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Adrien Le Corbeau, The Forest Giant

[Le Gigantesque]

translated from the French
by T. E. Lawrence

Chapter I : The Odyssey


For years on end it had been rolling, across the plains, through the deep meadow grasses, under the dim echoing archways of the forest. Always, in heat and cold, beneath blue skies, or skies clouded with rain and hail and snow, it had been rolling ceaselessly. One day it would be gilded by the sunlight - but not softened; another day grizzled streaks of rain soaked it - without refreshment. It was buried, to all appearances for ever, by drifts of snow - but was not hurt. It had crossed cataracts of light and floods of shadow; it had been rocked by soft winds and hurled dizzily into the air by the shrieking gusts of cyclones; and it had met all these things - the sweetness of the day, the shade of night, the winters, the springs, the summers - with the same submissive, invulnerable apathy. It had waited its hour, ready, if need be, to wait yet much longer.

Those who boast of their travels and adventures should think over this journey and its conditions. We have glimpses of other countries, we climb mountains, we run through woods and fields; but our varieties and difficulties are as nothing to the differences of its varied blades of grass, to its dark holes in the ground, its mounds of earth or snow, to all the obstacles which it met and overcame or slipped past on its road. Our gallops on shore or voyages at sea do not compare with its mad career as the sport of storms and mountain-torrents. Time and space fought over the little helpless rolling body. The elements loosed out their terrors round it like an evil dream, seeming to toss it about in prize.

Everything seemed to toss it about. It was girt round by immensities, which might be azure or glittering with gold in summer, pallid dull or menacing in winter, silent as the abyss by night, and terrible with a myriad of unknown noises in the day; but nothing daunted it. Within its tiny form it held other visions, greater yet, visions and million-old memories of the childhood of the world, when the waves moaned in another measure, and the agony of the vision of earth was different. So it waited the favourable event which would give it life: or the sign of dissolution, to presage its death.

The light beating of a bird's wings, one dawn, had began its career by flinging it out of the tiny shelter (a crevice in a low branch of the mother-tree) from which the mightiest winds had been unable in long years to tear it. It was falling in slow gyrations through the green air, across the red-barred dawn-fires of the sun, when a quick breath of wind lifted its mossy form and carried it, from near the ground, far out into space. In its flight it grazed, time and again, the rude bark of trees, sank to ground level, skimmed it, and rose once more before it fell at last upon the polished surface of a stone, where it lay till dark and through the night till the next noon. The air above it was heavy with the humming of insects, and around stretched the very old forest, vibrant with life.

The merest trifle might have carried this tiny seed of Californian pine a few inches farther, where lay fat moist soil, good for tree-growth; but such was not its lot. The vast and shining eye which oversees the dizzy spectacle of the universe, and comprehends it in its dreadful whole as in its least bewildering detail, this eye had doubtless not lost sight of it. Suddenly all light around was blotted out: a great mass overwhelmed it and carried it away with heavy abrupt movements. It felt itself embedded in a soft warm substance, among grains of sand, dead leaves and grass, which were picked up now and then from the ground, carried awhile, and dropped (only to be replaced by others), in a sequence of rudely rhythmical movement. The pine-seed had been caught up in the frog of an animal's foot, fixed in it deeply, so that it was not till after many days at last delivered, when the beast waded across a brook and left the seed on a dry sand-bank, near sunset, in the deep glow of the evening rays.

The seed had now quitted the forest for an immense, bare, open desert, a new prospect of the world. Here were no rustling grasses nor fluttering leaves, no clashing together of dry branches, no birds to sing nor beasts to howl: none of that rich, wide, strange stirring of the mighty jungle, whose breathing and mysterious rumour was choked (like the cries of its animals and the laboured thrumming of the winds through its vaulted trees) by the rank smell of sap and the exhalations of dead leaves and teeming soil. A light wind blew the seed across the sand, for hours driving it about, backwards, forwards, to right or left, sometimes in great circles, and sometimes stationary against a stone till a new gust should send it forth again, past its obstacle, on yet another abandoned desultory course. The world was overspread with an intense blue, from which light seemed to fall in sheets.

Later this brilliant blue turned to a bleeding red, through which the sun's golden arrows slid into violet bands and faded gently. An exquisite freshness fell from heaven as the purple mildness of evening came down upon the world. Yet the pine-seed could not rest. The wind, as it became sweeter, became stronger, and sent it again across the sand-spaces of its former road, while about it a new life began to stir. Insects which had been hiding all day danced over it, or circled violently about it, or stopped to smell it, or tried in vain to crack open its hard shell. Their grotesque shadows ran blackly over the silver sand. At times green shining specks came near, hovered a moment, and vanished in a soft shiver of wings.

All the while the pine-seed resigned itself with unconquerable patience to its senseless course. Dawn came. The sun climbed high in the heavens. Yesterday's burning blue again hemmed in the world; and after it came night and dawn, and day and night again once more. In the same wide desert the pine-seed rolled about, the sport of the same winds, pitting against their caprice the constant apathetic endurance of its little, round, hard body.

So weeks and months flowed by, times which for other things or other beings elsewhere may have been momentous; but which for the sequoia seed were all alike. Then one day the sky darkened, and rain began to fall. The first slow heavy drops seemed to nail the seed to the sand, and whole days passed; but in the end, just at twilight, water began to trickle over the ground and to collect in plashes here and there over the huge sandy surface.

The strange power of water to absorb light enables it to preserve the clearness of the daylight, even when the light has fled, and makes the shadows which it reflects in the darkness appear even darker than their truth. The sea gives, better than any other thing, a feeling of the mystery of never-ending distances. It strikes not merely on living beings, through their imagination, their blood, their nerves, but seems almost to project itself into materials. These water-plashes at last ran together into little streams which carried off in their current everything not strong enough to resist them. Consequently the pine-seed found itself all at once flooded with freshness. The liquid got right into it, penetrated unreservedly into its outer husk, till the little seed felt itself soaked. None the less it kept its vital force intact, and neither split nor sprouted. The life-force handed down to it through millions of generations was too vigorous and too well-prepared for its special future, whether near or distant, to break up in the tiny frame. Only this time inertia was not its sole defence against the assailing elements: it found in itself a happy elasticity which helped to keep out surplus liquid.

Thus for the whole rainy season the seed wandered about the sand-desert, going with the waters down an imperceptible slope. On all sides the waves now compassed it, with the grey sky coving above it and them in the daytime; but at night it was drowned by water and by darkness. The waters, as ever, darkened the shadows of these shades circling in space. A chill, blind, impenetrable horror overcame the pine-seed. It appeared, almost like an endowed being, to hesitate in its career. It struck against stones, seemed to cling to the tufts of grass which the waters carried down with them, seemed to betray a longing to stop, while the waves, so infinitely great, withdrew it gently but irresistibly from every obstacle. It yielded patiently, strong perhaps in its sense of future greatness. The outside forces, despite their violence, could not prevail over the insignificant seed whose giant bulk would some day laugh at the roaring of the winds and the struggles of the waves; and as it was tossed about during the night in the immensity of shadow and water, may not the sense of past existence have come to life in it, and a memory of that other chaos with the very different terrors, as experienced by its forbears in the first stages of the world? So it journeyed, firmly and humbly, towards the unknown.

Chapter 2 >>



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