Read CHAPTER VIII of The Curly-Haired Hen, free online book, by Auguste Vimar, on ReadCentral.com.

MOTHER ETIENNE’S DREAM

Mother Etienne was very restless again that night, haunted, not by a dreadful nightmare as before, but by a troublesome dream. Everything she had just seen at Sir Booum’s appeared before her, the tiniest incidents, the least important details.

All the explanations, concerning the creatures in the menagerie given her by the trainer, came back to her, like an object lesson in a curious dream.

The principal person in it was Yollande. Yollande as Barnum, Yollande as trainer, Yollande holding in one hairy wing a stout whip, in the other the pitchfork as a protection against claws and teeth.

“You see here,” said Yollande in a loud voice, “you see here the wild ox from Madagascar, which takes the place of the horse. In that country he is harnessed to small, light vehicles which he draws along rapidly. This other is a buffalo from Caffraria. He is a Jack-of-all-trades, sometimes ridden, sometimes driven, sometimes laden, sometimes yoked to the plough. Those big striped animals you see yonder are giraffes. Their long necks permit them, without having recourse to a ladder, to eat the young shoots of the mimosa, of which they are very fond, as well as the fresh dates which usually grow at the tops of the palm-trees.”

In this kind of dream a strange idea was at work in the brain of the sleeper. With these object lessons were mingled strange, quaint asides.

“If children had long necks like that, one couldn’t keep the jam-pots out of their way by putting them on the top shelves of the cupboard.”

“There,” went on Yollande, “are the elephants. They are used for all sorts of tasks. Their trunks, a continuation of their nostrils, serve both for breathing and holding. It is, as it were, an extremely sensitive and powerful hand.”

“Great goodness me,” cried Mother Etienne; “imagine having a hand at the end of your nose! Would it have a glove on it and rings on its fingers?”

All sorts of ridiculous ideas like that came into her head. The little beaver, who builds his houses all along the Canadian streams, appeared trowel in hand, mortar-board on his head, and Mother Etienne felt most anxious to have his valuable assistance in repairing her barns and mills. Dear little marabout, how useful you would be in the village, sweeping the streets, cleaning up the refuse, advance-guard of the street-cleaner with his, “Now then, everything into the gutter.”

“The antelopes are very silly, coquettish creatures to wear such long boas round their necks in this warm country. But, after all, perhaps they are wise enough, for they have chosen a kind which, unlike our make of furs, is cold to the touch.”

Yollande, in her rôle of trainer, went on and on like a brook.

“Here, now, is a dromedary. He has a hump on his back, a fatty exerescence which enables him to bear much fatigue, without eating or drinking for several days. It is owing to this fat, rather like a box of provisions on his back, that he can traverse hot and sandy deserts where it would be difficult to find a single blade of grass to eat.”

Then through the farm bedroom passed long caravans of camels, led by carnival Arabs, their humps changed into gigantic larders in which rattled all sorts of canned things. Canned salmon, Russian caviare, dried biscuits, smoked meats, tongues, sardines, canned peas, foies-gras, lobsters, and fruits, in fact all those things which Mother Etienne had seen piled up in many-coloured pyramids at the best grocery stores. Really it was too ridiculous. Miss Booum must have been making fun of her visitor. That couldn’t really be the best food for camels.

It was still worse when it came to the turn of the hippopotami. A thousand ill-digested memories from the illustrated papers were in her mind, all mixed up. Where did the Nile and the Zanzibar flow? Which was it that separated Egypt from Senegal? And the gigantic hippopotamus, looking perfectly huge and out-of-place in a gondola fit for a sultana, appeared to her, floating down the calm stream, a red fez with a golden star on his head, puffing away at a peculiar double-bowled pipe, the pride of the collection of a retired police-officer in the village, who had it from the real cousin of a sea-captain from Marseilles.

“Do you see those little lumps there enclosed between four boards? It is a nest of land-tortoises. The largest, called the Giant tortoise, easily supports on its back a weight of two hundred pounds. This shell which weighs so heavily is its house. At the least alarm, it retreats into its house and stays there, till all danger is past.” This plan of walking about with your house on your back seemed rather a good one to Mother Etienne. You could go out on rainy days without getting wet, and on cold days it would keep your back nice and warm.

“Near at hand is a collection of mammals, the kangaroo family. The kangaroo is the largest mammal of Australia. It is generally a peace-loving animal, but bites, scratches, and claws if it is teased. Its best defence however is flight.” All these technical details left the good woman cold. What she remembered best were the practical qualities of the creatures. The kangaroo has one very great peculiarity, the female has a pouch, a sort of bag, in which she hides her young if danger appears, just as the soldier has his knapsack.

For the first time in her life Mother Etienne was much struck By certain resemblances between animals and human beings, finding in them actions, looks, and habits which reminded her irresistibly of many of her acquaintances. It was amongst the monkeys that it was the most marked. Two chimpanzees, with pensive faces garbed in black, seemed to be mourning some beloved relative. It was as though their sad but shining eyes, gazing at the straw which half-covered them, were seeking something hidden, intangible.

A family of big African monkeys, by their challenging, crafty air, reminded her unpleasantly of a band of good-for-nothings who for months had spread terror and desolation throughout the country. The chief or the one who appeared to be the chief the biggest and strongest, hurled himself at the bars and shook them in his clenched hands. He would certainly have enjoyed strangling Mother Etienne, had he been able to do so. Since he was not able to, he displayed in a huge yawn, a terrifying set of teeth, worthy of a wild beast. They were horrid animals, I assure you, not the kind you would like to meet loose on a lonely road.

Fortunately some pretty little witsits, with black faces, no bigger than your fist, and white and grey ruffles, whistling like blackbirds, by their pretty tricks did away with the bad impression made by these sinister neighbours.

This one was a regular little mother, that one had just been sweeping out the yard, another was the living image of the Count’s servant when he followed his master on his walks, carrying under his arm a shawl or a sunshade. An orang-outang, an elderly peasant, whose four big hands were clasped, suggested to her how useful it would be to have a helper like that to milk the cows. It would go twice as fast with four hands. What a lot of precious time it would save.

And many other queer things came into her head. That yowling dog, that sharp-faced rabbit, are the type who come on fair-days to cry their papers, sell their toys, etc. a noisy, rough crew. Goodness gracious! Where was Mother Etienne’s absurd dream leading her? She, whose life was always so calm, and who, to tell the truth, with Germaine, were rather like the two little monkeys at the corner of the fire-place, hands clasped under their aprons, feet on foot-warmers, and little pointed handkerchiefs on their heads.

At this personal picture everything turned as though by enchantment into one huge, vast medley, which ended in a general cake-walk of the whole menagerie, passing before the tired eyes of Mother Etienne, roaring, bellowing, mewing, whistling, howling, whinnying, and braying. Poor Mother Etienne was thoroughly exhausted.