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

Auguste comte de Villiers de L’Isle Adam (1838–1889)

The Love of the Natural

DURING one of his morning excursions in the forest of Fontainebleau, Monsieur C—— (at that time at the head of the government), while straying over grass and dew in the last rays of sunrise, found himself in a kind of valley beside the ravine of Apremont.

Always of a sort of rectilinear elegance, quite simple, in round hat and buttoned frock coat, with a matter-of-fact air, in his distinguished modesty nowhere exceeding the appearance of a professional tourist, he was abandoning himself to the charms of nature for health’s sake.

Suddenly he discovered that “reverie had conducted his steps” toward a hut—commodious enough, and quite natty with its two windows and green shutters. Coming closer to it, Monsieur C—— could see that the planks of this unusual dwelling were provided with numbers in order, and that it was a kind of movable booth, let, doubtless, to whoever wanted it. Upon the door was written, in white capital letters, these two names—DAPHNIS AND CHLOE.

This inscription astonished him. With smiling curiosity, yet discreetly—in a word, without in the least dreaming of intruding upon this hermitage—he knocked politely at the door.

“Come in!” called two fresh young voices from within.

He lifted the latch and the door opened, just as a sunbeam, flitting through the leaves, lighted up the interior of this idyllic dwelling.

Monsieur C——, upon the threshold, found himself in the presence of a very young man, with locks of fair hair, the features of a Greek medallion, a clear skin, and skeptical blue eyes, whose fine glance yielded that peculiar challenging look which belongs to Norman eyes; also of a very young damsel, with an ingenuous face of a pure oval, crowned with beautiful brown tresses. Both were dressed in full mourning of homespun, of a cut which only their shapeliness made passable. Both were charming, and their artistic look, strangely enough, awakened no distaste.

The head of the government was a man who had seen the world, but in spite of himself he found himself rejoicing at sight of another variety of face than that of governors, lieutenant-governors, and mayors. It rested his eyes.

Daphnis was standing beside a rustic table. The amiable Chloe, regarding the unexpected guest with lowered eyelids, was seated upon an iron bed—a new patent—with a mattress of seaweed, white, coarse coverings, and double pillow. Three plain chairs, some housekeeping utensils, plates and china cups in imitation of old Limoges, and on the table a bright service of new plated ware, completed the furnishing of this nomadic retreat.

“Stranger,” said Daphnis, “be welcome—you who enter with this unhoped-for ray of sunlight. You will breakfast with us quite informally, will you not? We have eggs, milk, cheese—even coffee! Chloe, quick, another plate!”

The powerful ones of the earth like simple and unexpected things, and willingly lend themselves to the fascinations of an incognito among the lowly. With such a reception, Monsieur C—— could scarcely refuse to be friendly, and, by way of amusing himself (for this once, and as an exception), permit himself to relax a little the rigidity of his character.

“Here,” he thought, “are two eccentric young persons escaped from some corner of Paris, who have adopted this ingenious method of passing their vacation. Perhaps they will prove more amusing than the people of my own circle. We shall see.”

“My young friends,” he replied, smiling, with the air of an old-time king among his shepherds, “I love the natural, and I accept your sylvan courtesy.”

They took their places about the table, where, Chloe having bestirred herself, the repast immediately began.

“Ah! the natural,” sighed Daphnis, with a deep sigh. “We are here for that. We seek it with hearts guiltless of subterfuge. But in vain!”

Monsieur C—— looked at them. “What! How is this, my young friends? It is all around you; the natural, with all its pure joys, embraces you here—all its rural fruits! Behold them—excellent milk, slices of fresh-buttered bread!”

“Ah!” exclaimed Chloe. “True, fair stranger. One can drink the milk; for it is, I believe, made with excellent sheep’s brains.”

“As to the bread and butter,” murmured Daphnis, “whether it is really bread, you know, with the new baking-powders, one can never be sure; but as to the butter, I confess that it seemed to me an interesting oleomargarin. However, if you would prefer cheese, here is some—in confidence let me say—of which tallow and chalk constitute scarcely more than a third part. It is a new process.”

At these words, Monsieur C—— considered more attentively his two young hosts.

“And your names are Daphnis and Chloe?” said he.

“Oh! they are only our nicknames,” replied Daphnis. “Our families, once in easy circumstances, lived in Paris in the Champs Élysées, until a sudden failure reduced them to labor. I, a fresh-made bachelor of laws, was about to yawn my time out, as every one does, till I could enter the bar; and Chloe had already taken her degree as a doctor, and was about beginning practise, when a little legacy made it possible for us to marry immediately without waiting for clients or patients, and to try to take up again, agreeably to our natural tastes, our life of the time of Longus; but it is difficult nowadays. What! You have not finished eating, dear stranger? Will you have some fried eggs? These are quite in fashion. They produce them for exportation, you know. Three millions of these artificial eggs America ships us daily. They are dipped in a little acid, which forms the shell—yes, instantaneously. Believe me. Try some. We shall have some coffee afterward. It is excellent. Imitation chicory—first quality. The annual sales in Paris alone mount up to eighteen million francs, according to official statistics. Pray don’t refuse. We offer it most heartily and without ceremony.”

Monsieur C——, whose curiosity was aroused in spite of himself by this youthful frankness, diplomatically turned the conversation in order, with the utmost politeness possible, to avoid replying to his host’s cordial invitation.

“A little legacy, you say?” he rejoined, with an air of sympathetic interest. “You are even now, in fact, in mourning, my dear young friends.”

“Yes; we are wearing it for our poor Uncle Polemon,” moaned Chloe, wiping away an invisible tear.

“Polemon?” said Monsieur C——, searching his memory. “Ah, yes! He who, like Silenus, was a good drinker of wine in the days of legends?”

“Himself!” sighed Daphnis. “Did he not awaken every morning with a dry throat—the worthy instrument of Bacchus? He loved natural wine; hence, betaking himself, in his country house, to a flagon of that famous proprietary wine, you know——”

“Yes, fair stranger,” insisted Chloe, with a musical little professional voice, “a gallon of that mixture, so well compounded with tartrate and plaster and the due amount of arsenic that four or five hundred people have died of it—of that generous wine drunk by the modern artisans of France, while they sing with light heart the famous old song:

  • “‘I reflect, while I thank God,
  • They’ve none of this in England!’”
  • “So, then,” Daphnis continued, “the Supreme Being having called him to Himself the same evening of the purchase of the wine, our Uncle Polemon obeyed the summons in the midst of atrocious colic—the unfortunate old man!—and thus bequeathed to us some drachmas. But pardon me, perhaps you smoke, dear stranger? Will you have one of these cigars? They are really passable, and of a fair sort—an importation from America, as usual—made of leaves of paper steeped in a decoction of clarified nicotin, collected from the best Havana cigar-ends; they sell two or three millions monthly, you know, in France alone. These are the best brand, on the testimony of the government stamp.”

    At this, Monsieur C——, thinking he perceived, mingling with these last words, a vague intention of directing irony at progress, believed he ought to assume something of an official tone.

    “Thank you,” he said; “but if it be true, alas! that some abuses have crept into modern industry, with care one may always find the genuine. Besides, at your age, what matter the vain pleasures of the table? Here, above all, in the midst of living nature, of these magnificent long-lived trees, whose venerable branches—salubrious fragrance——”

    “Permit me, dear stranger,” rejoined Daphnis, opening his eyes wide. “What! you do not know, then? These superb oaks, these lofty larches, which have sheltered so many royal love-affairs, having undergone during a certain recent winter’s night five or six degrees more cold than their roots could support (this is according to the report of the state inspectors of waters and forests), are, in reality, dead. You can see the official notch which marks them for cutting down next year. They will end in the chimneys of government officials. These leaves are their last; they draw life only from their acquired momentum. It is but a brilliant agony. An expert need only throw a glance at their bark to know that the sap has ceased to flow. So, then, under the living look of their foliage, we are really surrounded with innumerable vegetable specters, fantoms of trees. The old trees leave us; room for the young ones!”

    A cloud crossed the mathematical forehead of Monsieur C——. Across the high boughs outside a little cold shower came clicking down.

    “I do, indeed, recall it now,” he murmured; “but let us not exaggerate; and let us not scrutinize too closely if we wish to distinguish anything. This exuberant summer nature remains to us.”

    “How,” exclaimed Daphnis anew, “how, dear stranger, can you consider a summer ‘natural’ in which Chloe and I pass a whole afternoon shivering together?”

    “The summer is not of the warmest, indeed, this year,” replied Monsieur C——. “But what of that? Lift your eyes higher, young people. The sight of the vast sky intact and pure remains to you.”

    “A sky intact and pure, where every day swarms of balloons pass filled with enlightened gentlemen? It is no longer a ‘natural’ sky, dear stranger.”

    “But at night, in the starlight, when the nightingale sings, you can forget——”

    “Then,” murmured Daphnis, “interminable electric rays traverse the dark with their immense brooms of misty light that modify every instant the light from the stars, and adulterate the fair shining of the moon upon the woods. Night is no longer ‘natural.’”

    “As to the nightingales,” sighed Chloe, “the continual whistling of the trains from Melun has frightened them away; they sing no more, fair stranger.”

    “Oh, young people,” cried Monsieur C——, “you also are very—exacting! If you love the natural so much, why did you not choose the seashore? As of yore—the roar of the great waves—the stormy days——”

    “The sea, dear stranger?” said Daphnis. “Can we ignore the fact that a great cable encircles, from one end to the other, this overrated immensity? It is enough, you know, to spill one or two barrels of oil over it to appease the highest waves for nearly a league around. As to the lightnings of its storms, from the moment they were made to descend from the middle of a kite into a jar, the sea has not seemed to us so—‘natural.’”

    “In any case,” said Monsieur C——, “the mountains remain, for exalted souls, a haven where calm——”

    “The mountains?” replied Daphnis. “Which? The Alps, for instance? Mont Cenis, with its railway running through from side to side like a rat, and which besoots with its smoke, like a fetid perambulating censer, the table-lands once green and habitable? Express-trains overrun the mountains from peak to base with cog-wheel brakes. The mountains are no longer ‘natural.’”

    There was a moment’s silence. “Then,” Monsieur C—— immediately replied, resolved to learn just how far the paradoxes of these two elegizing lovers of nature would go—“then what do you expect to do?”

    “Nothing—except to renounce it!” cried Daphnis. “To follow the times. And, in order to live, do something; for example, take to politics, if you like. That brings in ‘good returns.’”

    At this Monsieur C—— started, and, repressing a burst of laughter, looked at them both.

    “Ah!” said he, “really? And, if I am not impertinent, what would you be in politics, Monsieur Daphnis?”

    “Oh!” said Chloe tranquilly, always in an exquisitely professional and matter-of-fact voice; “since, kind stranger, Daphnis represents in himself the part of the rural malcontents, I have advised him to present himself, at all hazards, as a carpetbag candidate from the most backward district in the country. He himself agrees. Now, what is necessary nowadays in the eyes of the majority of electors to deserve the legislative badge? To take good care, above all, to write or to have written the least artistic book; to know how to prevent oneself from being endowed with great talent in any art; to affect to scorn as frivolous anything which borders upon a production of the imagination—that is to say, to speak of such only with a patronizing smile, abstracted and placid; to understand how to give habitually an impression of himself as a sane mediocrity; to be able to kill time every day with three hundred colleagues either by voting to order or by making out to one another that each is at bottom only a surly braggart, entirely destitute of disinterestedness save for rare exceptions, and every evening in chewing a toothpick and regarding the rabble with a stony stare while he murmurs, ‘Bah! Things will take care of themselves; things will take care of themselves.’ Such are the preliminary conditions, is it not true, requisite for being a possible legislator? Once elected, he portions out nine thousand francs’ worth of appointments—and the perquisites—for one does not pay with words in politics. He is called the government, and confers upon his dear little Chloe one or two fine offices for the collection of the tobacco tax. That would not be half bad, I think; and it is an easy trade. Why should you not try it, Daphnis?”

    “Eh?” said Daphnis; “I don’t say no. It is a question of expense for handbills and posters, and of making applications for which one could, if need be, survive the inevitable sinking of the heart. After all, if it was only a matter of making a decision to carry the thing off— See here, dear stranger, let us put them all in your hat and draw by lot! You ought to have the lucky hand, I feel that; I bet you will bring out the best one among them. Besides, later, if another looked pleasanter—smiled more upon me— Whew! at the price they come to nowadays, according to what they weigh and produce, I should not give myself the trouble to change. Decisions, nowadays, are no longer ‘natural,’ you see.”

    Monsieur C——, as an affable man with an enlightened mind, condescended to smile at these innocent paradoxes which the age of these precocious young geniuses excused in his eyes.

    “Indeed, Monsieur Daphnis,” said he, “you could represent the part of cynic-loyal, and under that title unite many votes.”

    “Without reckoning,” rejoined Chloe, “if I may believe, fair stranger, the bit of newspaper which wrapped the cheese this morning, that several districts are seeking to counterbalance—inventing for the purpose some one at present unfindable—the troublesome influence of a certain ‘general’ who is become the popular infatuation, the deputy in fashion, and whose politics——”

    “A ‘general,’ do you say, Chloe?” interrupted Daphnis, with astonishment. “A general who deals in politics, and who is a deputy? Is a general, then, not now ‘natural’?”

    “No,” said Monsieur C——, graver, in spite of himself, this time. “But let us conclude, my young friends. Your youthful frankness, somewhat odd, but amiable, has gained my sympathy, and I ought in my turn to make myself known. I am at present at the head of the French Government, of which you are, it appears, citizens ironical; and I carefully take note, Monsieur Daphnis, of your approaching candidacy.”

    Opening his coat, Monsieur C—— let them see, between his waistcoat and his fine white shirt, starched and stiff, that length of broad red watered ribbon so effective in his pictures, and leaving no doubt as to the august function he bears—that, in brief, which takes the place of the crown without shocking any one.

    “Behold, the king!” cried Daphnis and Chloe with one voice, rising, struck with astonishment and vague respect.

    “There is no longer any king, young people,” said Monsieur C—— coldly. “True, I have the power of a king—to some degree——”

    “I understand,” murmured Daphnis, in a condoling tone. “You are no longer a ‘natural’ king.”

    “At least I have the honor to preside over a ‘natural’ republic,” dryly replied Monsieur C——, rising.

    Daphnis coughed gently at these words, but without interrupting, and with deference—not yet being a “deputy.”

    “As such,” added Monsieur C——, “I exempt you from the excise tax, in recognition of your graceful hospitality; and, as an exception, give you full and complete license to occupy, without disturbance from our guards, during the vacation of 1888, this unfrequented valley, situated in one of the chief government forests. When the time comes, if I can be of greater service to you—you young laggards of such a legend as progress is, alas!—I shall see to it, you may rest assured.”

    “Blessed be the day!” began Daphnis. And the “king” bowed to the two “shepherds,” and withdrew with steady step beneath the huge dead trees toward the distant old palace, leaving the pseudo pair of the time of Longus somewhat stunned by their adventure.

    Having returned to the royal dwelling, where Monsieur C—— was, for the time being, I believe, occupying the apartments of Saint Louis (the least inhabitable, for that matter, of this ancient structure, which has no longer any reason for existing, save as a hunting-box or picturesque country dwelling), the honored president of the present administration, smoking a genuine cigar in the oratory of the conqueror of Ali Mansourah, could not refrain from acknowledging to himself that, at bottom, the love of things too natural is no longer aught but a dream, scarce to be realized, and for that reason the better adapted to occupy the attention of backward-looking people; and that for Daphnis and Chloe to lead to-day their simple rustic life—for them to nurture themselves, namely, on real milk, real bread, real butter, real cheese, real wine, in real woods under a real sky in a real hut, united by a love guiltless of afterthought—they would have to begin by placing their so-called hut upon a basis of about twenty-five thousand francs’ income, it being understood that the first of the benefactions which we indubitably owe to science is to have placed the simple, essential, “natural” things of life beyond the acquisition of the poor.