Madame Michelet, Child Life


Among my earliest recollections, dating (if my memory deceive me not) from the time when I was between the ages of four and five, is that of being seated beside a grave, industrious person, who seemed to be constantly watching me. Her beautiful but stern countenance impressed one chiefly by the peculiar expression of the light blue eyes, so rare in Southern Europe. Their gaze was like that which has looked in youth across vast plains, wide horizons, and great rivers. This lady was my mother, born in Louisiana, of English parentage.

I had constant toil before me, strangely unbroken for so young a child. At six years of age, I knit my own stockings, by and by my brothers' also, walking up and down the shady path. I did not care to go farther; I was uneasy if, when I turned, I could not see the green blind at my mother's window.

Our lowly house had an easterly aspect. At its northeast corner, my mother sat at work, with her little people around her; my father had his study at the opposite end, towards the south. I began to pick up my alphabet with him; for I had double tasks. I studied my books in the intervals of sewing or knitting. My brothers ran away to play after lessons; but I returned to my mother's work-room. I liked very well, however, to trace on my slate the great bars which are called "jambages." It seemed to me as if I drew something, from within myself, which came to the pencil's point. When my bars began to look regular, I paused often to admire what I had done; then, if my dear papa would lean towards me, and say, "Very well, little princess," I drew myself up with pride.

My father had a sweet and penetrating voice; his dark complexion showed his Southern origin, which also betrayed itself in the passionate fire of his eyes, dark, with black lashes, which softened their glance. With all their electric fire, they were not wanting in an indefinable expression of tenderness and sweetness. At sixty years of age, after a life of strange, and even tragic, incidents, his heart remained ever young and light, benevolent to all, disposed to confide in human nature,—sometimes too easily.

I had none of the enjoyments of city-bred children, and less still of that childish wit which is sure to win maternal admiration for every word which falls from the lips of the little deities. Mother Nature alone gave me a welcome, and yet my early days were not sad; all the country-side looked so lovely to me.

Just beyond the farm lay the cornfields which belonged to us; they were of no great extent, but to me they seemed infinite. When Marianne, proud of her master's possessions, would say, "Look, miss, there, there, and farther on,—all is yours," I was really frightened; for I saw the moving grain, undulating like the ocean, and stretching far away. I liked better to believe that the world ended at our meadow. Sometimes my father went across the fields to see what the reapers were doing, and then I hid my face in Marianne's apron, and cried, "Not so far, not so far! papa will be lost!"

I was then five years old. That cry was the childish expression of a sentiment, the shadow of which gained on me year by year,—the fear that I might lose my father. I desired to please, to be praised, and to be loved. I felt so drawn towards my mother, that I sometimes jumped from my seat to give her a kiss; but when I met her look, and saw her eyes, pale and clear as a silvery lake, I recoiled, and sat down quietly. Years have passed, and yet I still regret those joys of childhood which I never knew,—a mother's caresses. My education might have been so easy; my mother might have understood my heart,—a kiss is sometimes eloquent; and in a daily embrace she would perhaps have guessed the thoughts I was too young to utter, and would have learned how faithfully I loved her.

No such freedom was allowed us. The morning kiss and familiar speech with one's parents are permitted at the North, but are less frequent in the South of France. Authority overshadows family affection. My father, who was an easy man and loved to talk, might have disregarded such regulations; but my mother kept us at a distance. It made one thoughtful and reserved to watch her going out and coming in, with her noble air, severe and silent. We felt we must be careful not to give cause for blame.

My mother could spin like a fairy. All winter she sat at her wheel; and perhaps her wandering thoughts were soothed by the gentle monotonous music of its humming. My father, seeing her so beautiful at her work, secretly ordered a light, slender spinning-wheel to be carved for her use, which she found one morning at the foot of her bed. Her cheek flushed with pleasure; she scarcely dared to touch it, it looked so fragile. "Do not be afraid," said my father; "it looks fragile, but it can well stand use. It is made of boxwood from our own garden. It grew slowly, as all things do that last. Neither your little hand nor foot can injure it." My mother took her finest Flanders flax, of silvery tresses knotted with a cherry-colored ribbon. The children made a circle round the wheel, which turned for the first time under my mother's hands. My father was watching, between smiles and tears, to see how dexterously she handled the distaff. The thread was invisible, but the bobbin grew bigger. My mother would have been contented if the days had been prolonged to four-and-twenty hours, while she was sitting by her beautiful wheel.

When we rose in the morning, we said a prayer. We knelt together; my father standing, bareheaded, in the midst. After that, what delight it was to run to the hill-top, to meet the first rays of the sun, and to hear our birds singing little songs about the welcome daylight! From the garden, the orchard, the oaks, and from the open fields, their voices were heard; and yet, in my heart, I hid more songs than all the birds in the world would have known how to sing. I was not sad by nature. I had the instincts of the lark, and longed to be as happy. Since I had no wings to carry me up to the clouds, I would have liked to hide myself like him among the tall grain and the flax.

One of my great enjoyments was to meet the strong south-winds that came to us from the ocean. I loved to struggle with the buffets of the blast. It was terrible, but sweet, to feel it tossing and twisting my curls, and flinging them backward. After these morning races on the hills, I went to visit the wild flowers,—weeds that no one else cherished; but I loved them better than all other plants. Near the water, in little pools hollowed by the rains in stormy weather, on the border of the wood, sprang up, flourished, and died, forests of dwarf proportions; white, transparent stars; bells full of sweet odors. All were mysterious and ephemeral; so much the more did I prize and regret them.

If I indeed had the merry disposition of the lark, I had also his sensitive timidity, that brings him sometimes to hide between the furrows in the earth. A look, a word, a shadow, was enough to discourage me. My smiles died away, I shrunk into myself, and did not dare to move.

"Why did my mother choose three boys, rather than three girls, after I was born?" This problem was often in my mind. Boys only tear blouses, which they don't know how to mend. If she had only thought how happy I would be with a sister, a dear little sister! How I should have loved her,—scolded her sometimes, but kissed her very often! We should have had our work and play together, thoroughly independent of all those gentlemen,—our brothers.

My eldest sister was too far from my age. There seemed to be centuries between us. I had one friend,—my cat, Zizi; but she was a wild, restless creature, and no companion, for I could scarcely hold her an instant. She preferred the roof of the house to my lap.

I became very thoughtful, and said to myself, "How shall I get a companion? and how do people make dolls?" It did not occur to me, who had never seen a toy-shop, that they could be purchased ready-made. My chin resting on my hand, I sat in meditation, wondering how I could create what I desired. My passionate desire overruled my fears, and I decided to work from my own inspiration.

I rejected wood, as too hard to afford the proper material for my dolly. Clay, so moist and cold, chilled the warmth of my invention. I took some soft, white linen, and some clean bran, and with them formed the body. I was like the savages, who desire a little god to worship. It must have a head with eyes, and with ears to listen; and it must have a breast, to hold its heart. All the rest is less important, and remains undefined.

I worked after this fashion, and rounded my doll's head by tying it firmly. There was a clearly perceptible neck,—a little stiff, perhaps; a well-developed chest; and then came vague drapery, which dispensed with limbs. There were rudiments of arms,—not very graceful, but movable; indeed, they moved of themselves. I was filled with admiration. Why might not the body move? I had read how God breathed upon Adam and Eve the breath of life; with my whole heart and my six years' strength I breathed on the creature I had made. I looked; she did not stir. Never mind. I was her mother, and she loved me; that was enough. The dangers that menaced our mutual affection only served to increase it. She gave me anxiety from the moment of her birth. How and where could I keep her in safety? Surrounded by mischievous boys, sworn enemies to their sisters' dolls, I was obliged to hide mine in a dark corner of a shed, where the wagons and carriages were kept. After being punished, I could conceive no consolation equal to taking my child to bed with me. To warm her, I tucked her into my little bed, with the friendly pussy who was keeping it warm for me. At bedtime, I laid her on my heart, still heaving with sobs; and she seemed to sigh too. If I missed her in the night, I became wide awake; I hunted for her, full of apprehension. Often she was quite at the bottom of the bed. I brought her out, folded her in my arms, and fell asleep happy.

I liked, in my extreme loneliness, to believe that she had a living soul. Her grandparents were not aware of her existence. Would she have been so thoroughly my own, if other people had known her? I loved better to hide her from all eyes.

One thing was wanting to my satisfaction. My doll had a head, but no face. I desired to look into her eyes, to see a smile on her countenance that should resemble mine. Sunday was the great holiday, when everybody did what they liked. Drawing and painting were the favorite occupations. Around the fire, in winter time, the little ones made soldiers; while my elder brother, who was a true artist, and worked with the best colors, painted dresses and costumes of various sorts. We watched his performances, dazzled by the marvels which he had at his finger-ends.

It was during this time of general preoccupation that my daughter, carefully hidden under my apron, arrived among her uncles. No one noticed me; and I tried, successfully, to possess myself of a brush, with some colors. But I could do nothing well; my hand trembled, and all my lines were crooked. Then I made an heroic resolution,—to ask my brother's assistance boldly. The temptation was strong, indeed, which led me to brave the malice of so many imps. I stepped forward, and, with a voice which I vainly endeavored to steady, I said, "Would you be so kind as to make a face for my doll?" My eldest brother seemed not at all surprised, but took the doll in his hands with great gravity, and examined it; then, with apparent care, chose a brush. Suddenly he drew across her countenance two broad stripes of red and black, something like a cross; and gave me back my poor little doll, with a burst of laughter. The soft linen absorbed the colors, which ran together in a great blot. It was very dreadful. Great cries followed; everybody crowded round to see this wonderful work. Then a cousin of ours, who was passing Sunday with us, seized my treasure, and tossed it up to the ceiling. It fell flat on the floor. I picked it up; and, if the bad boy had not taken flight, he would have suffered, very likely, from my resentment.

Sad days were in store for us. My child and I were watched in all our interviews. Often was she dragged from her hiding-places among the bushes and in the high grass. Everybody made war upon her,—even Zizi, the cat, who shared her nightly couch. My brothers sometimes gave the doll to Zizi as a plaything; and, in my absence, even she was not sorry to claw it, and roll it about on the garden walks. When I next found it, it was a shapeless bunch of dusty rags. With the constancy of a great affection, I remade again and again the beloved being predestined to destruction; and each time I pondered how to create something more beautiful. This aiming at perfection seemed to calm my grief. I made a better form, and produced symmetrical legs (once, to my surprise, the rudiment of a foot appeared); but the better my work was, the more bitter the ridicule, and I began to be discouraged.

My doll, beyond a doubt, was in mortal peril. My brothers whispered together; and their sidelong glances foreboded me no good. I felt that I was watched. In order to elude their vigilance, I constantly transferred my treasure from one hiding-place to another; and many nights it lay under the open sky. What jeers, what laughter, had it been found!

To put an end to my torments, I threw my child into a very dark corner, and feigned to forget her. I confess to a shocking resolution; for an evil temptation assailed me. But, if self-love began to triumph over my affection for her, it was but as a momentary flash, a troubled dream. Without the dear little being, I should have had nothing to live for. It was, in fact, my second self. After much searching, my unlucky doll was discovered. Its limbs were torn off without mercy; and the body, being tossed up into an acacia-tree, was stuck on the thorns. It was impossible to bring it down. The victim hung, abandoned to the autumnal gales, to the wintry tempests, to the westerly rains, and to the northern snows. I watched her faithfully, believing that the time would come when she would revisit this earth.

In the spring, the gardener came to prune the trees. With tears in my eyes, I said, "Bring me back my doll from those branches." He found only a fragment of her poor little dress, torn and faded. The sight almost broke my heart.

All hope being gone, I became more sensitive to the rough treatment of my brothers; and I fell into a sort of despair. After my life with her whom I had lost; after my emotions, my secret joys and fears,—I felt all the desolation of my bereavement. I longed for wings to fly away. When my sister excluded me from her sports with her companions, I climbed into the swing, and said to the gardener, "Jean, swing me high,—higher yet: I wish to fly away." But I was soon frightened enough to beg for mercy.

Then I tried to lose myself. Behind the grove which closed in our horizon stretched a long slope, undulating towards a deep cut below. With infinite pains, I surmounted all obstacles, and gained the road. How far, far away from home I felt! My heart was beating violently. What sorrow this would give to my dear father! Where should I sleep? I should never dare to ask shelter at a farm-house, much less lie down among the bushes, where the screech-owls made a noise all night. So, without further reflection, I returned home.

Animals are happier. I wished to be little Lauret, the gold-colored ox, who labors so patiently, and comes and goes all day long. Or I'd like to be Grisette or Brunette, the pretty asses who are mother's pets.

After all, who would not like to be a flower? However, a flower lives but a very little while: you are cut down as soon as born. A tree lasts much longer. Yet what a bore it must be to stay always in one place! To stand with one's foot buried in the ground,—it is too dreadful; the thought worried me when I was in bed, thinking things over.

I would have been a bird, if a good fairy had taken pity on me. Birds are so free, so happy, they sing all day long. If I were a bird, I would come and fly about our woods, and would perch on the roof of our house. I would come to see my empty chair, my place at table, and my mother looking sad; then, at my father's hour for reading, alone in the garden, I would fly, and perch on his shoulder, and my father would know me at once.