( Originally Published 1918 )
ONCE upon a timeó That begins, you see, like the stories of Cinderella and of the Ass's Skin. Are we going to spend our time in the recital of the wonders of some fairy godmother? Not at all. I am simply going to tell you the story of the guinea-fowl; and this story happens to be connected, in its first part, with a certain fable told thousands and thousands of years ago, in the evening by the fireside, to little boys, just as today you are told the tragic adventures of Hop o' my Thumb with the Ogre. I start again then.
In that corner of the world known as Greece, a corner so illustrious in ages long past, there was once upon a time a valiant young man, son of the king of the country, whose favorite occupation was hunting. I say occupation and not recreation, because in those hard times when industrial pursuits were just beginning, the country was overrun with wild animals from which one had constantly to defend oneself and one's flock, only recently herded together under the shepherd's crook. At the risk of their own lives brave men undertook this harsh duty. Many succumbed to it, some acquired renown great enough to survive the lapse of centuries and come down to our time. Surrounded by a heroic aureole, the names of these ancient slayers of monsters have reached us. Such is the name of Meleager, borne by the young man I just mentioned.
"The skin of a wild beast on his back for clothing, in his hand a stout stake sharpened to a point and hardened in the fire, on his shoulder a quiver full of arrows pointed with little sharp stones, in his belt a bludgeon of hard wood and a stone hatchet sharpened on the sandstone, the ardent hunter ranged over the country, tracking the formidable animals to their very lairs in dark forests and mountain caves over-grown with an impenetrable barrier of reeds."
"Why didn't those men," asked Emile, "if they had to fight such ferocious animals, use something better than sharpened sticks and stone-pointed arrows? Why did didn't they take regular firearms?"
"For the very best of reasons: metals were unknown, and iron, one of the latest to be discovered, was not used by man until long after this time. Men armed themselves, therefore, as best they could, with the point of a bone or the sharp edge of a broken stone."
I understand, then," said Louis, "how dangerous such hunts must have been, and how courageous the hunters. Today one would cut a sorry figure attacking a wolf with only a sharpened stake for a weapon."
"And how would it be if one found oneself face to face with the wild boar of which Meleager rid the country? According to the old writers who handed down the affair to us, it was an animal such as had never been seen before and will never be seen again. Heaven, in its wrath, had sent it to ravage the fields. It surpassed in size, they say, the strongest bulls. From its bloodshot eyes lightning darted; from its horrible mouth exhaled a fiery breath that instantly withered the leaves of trees; with a few blows of its snout it uprooted oaks; with its tusks, more formidable than the elephant's, it ripped up the earth and sent great. masses of rock flying like so much dust. What become of the poor people when this brute rushed at them in all its fury? They all fled, wild with terror, their hands upraised to heaven, their voices choked with fright."
"There must be some exaggeration there," interposed Louis. "A wild boar does not grow to such a size and such strength."
"Yes, certainly, there is exaggeration in this as in many other stories in which the real facts, coming down through long centuries, finally become greatly magnified and take on most marvelous additions. Let us bring things back to something like probability. An enormous wild boar sets the country in a panic. For a people unprovided with good weapons and having no refuge but fragile huts of reed, it must be a very dangerous situation.
"To exorcise the common peril, Meleager calls together the best men in the neighborhood and places himself at the head of the hunters, among whom are to be found two of his uncles, his mother's brothers, violent men and very jealous of the fame their nephew has already acquired by his valorous exploits. They go to meet the monster. The first to approach the beast pay for their temerity with their lives. Already several have been made to bite the dust, without any result, when Meleager, more fortunate and no doubt also more skilful, succeeds in stabbing the beast with his stake. Victory is his, and the boar should belong to him, or at least the head, as a trophy of his courage; but his uncles, furious at their nephew's acquisition of a new title to fame in addition to so many former ones, do not look at it in that light. The dispute becomes heated, and, as usual in those brutal times, the disputants pass quickly from argument to blows. Meleager, beside himself with wrath, kills his two uncles with the same stake that has drunk the blood of the beast."
"Oh, wretched man !" cried Jules.
"Evil overtook him. On hearing of the death of her two brothers, Meleager's mother loses her reason from grief. She draws from a cupboard, where she has kept it with the greatest care, a firebrand blackened at one end. With a hand trembling with anguish, she takes this firebrand, this precious fire-brand for which hitherto she would have given her very eyes, life itself, and throws it into the fire, where it is straightway consumed. Ah, what has she done, the unhappy mother, what has she done ! At that moment her son Meleager is dying, consumed by an inner fire; he is dying, he is dead, for the firebrand has just given its last flicker. In her despair the poor mother kills herself.
"The connection between this firebrand that was reduced to ashes and Meleager's end escapes you; I hasten to throw some light on this point. I will tell you then that at Meleager's birth a firebrand suddenly sprang from beneath the ground and began to burn in the middle of the room, while a voice from the depths, like an infernal rumbling, said: 'This child will live until the firebrand is consumed.' "
"Why, this is nothing but a fairy tale!" Jules exclaimed.
`Very true. History here gives place to fable. Now the firebrand was burning on the floor and threatened soon to be entirely consumed. They hastened to pick it up and extinguish it with water. From that time the mother preserved it with the greatest care, as the most precious thing she had, persuaded that her son would live to a great age, when, crazed with grief at the news of her brothers' death, she threw it into the fire. As the subterranean voice had said, the moment the firebrand was consumed Meleager succumbed, devoured by an inner fire."
"It 's a good story," was Emile's comment, "but I don't at all see what it has to do with the guinea-fowl."
"You will see in a minute," his uncle reassured him. "Inconsolable at the death of their brother, Meleager's sisters unceasingly shed tears that rolled like pearls over their mourning garments ; night and day they filled the house with their distressing sobs. Heaven had pity on them and changed them into birds until then unknown, into guinea, hens, whose plumage is still sprinkled with the tears of the unhappy girls, and whose unceasing cries are the continuation of their sobs. Such, according to the ancients, is the origin of guinea-fowls, called by them Meleagridce in honor of the hero of the legend.
"The childish imagination of the ancients elaborated this story of the metamorphosis of Meleager's sisters out of the two most prominent traits of the guinea-fowl, its plumage and its cry. On a background of bluish gray, the color of mourning, are sprinkled innumerable round white spots. Those are the tears, running in pearly drops over the bird as they ran over the somber garments of the inconsolable sisters. The guinea-fowl's voice is a discordant, continuous, unendurable cry, in which the fable recognizes, unquestioningly, the painful sobs of Meleager's sisters."
"Those resemblances are ingenious," said Louis, "but they do not take the place of real knowledge of the guinea-fowl's origin. Not even in those old days could every one have believed in the singular tale you have just told us."
`Many were satisfied with it and sought no further information. And even in our day, my friend, in this so-called enlightened century, is it so unusual that the more absurd a thing is the more easily it takes root in our minds? Many were satisfied with the story, but the wise knew well that the bird came to us from Africa, and for that reason called it the African fowl.
"These old names are now out of use and are replaced by the word guinea-fowl, or pintade, which some, not without reason write peintade (painted). In fact, the white spots, spread over the bluish-gray ground of the plumage, are so round and so regularly distributed that one might say they were traced with a brush by a painter. The bird looks painted; hence its name.
"The guinea-fowl has rounded outlines. Its short wings, its drooping tail, and the general arrangement of the feathers on its back give it a deformed appearance, which is misleading, for when plucked the bird shows none of its former gibbosity. The neck is lank. Imitating in that respect its compatriot, the camel, the guinea-fowl straightens it up and stretches it out when it runs away, and then it looks like a rolling ball. The head is small and partly bald, like the turkey's. Two wattles, tinted red and blue, hang from the base of the beak. The top of the skull is protected by dry skin, which rises in the shape of a helmet and is perhaps not without use when in their quarrelsome moods the guinea-fowls have a trial of skill in splitting one another's head with blows of the beak.
"Many qualities recommend this bird to our notice. The eggs are excellent and numerous, a hundred and more annually. They are a little smaller than the hen's, with remarkably thick shells of a yellowish or dull reddish color. Its flesh is superior, veritable game, nearly equal to that of the pheasant and partridge ; and yet the guinea-fowl is rare almost everywhere. Three great faults are the reason: its cry, its quarrelsome disposition, and its wandering habits.
"First, its cry. He who has not had, for hours and hours, his ear tortured by the satanic music of the bird is ignorant of one of the most irritating of minor torments. The rasping of a file upon the teeth of a saw in process of sharpening, the discordant screech of a strangling cat, the final roulade of a braying donkey, are trifles in comparison. And this charivari goes on from morning to night with a re-enforcement of the orchestra when the weather is about to change or something unexpected happens to worry the performers. If one is not blessed with a special ear, if the head is not void of all preoccupation, one simply cannot stand this deafening racket. They say the guinea-hens have inherited the wailings of Meleager's sisters; but I like to think that the poor girls put a little more reserve into the heart-breaking expression of their grief. In short, never tell Uncle Paul to have guinea-hens under his 'window; he would flee to the farthest depths of the forest, never to return. There are others, and they are numerous, whose nerves are irritated just as much by the insufferable bird; that is why the guinea-fowl is rare in poultry-yards, and by reason of its music escapes the spit.
"Second, its love of fighting. The parchment helmet standing up on top of the head betrays at the first glance the quarrelsome mania of the bird. The guinea-fowl is the bully of the poultry-yard; it domineers over the others and for a mere nothing will pick a quarrel. Hens and chickens are tormented for the possession of a grain of oats ; the cock must on all occasions have a trial of skill with the beak to make his and his family's rights respected; the turkey-gobbler himself, the burly gobbler, must reckon with it. The guinea-cock, quick at attack, delivers ten assaults and twenty blows of the beak before his big adversary can put himself on the defensive. When at last the gobbler parries and thrusts, the turbulent aggressor makes use of tactics that he seems to have learned from his compatriot, the Arab. He turns his back on the enemy, flees in haste, then abruptly returns to the charge and hurls himself suddenly on the gobbler at a moment when the latter is off his guard. The beak having dealt its blow, the flight recommences. Nearly always the gobbler is forced to capitulate. I leave you to imagine what sort of harmony must prevail in a poultry-yard harboring such disturbers of the peace.
"Third, its wanderlust. The narrow limits of the poultry-yard are irksome to guinea-fowls. They are glad enough to be on hand at feeding time, but, their crops once full, they must have a long walk across country. Off they go, always by themselves, without ever admitting the common poultry to their ranks. To the music of its harsh chatter the flock goes on from one hedge to another, one bush to the next, snapping up insects. The distraction of the hunt makes them forget distance, and soon they are beyond supervision. Let a dog appear, and these half-tamed game-birds are seized with a foolish panic. They fly in all directions, with a cry of alarm resembling the harsh note of a rattle. The disbanded flock will have much trouble in getting together again; perhaps when they do come together one or two will be missing. Another inconvenience no less grave : during these excursions the eggs are laid almost anywhere, in the wheat-field, on the broad meadow, amid the tangled underbrush. Except by attentive watching at the moment of laying, it would take a sharp eye to find the nest of the suspected bird.
"The guinea-hen broods in about the same manner as the common hen, but it is preferable to set the eggs under a common hen; she will perform the imposed task perfectly and make no distinction between her own eggs and those of a stranger. The hatching takes place about the twenty-eighth or thirtieth day. On coming out of the shell, the little guinea-chicks can walk and eat alone quite as well as the other chickens. They need warmth and assiduous care. The first week they are fed with a pap of bread-crumbs and hard-boiled eggs, to which are added ants' eggs or at least a little chopped meat. After that they have the same diet as ordinary chickens.
Like young turkeys they pass through a critical period, the time when the red begins to show on the bald skin of the head. To pass through it well, the best way is to give them strengthening food and shelter them from all dampness."