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Two Pairs of Eyes by Susan Coolidge


Did it ever occur to you what a difference there is in the way in which people use their eyes? I do not mean that some people squint, and some do not; that some have short sight, and some long sight. These are accidental differences; and the people who cannot see far, sometimes see more, and more truly, than do other people whose vision is as keen as the eagle's. No, the difference between people's eyes lies in the power and the habit of observation.

Did you ever hear of the famous conjurer Robert Houdin, whose wonderful tricks and feats of magic were the astonishment of Europe a few years ago? He tells us, in his autobiography, that to see everything at a glance, while seeming to see nothing, is the first requisite in the education of a “magician,” and that the faculty of noticing rapidly and exactly can be trained like any other faculty. When he was fitting his little son to follow the same profession, he used to take him past a shop-window, at a quick walk, and then ask him how many objects in the window he could remember and describe. At first, the child could only recollect three or four; but gradually he rose to ten, twelve, twenty, and, in the end, his eyes would note, and his memory retain, not less than forty articles, all caught in the few seconds which it took to pass the window at a rapid walk.

It is so more or less with us all. Few things are more surprising than the distinct picture which one mind will bring away from a place, and the vague and blurred one which another mind will bring. Observation is one of the valuable faculties, and the lack of it a fault which people have to pay for, in various ways, all their lives.

There were once two peasant boys in France, whose names were Jean and Louis Cardilliac. They were cousins; their mothers were both widows, and they lived close to each other in a little village, near a great forest. They also looked much alike. Both had dark, closely shaven hair, olive skins, and large, black eyes; but in spite of all their resemblances, Jean was always spoken of as “lucky,” and Louis as “unlucky,” for reasons which you will shortly see.

If the two boys were out together, in the forest or the fields, they walked along quite differently. Louis dawdled in a sort of loose-jointed trot, with his eyes fixed on whatever happened to be in his hand,—a sling, perhaps, or a stick, or one of those snappers with which birds are scared away from fruit. If it were the stick, he cracked it as he went, or he snapped the snapper, and he whistled, as he did so, in an absent-minded way. Jean's black eyes, on the contrary, were always on the alert, and making discoveries. While Louis stared and puckered his lips up over the snapper or the sling, Jean would note, unconsciously but truly, the form of the clouds, the look of the sky in the rainy west, the wedge-shaped procession of the ducks through the air, and the way in which they used their wings, the bird-calls in the hedge. He was quick to mark a strange leaf, or an unaccustomed fungus by the path, or any small article which had been dropped by the way. Once, he picked up a five-franc piece; once, a silver pencil-case which belonged to the curé, who was glad to get it again, and gave Jean ten sous by way of reward. Louis would have liked ten sous very much, but somehow he never found any pencil-cases; and it seemed hard and unjust when his mother upbraided him for the fact, which, to his thinking, was rather his misfortune than his fault.

“How can I help it?” he asked. “The saints are kind to Jean, and they are not kind to me,—voilà tout!”

“The saints help those who help themselves,” retorted his mother. “Thou art a look-in-the-air. Jean keeps his eyes open, he has wit, and he notices.”

But such reproaches did not help Louis, or teach him anything. Habit is so strong.

“There!” cried his mother one day, when he came in to supper. “Thy cousin—thy lucky cousin—has again been lucky. He has found a truffle-bed, and thy aunt has sold the truffles to the man from Paris for a hundred francs. A hundred francs! It will be long before thy stupid fingers can earn the half of that!”

“Where did Jean find the bed?” asked Louis.

“In the oak copse near the brook, where thou mightest have found them as easily as he,” retorted his mother. “He was walking along with Daudot, the wood cutter's dog—whose mother was a truffle-hunter—and Daudot began to point and scratch; and Jean suspected something, got a spade, dug, and crack! a hundred francs! Ah, his mother is to be envied!”

“The oak copse! Near the brook!” exclaimed Louis, too much excited to note the reproach which concluded the sentence. “Why, I was there but the other day with Daudot, and I remember now, he scratched and whined a great deal, and tore at the ground. I didn't think anything about it at the time.”

“Oh, thou little imbecile—thou stupid!” cried his mother, angrily. “There were the truffles, and the first chance was for thee. Didn't think anything about it! Thou never dost think, thou never wilt. Out of my sight, and do not let me see thee again till bedtime.”

Supperless and disconsolate poor Louis slunk away. He called Daudot, and went to the oak copse, resolved that if he saw any sign of excitement on the part of the dog, to fetch a spade and instantly begin to dig. But Daudot trotted along quietly, as if there were not a truffle left in France, and the walk was fruitless.

“If I had only,” became a favorite sentence with Louis, as time went on. “If I had only noticed this.” “If I had only stopped then.” But such phrases are apt to come into the mind after something has been missed by not noticing or not stopping, so they do little good to anybody.

Did it ever occur to you that what people call “lucky chances,” though they seem to come suddenly, are in reality prepared for by a long unconscious process of making ready on the part of those who profit by them? Such a chance came at last to both Jean and Louis,—to Louis no less than to Jean; but one was prepared for it, and the other was not.

Professor Sylvestre, a famous naturalist from Toulouse, came to the forest village where the two boys lived, one summer. He wanted a boy to guide him about the country, carry his plant-cases and herbals, and help in his search after rare flowers and birds, and he asked Madame Collot, the landlady of the inn, to recommend one. She named Jean and Louis; they were both good boys, she said.

So the professor sent for them to come and talk with him.

“Do you know the forest well, and the paths?” he asked.

Yes, both of them knew the forest very well.

“Are there any woodpeckers of such and such a species?” he asked next. “Have you the large lunar moth here? Can you tell me where to look for Campanila rhomboidalis?” and he rapidly described the variety.

Louis shook his head. He knew nothing of any of these things. But Jean at once waked up with interest. He knew a great deal about woodpeckers,—not in a scientific way, but with the knowledge of one who has watched and studied bird habits. He had quite a collection of lunar and other moths of his own, and though he did not recognize the rare Campanila by its botanical title, he did as soon as the professor described the peculiarities of the leaf and blossom. So M. Sylvestre engaged him to be his guide so long as he stayed in the region, and agreed to pay him ten francs a week. And Mother Cardilliac wrung her hands, and exclaimed more piteously than ever over her boy's “ill luck” and his cousin's superior good fortune.

One can never tell how a “chance” may develop. Professor Sylvestre was well off, and kind of heart. He had no children of his own, and he was devoted, above all other things, to the interest of science. He saw the making of a first-rate naturalist in Jean Cardilliac, with his quick eyes, his close observation, his real interest in finding out and making sure. He grew to an interest in and liking for the boy, which ripened, as the time drew near for him to return to his university, into an offer to take Jean with him, and provide for his education, on the condition that Jean, in return, should render him a certain amount of assistance during his out-of-school hours. It was, in effect, a kind of adoption, which might lead to almost anything; and Jean's mother was justified in declaring, as she did, that his fortune was made.

“And for thee, thou canst stay at home, and dig potatoes for the rest of thy sorry life,” lamented the mother of Louis. “Well, let people say what they will, this is an unjust world; and, what is worse, the saints look on, and do nothing to prevent it. Heaven forgive me if it is blasphemous to speak so, but I cannot help it!”

But it was neither “luck” nor “injustice.” It was merely the difference between “eyes and no eyes,”—a difference which will always exist and always tell.