series of "Souvenirs" to the point he had desired; not wishing to die until he has pushed his career as far as is in his power; without having worked, on his feet, until the very hour when the light of this world is suddenly withdrawn, and his eyes open upon the infinite life, beyond the infinite worlds of space.
The festival took place on the 3rd of April of the year 1910, and was touching in its simplicity.
What an unforgettable day in the life of Fabre! That morning the gate of the Harmas was left open to all, and many of the people of Srignan who invaded the garden were able to look for the first time on the face of their fellow-citizen, who had so long lived among them, and whom they had now, to their astonishment, discovered.
But among the crowd of friends and admirers who, coming from all parts, pressed around the little pink house, the most amazed of all was Marius, the blind cabinet-maker, unable to contain his intense delight at the sudden burning of so much incense before his idol, for to him it had seemed that this day of apotheosis would never dawn!
For nothing was certain, although the day of the jubilee had long been fixed. In the first place there had been serious defections in the ranks of the official personages who were to take part in the ceremony. Then the weather was terrible for the time of year; the spring had commenced gloomily, a season of floods and catastrophes. But on this morning the rain of days had ceased to fall, and suddenly the sun appeared.
Among other compliments and marks of homage the old man was presented with a golden plaque, on one side of which Sicard, who stood revealed as a master of the burin, had engraved his portrait with rare fidelity. The reverse was resplendent with one of the most beautiful syntheses which the history of art has known; a surprising allegory, in which the imagination of the artist evoked the man of science, the singer of the insects, the landscape which had seen the birth of so many little lives, and the village amid the olive-trees, in front of the sun-steeped Ventoux.
At this festival, the jubilee of a scientist, the scientists were least numerous.
The banquet was given in the large room of a cafe in the midst of Srignan; in order, no doubt, that in this humble life even glory should be modest.
As Fabre could not walk, he was helped into the carriage of ceremony, which was sent expressly from Orange, and the little procession, which was swelled by the municipal choral society, spurred on by Marius, moved slowly off along the sole central street.
It was a great family repast: one of those love-feasts in which all communicate in a single thought.
Edmond Perrier brought the naturalist the homage of the Institute, and expressed in unaffected terms the just admiration which he himself felt. The better to praise him, he gave a summary of his admirable career, and his immortal work. At the evocation of this long past of labour Fabre regretted his poor vanished joys, "the sole moments of happiness in his life."