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A Supposition

( Originally Published 1918 )



"LET us suppose ourselves, my friends, in the heart of a desert country, left to shift for ourselves, without any of the resources that come with civilization. To defend life and procure food are our constant great care. Around us extend endless dark woods where roar, howl, bellow a thousand ferocious animals that would tear us to pieces with their claws or quarter us with their horns if they took us by surprise. To shelter ourselves from their attack, we have to choose between the refuge of a grotto, the mouth of which we close with fragments of rock rolled painfully into place, and the hollow trunk of an old tree, or, better, its large branches, if we can manage to climb up to them."

"It is the story of Robinson Crusoe on his Island," Emile interrupted.

"Not quite. I am supposing our state much worse than his. Robinson Crusoe had at his disposal a quantity of things saved from the shipwreck—tools of all kinds, formidable weapons, guns, powder, and shot. We have nothing, absolutely nothing but our ten fingers."

"Not even a knife to cut a stick with' asked Emile.

"Not even a knife."

"Rather an unpleasant situation," remarked Louis; "and all the more so as we couldn't stay shut up all the time. We should have to leave our grotto to procure food, and then beware of the wolves and all the dangerous creatures in the wood."

"Nothing imparts courage like the terrible need of food. We should start out, then, armed with some stones and with a stick clumsily broken off with our hands. If the wild beast runs at us we shall do our best to knock it down."

"But what if we don't succeed '" was Emile's query.

In that case we are done for : we shall become its prey."

"To tell the truth, Uncle, in spite of the pleasure the reading of Robinson Crusoe on his Island gave me, I prefer this trip through the woods to be simply a supposition on your part rather than a reality."

"Emile is not the only one of that opinion," declared Jules. "When I have nothing to defend myself with I don't like those woods where there are wolves and still worse things."

"I continue my supposition. Hunger drives us and we start. I assume that heaven favors us and that no serious danger comes to disturb us in our hunt for something to keep us from starving. If we are on the seashore we shall catch shell-fish; if inland, we shall gather berries from the brambles and sloes from the thicket. If we hunt long enough we may perhaps find a handful or two of hazel-nuts.

That will be our dinner, which will beguile our hunger for a while without satisfying it."

I should think so," exclaimed Emile. "Berries and sloes, and nothing else—a sorry feast ! I 'd rather have a crust of bread, no matter how hard."

"So had I. But the crust of bread means cultivated fields, the husbandman, the harvester, the miller, and the baker; it presupposes an advanced civilization, whereas we are in a wilderness. We must do without the crust of bread. If, however, you find something better than berries and sloes, I will gladly give up the detestable fruit."

"Since the woods where you suppose us to be," said Jules, "are full of all sorts of animals, there ought to be game in abundance."

"Yes, indeed, game is there in plenty."

"Well, then; let us hunt it, and then we will light a fire and I will see to roasting what we have got. That will be much better than horrid sloes, sour enough to set your teeth on edge."

"That is a good idea, but I see two great difficulties: first, we must catch the game; secondly, we must make a fire."

"Making a fire is the easiest thing in the world," Emile declared. "All we need is a match, as long as there is plenty of wood."

"You forget, my friend, that there are no matches. We have nothing, absolutely nothing."

"That is true. What shall we do, then? If I re-member right, Robinson Crusoe too had no end of trouble in making a fire. He finally found a tree that had been set on fire by lightning."

"Would you wait for a thunderstorm to come and set fire to a corner of the forest? Long before that we should have time to starve, for it is very seldom that lightning starts a fire."

"Must we, then, give up the roast that I was proposing? Jules asked.

"Before giving it up we might try the means employed by certain savage tribes for obtaining fire. The operator takes his seat on the ground and holds between his feet a piece of soft and very dry wood in which a small cavity has been hollowed; then he twirls rapidly between his hands a stick of hard wood with its point in the cavity. As a result of this energetic friction the soft wood becomes heated at the bottom of the hollow, and ends by catching fire. Success necessitates, it is true, a rapidity of friction and a skill that certainly we should not be able to acquire without a long apprenticeship ; but I pass over that difficulty and assume that we have a fire.

"Now for the game. A hare will be a great plenty for us. This animal abounds, and we should be very unskilful if we did not soon find one curling its mustaches with its velvety paw under a tuft of broom. But the hare has quick ears and sharp eyes. Long before we can get within striking distance it hears and sees us, and decamps. Run after it now if you think you can catch it."

"For my part," said Jules, "I won't undertake it."

"With the weapons we possess," Louis admitted, "with only our sticks and stones, the chase seems to me out of the question : all game of whatever sort would foil our attempts by its vigilance and rapid flight."

"Are you all thoroughly convinced of it?" asked Uncle Paul.

"I certainly am," replied Jules. "Not being able to match the game in fleetness of foot, we shall always come back from the hunt empty-handed."

"That's plain enough," Emile assented.

"Then let us be content with sloes, and if hunger presses too hard we must tighten our belts. Since, too, at any moment, some furious wild beast might pounce upon us and devour us, let us lose no time in getting back to reflect on our sad plight.

"Our wretched state is indeed lamentable. Incessant hunger torments us, despite the extreme abundance of game, which would be an invaluable resource for us, but which unfortunately we cannot turn to account. If, to stay our hunger, we go in search of wild fruit, a thousand dangers await us. We may fall into clutches that no stone will intimidate and no sticks cause to relax. We are without provisions, defenseless. A terrible alternative awaits us: to die of hunger or be devoured by those that are stronger than we."

"Such a Robinson Crusoe life I should not care for," declared Emile.

"Now let us suppose one thing more : Heaven takes pity on our distress and, to extricate us from our difficulty, offers us the aid of one of our domestic animals, whichever one we choose to name. Which will you ask for, children?"

"My stomach is so tired of sloes," Emile replied, "and my teeth are so set on edge with this sour fruit that I think I should choose a sheep. Some cutlets broiled over live coals would make up to me for my dinners on wild berries."

"But the sheep will soon be eaten up," objected Jules, "and then back you go once more to the sloes. I should prefer a goat. Every evening it would come back to the grotto with its big udders swollen with milk. In this way I should be sure of food with some variety, because I could make butter and cheese out of the milk."

"Your goat will perhaps not last so long as Emile's sheep. It must go out to get pasturage, and who can say that it will not be devoured by wolves in the woods the first time it ventures forth?"

"I will keep careful watch over it."

"But who will watch over you, my friend? Who will protect you?"

"That's so. Let us give up the goat and choose a cow. She is strong enough to defend herself with her horns."

"If one wolf is not enough, they will bring to the attack two, three, ten, and the cow will be overcome."

"The horse, mule, or donkey, in our supposed circumstances, cannot be very useful to us. I leave them out. With a hen I should at least have an egg a day.''

"A poor dependence if one hen's egg has to be divided between four. Besides, what grain have you for feeding your hen? And how about the fox—will he leave her in peace?"

"The pig is still left," was Jules's final suggestion. "But there we have the same difficulty as with Emile's sheep : once the animal is eaten, hunger overtakes us again. I leave the choice to some one cleverer than I."

"My choice," said Louis, "would be the dog, with-out a moment's hesitation."

"What a queer choice!" cried Emile. "The dog will lick our hands in sign of friendship, he will bark in front of the grotto, and he will gnaw the bone we throw to him. But as there are no bones in our dinners of sloes, the poor beast will die of hunger without being of any use to us whatever."

I can find use for him," replied Louis, "and it is a great one. With the dog, game, even the nimblest hare, will be caught in the chase, with such ambuscade as we can contrive on our part, and food will be assured for all—flesh for us, bones for the dog. Accompanied by him, we can go wherever we please, without the continual fear of being attacked any moment. If a wolf appears, our vigorous companion will cope with it, seize it by the nape of the neck, and give us a chance to lay on with the cudgel."

"Louis is right," declared Jules ; "I vote for the dog."

"The reasons Louis gives," Emile chimed in, "are too clear to admit of any but a unanimous vote in the dog's favor."

"Yes, my friend," his uncle rejoined, "unanimous, even to the vote of your Uncle Paul, who for some moments has been making you live Robinson Crusoe's life in imagination for the express purpose of leading you to decide for yourselves in favor of the dog.

`In the early days, centuries and centuries ago, man lived mostly by the chase, as to-day the last surviving savage tribes still live. The raising of herds, the tilling of the soil, the manufacture of goods, all were unknown. Wild animals, hunted in the forests with stone weapons and pointed sticks, furnished almost the only resource. Their flesh gave food, their skins provided clothing. To catch the game, a fleet-footed auxiliary in the chase was necessary; to keep these dangerous animals in a proper state of awe, a courageous defender was needed by man. This auxiliary, this defender, and, best of all, this friend, devoted even to death, was the dog; a gift from Heaven to help man in his pitiful beginnings. With the aid of the dog, life was rendered less perilous, food more assured. Leisure followed, and from being a hunter man became a herdsman. The herd was formed, at first very indocile and at the slightest lack of watchfulness taking again to the wild life of old. Its keeping was confided to the dog, which, posted on some rising ground of the pasture, its scent to the wind and ear on the watch, followed the herd with vigilant eye and rushed to bring back the runaways or to drive off some evil-intentioned beast. Thanks to the dog, the herd gave abundance—milk and its products, flesh for food, and warm wool for clothing. Then, relieved from the terrible anxiety concerning daily provision, man took it into his head to dig in the earth and make it produce grain. Agriculture sprang into being, and with it, little by little, civilization. By the very force of circumstances, therefore, man in all countries is at first a hunter, later he becomes a herdsman, and ends by being an agriculturist. The dog is absolutely necessary to him, first for hunting, then for watching and defending the herd. Of all our domestic animals, accordingly, the dog is the earliest on record and the one that has rendered us the greatest service."



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