The Worlds Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906. Vols. XXI: French
First Day in France of a Huron
By Voltaire (16941778)
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.
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.
It is quite certain that if she had not been eaten up, she would have returned home. I shall mourn for her all my lifeshe 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.
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 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:
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:
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.
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.
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 muchwhen they dont ask too many questions.
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 beforefor what reason the Child of Nature could not comprehend.
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 nurses 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. Abacabas 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.
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.
Well baptize him! Yes, well 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.
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.