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- PICCOLISSIMA - 5/6 -
How can we relate what she saw then? It would take volumes. There would be as many histories as individuals. Her attention was attracted by the perseverance of one ant who carried a burden; by another who was striving to get over some obstacle. She saw them feed those who arrived laden and out of breath; she saw those who repaired the doors, who opened and shut the windows, which were not glazed like ours; others she saw as sentinels, standing on their hind legs, charged to watch over the general safety. The busiest carried in their mandibles, caressed with their legs and their antennae, licked with their delicate tongues, exposed to the sun, or carried quickly into the shade certain white balls which Piccolissima took at first for grains of wheat, because they had the form and size; but she was satisfied at last that these were the children of the ants in swaddling clothes. Piccolissima was so anxious to comprehend the mysterious talk, and the pantomime of all this innumerable crowd, that she became yet more attentive. The nurses caressed with their antennae in a peculiar way those eggs which were beginning to show life, and the little observer saw the slight movement of the incomplete being who, as soon as he was bidden, raised his head, which was almost imperceptible even to microscopic eyes, to receive the offered mouthful.
Whilst Piccolissima observed all this nursery work, an ant came and placed beneath her, in order to fill up a small hole, a sort of bundle of little sticks, which rolled away as soon as she left it. The ant took hold of it again, carried it to its place, and arranged it so as to make it firm; then, satisfied with her work, she went after something else to do. Shortly after this, a head, then some legs, then half of the body of a caterpillar came out of the living little fagot which the ant had mended her house with. It was a dead leaf in which an egg had been laid and nicely rolled up by the parent, and which my lady ant had taken for a beam, or something of the sort, and the vexed hermit scampered away, carrying his house with him, not caring at all for the hole which he and his house had been intending to mend.
Much amused at this, Piccolissima tried to find out what a great number of ants, all with burdens, were carrying. She was, with painful astonishment, soon convinced that these were the carcasses of all sorts of insects. "It is a nation of hunters," she said, "more savage than those which feed their flocks on my aspen."
At this moment, a great ant attracted the attention of the child towards the lower part of the mountain. An enormous grub of the cockchafer race, a great white worm, rolled himself over, trying to liberate himself and to crush the ants, whose number increased on every side, and who tore off his transparent, soft skin, and pulled him in every direction. They climbed backward up the side of their citadel, and in spite of his desperate struggles, carried the poor insect, writhing with torture, to one of their little air holes. Piccolissima saw upon his wounds some drops of the sharp poison thrown by these terrible hunters, and the crowds of ants soon hid the sufferer from her eyes, which she gladly turned away from such a sight.
With her heart oppressed with fear and pity, the little girl collected her strength that she might glide down from her branch and run away, when a sudden alarm attracted a whole squadron of the insects to the place where she was about to put her foot. She immediately regained her place, and tried to understand what important and terrible news was being communicated from antennae to antennae, drawing together such a number of insects, with their frightful jaws all opened. The penetrating odor reached the frightened little girl; presently she perceived a very large ant, nearly six lines in length, very black, very shining, doubtless a Hercules who was defending himself against a whole army. His enemies fastened themselves on to each of his legs, but he still fought; a brown ant jumped upon his back and tried to break his brilliant cuirass; another, with his body bent double, covered him with poison. The Hercules still fought. At last, three of the fiercest of the ants worked with their sharp teeth upon the middle of his body, and at last cut him in two. The terrible head of the Hercules still held in his jaws two of his deadly enemies. Piccolissima screamed, and putting her hand before her eyes, she perhaps would have fallen into the midst of this nation of savages, if her mother, who was anxious about her, had not taken her in her arms and carried her away.
From this time, Piccolissima became one of the happiest little creatures in the world. Her brother, instead of considering her only as a toy to play with, began to respect her. She had no more conversations with the flies, to be sure. Her mind grew, and she learned that, small as she was, she was superior to the best informed fly. She studied the habits and doings of the ants, and learned a great deal about their different tribes and nations. Sometimes her brother would take his sister's toilet cushion and put it on the table before him, and seating Piccolissima upon it, say to her, "Now, Piccola, dear, listen with both of your little ears to my big words, and I will read some wonderful stories to you." Once he read Gulliver's Travels to her. "O!" she exclaimed, as he read of the Lilliputians, "O, good! good! I am a Lilliputian, and you are all great, big Brobdignagians. Why did you not tell me this before?" So she began to dance and skip about, like a jack-o'-lantern. Her brother, who was delighted at her gambols, whistled a tune for her to dance by. Presently Piccolissima began to sing, with her small, fine voice, this song, which she made as she danced:--
Merrily, merrily, dance away! Merrily laugh, and merrily play! Though I am a tiny thing, I can dance, and I can sing; I can hear, and I can see; I don't care who laughs at me; I can learn all things to know; So sing merrily, merrily, O!
The morning was lovely; the blue shadows, extending over the fields, made the leaves of the chestnut trees, wet with the morning dew, still more brilliant. Agitated by a light breeze, they glistened in the rays of the rising sun. Every blade of grass lifted its dewy head as soon as a ray fell upon it, and each in its turn was crowned with its halo of diamonds.
The flowers, in sweet accord, sent up their perfume towards heaven. Already the lark had saluted the day with his brilliant song, eternal hymn, ever repeated, never omitted. Every little bird sent up his clear note and his joyous song from his nest; the insects were beginning to hum. The sound of the voice of man, slow to join in the morning prayer of the whole creation, was not yet heard when Piccolissima, already awake, entered the garden.
She had obtained permission to do so the evening before. Her mother's confidence had increased with the growing prudence and good sense of the little girl; qualities which a habit of observation has the effect of strengthening rapidly.
The child was desirous to witness the morning labors of the ants, and to see how, when the dew had prepared their mortar, they built their long galleries. They commenced their work at the top, and Piccolissima would have liked to see them again raise and make their walls. She was, however, disappointed in her purpose, either that the earth dried too quick, as the sun was now high above the horizon; or the tiny republicans, with six feet, were employed in their interior halls, in bringing out the young ants, and were busy tearing off the veils of silk which confined the larvae, and in developing the wings of the males and females; or, whatever might be the cause, the ant hills were deserted.
The lazy amazons did not appear. Now and then a single miner might be seen wandering alone at the entrance of their subterranean dwelling.
Seated upon a piece of turf near the parterre, the little girl followed with her eye, all along the stem of a plant, two or three brown ants who led their flock of grubs to pasture, when a murmuring sound near her, which seemed to spread all over the beds of mignonette, attracted her attention to some large flies, of a dull color, who whirled about among the flowers, darting from one to the other, and seemed very busy.
"Can these be any of my old acquaintances?" said she; but she could not be satisfied with this idea; the new comers, much larger, had also a very different physiognomy from that of her old friends. They had oval eyes, with a network over them; a protruding jaw; antennae of twelve olive scales, terminated by a button. Their brown corselets covered with a tawny fur; their brilliant cuirasses, and their legs of unequal length,--all these things attracted the attention of the young observer.
She saw these flies rolling themselves over in the bosom of the flowers, with a joyous activity which amused her very much, and the reason of which she desired to understand.
There was, however, in their appearance and manners, something repulsive which prevented familiarity. Each one of them caused to vibrate four gauze wings, two large and two small ones. In their rapid and measured motions, these wings produced sound, and the air, issuing from little breathing places situated, as in the common fly, on each side of the corselet, produced a sort of a song.
As if attracted by the song, these insects flew in swarms to the flower-bed. Very soon it was evident that they were heavier when they went away than when they came. Two large, round, red and yellow, or rather golden balls loaded their brilliant brown thighs. Some of them plunged into the bosom of a lily. Raising herself on tiptoe, Piccolissima kept them in view. She saw their slanting teeth, which formed the point of their triangular head, open and close like two strong pincers, and shake the tops of the stamens. She had never noticed before, but now she perceived, at the end of the six threads in the centre of the flower, a sort of little green box; this was the anther. These flies pressed it and pulled it, till it opened and scattered a quantity of little yellow pellets, which covered the insects so thoroughly, that they and the flowers seemed to have changed garments, so completely were they clothed with it.
Piccolissima could contain herself no longer. She cried out to her sister, whom she saw coming towards her:
"O, come, come quickly! See the flies putting on their ball dresses, and making their toilet in the cup of a flower."
Linette, still at a distance, did not hasten her steps, notwithstanding the exclamations of her sister; and before she came, Piccolissima was convinced that the flies did not think much of their brilliant toilet. She saw them push off all their finery by means of the brushes with which their legs were furnished. These excellent little square brushes were placed on their hind legs mostly; they had brown horn backs, and short, stiff hairs, ranged regularly. These brushes did their work so well, that in less than a
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