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Beasts Besieged, edited by Andrew Lang

Adapted from Théophile Gautier.

Twenty-five years ago (in the winter of 1870-1871) Paris was closely besieged by the Germans, who had beaten one French army after another on the frontier, and had now advanced into the very heart of the country. The cold was frightful, and no wood could be got, and as if this was not enough, food began to give out, and the people inside the city soon learned to know the tortures of hunger. There was no hay or corn for the horses; after sheep and oxen they were the first animals to be eaten, and then whispers were heard about elephants and camels and other beasts in the Jardin des Plantes, which is the French name for their Zoological Gardens.

Now it is quite bad enough to be taken from the forests and deserts where you never did anything but just what you chose, and to be shut up in a small cage behind bars; but it is still worse not to have enough food to eat, and worst of all to be made into food for other people. Luckily the animals did not know what was being talked about in the world outside, or they would have been more uncomfortable than they were already.

Any visitor to the Jardin des Plantes about Christmas time in 1870, and for many weeks later, would have seen a strange sight. Some parts of the Gardens were set aside for hospitals, and rows of beds occupied every sheltered building. Passing through these, the visitor found himself in the kingdom of the beasts, who were often much more gentle than their gaolers.

 After coming from the streets where nothing was the same as it had been six months before, and everything was topsy-turvy, it was almost soothing to watch the animals going on in their usual way, quite regardless of what men might be doing outside. There was the white bear swinging himself from side to side and rubbing his nose against the bars, just as he had done on the day that he had first taken up his abode there. There was a camel still asking for cakes, and an elephant trumpeting with fury because he didn’t get any. Nobody had cakes for themselves, and it would have been far easier to place a gold piece in the twirling proboscis. An elephant who is badly fed is not a pretty spectacle. Its skin is so large that it seems as if it would take in at least three or four extra bodies, and having only one shrunken skeleton to cover, it shrivels up into huge wrinkles and looks like the earth after a dry summer. On the whole, certain kinds of bears come off best, for they can sleep all the winter through, and when they wake up, the world will seem the same as when they last shut their eyes, and unless their friend the white bear tells them in bear language all that has happened they will never be any the wiser.

Still it is not all the bears who are lucky enough to have the gift of sleep. Some remained broad awake, and stood idly about in the corners of their dens, not knowing how to get rid of the time that hung so heavily on their paws. What was the use for the big brown marten to go up to the top of his tree, when there was no one to tickle his nose with a piece of bread at the end of a string? Why should his brother take the trouble to stand up on his hind legs when there was nobody to laugh and clap him? Only one very young bear indeed, with bright eyes and a yellow skin, went on his own way, regardless of spectators, and he was busily engaged in looking at himself in a pail of water and putting on all sorts of little airs and graces, from sheer admiration of his own beauty.

The lion dreams of antelope at the waterhole

THE DREAM OF THE HUNGRY LION

Perhaps the most to be pitied of all were the lions, for they do not know how to play, and could only lie about and remember the days when towards sunset they crept towards the cool hill, and waited till the antelopes came down for their evening drink. And then, ah then! but that is only a memory, while stretched out close by is the poor lioness in the last stage of consumption, and looking more like those half-starved fighting lions you see on royal coats of arms than a real beast. At such times most children would give anything to catch up the Zoological Gardens and carry them right away into the centre of Africa, and let out the beasts and make them  happy and comfortable once more. But that was not the feeling of the little boy who had been taken by his mother to see the beasts as a treat for his birthday. At each cage they passed he came to a standstill, and gazing at the animal with greedy eyes, he said, ‘Mother, wouldn’t you like to eat that?’ Every time his mother answered him, ‘No one eats these beasts, my boy; they are brought from countries a long way off, and cost a great deal of money.’ The child was silent for a moment, but at the sight of the zebra, the elk, or the little hyæna, his face brightened again, and his voice might be heard piping forth its old question, ‘Mother, wouldn’t you like to eat that?’

It is a comfort to think that the horrid greedy boy was disappointed in his hopes. Whatever else he may have eaten, the taste of lions and of bears is still strange to him, for the siege of Paris came to an end at last, and the animals were made happy as of old with their daily portions.