U NCLE PAUL was still talking when they heard a persistent noise in the garden: pom! pom! pom! pom! as if some smith had set up his anvil under the big elder-tree. They ran to see what it was. Jacques was gravely tapping with a key on the watering can: pom! pom! pom! pom! Mother Ambroisine was busily beating a copper saucepan with a small stone: pom! pom! pom! pom!
Have our two good servants lost their heads, that they are giving themselves up, with the most serious air in the world, to this charivari? Without suspending their singular occupation, they exchange a few words. "They are going toward the currant bush," says Jacques. "They look as if they were going away," answers Mother Ambroisine; and the pom! pom! pom! pom! is resumed.
Just then Uncle Paul and his nephews and niece come up. One glance is enough to explain everything to Uncle Paul. Over the garden there is a kind of red smoke flying, which sometimes rises and sometimes sinks, sometimes scatters and sometimes comes together in a compact mass. A monotonous whirring of wings proceeds from the midst of the red smoke. Jacques and Mother Ambroisine, still tapping, follow the cloud. Uncle Paul looks on, greatly preoccupied. Emile, Jules, and Claire look at each other, surprised at what is going on.
The little cloud descends, it approaches the currant-bush, as Jacques had foreseen, passes around it, examines it, chooses a branch. And now pom! pom! pom! pom! louder than ever. On the branch selected a round mass is formed, visibly increasing while the cloud, less and less compact, whirls around. Jacques and Mother Ambroisine stop tapping. Soon there hangs from the branch of the currant-bush a large bunch, from which the last comers of the living cloud depart to return an instant later. All is over; one can now approach.
Emile, who suspects it is bees, would like to return to the house. His old misadventure with the hive has left him with lively remembrances. To reassure him his uncle takes him by the hand. Emile bravely approaches the currant-bush. What risk can he run with his uncle? Jules and Claire come close also; it is worth the trouble.
Now, on the currant-bush hangs a bunch of bees, all close together. Some belated ones come from here and there, choose a good place, and cling on to the preceding ones. The branch bends under the burden, for there are several thousands on it. The first arrivals, doubtless the most robust, since they will have to support the whole load, have seized the branch with the claws of their forefeet; others have come and fastened themselves to the hind feet of the first bees, and in their turn have served as suspension points to a third rank; then, gradually, to a fourth, fifth, sixth, and more still, meantime diminishing in number, until finally they are all clinging there by their hands, as one might say. The children stand in wonder before the bunch of bees, whose red down and lustrous wings shine in the sun; but they prudently keep at a distance.
"Do we not run the risk of being stung by getting so near?" Jules asked.
"In their present condition bees rarely make use of their sting. If you foolishly went and tormented them, I would not answer for their conduct; but leave them alone, and you can watch them at your ease, without any fear. They have other cares now than thinking of stinging little curious boys!"
"And what cares? They look very peaceful; one would say they were all asleep."
"The grave cares of a people who have no country and seek to create one for themselves."
"Bees have a country, then?"
"They have a hive, which amounts to the same thing for them."
"Then they are looking for a hive to live in?"
"They are looking for a hive."
"And where do these homeless bees come from?"
"They come from the old hive in the garden."
"They might have stayed there, instead of going out to seek their fortunes."
"They could not. The population of the hive increased, and there was not room enough for all. So the most adventurous, under the guidance of a queen, expatriated themselves to found a colony elsewhere. The emigrating troop is called a swarm."
"The queen who leads the swarm—she must be there in the common bunch?"
"She is. It is she who, alighting on the currant bush, determined the halt of the entire company."
These words, country, queen, emigrants, colony, had impressed the children's imaginations; they were astonished to hear the terms of human politics applied to bees. Questions came one after another, but Uncle Paul turned a deaf ear.
"Wait until the swarm is gathered into the hive, and I will tell you at length the splendid story of the bees. At present I will only answer Claire's question as to why Jacques and Mother Ambroisine tapped on the watering-pot and the saucepan.
"If the swarm had flown off into the country, it would have been lost to us. It was necessary to induce it to alight on a tree in the garden and there form itself into a bunch. It has always been thought that this result could be obtained by making a noise. Thus the sound of thunder is imitated and, as it is said, the bees, afraid of the perils of an approaching storm, quickly seek refuge. I do not believe bees are silly enough to fear a storm because of this tapping on an old pot. They alight where they please, when they please, and not far from the old hive, provided the place suits them."
Jacques, with a saw in one hand and a hammer in the other, called to Uncle Paul. With some new boards he was going to make a house for the swarm. By evening the hive was ready. At the bottom were three little holes for the bees to go in and out, and inside some pegs for holding the future honey-combs. A large flag-stone had been placed against the wall for the hive to stand on. At night-fall they went to the currant-bush. The bunch of bees was put into the hive, and a few shakes detached it from the branch. Finally the hive was put in place on its support.
The next morning Jules watched to see what the bees were doing. The house had suited them. They were to be seen coming, one by one, out of the little doors of the hive, rubbing themselves a moment in the sun on the flag-stone, and then flying away to the flowers in the garden. They were at work. The colony was founded. At a grand council they had decided matters during the night.