“NOW then! What is the matter?” asked my father in a sharp tone,
impatiently throwing down the newspaper.
“Nothing, papa,” I answered, but in a trembling voice.
“Nothing, you say? Then why did you pull down the blind? Why did you
hurry away from the window? And why, sir, has your nose turned white?
What is there to be seen in the street to frighten you like that?”
The tears rushed to my eyes, and I began to sob, as I replied, “It isn’t
in the street, it’s opposite.”
My father jumped up so quickly from his chair that it fell with a loud
noise on the polished floor of our little dining-room. As to me, I was
more dead than alive: my father’s fits of impatience terrified me. And
on these occasions I would stare at him, and look so stupid, that I used
to make him more angry than ever.
He went to the window, pulled up the blind, and looked at the opposite
house. There, at the window, stood a little boy of about my own age, who
was always watching to see me come to the window of our house in order
that he might make hideous faces and put out his tongue at me across the
My father turned round: he stood with his arms tightly folded on his
chest; he looked at me from head to foot, and then he said in a sneering
voice full of scorn:—“So that is what frightened you! You unfortunate
creature, you will never be fit for anything as long as you live. A
great boy of eight years old! the son of a soldier, and of a brave
soldier, I flatter _myself_. Here am I burdened with a boy as timid as a
hare, yes a regular hare, to bring up. You may well be ashamed, sir.
Thirty years’ service! Five campaigns! Eight wounds! to come to this; to
come to bringing up a boy who is afraid of his own shadow! Hide
yourself, miserable child,” he went on, “for I am ashamed of you. How
shall I have the face to walk about the town; to meet people that I know
who will say; ‘How goes it, captain? How goes it with you?’ What am I to
answer to these inquiries, sir? _What_ am I to say?”
“I don’t know,” sobbed I.
“Ah! you don’t know; but I know too well. I must answer ‘You are very
kind, and I thank you; I am well, but I occupy my leisure hours in
educating a coward! And that coward, sir, is my own son.’ Yes, my own
son. And your nose! where did you get that nose, sir?”
FROM my earliest infancy the principal and dominant—too dominant—feature
in my face, was an immense nose.
Now that this organ is a little disguised by a thick moustache, my
friends, to flatter me, compare it to an eagle’s beak. But when I had no
moustache, my companions who had no wish to flatter me, compared it to
the beak of a Toucan. Unfortunately for me this was only too good a
comparison, and, what was worse than all, when I was frightened (which
alas! happened very often) my nose turned very pale.
“Now then,” would my father exclaim, “there’s that miserable nose of
yours turned white again: rub it, do, so as to give it a little colour.”
I was such a simple little fellow, that I used seriously to follow my
father’s advice, given in derision, and I would fall to rubbing my poor,
large nose most furiously: labour wasted! it turned pale just the same.
My father went on reading the newspaper which he had thrown down as I
have described; and I did not stir; I did not sit down nor did I dare go
out of the room, but I remained sulking in the corner.
I say sulking, because I can find no other word to describe the state
that my father’s fits of anger put me into. Anyone who had come into the
room and seen me in that corner would have said, “Here is a sulky little
boy!” But no, I was not really sulky; I felt very much hurt that my
father should speak so harshly to me to cure me of a fault which wounded
my own self-respect as much as it did his. I was not sulky then, only
deeply distressed; but all sorts of contradictory thoughts passed
through my head, and I knew neither how to utter nor explain them: I
remained silent and uncomfortable, and people made the mistake of
thinking me sulky.
I grieved over my father’s reprimand, and pondered sadly while he read
the newspaper. I asked myself, “How is it that other little boys can
help being cowards?”
I then made up my mind that for the future I _would_ be brave; yet I
could not help feeling an inward consciousness that, when the
opportunity came for me to show courage, I should only play the coward
again. I endured real torture that hour I passed in the corner, and was
finding my trouble insupportable, when suddenly the door opened to admit
my father’s old friend Colonel Boissot.
COLONEL BOISSOT was an old brother-in-arms of my father, who, like him,
had retired from the army, and settled down to a quiet life at Loches.
After the first few words of welcome and politeness had passed, my
father asked the colonel, if he happened to know of any animal that was
more timid than a hare.
“An animal more timid than a hare?” replied the colonel thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said my father.
“By Jove, certainly!” answered the colonel, “a frog is more cowardly,
because in the old fable of La Fontaine we are told that the frogs were
afraid of a hare.”
“Very well,” said my father, pointing at me with the newspaper, “there
you see a frog then; I have only to put him in a glass bottle with a
little ladder, to act as a barometer,” and as he uttered these words, he
looked at me with a vexed and mortified expression, and made me a sign
to go out of the room.
The colonel looked at me, with his great round eyes wide open, and
making a slight grimace, asked, “Is he——”
“Good gracious! yes,” replied my father with a deep sigh. The colonel
whistled softly, as he looked at my father, and he rolled his eyes back
to me with an astonished expression in them, pretended or real. This
warlike man felt surprised, apparently, to find a coward in the son of a
brother-in-arms. All the time he stared at me I did not dare to move.
At last he shook his head several times and said, grinding his teeth the
while, “You know, Bicquerot, I belong to the old school. For such
fancies as these (for they are pure fancies), I know but of one remedy,”
and he made suggestive and disagreeable movements with his cane as if
chastising an imaginary coward.
“Oh, no!” my father answered quickly, “no, the remedy would be worse
than the malady. And think, too, of his mother: she, the poor dear
mother, would go mad. No! no! certainly not.”
“You are wrong,” drily replied the advocate of violent measures, “it is
an infallible remedy.”
“That is possible,” said my father; “but _I_ could never resort to it.”
Then turning to me he said in a more gentle tone of voice, “Now go, my
poor boy, run and find your mother.”
There was something so sad, so touching in the tone of my father’s
voice, the expression of his face was so kind, that if the odious
colonel had not been present I should have thrown my arms round his neck
and kissed him.
But I dared not, and as I awkwardly shut the door after me, with
trembling hands, I again heard these words issue, one by one, from
between the clenched teeth of the terrible colonel: “_Bicquerot, you are