Paul and Virginia

by Bernardin de Saint Pierre

On the eastern coast of the mountain which rises above Port Louis in the Mauritius, upon a piece of land bearing the marks of former cultivation, are seen the ruins of two small cottages. Those ruins are situated near the centre of a valley, formed by immense rocks, and which opens only toward the north. On the left rises the mountain, called the Height of Discovery, whence the eye marks the distant sail when it first touches the verge of the horizon, and whence the signal is given when a vessel approaches the island. At the foot of this mountain stands the town of Port Louis. On the right is formed the road, which stretches from Port Louis to the Shaddock Grove, where the church bearing that name lifts its head, surrounded by its avenues of bamboo, in the midst of a spacious plain; and the prospect terminates in a forest extending to the farthest bounds of the island. The front view presents the bay, denominated the Bay of the Tomb; a little on the right is seen the Cape of Misfortune; and beyond rolls the expanded ocean, on the surface of which appear a few uninhabited islands, and, among others, the Point of Endeavor, which resembles a bastion built upon the flood.

At the entrance of the valley which presents those various objects, the echoes of the mountain incessantly repeat the hollow murmurs of the winds that shake the neighboring forests, and the tumultuous dashing of the waves which break at a distance upon the cliffs; but near the ruined cottages all is calm and still, and the only objects which there meet the eye are rude steep rocks, that rise like a surrounding rampart. Large clumps of trees grow at their base, on their rifted sides, and even on their majestic tops, where the clouds seem to repose. The showers, which their bold points attract, often paint the vivid colors of the rainbow on their green and brown declivities, and swell the sources of the little river which flows at their feet, called the river of Fan-Palms.

Within this enclosure reigns the most profound silence. The waters, the air, all the elements, are at peace. Scarcely does the echo repeat the whispers of the palm-trees spreading their broad leaves, the long points of which are gently agitated by the winds. A soft light illumines the bottom of this deep valley, on which the sun shines only at noon. But even at break of day the rays of light are thrown on the surrounding rocks; and their sharp peaks, rising above the shadows of the mountain, appear like tints of gold and purple gleaming upon the azure sky.

Here two mothers, widowed by death and desertion, nursed their children, with the sight of whom the mutual affection of the parents acquired new strength.

Madame de la Tour's child was named Virginia; her friend Margaret's, Paul. They loved to put their infants into the same bath, and lay them in the same cradle; and sometimes each nursed at her bosom the other's babe.

"My friend," said Madame de la Tour, "we shall each of us have two children, and each of our children will have two mothers."

Nothing could exceed the attachment which these infants early displayed for each other. If Paul complained, his mother pointed to Virginia, and at that sight he smiled and was appeased. If any accident befell Virginia, the cries of Paul gave notice of the disaster, and then the dear child would suppress her complaints when she found that Paul was unhappy. When I came hither, I used to see them tottering along, holding each other by the hands and under the arms, as we represent the constellation of the Twins. At night these infants often refused to be separated, and were found lying in the same cradle, their cheeks, their bosoms, pressed close together, their hands thrown round each other's neck, and sleeping locked in one another's arms.

When they began to speak, the first names they learned to give each other were those of brother and sister, and childhood knows no softer appellation. Their education served to increase their early friendship, by directing it to the supply of each other's wants. In a short time, all that regarded the household economy, the care of preparing the rural repasts, became the task of Virginia, whose labors were always crowned with the praises and kisses of her brother. As for Paul, always in motion, he dug the garden with Domingo, or followed him with a little hatchet into the woods; and if in his rambles he espied a beautiful flower, fine fruit, or a nest of birds, even at the top of a tree, he would climb up, and bring it home to his sister.

When you met one of these children, you might be sure the other was not far off. One day, as I was coming down the mountain, I saw Virginia at the end of the garden, running toward the house, with her petticoat thrown over her head, in order to screen herself from a shower of rain. At a distance, I thought she was alone; but as I hastened toward her, in order to help her on, I perceived that she held Paul by the arm, almost entirely enveloped in the same canopy, and both were laughing heartily at being sheltered together under an umbrella of their own invention. Those two charming faces placed within the swelling petticoat recalled to my mind the children of Leda enclosed within the same shell.

Their sole study was how to please and assist each other; for of all other things they were ignorant, and knew neither how to read nor write. They were never disturbed by inquiries about past times, nor did their curiosity extend beyond the bounds of their mountain. They believed the world ended at the shores of their own island, and all their ideas and affections were confined within its limits. Their mutual tenderness, and that of their mothers, employed all the activity of their souls. Their tears had never been called forth by tedious application to useless sciences. Their minds had never been wearied by lessons of morality, superfluous to bosoms unconscious of ill. They had never been taught not to steal, because everything with them was in common; or not to be intemperate, because their simple food was left to their own discretion; or not to lie, because they had no truth to conceal. Their young imaginations had never been terrified by the idea that God has punishments in store for ungrateful children, since with them filial affection arose naturally from maternal fondness.

Thus passed their early childhood, like a beautiful dawn, the prelude of a bright day. Already they partook with their mothers the cares of the household. As soon as the crow of the cock announced the first beam of the morning, Virginia arose, and hastened to draw water from a neighboring spring; then, returning to the house, she prepared the breakfast. When the rising sun lighted up the points of the rocks which overhang this enclosure, Margaret and her child went to the dwelling of Madame de la Tour, and offered up together their morning prayer. This sacrifice of thanksgiving always preceded their first repast, of which they often partook before the door of the cottage, seated upon the grass, under a canopy of plantain; and while the branches of that delightful tree afforded a grateful shade, its solid fruit furnished food ready prepared by Nature; and its long glossy leaves, spread upon the table, supplied the want of linen.

Perhaps the most charming spot of this enclosure was that which was called Virginia's Resting-place. At the foot of the rock which bore the name of the Discovery of Friendship is a nook, from whence issues a fountain, forming, near its source, a little spot of marshy soil in the midst of a field of rich grass. At the time Margaret brought Paul into the world, I made her a present of an Indian cocoa which had been given me, and which she planted on the border of this fenny ground, in order that the tree might one day serve to mark the epoch of her son's birth. Madame de la Tour planted another cocoa, with the same view, at the birth of Virginia. These nuts produced two cocoa-trees, which formed the only records of the two families: one was called Paul's tree; the other, Virginia's tree. They both grew in the same proportion as their two owners, a little unequally; but they rose, at the end of twelve years, above the cottages. Already their tender stalks were interwoven, and their young clusters of cocoas hung over the basin of the fountain. Except this little plantation, the nook of the rock had been left as it was decorated by Nature. On its brown and moist sides large plants of maidenhair glistened with their green and dark stars; and tufts of wave-leaved hart's-tongue, suspended like long ribbons of purpled green, floated on the winds. Near this grew a chain of the Madagascar periwinkle, the flowers of which resemble the red gillyflower; and the long-podded capsicum, the seed-vessels of which are of the color of blood, and more glowing than coral. Hard by, the herb of balm, with its leaves within the heart, and the sweet basil, which has the odor of the gillyflower, exhaled the most delicious perfumes. From the steep side of the mountain hung the graceful lianas, like floating drapery, forming magnificent canopies of verdure upon the sides of the rocks. The sea-birds, allured by the stillness of those retreats, resorted thither to pass the night. At the hour of sunset we could see the curlew and the stint skimming along the sea-shore; the black frigate-bird poised high in air; and the white bird of the tropic, which abandons, with the star of day, the solitudes of the Indian Ocean. Virginia loved to rest upon the border of this fountain, decorated with wild and sublime magnificence. She often seated herself beneath the shade of the two cocoa-trees, and there she sometimes led her goats to graze. While she was making cheeses of their milk, she loved to see them browse on the maidenhair which grew upon the steep sides of the rock, and hung suspended upon one of its cornices, as on a pedestal. Paul, observing that Virginia was fond of this spot, brought thither, from the neighboring forest, a great variety of bird's-nests. The old birds, following their young, established themselves in this new colony. Virginia, at certain times, distributed among them grains of rice, millet, and maize. As soon as she appeared, the whistling blackbird, the amadavid bird, the note of which is so soft, the cardinal, with its plumage the color of flame, forsook their bushes; the paroquet, green as an emerald, descended from the neighboring fan-palms; the partridge ran along the grass; all came running helter-skelter toward her, like a brood of chickens, and she and Paul delighted to observe their sports, their repasts, and their loves.

Amiable children! thus passed your early days in innocence, and in the exercise of benevolence. How many times, on this very spot, have your mothers, pressing you in their arms, blessed Heaven for the consolations that you were preparing for their declining years, and that they could see you begin life under such happy auspices! How many times, beneath the shade of those rocks, have I partaken with them of your rural repasts, which cost no animal its life! Gourds filled with milk, fresh eggs, cakes of rice placed upon plantain leaves, baskets loaded with mangoes, oranges, dates, pomegranates, pine-apples, furnished at once the most wholesome food, the most beautiful colors, and the most delicious juices.

The conversation was gentle and innocent as the repasts. Paul often talked of the labors of the day and those of the morrow. He was continually planning something useful for their little society. Here he discovered that the paths were rough; there that the seats were uncomfortable; sometimes the young arbors did not afford sufficient shade, and Virginia might be better pleased elsewhere.

In the rainy season the two families met together in the cottage, and employed themselves in weaving mats of grass and baskets of bamboo. Rakes, spades, and hatchets were ranged along the walls in the most perfect order; and near these instruments of agriculture were placed its products,—sacks of rice, sheaves of corn, and baskets of plantains. Some degree of luxury is usually united with plenty, and Virginia was taught by her mother and Margaret to prepare sherbet and cordials from the juice of the sugar-cane, the lemon, and the citron.

When night came, they all supped together by the light of a lamp; after which Madame de la Tour or Margaret told stories of travellers lost during the night in forests of Europe infested by banditti; or of some shipwrecked vessel, thrown by the tempest upon the rocks of a desert island. To these recitals their children listened with eager sensibility, and earnestly begged that Heaven would grant they might one day have the joy of showing their hospitality towards such unfortunate persons. At length the two families would separate and retire to rest, impatient to meet again the next morning. Sometimes they were lulled to repose by the beating rains which fell in torrents upon the roofs of their cottages, and sometimes by the hollow winds, which brought to their ear the distant murmur of the waves breaking upon the shore. They blessed God for their own safety, of which their feeling became stronger from the idea of remote danger.