CHAPTER X THE LENGTH OF ANIMAL LIFE
JULES and Claire could not get over the astonishment caused by their uncle’s story of the old trees to which centuries are less than years are to us. Emile, with his usual restlessness, led the conversation to another subject:
“And animals, Uncle,” asked he, “how long do they live?”
“Domestic animals,” was the reply, “seldom attain the age that nature allows them. We grudge them their nourishment, overtire them, and do not give them proper shelter. And then, we take from them their milk, fleece, hide, flesh, in fact everything. How can you ever grow old when the butcher is waiting for you at the stable door with his knife? Useless to speak of these poor victims of our need: to give us long life, they do not live out their time. Supposing that an animal is well treated, that it suffers neither hunger nor cold, that it lives in peace without excessive fatigue, without fear of knacker or butcher; under these good conditions, how many years will it live?
“Let us begin with the ox. Here is a robust one, I hope. What chest and shoulders! And then that big square forehead, with its vigorous horns around which the strap of the yoke goes; those eyes shining with the serene majesty of strength. If old age is the portion of the strong, the ox ought to live for centuries.”
“I should think so too,” assented Jules.
“Quite wrong, my dear children; the ox, so big, strong, massive, is old, very old, at twenty or thirty years. What to us would be verdant youth is for it decrepit old age.
“Let us pass on to the horse. You see I do not take my examples from among the weak; I choose the most vigorous. Well, the horse, as well as its modest companion, the ass, scarcely reaches more than thirty or thirty-five years.”
“How mistaken I was!” Jules exclaimed. “I thought the horse and ox strong enough to live at least a century. They are so big, they take up so much room!”
“I do not know, my little friend, whether you can understand me, but I want to inform you that to take up a great deal of room in this world is not the way to live in peace and to enjoy a long life. There are people who take up a lot of space, not in the body—they are no bigger than we—but in their pretensions and their ambitious manœuvers. Do they live in peace, are they preparing for themselves a venerable old age? It is very doubtful. Let us remain small; that is to say, let us content ourselves with the little that God has given us; let us beware of the temptations of envy, the foolish counsels of pride; let us be full of activity, of work, and not of ambition. That is the only way we are permitted to hope for length of days.
“Let us return without delay to our animals. Our other domestic animals live a still shorter time. A dog, at twenty or twenty-five years, can no longer drag himself along; a pig is a tottering veteran at twenty; at fifteen at the most, a cat no longer chases mice, it says good-by to the joys of the roof and retires to some corner of a granary to die in peace; the goat and sheep, at ten or fifteen, touch extreme old age, the rabbit is at the end of its skein at eight or ten; and the miserable rat, if it lives four years, is looked upon among its own kind as a prodigy of longevity.
“Would you like me to tell you about birds? Very well. The pigeon may live from six to ten years; the guinea fowl, hen, and turkey, twelve. A goose lives longer; it is true that in its quality of goose it does not worry. The goose attains twenty-five years, and even a good deal more.
“But here is something better. The goldfinch, sparrow, birds free from care, always singing, always frisking, happy as possible with a ray of sunlight in the foliage and a grain of hemp-seed, live as long as the gluttonous goose, and longer than the stupid turkey. These very happy little birds live from twenty to twenty-five years, the age of an ox. As I told you, taking up a lot of room in this world is not the way to prepare oneself for a long life.
“As to man, if he leads a regular life, he often lives to eighty or ninety. Sometimes he reaches a hundred or even more. But should he attain only the ordinary age, the average age, as they say, that is about forty, then he is to be considered a privileged creature as to length of life; the foregoing facts show it. And besides, for man, my dear children, length of life is not measured exactly according to the number of years. He lives most who works most. When God calls us to Him, let us take with us the sincere esteem of others and the consciousness of having done our duty to the end; and, whatever our age, we shall have lived long enough.”