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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Child-Life
By Anatole France (1844–1924)
 
From ‘The Book of My Friend’

EVERYTHING in immortal nature is a miracle to the little child.  1
  I was happy. A thousand things at once familiar and mysterious filled my imagination, a thousand things which were nothing in themselves, but which made my life. It was very small, that life of mine; but it was a life—which is to say, the centre of all things, the kernel of the world. Do not smile at what I say,—or smile only in sympathy, and reflect: whoever lives, be it only a dog, is at the centre of all things.  2
  Deciding to be a hermit and a saint, and to resign the good things of this world, I threw my toys out of the window.  3
  “The child is a fool!” cried my father, closing the window. I felt anger and shame at hearing myself thus judged. But immediately I considered that my father, not being so holy as I, could never share with me the glory of the blessed, and this thought was for me a great consolation.  4
  Every Saturday we were taken to confession. If any one will tell me why, he will greatly oblige me. The practice inspired me with both respect and weariness. I hardly think it probable that M. le Curé took a lively interest in hearing my sins; but it was certainly disagreeable to me to cite them to him. The first difficulty was to find them. You can perhaps believe me, when I declare that at ten years of age I did not possess the psychic qualities and the methods of analysis which would have made it possible rationally to explore my inmost conscience. Nevertheless it was necessary to have sins: for—no sins, no confession. I had been given, it is true, a little book which contained them all: I had only to choose. But the choice itself was difficult. There was so much obscurely said of “larceny, simony, prevarication”! I read in the little book, “I accuse myself of having despaired; I accuse myself of having listened to evil conversations.” Even this furnished little wherewith to burden my conscience. Therefore ordinarily I confined myself to “distractions.” Distractions during mass, distractions during meals, distractions in “religious assemblies,”—I avowed all; yet the deplorable emptiness of my conscience filled me with deep shame. I was humiliated at having no sins….  5
  I will tell you what, each year, the stormy skies of autumn, the first dinners by lamplight, the yellowing leaves on the shivering trees, bring to my mind; I will tell you what I see as I cross the Luxembourg garden in the early October days—those sad and beautiful days when the leaves fall, one by one, on the white shoulders of the statues there.  6
  What I see then is a little fellow who with his hands in his pockets is going to school, hopping along like a sparrow. I see him in thought only, for he is but a shadow, a shadow of the “me” as I was twenty-five years ago. Really, he interests me,—this little fellow. When he was living I gave him but little thought, but now that he is no more, I love him well. He was worth altogether more than the rest of the “me’s” that I have been since. He was a happy-hearted boy as he crossed the Luxembourg garden in the fresh air of the morning. All that he saw then I see to-day. It is the same sky, and the same earth; the same soul of things is here as before,—that soul that still makes me gay, or sad, or troubled: only he is no more! He was heedless enough, but he was not wicked; and in justice to him I must declare that he has not left me a single harsh memory. He was an innocent child that I have lost. It is natural that I should regret him; it is natural that I should see him in thought, and delight in recalling him to memory….  7
  Nothing is of more value for giving a child a knowledge of the great social machine than the life of the streets. He should see in the morning the milkwomen, the water carriers, the charcoal men; he should look in the shop windows of the grocer, the pork vender, and the wine-seller; he should watch the regiments pass, with the music of the band. In short, he should suck in the air of the streets, that he may learn that the law of labor is Divine, and that each man has his work to do in the world….  8
  Oh! ye sordid old Jews of the Rue Cherche-Midi, and you my masters, simple sellers of old books on the quays, what gratitude do I owe you! More and better than university professors, have you contributed to my intellectual life! You displayed before my ravished eyes the mysterious forms of the life of the past, and every sort of monument of precious human thought. In ferreting among your shelves, in contemplating your dusty display laden with the pathetic relics of our fathers and their noble thoughts, I have been penetrated with the most wholesome of philosophies. In studying the worm-eaten volumes, the rusty iron-work, the worn carvings of your stock, I experienced, child as I was, a profound realization of the fluent, changing nature of things and the nothingness of all, and I have been always since inclined to sadness, to gentleness, and pity.  9
  The open-air school taught me, as you see, great lessons; but the home school was more profitable still. The family repast, so charming when the glasses are clear, the cloth white, and the faces tranquil,—the dinner of each day with its familiar talk,—gives to the child the taste for the humble and holy things of life, the love of loving. He eats day by day that blessed bread which the spiritual Father broke and gave to the pilgrims in the inn at Emmaus, and says, like them, “My heart is warmed within me.” Ah! how good a school is the school of home!…  10
  The little fellow of whom I spoke but just now to you, with a sympathy for which you pardon me, perhaps, reflecting that it is not egotistic but is addressed only to a shadow,—the little fellow who crossed the Luxembourg garden, hopping like a sparrow,—became later an enthusiastic humanist.  11
  I studied Homer. I saw Thetis rise like a white mist over the sea, I saw Nausicaa and her companions, and the palm-tree of Delos, and the sky, and the earth, and the sea, and the tearful smile of Andromache. I comprehended, I felt. For six months I lived in the Odyssey. This was the cause of numerous punishments: but what to me were pensums? I was with Ulysses on his violet sea. Alcestis and Antigone gave me more noble dreams than ever child had before. With my head swallowed up in the dictionary on my ink-stained desk, I saw divine forms,—ivory arms falling on white tunics,—and heard voices sweeter than the sweetest music, lamenting harmoniously.  12
  This again cost me fresh punishments. They were just; I was “busying” myself “with things foreign to the class.” Alas! the habit remains with me still. In whatever class in life I am put for the rest of my days, I fear yet, old as I am, to encounter again the reproach of my old professor: “Monsieur Pierre Nozièrre, you busy yourself with things foreign to the class.”
*        *        *        *        *
  13
  But the evening falls over the plane-trees of the Luxembourg, and the little phantom which I have evoked disappears in the shadow. Adieu! little “me” whom I have lost, whom I should forever regret, had I not found thee again, beautified, in my son!  14
 
 
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