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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Voltaire (1694–1778)

First Day in France of a Huron

From “The Unsophisticated Huron”

ON the evening of the fifteenth day of July, in the year 1689, the Abbé de Kerkabon, prior of Our Lady of the Mountain, was walking on the sea-shore with Mlle. de Kerkabon, his sister, to take the air. The prior, already a little advanced in years, was a very good clergyman, beloved by his neighbors as he had formerly been by their wives. What had established his high reputation more than anything else was the fact that he was the only beneficed divine of that part of the country who did not require to be carried to bed after supping with his brethren of the cloth. He had a very decent knowledge of theology; and, when he was tired of reading St. Augustine, he entertained himself with Rabelais; moreover, nobody had an ill word to say of him.

Mlle. de Kerkabon, who had never been married, though that was not for want of wishing it, had preserved the freshness of her complexion to the age of five-and-forty. Her character was benevolent and sympathetic; she was fond of pleasure, no less than of devotion.

The prior, as he cast his eyes over the sea, said to his sister:

“Alas, it was here that our poor brother embarked with our dear sister-in-law, Mme. de Kerkabon, his wife, on board the frigate Swallow in 1669, to go and serve in Canada. If he had not been killed, we might be hoping to see him again.”

“Do you believe,” said Mlle. de Kerkabon, “that our sister-in-law was devoured by Iroquois Indians, as we have heard?”

“It is quite certain that if she had not been eaten up, she would have returned home. I shall mourn for her all my life—she was a charming woman; and our brother, who was remarkably clever, would assuredly have risen to a high position.”

As both of them were melting to tears at these tender recollections, they saw a small vessel enter the mouth of the Rance with the tide; it contained some Englishmen who had come to sell certain produce of their country. They leaped ashore, without taking any notice of the prior or his sister, who was much shocked at this want of attention to herself.

This was not the case, however, with a very handsome young man, who sprang forward ahead of his companions, and found himself face to face with the lady. He saluted her with an inclination of the head, not being accustomed to making a bow. His figure and clothing attracted the notice of the brother and sister. His head and his legs were bare, his feet were shod with low sandals, and down his neck hung plaits of long hair; a tight-fitting jerkin showed off to advantage his slim and lithe figure. He had a martial mien, but not without a touch of mildness. He held in one hand a small flask of Barbados water, and in the other a sort of bag in which he carried a goblet and some excellent sea-biscuit. He spoke French very intelligibly, and offered his Barbados water to Mlle. de Kerkabon and her brother; he drank some of it with them, he invited them to drink again, and all with an air so simple and natural, that both brother and sister were delighted with him. They asked how they could serve him, who he was, and where he was going. The young man answered them that he had no idea, that he was curious and wished to see what the shores of France were like, so he had come and was going to return.

His reverence the prior, judging from his accent that he was not an Englishman, took the liberty of inquiring to what country he belonged.

“I am a Huron,” replied the young man.

Mlle. de Kerkabon, surprised and enchanted to see a Huron with such polite manners, invited the young fellow to supper; he did not require to be asked twice, and all three went together to the priory of Our Lady of the Mountain.

The plump little woman gazed at the stranger with all her eyes, which were not very large even when wide open, and whispered to the prior every now and again:

“This tall lad beside us has a color like that of the lily and the rose! What a fair skin he has for a Huron!”

“Very true, sister,” said the prior.

She showered a hundred questions upon the traveler in quick succession, and he always answered her with great good sense.

The rumor soon spread that there was a Huron staying at the priory. Those who belonged to the best society in the neighborhood were eager to go and sup there. The Abbé de Saint-Yves came with his sister, a beauty of Lower Brittany, young and very well educated. The magistrate of the district, the receiver of taxes, and their wives were also at supper. The stranger was placed between Mlle. de Kerkabon and Mlle. de Saint-Yves. Everybody looked at him with admiration, everybody spoke to him and questioned him at once; but the Huron was not in the least disconcerted; it seemed as if he had taken for his motto that of Lord Bolingbroke: Nil admirari. But at last, unable to endure so much noise, he said with a good-natured smile, but also with some decision:

“Gentlemen, in my country we are in the habit of speaking one after another; how do you expect me to answer you, when you prevent me from hearing what you say?”

The voice of reason always brings people to their senses at least for some moments, and a dead silence ensued. The magistrate, who always regarded strangers as his peculiar property, in whatever house he happened to find himself, and was famous all over the province for asking questions, opened his mouth about half a foot wide, and said:

“What is your name, sir?”

“I have always been called ‘The Unsophisticated Child of Nature,’” answered the Huron, “and this name of mine was ratified in England, because I always say what I think in a natural manner, and do whatever I like.”

“Being born a Huron, how, sir, did you manage to get to England?”

“Because I was taken there; I was made prisoner by the English in a battle, after having defended myself pretty stoutly; and the English, who love bravery, because they are brave themselves and as honorable as we are, having proposed to restore me to my kinsfolk or to take me with them to England, I accepted the latter offer, because from my natural disposition I am passionately fond of seeing new countries.”

“But, sir,” said the magistrate, in his most imposing tone, “how could you desert your father and mother in that way?”

“Because I never have known either father or mother,” said the stranger.

The company were moved with compassion, and everybody repeated:

“Neither father nor mother!”

“We will supply their place,” said the mistress of the house to her brother the prior. “How interesting this Huron gentleman is, to be sure!”

The Unsophisticated thanked her with generous cordiality, and gave her to understand that he needed nothing.

“I perceive,” said the grave magistrate, “that your French is better than could be expected from a Huron.”

“A Frenchman,” he replied, “whom we had captured, and with whom I formed a warm friendship, taught me his language when I was very young, in my own country; I learn very quickly what I wish to learn. On arriving at Plymouth, I met with one of your French refugees, whom you call Huguenots, why I know not. Under his instruction I made further progress in the knowledge of your tongue; and, now that I can express myself intelligibly, I am come to see your country, for I like French people very much—when they don’t ask too many questions.”

The Abbé de Saint-Yves, in spite of this little hint, inquired which of the three languages he liked best, his own native tongue, English, or French.

“My own, undoubtedly,” answered the Child of Nature.

“Is it possible?” exclaimed Mlle. de Kerkabon. “I always thought that French was the most beautiful of all languages, next to that of Lower Brittany.”

Then a rivalry arose as to who should ask the Unsophisticated how the Hurons called different things, such as, what name they gave to “tobacco,” to which he answered taya; how they expressed “to eat,” and he answered essenten. Mlle. de Kerkabon insisted upon knowing what they said for “to make love”; he replied trovander, and maintained, not without some show of reason, that those words were quite as good as their French and English equivalents. Trovander especially seemed to all the company a very pretty expression.

The prior, who had in his library a Huron grammar, which had been given him by the Rev. Father Sagar Théodat, of the Reformed Franciscans, the famous missionary, left the table for a moment in order to go and consult it. He returned quite out of breath with tender and joyful emotion; he acknowledged the Unsophisticated as a genuine Huron. A short discussion next arose on the multiplicity of languages, and there was a general agreement that, had it not been for what happened at the Tower of Babel, all the world would have spoken French.

The question-loving magistrate, who had hitherto shown some distrust of the stranger, now began to feel a profound respect toward him, and addressed him more politely than he had done before—for what reason the Child of Nature could not comprehend.

Mlle. de Saint-Yves evinced great curiosity to know how the Hurons made love in their own country.

“By doing noble deeds,” replied the youth, “to please persons like yourself.”

All the guests were astonished, and applauded so apt an answer. Mlle. de Saint-Yves blushed, and was very pleased. Mlle. de Kerkabon also blushed, but was not quite so well pleased; she was a little piqued that the compliment had not been addressed to her, but she was so good-natured that her liking for the Huron underwent no alteration. She asked him, with kindly interest, how many sweethearts he had had in his own land.

“I have never had more than one,” said the Unsophisticated; “it was Miss Abacaba, my dear nurse’s great friend; the reeds were not more straight, the ermine was not whiter, lambs were not so mild, eagles not so proud, and the deer were less fleet of foot than Miss Abacaba. One day she was chasing a hare in our neighborhood, about fifty leagues from our settlement, when an Algonkin, an ill-bred fellow who lived a hundred miles away from us, came up and took the hare away from her. I heard of it, ran to the place, knocked down the Algonkin with a blow of my club, and brought him to the feet of my mistress, bound hand and foot. Abacaba’s relations wanted to eat him, but I never had much taste for such kinds of feasts. I gave him back his liberty and made him my friend. Abacaba was so touched by my conduct, that she preferred me to all her other suitors. She would have loved me still, if she had not had the misfortune to be devoured by a bear. I had my revenge on the bear, and wore its skin for a long time, but somehow that did not seem to give me much consolation.”

Mlle. de Saint-Yves, on hearing this narration, felt a secret pleasure at learning that the Child of Nature had never had more than one sweetheart, and that Abacaba was no longer alive; but she did not know the cause of her pleasure. All the company fixed their eyes on the Unsophisticated, and he was highly commended for having prevented his comrades from eating up an Algonkin.

The inexorable magistrate, whose rage for asking questions was irrepressible, pushed his curiosity so far as to inquire to what religion the Huron gentleman belonged; whether he had chosen the Anglican, the Gallican, or the Huguenot Church.

“I am of my own religion, as you are of yours,” said he.

“Alas!” said the prior’s sister, “I see plainly that those wretched English people have not even thought of baptizing him.”

“Good heavens!” said Mlle. de Saint-Yves; “how comes it that the Hurons are not Catholics? Have not the reverend Jesuit fathers converted them all?”

The Unsophisticated assured her that in his country no one was ever converted, that a true Huron had never changed his opinion, and that there was not even a term in their language to signify “inconstancy.” These last words pleased Mlle. de Saint-Yves exceedingly.

“We’ll baptize him! Yes, we’ll baptize him!” said Mlle. de Kerkabon to the prior; “you shall have the honor of administering the rite, my dear brother, and I am determined to be his godmother; the Abbé de Saint-Yves shall present him at the font; it will be a most brilliant ceremony, and talked of all over Lower Brittany; moreover, it will be an infinite honor to us.”

All the company supported the mistress of the house, exclaiming, “We’ll have him baptized!”

The Unsophisticated replied that in England people were allowed to live according to their fancy; he intimated that the proposal did not please him at all, and that the laws of the Hurons were at least as good as those of the people of Lower Brittany; he ended by saying that he was going to take his departure on the morrow. When his bottle of Barbados water was quite finished, all the company retired to bed.

After the Child of Nature had been conducted to his bedroom, Mlle. de Kerkabon and her friend Mlle. de Saint-Yves could not help looking through the key-hole, to see how a Huron slept. They saw that he had spread the bedclothes on the floor, and was reposing in the most graceful attitude imaginable.