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- PICCOLISSIMA - 4/6 -
the insect disengaged one of his legs, and twisting himself with fury, and biting the finger which held him, he showed two jaws, which worked like a pair of pincers. Piccolissima was not sufficiently hardened to natural history. She shook her hand violently, and uttered a cry that brought her brother to her in a moment.
"Ha! ha! the great body," cried he, as he saw the trouble, and the cause of it; "this is not a worthy enemy; it is only one of the smallest ants. What would you say if you had to contend with the herculean wood borer? Your ferocious animal is only a modest fuliginosa, Madam Piccola; it is Formica fuliginosa, Latin words, which mean soot-colored ant."
"I should much prefer that they should be called at once by a name that I could comprehend, 'little blackeys,' instead of these long words, that it almost takes away your breath to pronounce."
"This is because you are ignorant, sister; but for that, you would love the Latin names, because they are so fine sounding, and can express so many things. For example, formica; can you guess? O, no, you will never guess," added he, with a knowing tone. "Very well! formica means crumb carriers, because the little cunning beasts carry all sorts of knickknacks."
Piccolissima, who once had only frisked and frolicked around her brother, and in whose eyes she had been hitherto a sort of amusing plaything, listened to him now with an air of intelligence and satisfaction, with which he was secretly flattered. "Besides the herculean borer," he continued, "there is another ant in the forests, much larger than your enemy, and who builds mountains. They call him rusa, which means russet. It is he who produces the formic acid, a poison which he sheds with his abdomen into the bite which he makes with his mandibles or jaws, which makes the wound a little red, and makes it itch and burn a little." He was going on to add that mandibula signified jaw bone; abdomen, meant belly. He might, perhaps, while he was in this mood, have declined all these nouns, but his little sister had ceased to listen; she was following with her eye a file of her small black ants, and she saw them go and come very busily upon a small stick which supported her only bean stalk. Doubtless the wind had blown into Piccolissima's garden one of the white cottony tufts which enfold the seeds of the poplar, for it was a young shoot of poplar which served as support to the plant, and as a garden for the ants. Upon the white cottony stem was an assemblage of these little animals, green, brown, yellow, and transparent, all plump, singularly alike, grave, immovable, like a Roman senate. Certain active little creatures with fine shapes walked among them, around them, over them, without appearing to hurt them, or disturbing their gravity. The ants carried their easy manners still farther; they struck lightly, rapidly, alternately, with their two antennae, the backs and the sides of these peaceable animals; they even went so far as to turn them over with their fore paws, and all the while the other insects did not move, and allowed them to do as they pleased.
"Look! look!" cried Piccolissima.
"Beautiful little wonder," answered her brother, "these are grubs, that's all; and who does not know nowadays, that these are the cows of the ants?"
"Their cows!" repeated the little girl; and she remained absorbed in her examination. The ants still continued, in a playful and irregular manner, to strike their little cows, whose trunks Piccolissima saw were thrust into the bark of the aspen. Sometimes an ant gave a little kick, and always one was at hand, with his jaws extended, and his mouth open, ready to receive a drop of sirup, which the eye of Piccolissima at last discovered falling from the extremity of the body of the grub. "I see, I see!" she exclaimed; "it is their way of milking. O the funny little pastoral people!" Whilst she was in this ecstasy, the ant with the ends of his antennae took the transparent little drop into his mouth; and then carefully cleansed with the brushes of his feet the sugared antennse which had served for fork and spoon, or rather for fingers.
"I should like to talk with him," said Piccolissima, as she saw the ant making his toilet, "but these are a very silent, a very reserved people; perhaps they are dumb."
The ant, who had just swallowed the drop of sirup, now quietly descended the aspen walk; his belly was well stuffed and shining, and he stopped now and then to rest, and wash his face. He met, as he went down, an ant who was ascending the path. The new comer ran up to him as to an intimate friend, as soon as he saw him, and eagerly struck him with his antennae. The motion was very rapid; the ant returned it by shaking his antennae, but more gently, and by opening his mandibles. "Are they going to dispute, and to bite each other?" thought Piccolissima. Not at all. The ant who had received the sirup upon the end of his tongue, now offered a little drop of it to the one who was hungry, who received it upon his tongue, while he continued to caress with his antennae, and even with his little paws, the friend who offered it. The joy of Piccolissima was so great at the sight of this mutual kindness, that she made one of her old leaps, and shook the frail stalk. Immediately there was a violent commotion among the ants, who in great crowds blackened the end of the twig. They ran hither and thither in the greatest terror, striking their antennae one against the other. Many of them caressed the grubs more eagerly, in a violent and impetuous manner, as if to urge them to some exertion. Some of the grubs submitted to be taken gently into the jaws of the ants; others, with their trunks in the wood, looked as if they were too lazy to consent to move.
They were however, at last, (whether they would or not,) all carried rapidly away. Each ant, loaded with her cow, ran down the tree, and, following a little narrow path in the ground, reached a small, deep hole, into which the ants, one after the other, all disappeared.
"O Mimi! O Linette! O Fifine!" cried Piccolissima, running from her brother to her sisters, "they have carried away all their cows. Each ant has his cow between his teeth; one holds her by the belly, the others by the wings; come see! come see!"
"Cows with wings!" cried the astonished little girls. Mimi, who knew all this, startled his little sister by saying, "The pet is right; she has good eyes; there are many grubs with wings; come, come, my small sister, it appears to me that you are discovering many things already known. My ladies, the ants, ought to choose you for their queen."
The same day, Madam Tom Thumb, who began to feel some confidence in the reason of Piccolissima, carried her into the garden, to the great joy of the little creature. It was a delicious place; there were in it long covered alleys, and even a small wood, where one might enjoy a sweet freshness in the heat of the day. Around a great hall, covered with foliage, were seats of soft green moss. It was there that Madam Tom Thumb used to embroider with her elder daughters; and there she placed Piccolissima, allowing her to run at large, only recommending to her prudence and discretion.
The child, who was formerly idle and weary of every thing, was in a fair way to become a happy young girl, thanks to the attention she began to give to every thing she saw, and to the interest which the wonders around her excited in her mind. She was enchanted with the thousand plants which embellished and covered the earth, and formed in the smallest flower an object of admiration which filled her soul. Very soon she met one of those beings who excited in her a lively curiosity,--an ant much larger than the little black ones of the shepherd race. The fine antennae, the three eyes, the top of the head, the legs, the belly of this one were blackish, but less glistening, and it was by the superiority of his shape, above middle size, and above all, by the reddish color of a part of his body, that Piccolissima recognized the russet ant of which her brother had spoken. The insect carried very laboriously a stick ten or twelve times as long as himself; a hillock of earth, which he met on his road, stopped him for some time, and Piccolissima, who was eager to help him through his difficulties, and who was tormented with a desire to enter into conversation with him, took it into her head to assist the insect, and hoped thus to render herself agreeable to him. She seized one end of the little rafter he was carrying, and in a tone which she tried to make as soft as possible, she said, "Will you allow me, little one, to help you?"
The ant, clinging to the earth with his hind legs, stood up straight, and threw out his antennae with a terrible expression. Piccolissima was so full of kind feeling that she never thought of exciting any anger; she thought that it was only a little struggle of his politeness; therefore she insisted, taking firmly hold of the bit of wood, and repeated, "I assure you it is a pleasure to me, and it will not fatigue me." Forced to loosen his burden, the ant opened his jaws full of formidable teeth, and advanced upon Piccolissima, walking on his hind legs; the two others stretched out in front, as well as his antennae, in sign of defiance; his body all bent, exhaling an odor of vinegar so pungent that Piccolissima, letting go the little stick, ran away as fast as she could, sneezing violently, and shutting her eyes. When she opened them and returned, thinking the ant was at her heels, she found her terrible adversary had again seized his big stick by one end, and had slid it over the lump of earth by means of a stone, which served him as a point of support. She saw him sometimes push it before him, and sometimes drag it after him, walking backwards till he reached the flat ground, when he pursued his way very fast.
Piccolissima, who did not forget that her mother had recommended discretion to her, followed at a distance. As she went on carefully, she saw long trains of ants resembling her enemy; each one of them was charged with a burden more or less heavy. All of them took their way towards a mountain shaped like a cone, full of little openings which, from a distance, appeared to be semicircular vaults; Roman architecture Piccolissima would have thought if the multiplicity of details of little architectural ornaments, all of wood work, had not given her the idea of an old Gothic fortress. The rapid and violent motions of the wild mountaineers did not frighten her; she walked up slowly, hardly touching her feet to the earth, holding her breath, observing every thing, and she was soon convinced that this little, busy people took no notice of her. She came nearer and nearer to the place where two great roads, covered with ants, terminated. She heard a confused noise, like the hum of a great city, or as the sound of the rain among the leaves.
"I thought they spoke only by signs which they make with the arms that come out of their heads," said Piccolissima, still going nearer; "why, then, this noise?"
The little girl was soon convinced that this noise was produced by the numerous and busy footsteps of a solemn, austere, and preoccupied crowd of ants. Not a word was said, but every one ran rather than walked, and they seemed like a thousand individuals, all actuated by one purpose. Supported on the lower branch of a chestnut tree, Piccolissima placed herself a little higher, but very near the citadel, which was one living mountain.
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