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Jean Henri Fabre

Belladonna Berries

B AD news was circulating from house to house in the village. Here is what they were saying:

That day they had put little Louis into his first trousers. They had pockets and shiny buttons. In his new costume Louis was a little awkward, but much pleased. He admired the buttons that shone in the sun; he kept turning his pockets inside out to see if there was room enough for all his playthings. What made him the happiest was a tin watch, always marking the same hour. His brother, Joseph, two years older, was also much pleased. Now that Louis was dressed like him, nothing prevented his taking him to the woods, where there were birds' nests and strawberries. They owned in common a lamb whiter than snow, with a pretty little bell at its neck. The two brothers were to take it to the meadow. Some lunch was packed in a basket. They kissed their mother, who advised them not to go far. "Take care of your brother," said she to Joseph; "hold him by the hand and come back soon." They started. Joseph carried the basket, Louis led the lamb. From the door their mother watched them going off, herself happy in their joy. Every now and then the children turned to smile at her; then they disappeared at the turn of the path.

They reach the meadow. The lamb frolics on the grass; Joseph and Louis run after butterflies in the midst of a clump of tall trees.

"Oh, the beautiful cherries!" exclaimed Louis, suddenly; "see how big and black they are! Cherries, cherries! We are going to have a feast. Let us pick some to eat."

There were, in fact, some large berries of a dark violet hue on low plants.

"How small these cherry-trees are!" answered Joseph. "I have never seen any like them. We shan't have to climb the tree for them, and you won't tear your new trousers."

Louis picked one of the berries and put it into his mouth. It was insipid and sweetish.

"These cherries are not ripe," says little Louis, spitting it out.

"Take this one," answers Joseph, giving him one that felt very soft. "It is ripe."

Louis tastes it and spits it out.

"No, they are not at all good," repeats the little boy.

"Not good, not good?" says Joseph; "you will see." He eats one, then another, then another still, then a fourth, then a fifth. At the sixth he is obliged to stop. Decidedly they were not good.

"It is true, they are not very ripe. But let's pick some, all the same. We'll let them ripen in the basket."

They gathered a handful or two of these black berries, then began running after butterflies. The cherries were forgotten.

An hour later, Simon, who was returning from the mill with his donkey, found two little children seated at the foot of the hedge, crying aloud and clasping each other. At their feet a lamb was lying and bleating plaintively. And the younger was saying to the other: "Joseph, get up; we will go home." The elder tried to rise, but his legs, seized with a convulsive trembling, could not support him. "Joseph, Joseph, speak to me," said the poor little one; "speak to me." And Joseph, his teeth chattering, looked at his brother with eyes so big they frightened him. "There is one more apple in the basket; would you like it? I will give you all of it," went on the little fellow, his cheeks bathed in tears. And the elder trembled and then became rigid, by fits and starts, and stared fixedly with eyes growing ever larger and larger.

It was then that Simon passed. He put the two children on the donkey, took the basket, and, followed by the lamb, hastened to the village.

When the unhappy mother saw Joseph, her dear Joseph, so well a few hours before, so rejoiced at taking his brother for a walk, and now unconscious, dying, it was a scene to melt the heart. "My God, my God!" cried she, crazed with grief, "take me and leave my son! Oh, my Joseph! Oh, my poor Joseph!" And, covering him with kisses, she burst into cries of despair.

The doctor was summoned; the basket in which were still some of the black berries mistaken for cherries explained to him the cause of the sad event. "Deadly nightshade, great God!" he exclaimed under under his breath. "Alas! It is too late." Broken-hearted, he ordered a potion, the efficacy of which he could not count on, for the poison had made irreparable progress. And, in fact, an hour later, while the mother, on her knees at the foot of the bed, was praying and weeping, a little hand was stretched out from under the coverings and placed all cold in hers. It was the last good-by: Joseph was dead.

The nest day they buried the poor little one. The whole village attended the funeral. Emile and Jules returned from the cemetery so sad that for several days they did not think of asking their uncle the cause of this lamentable accident.

Since then, in the house of mourning, little Louis stops playing every now and then and begins to cry, despite his beautiful tin watch. He has been told that Joseph has gone far away and that he will come back some day. "Mother," he says sometimes, "when will Joseph come back? I am tired of playing alone." His mother kisses him and, covering her face with a corner of her apron, sheds hot tears. "Don't you love Joseph any more, and is that why you cry when I speak of him?" asks the poor little innocent. And his mother, overwhelmed, tries in vain to stifle her sobs.