An Account of a Savage Girl, Caught Wild in the Woods of Champagne/The History of a Wild Girl
A WILD GIRL.
ONE evening in the month of September 1731, a girl nine or ten years old, pressed, as it would seem, by thirst, entered about the twilight into Songi, a village situated four or five leagues south of Chalons in Champagne. She had nothing on her feet: her body was covered with rags and skins: her hair with a gourd leaf; and her face and hands were black as a Negroe's. She was armed with a short baton, thicker at one end than the other, like a club. Those who first observed her, took to their heels, crying out, "There is the devil." And indeed her dress and colour might very well suggest this idea to the country people. Happiest were they who could soonest secure their doors and windows; but one of them, thinking, perhaps, that the devil was afraid of dogs, set loose upon her a bull dog with an iron collar. The little savage seeing him advancing in a fury, kept her ground without flinching, grasping her little club with both hands, and stretching herself to one side, in order to give greater scope to her blow. Perceiving the dog within her reach, she discharged such a terrible blow on his head as laid him dead at her feet. Elated with her victory, she jumped several times over the dead carcase of the dog. Then she tried to open a door, which not being able to effect, she ran back to the country towards the river, and mounting a tree, fell quietly asleep.
The late Viscount d'Epinoy happened to be then at his country house of Songi; where, having heard the various accounts of the little savage that had appeared on his grounds, he gave orders to catch her; and particularly to the shepherd who had discovered her the first in a vineyard.
One of the country people, by a very simple thought, but which was attributed to his great knowledge of the manners and customs of savages, conjectured that she was thirsty, and advised to place a pitcher full of water at the foot of the tree in which she was sitting, to tempt her to come down. They followed his advice; and after placing the pitcher, retired from the tree, but still kept privately a close watch on her. Upon which the little savage, after having first looked sharply around, to see whether any body observed her, came down the tree, and went to drink at the pitcher, plunging her chin into the water; but something having startled her, she regained the top of the tree before they had time to apprehend her.
This first stratagem having failed, the same person by whom it had been suggested, again advised to place a woman and some children near the tree, because savages commonly are not so shy of them as of men; and he bade them above all show her a friendly air, and a smiling countenance. His directions were complied with. A woman with a child in her arms came walking near the tree, carrying different sorts of roots and two fishes in her hands, which she held out to the savage, who, desirous to have them, descended a branch or two, but went back again. The woman, still continuing her invitation with an affable, pleasant countenance, accompanied with all possible signs of friendship, such as laying her hand upon her breast, as if to assure her that she loved her, and would do her no harm; the savage was at last emboldened to come down the tree to receive the roots and fishes that were offered her in so kindly a manner: but the woman enticing her from the tree, by retiring insensibly, gave time to the men who were lying in wait for her, to advance and seize her. She never told me any thing of the grief she felt on being taken, nor of the efforts she made to escape; but we may easily imagine both. She thinks, that, according to the best of her recollection, she was caught two or three days after crossing a river. This river must certainly be the Marne, which runs at about the distance of half a league east from Songi: In which case the little savage must have come from the quarter of Lorrain.
The shepherd and the rest who had caught and brought her to the castle, carried her first into the kitchen, till M. d'Epinoy should be informed of her arrival. The first thing there that appeared to draw her attention, was some fowls which the cook was dressing; at these she flew so greedily, and with such amazing agility, that the astonished cook beheld one of them in her teeth before he imagined she had reached it. M. d'Epinoy arriving in the mean time, and seeing what she was eating, caused give her an unskinned rabbit, which she instantly stripped of the skin, and devoured.
Those who considered her then, were of opinion, that she was about nine years of age. She seemed black, as I have already said; but it soon appeared, after washing her several times, she was naturally white, as she still continues. They observed likewise, that her fingers, and in particular her thumbs, were extraordinarily large, in proportion to the rest of her hand, which was otherwise neat enough: And to this day her thumbs retain somewhat of that largeness, as I have seen with my own eyes. By her account, these large strong thumbs were very useful to her during her wild life in the woods: For when she had a mind to pass from one tree to another, without being at the trouble of descending and remounting, if the branches of the two trees were but at a small distance from each other, and though of no greater thickness than her finger, she would place her thumbs on a branch of the tree in which she happened to be, and by their means spring to the other, just like a squirrel. From this we may judge of the strength of those thumbs of her's, which were able, in this manner, to sustain the whole weight of her body in springing. The similitude of the squirrel is entirely her own: and indeed the flying squirrels which she may have seen in her youth, might have suggested to her this method of transporting herself; a circumstance that gives additional weight to the conjectures which we shall afterwards offer with respest to her native country.
M. d'Epinoy committed her to the care of the shepherd, who dwelt near the castle, recommending her to him in the most anxious manner, and promising to reward him handsomely for his pains. The man accordingly took her to his house, in order to begin to tame her; and on this account they called her in the neighbourhood, The shepherd's beast. We may well conceive, that it would require a considerable space of time, and some harsh usage to wean her from her former habits, and to temper her fierce and savage disposition; and I have good reason to believe, that she was very closely confined in this house; for she informed me herself, that she found means to make holes in the walls, and in the tiles of the roof, upon which she would run, with as much unconcern as on the ground, never suffering herself to be retaken without a great deal of trouble, and passing so artfully, (ās they afterwards told her) through small holes, that they could scarcely believe their eyes, after they had seen her do it. It was thus that she escaped once, among several other times, out of this house in a most severe storm of frost and snow; on which occasion, after making good her escape, she betook herself for shelter to a tree. The dread of the resentment of M. d'Epinoy threw the whole family that night into a hurry and confusion; who never imagining, that in so excessive a frost, she would have ventured into the country, rummaged every corner of the house; but finding all their researches in vain, they at last resolved, that they might leave no means untried, to look for her without likewise; where, behold, they find Miss perched, as I have just said, on the top of a tree! from whence, however, they were lucky enough to prevail on her to descend.
I myself have been an eye-witness of some instances of the ease and swiftness with which she ran, than which nothing could be more surprising; and yet what I saw was but the remains of her former agility, which long sickness, and the want of practice for many years, have greatly impaired. Without having seen it, it is hardly possible to imagine her singular and agile manner of running. It was not at all setting one foot before the other alternately, as we do; it was a sort of flying gallop, almost too quick for the eye.—It was rather jumping than running, one foot being kept constantly behind the other. One could scarcely observe the motion motion either of her body or feet; and to run along with her was impossible. The small example I was shown, which was but a trifle, having been performed only in a hall of no great length, convinced me, nevertheless, of the truth of what she had told me before, that even for several years after she was caught, she could overtake the game in the chace. Of this she gave proof in presence of the Queen of Poland, mother to the Queen of France, about the year 1737, as she was going to take possession of the Duchy of Lorrain. That Princess, in passing by Chalons, having heard of the young savage, who was at that time in the convent des Regentes, had her brought before her. Though she had been then several years tamed, yet her disposition, her behaviour, even her voice and speech, were, as she affirms herself, but like those of a child four or five years old. The sound of her voice, though weak, was sharp, shrill, and piercing; and her words were short and confused, like those of a child, at a loss for terms to express it's meaning. In a word, her childish and familiar gestures and behaviour shewed plainly, that as yet she only took notice of the persons who caressed her the most; which the Queen of Poland did extremely. On being informed of the swiftness of her running, the Queen desired that she might accompany her to the chace. There finding herself at liberty, and giving full scope to her natural inclination, the young savage pursued the hares and rabbits that were started, took them, and returning at the same pace, delivered them to the Queen. That Princess discovered some intention of carrying the little savage along with her, in order to place her in a convent at Nancy; but was dissuaded from it by those who had the care of her education in the convent of Chalons, where she was then boarded, at the expence of the late Duke of Orleans. The Queen, however, promised to write in her favour to her daughter the Queen of France, to whom she sent at the same time a plant, consisting of several branches of artificial flowers, presented her by the little savage, who bad already learned an art which she has practised much since, that of imitating nature in works of that sort. By the death of the Queen of Poland, she suffered a loss which the goodness of the Queen her daughter was alone sufficient to compensate.—I return to the period immediately subsequent to her capture, and to the beginning of her education. But before entering upon that, I must relate the most certain accounts that have come to my knowledgę of her adventures before she made her appearance in the village of Songi.
Madamoiselle Le Blanc, the name by which she is now called, remembers perfectly well her having passed a river two or three days before she was taken; and we shall see by and by, that this is one of the most certain facts of her history. She was then accompanied by another girl, a little older than herself, and a black likewise; but whether that was her natural colour, or whether she was only painted, like Le Blanc, is uncertain. They were swimming across a river, and diving to catch some fishes, as I shall have occasion to describe more particularly in the sequel, when they were observed by one M. de St. Martin, a gentleman of that neighbourhood, as Madamoiselle Le Blanc was afterwards told, who, seeing nothing but the two black heads of the children now and then appearing above the water, mistook them, as he says himself, for two water cocks, and fired at them from a good distance. Luckily, however, he missed them; but the report made them dive, and retire farther off.
The little Le Blanc, on her part, had a fish in each hand, and an eel in her teeth. After having gutted and washed their fish, she and her companion eat, or rather devoured it; for, by her account, they did not chew their meat, but holding it in their hand, tore it with their fore teeth into small pieces, which they swallowed without chewing. After finishing their repast, they directed their course into the country, leaving the river at their back. Soon after, she who is now become Madamoiselle Le Blanc, perceived the first a chaplet on the ground, which, no doubt, had been dropt by some passenger. Whether the novelty of the object delighted her, or whether it brought to her remembrance something of the same kind that she had seen before, is not known; but she immediately fell a dancing and exclaiming for joy: and being apprehensive lest her companion should deprive her of her little treasure, she stretched out her hand to take it up; upon which the other, with her baton, struck her so severe a stroke on the hand, that she lost the use of it for some moments. She had, however, strength enough left as with the weapon in her other hand to return the blow on the forehead of her antagonist, with such a force as to knock her to the ground, screaming frightfully. The chaplet was the reward of her victory, of which she made herself a bracelet. Touched in the mean time, as it would seem with compassion for her companion, whose wound bled very much, she ran in search of some frogs, and finding one, she stripped off it's skin, which she spread on her forehead, to stop the blood, binding up the wound with a thread of the bark of a tree, which she peeled off with her nails. After this they separated; she that was wounded taking the road towards the river, and the victorious Le Blanc that towards Songi.
It will be understood that all these particulars, as well as many others, preceding and subsequent to this adventure, of which I have supprest several, were not recounted by Le Blanc, till after she had learnt to express herself in French. But as to the principal fact, the quarrel between the two girls, it is one of the first of which she gave an account. Two having been seen swimming across the river, as we have said above, the people could hardly fail to enquire, by signs at least, at Le Blanc, very soon after she was seized, when the thing must have been fresh in her memory, what was become of her companion. To which she answered, partly by signs, and partly by words, (suggested to her, no doubt, at the time) that she had made her red, meaning that she had drawn her blood. Of this expression, tho' much talk'd of at the time, no mention is made, in a letter dated from Chalons the 9th of December 1731, about two months after she was taken, and printed in the Mercury of France. According to the writer of that letter, she only knew then a few French words ill articulated, some of which he mentions.
I Have been able to discover nothing certain with regard to the companion of Madamoiselle Le Blanc. M. de L——, formerly preceptor to M. d'Epinoy's children, says, that when he first became acquainted with Le Blanc, about two years after her capture, it was reported in the country, that the other girl had been found dead at the distance of some leagues from the place where they had fought. Madamoiselle Le Blanc tells, that she heard of her having been found (she does not say whether dead or alive) near Toul in Lorrain. In that case she must, dangerously wounded as she was, have reswam the Marne, which is equally improbable with what Mademoiselle Le Blanc further tells she heard of some papers having been found upon that girl, who was bigger and older than she, which could throw light upon their preceding adventures. The letter formerly mentioned, which was wrote recently after the thing happened, only says, that the little Negro girl had been again seen near Cheppe, a village in the neighbourhood of Songi, but had not afterwards appeared. Whatever may have been the case, she was never more talk'd of.
There is much greater uncertainty still as to what happened to these two children, previous to their arriving in Champagne; Le Blanc's memory, on that head, being indistinct and confused. I shall relate, however, every particular I have been able to draw from her in the several different conversations we have had together since the commencement of our acquaintance, from which I shall endeavour to form some probable conjectures about her native country, and the adventures that may have brought her into Champagne.—But to return to her history.
The squeaking cries she utter'd thro' her throat, by way of language, were, I believe not the least occasion of the harsh treatment she sometimes underwent: They were indeed frightful, those of anger or fear especially, which I could easily conceive from a specimen exhibited by her in my presence, of one of the most moderate, expressive of her joy or friendship, and at which, had I not been put on my guard beforehand, I should have been heartily frightened. The most terrible of all were utter'd by her on the approach of any unknown person, with an intention to take hold of her, at which she discovered a horror that appeared altogether extraordinary. Of this she once gave a strong instance in the house of M. de Beaupré, at present a counsellor of state, but at that time intendant of the province of Champagne, to whom she had been brought soon after, being placed in the hospital general of St. Maur at Chalons, which, by the certificate of her baptism, is fix'd to the 30th of October 1731. A man who had heard of her abhorrence of being touched, resolved nevertheless to embrace her, in spite of the danger that he was told, as an unknown person he ran, in going too near her. She had in her hand at the time a piece of raw beef which she was devouring with great satisfaction: And by way of precaution, they kept fast hold of her cloaths. The instant she saw the man near her, in the attitude of taking hold of her arm, she gave him such a violent stroke on the face, both with her hand, and the piece of flesh she held in it, that he was so stunn'd and blinded, as to be scarcely able to keep his feet. The savage, at the same time, believing the strangers around her to be so many enemies, who intended to murder her, or dreading, perhaps, punishment for what she had done, sprang out of their hands towards a window, thro' which she had a view of trees and a river, intending to jump from it, and so make her escape; which she would certainly have done, it they had not again catch'd hold of her.
The weaning her from feeding on raw bloody flesh, and the leaves, branches, and roots of trees, was the most difficult and dangerous part of her reformation. Her stomach and constitution having been constantly accustomed to raw food, full of its natural juice, could by no means endure our artificial kinds of food, rendered by cookery, according to the opinion of several physicians, much more difficult of digestion. While she continued at the castle of Songi, and for the two first years that she staid in the hospital of St. Maur at Chalons, M. d'Epinoy, who took care of her, gave orders to carry her, from time to time, the raw fruits and roots of which she was fondest; but in the hospital she was entirely deprived of raw flesh, and raw fishes, which she had found in great plenty about the castle of Songi. She appeared particularly fond of fish, either from her natural taste, or from her having acquired, by constant custom from her childhood, the faculty of catching them in the water with more ease, than she could the wild game by speed of foot. M. de L———. remembers that she retained this inclination for catching fish in the water, two years after her capture: And the same gentleman informed me, that the little savage having been one day brought by order of the Viscount d'Epinoy, to the castle of Songi, where M. de L—— then happened to be, no sooner perceived a door open which led to a large pond, than she immediately ran and threw herself into it, drest as she was, swam round all the sides of it, and landing on a small island, went in search of frogs, which she eat at her leisure. This circumstance puts me in mind of a comical adventure which she told me herself.
When any company visited M. d'Epinoy at Songi, he used to send for the girl, who soon became more tame, and began to discover much good humour, and a softness and humanity of disposition, which the savage life she had been obliged to follow for self-preservation, had not been able altogether to efface; for when she did not appear apprehensive of any harm, she was very tractable and good humoured. One day then that she was present at a great entertainment in the castle, observing none of the delicacies she esteemed, every thing being cook'd, she ran out like lightning, and traversing all the ditches and ponds, returned with her apron full of living frogs, which she spread very liberally on the plates of all the guests; and quite overjoy'd at having found such good cheer, cried out, tien man man, donc tien, (hold man man, hold then) almost the only syllables she could then articulate. We may easily figure to ourselves the confusion and bustle this occasioned among the guests, every one endeavouring to avoid or throw away the frogs that were hopping all about. The little savage quite surprised at the small value they seem'd to set on her delicate fare, carefully gathered up the scattered frogs, and threw them back again on the plates and table. The same thing has happened several times. in different companies.
It was with the utmost difficulty that they dishabituated her from eating raw flesh, and, by slow degrees, reconciled her to our cooked victuals. The first trials she made to accustom herself to victuals drest with salt, and to drink wine, cost her her teeth, which, together with her nails, were preserved as a curiosity. She recovered, indeed, a set of new teeth just like ours, but she irrecoverably hurt her health, which continues to be extremely delicate. From one dangerous disorder, she immediately fell into another, all occasioned by intolerable pains in her stomach and bowels, but especially in her throat, which became parch'd and inflam'd, owing, as the physicians asserted, to the little exercise and nourishment derived to these parts from her new regimen, in comparison of what they had received from the raw victuals she formerly fed upon. These pains frequently produced an universal spasm over her whole body, and weaknesses irreparable by all the arts of cookery. It was, perhaps, on account of some of these disorders which threatned her with instant death, that they thought proper to hasten her baptism. Of this ceremony, she does not retain the least remembrance. She only mentions her having heard afterwards, that it was intended to give her for god-father and god-mother, either M. de Beaupré, governor of Champagne, and a Lady called Madame Dupin; or M. de Choiseul bishop of Chalons, and Madame de Beaupré the governor's lady; but, in their absence, the administrator and governess of the hospital of St. Maur, presented her in their name at the Fount, and gave her the name of Mari Angélique Memmie le Blanc. The reason of giving her the name of Memmie, that of the first bishop of Chalons, was, as she fays, her having come from afar to receive the faith in this diocese, where it had been formerly planted by that Saint. But it appears from her act of baptism, that her godfather bore the same name.
There was but small probability of preserving Madamoiselle le Blanc alive, her best state of health being a sickly languor, which seem'd to be carrying her to the grave. I was informed by M. L——, that M. d'Epinoy, who was solicitous to save her at any expence, sent a physician to see her, who being at a loss what to prescribe, hinted, that it was necessary to indulge her now and then with a bit of raw flesh. Accordingly, she says they gave her some, but she could, by that time, only chew it, and suck out the juice, not being able to swallow the flesh. Sometimes too, a Lady of the house, who had a great affection for her, would bring her a chicken or pigeon alive, of which she immediately suck'd the blood warm, which she found to be a kind of balsam that penetrated every part of her body, softened the acrimony of her parched throat, and brought back her strength. It was with all this trouble, and these narrow escapes, that Madamoiselle Le Blanc, by slow degrees, gave over her raw diet, and accustomed herself to the cooked victuals we eat, and that so entirely, that at present she has a disgust at raw flesh.
As the Viscount d'Epinoy, while he lived, took great pleasure, when at Songi, in seeing his little savage; he kept her in a convent, either at Chalons, or Vitri le François. But he appears to me to have lived only a short while after she was taken, no mention being made of him in her act of baptism, tho' she was baptized seven or eight months after; and yet it is extremely probable, that if he had been alive at that time, he would have been her godfather. It is certain, however, from the information of M, de L——, that after the death of M. d'Epinoy, the little Le Blanc was placed in a convent at Chalons; and that upon the first journey the widow of M. d'Epinoy made to Songi after that event, the same M. L—— who accompanied her, persuaded her to take the child into her own family, where she could be kept at less expence than in a convent. That Lady and M. L— having accordingly made a journey to Chalons, with this intention, found Le Blanc tolerably improved, and pretty expert at several female works, by which she might be useful to Madame d'Epinoy. But the superior of the convent, from some motive that is not known, unless it were the danger to her salvation that the child might run in the great world, prevailed on Madame d'Epinoy to let her remain where she was, informing her at the same time, of some little adventures that seemed still to indicate a latent inclination for swimming and climbing trees, as she had done formerly. From which the Lady being apprehensive, lest the girl might require too much looking after, gave over all thoughts of taking her into her family. From, this period, M. de Choiseul, bishop of Chalons, was the person who took care of her, having given orders to his Vicar-general M. Cazotte, to superintend her instruction in the same convent where she had formerly been placed.
After Le Blanc had lived several years in that convent, and had made applications for permission to assume the veil there, she conceived a disgust at the house, being ashamed to live with people who had seen her in her wild state immediately after she was caught, and before she was civilized; a circumstance which they made her feel very sensibly. On this account, she obtained leave to remove to a convent at Saint Menehold. Upon arriving at that town in the month of September 1747, M. de la Condamine, of the academy of sciences, found her just as she entered the inn, where he dined with her and the hostess, without letting her know that he had designedly fallen in with her, or that she was the object of his curiosity. She informed him of the obligations under which she lay to the Duke of Orleans, who had been at the expence of her board, since the time he had seen her on his way thro' Chalons, as he was returning from Metz in the year 1744: And she exprest great regret at having been dissuaded from accepting of the charitable offer that Prince then made her, to place her in a convent at Paris. M. de la Condamine promised Le Blanc to be the instrument of conveying her sentiments on this head to the Prince. Who having been accordingly informed by him of the situation of Le Blanc, and receiving at the same time from the Vicar general of Chalons satisfaction, with regard to her conduct; he brought her to Paris, placed her in the convent of the Nouvelles Catholiques, in the street St. Anne, and went thither himself to see and converse with her, that he might know what progress she had made in her education. It was there that she first partook of the holy sacrament of the last supper, and received confirmation. Being afterwards removed to the convent of the visitation at Chaillot, still under the patronage of the late Duke of Orleans, she was making preparations for becoming a nun there, when a stroke she received on the head by the fall of a window, and a long disorder which attacked her immeditately afterwards, threw her into them most imminent danger. Her life was despaired of; and by the advice of a physician sent to visit her by the Prince, she was, by his orders, removed to Paris, to the house of the Hospitalieres, in the suburb St. Marceau, where she could more easily receive the assistance her situation required. The Duke of Orleans had the goodness personally to recommend her to the superior and sisters, and to engage not only to pay her board, but likeways all the medicines and trouble that should be thought necessary. That Prince has undoubtedly received the reward of his charity in the other world; but in this, the unhappy Le Blanc reapt very little benefit from his good intentions. In this society, which, by her means, hoped to procure a Prince for its protector, and in him undoubted security for her board, Le Blanc found herself in a manner totally neglected. I shall leave the reader to imagine the melancholy reflections of this unhappy girl, on being, by the death of her noble patron, left weak and languishing, without either relation or friend to take care of her among these religious, who, by that event, saw all their expectations blasted; at the same time, in case of her recovering, she foresaw what neglect, and how many mortifications she must undergo from persons who had no prospect of being repaid their advances on her account.
It was in these disagreeable circumstances that I saw her for the first time in November 1752. They were hardly mended, when Le Blanc had recovered as much strength as to be able to come herself to tell me, that the Duke of Orleans, the inheritor of his father's virtues, had undertaken to pay the nine months board that had fallen due for her since his father's death, and that she had besides, some reason to hope to be put on that Prince's list, for a yearly pension of 200 livres for life; adding, at the same time, that until this last point should be settled, which could not happen till the month of January following, she had accepted of a small apartment, which a person she mentioned had offered her. But how, says I, do you propose to subsist in this apartment for two months, and perhaps more, in your sickly situation? For what purpose, answered she, with a firmness and confidence that surprised me, has God brought me from among wild beasts, and made me a Christian? not, surely, afterwards to abandon, and suffer me to perish for hunger: that is impossible; I know no other father but him, nor no other mother but the blessed Virgin; their providence, therefore, will support me. The pleasure with which I set down this answer, repays, with usury, the pains I have taken to compose the preceding relation, which I shall finish with an account of the answers made by Le Blanc to the several questions I asked her, with regard to what she recollected of the first part of her life: And I shall subjoin the conjectures I have already promised about her native country and the accidents which may have brought heir into France, and given occasion to the very sinular circumstances of her discovery and capture.
Madamoiselle Le Blanc acknowledges, that she did not begin to reflect till after she had made some progress in her education; and that during her life in the woods, she had scarcely any other ideas than a sense of her wants, and a desire to satisfy them. She has no remembrance either of father or mother, or any other person of her own country, and hardly any of the country itself, except that she does not remember to have seen any houses there, but only holes under ground, and a kind of huts like barracks, (a similitude of her own) into which they crept on all four; and she has even an idea that these huts were covered with snow. She adds, that she frequently mounted trees, either to protect herself from wild beasts, or to discover more easily at a distance animals proportioned to her strength and her wants, which she attacked for food. These circumstances were so strongly fixed in her imagination, that when she began to understand French, but before she could express herself in it, which did not happen till a long while after she was taken, when asked whence she came, and who was her father and mother? she used to point to a tree, if there was one near her, and to the ground at the foot of it. The only particular of her infancy of which she retains a slight remembrance, was her having seen, when very young, either in the sea or some river, she knows not which, a huge animal swimming with two feet, like a dog, having a round head resembling that of a bull dog, and large sparkling eyes: that, seeing the creature approaching as if to devour her, she escaped to the land, and ran a great way off. I asked her if the creature had only two feet, and if it had hair, and of what colour? To which she answered, That she did not take time to observe it particularly; but that she saw no more than two feet with which it swam: that it appeared to have but about one half of its body above the water, and the rest below: that she believed she saw hair on it, of a greyish black colour, and short, somewhat like that of a dog whose hair has been newly cut.
This description, so nearly resembling that of a seal; the violent inclination Le Blanc retained for several years after coming to France, of throwing herself into the water, fishing there with her hands, swimming in it in spite of the cold and frost, and of eating every thing raw; and the weakness and faintings she was at first subject to on feeling the heat of the fire or sun, appear to me to be certain proofs of her being born in the north, somewhere near the Frozen Sea, where seals are fished for; and several other observations which I shall submit to the reader incline me to suspect that she is of the Esquimaux nation, which inhabits the country of Labrador, lying to the north of Canada.
Le Blanc acknowledges, that in the various relations she has made to me on different occasions, there are several particulars of which she retains but a confused and indistinct remembrance, and which she suspects to be blended with circumstances that she may have imagined after she began to reflect on the questions asked her at first, and constantly repeated to her afterwards.
She has, however, always affirmed, and expressed by signs before she could speak French; that she had twice crossed the sea: and of this fact she positively assured M. de la in the year 1747. As to what she has sometimes told of her having been long on sea, by reason of the ship's stopping at different islands, she is at present sensible that this was only a repetition of some commentary she has heard upon her adventures. I was informed by M. L—— that he heard a report about M. d'Epinoy's family, of the two little savages having been sold in some of the islands of America, where, being favourites of their mistress, but disliked by their master, the mistress was obliged to sell them again, and suffer them to be reimbarked either in he ship that had brought them, or in some other. These circumstances tally pretty well with those set forth in the letter already mentioned printed in the Mercury of France: But it is apparent, that these particulars arise altogether from conjectures more or less probable, formed upon the first signs and expressions that were obtained from the young girl, when she began to speak French, some months after being taken; and certainly so circumstantiate a relation, founded on no better authority than signs, is very little to be depended on.
Nor do I think we can have more dependence upon what Le Blanc pretends to remember of there having been aboard the ship in which she was transported, some people who understood her language, which was nothing but shrill piercing cries, formed in the throat, without any articulation or motion of the lips. As to her two embarkations, of which she has preserved a pretty distinct idea, and about which she has never varied, the truth of them, as well as of her having remained some time in a hot country, such as our West India islands, seems to be in some measure confirmed by this, that sugar canes, cassave, or manioc, the known productions of the hottest climates, were by no means new or unknown objects to her, for she remembers to have eat of them; and the first time they were shewn her in France, she seized them very greedily. I take notice of these circumstances, because they tend to form a connection between the several parts of the adventures that may have conducted Madamoiselle Le Blanc from the northern regions, of which she appears to be a native, first into the West Indies, and from thence into Europe, somewhere near the frontiers of France.
She and her companion catched the fish with their hands, either in the sea, in lakes, or in rivers; for Madamoiselle Le Blanc could not explain to me which; nor could she give me any other description of their manner of fishing, except that when they saw in the water, where their sight was extremely acute, any fishes, they instantly pursued and catched them, then returned to the surface of the water to gut and wash them, immediately afterwards eat them and then went in quest of more. It must therefore have been either in some river, or if in the sea, it could only be when the ship was at anchor in some port or road, that they fished in this manner: Of this I was persuaded by one of her adventures; for she told me, that having one day thrown herself into the water, not to fish, as it would seem, because she did not chuse to return again, but to make her escape, on account of some harsh usage, and having swam about a considerable time, she betook herself at last to a steep rock, on which she scrambled, as she says, like a cat; and having been pursued thither by a boat or canoe, she was retaken with much difficulty, being found concealed among some bushes. All this shows, that the ship was not far from land, though it is not unlikely that this escape may be the same with that mentioned above, of which M. de L—— was an eye-witness at Songi.
On account of this flight, perhaps, or some other attempts of the same kind, the two little savages were confined to the hold of the ship; but this precaution had like to have proved fatal both to them and to the rest of the crew likewise. Perceiving themselves near the water, their favourite element, they formed a scheme of scratching a hole in the ship with their nails, by which they might make their escape into the water. The crew, however, luckily discovered their operations, in time enough to prevent the effect of them, and thereby escaped an unavoidable shipwreck. This attempt made them chain the two little savages in such a way as to put it out of their power to resume their work.
From this we may believe, that these children required to be very sharply looked after; and their aversion to being touched, must have increased the difficulty of keeping them. According to Le Blanc's account, it was very troublesome to their governors to approach them; for, whether their abhorrence of being touched was natural to them, or proceeded from the remembrance of their being carried off, or the dread of ill usage, they became furious on perceiving any person come near them; and it was necessary for such person carefully to guard himself against their arms and nails; or, failing these, against their fists, which were weilded with a strength of arm greatly superior to that of our children of the same age.
Upon their arrival in Champagne, their arms were, by Madamoiselle Le Blanc's account, a short stick, of a thickness proportioned to their strength, having at its end a round knot of very hard wood, the whole in the shape of a club, together with a knife resembling a gardener's pruning knife, but having two blades, each larger than that of a pruning knife, folding down upon the opposite sides of a wooden handle. This last instrument served principally to divide and open the animals they catched, or to defend themselves in a close engagement, These arms, she says, they carried in a kind of bag or pocket, fixed to a large piece of skin, which was wrapped round their bodies, and reached down to their knees. Upon my asking, Whether that dress did not incommode them in climbing trees, in the manner she had mentioned? She answered, that it did not; for that on such occasions, they held the back part of it in their teeth. Upon my inquiring with more than ordinary anxiety about this dress, and their other ornaments, that I might the better find them out in certain figures in my possession, representing Esquimaux, she told me, that her first cloaths, arms, necklace, and pendants, were taken from her at M. d'Epinoy's: Thať there were some strange characters engraved on her arms, which perhaps might have led to a more particular discovery of her nation; but that all these things were preserved by M. d'Epinoy as a curiosity, at whose house she often saw them and dressed herself in them sometimes. I was told, however, by M. de L——, that he never knew any thing of these arms: But I have already observed, that this gentleman only saw Le Blanc for the first time in that house, two years after her capture. She was then dressed in a kind of vest, or, as she says herself, a jacquet of stuff, which, by M. de L——'s account, did not hinder her, upon seeing a door open that led to a large pond, to run and throw herself into it, to swim round all its sides, and to land upon a piece of dry ground she found in it, where she fell at eating frogs.
It appears, that after the escape of these two children, from whatever place it was, being then capable of any other views or intentions than those of liberty and self-preservation, they pursued no other rout than chance or necessity presented. At night, when, according to Le Blanc, they saw more distinctly than in the day, (which however must not be understood literally, though her eyes do still retain somewhat of that faculty) they travelled about in search of food and drink. The small game which they catched sitting, and the roots of trees, were their provisions; their arms and nails supplying the place of caterer and cook. They passed the day either in holes, in bushes, or upon trees, as the nature of the place permitted. The trees were their refuge against the wild beasts which they discovered; they served them likewise as their watchtowers, from whence they could observe at a distance whether any of their enemies were near, when they wanted to come down; and it was here they waited, as it were in ambush, for the passing of any game, upon which they either leaped all of a sudden, or went in pursuit of them. Providence, which bestows on every creature the instincts and faculties necessary for the preservation of its kind, had endued these with a power of motion in the eyes quite inconceiveable; their movement was so extemely quick, and their sight so sharp, that they might be said to see in the same instant on every side of them, without hardly moving their heads. The little of this faculty that Le Blanc still retains, is astonishing, when she chuses to how it; for at other times her eyes are like ours, which she reckons a lucky circumstance, it having cost a great deal of pains to deprive them of their quick motion, and in which they had almost despaired of succeeding.
The trees were likewise their beds, or rather their cradles; for, according to her description, they slept soundly in them, either sitting, or probably riding on some branch, suffering themselves to be rocked by the winds, and exposed to every inclemency of the weather, without any other precaution than the securing themselves with one hand, and using the other by way of pillow.
The largest rivers did not at all stop their journey either by day or night; for they alwise crossed them without any dread: Sometimes they entered them merely for the sake of drinking, which they performed by dipping in their chin up to the mouth, and sucking the water like horses. But they most frequently entered the rivers to catch the fishes they perceived at the bottom, which they brought ashore in their hands and mouths, there to open, skin, and eat them, as I have mentioned above.
Having hinted to Madamoiselle Le Blanc, that I had great difficulty to believe it possible for her to make her way out of a deep river, in the manner she mentioned, without the assistance of her hands and breath; she assured me, that without such assistance she always mounted to the surface of the water, a very little breath being alone sufficient for that purpose, of which she had given an example only four years ago. Of this she showed me the manner, standing upright, with both her arms held streight up, as if holding something above the water, having the end of her handkerchief between her teeth, like a fish, breathing at the same time softly, but without interruption, with each corner of her mouth alternately, much in the same manner that a smoaker breathes with one corner of his mouth, while he holds his pipe in the other. In this way, by Le Blanc's account, she and her companion passed the Marne in their way to Songi, where she was taken, as before related.
It remains now from these facts, which are by no means all equally certain, to form some probable conjectures about the way in which these two savages were transported to our continent, and remained undiscovered till their arrival near Chalons in Champagne.
Independent of the natural aversion discovered by Madamoiselle Le Blanc at the fire, of her propensity to plunge into the water in the coldest weather, of her taste for raw fish which was her favourite food, and of the other observations already set down, which do not permit us to doubt of her being a native of some northern region, bordering on the Frozen Ocean: Her white colour, just like our own, is conclusive on this point, leaving not the smallest uncertainty: For it is an undoubted fact, that all the natives of the inland countries of Africa, and of the other warm and temperate climates of America, are either black, olive, or copper-coloured. If therefore the only remaining question were, How two young savages, of some northern country, could have come into France?—It might be solved in many different ways, all equally probable. But the difficulty here is, to account not only for the two separate embarkations, of which Le Blanc retains the remembrance, but likewise for her being carried to, and remaining some time in a country where there were sugar canes and cassave; and further for the black colour with which she was painted. Though here it is by no means our province or intention to compose a romance, or to devise imaginary adventures, yet where certainty is wanting, we must look for probability. Of all the different suppositions I have formed for connecting the various circumstances of this history, what follows is the simplest and the most probable.
It is well known, that all the European nations who have colonies in America, are obliged to carry thither slaves to cultivate the ground, and to prepare its different productions, such as sugar, indigo, tobacco, chocolate, coffee, &c. The Negroes of Africa, when carried to the West Indies, a climate much of the same temperature with their own, accommodate themselves to it without any difficulty, and thrive extremely well; but all attempts to naturalize the savages of the northern regions to that country, have proved unsuccessful. The English, Dutch, and Danes, who have colonies in several of the West India islands, as well as we, have more than once carried off some of the Esquimaux savages who inhabit the country of Labrador to the north of Canada. I imagine then that the captain of a ship from the north of Holland, or Scotland, or some town in Norway, may have carried off a parcel of slaves from some northern country, from Labrador perhaps, with an intention to sell them in the West India islands, where they may have had an opportunity of seeing and eating sugar canes and manioc. The same captain may probably have transported one or two of these slaves to Europe, either because he could not find an opportunity of disposing of them to advantage, or from caprice or curiosity; and the youth of our two little savages might naturally enough procure them that preference; in which case, it is not improbable, that on his arrival in Europe, he may have either sold them, or given them away in a present. And it is likewise probable, that either through a frolic, or with a fraudulent intention, the proprietor may have painted them black, by which means he might pass them for natives of Guinea, and at the same time avoid any challenge on account of his having decoyed them away. There is in America a plant that yields a clear transparent liquor, which rubbed on the skin, renders it perfectly black: This colour indeed wears off in about nine or ten days; but it may be rendered more durable by laying it on in several coats, and mixing with it different ingredients. Hitherto our suppositions are at least plausible; what follows approrches much nearer to certainty, and even to demonstration.
It is indisputable, that some way or other these two children have been brought to Europe by sea. Now, the nearer we shall suppose the place where they were landed, to have been to that where they were found, the more simple and natural will their story appear. Let us then suppose them to have been sold in some port of the Zuyder Sea, and from thence conveyed by the Issel, or by some of the canals which traverse the country thereabouts, to the habitations of their new masters, either in the country of Guelders, for example, or in that of Cleves, upon the banks of the Moselle. We may judge from the account that has been given of the little Le Blanc, how difficult to keep she and her companion were, and that the first moment they found an opportunity to escape, they would not fail to make use of it. That country is very woody, and when once they had reached the forest of the Ardennes, the rest of their story needs no explanation. We have seen that they passed the day in trees, that they knew how to provide their food, and that they never travelled but at night. They either may have roamed by chance, or their instinct may have induced them to proceed towards that quarter, where they saw the sun through the day, and particularly towards that point of the horizon where he had disappeared in the evening, and whither the twilight may have conducted them about the hour when they usually began their journey, as when they swam across the Marne. This journey, of several months continuance, through a woody country, although not amounting perhaps to 50 leagues, in a streight line, may have brought them towards the south west part of Lorrain, and from thence into that part of Champagne where they were found. And thus the adventures of Le Blanc may be easily accounted for.
We may form a more simple story still, by supposing these two little savages to have been transported from their northern country, to some of the French West-India islands, such as St. Domingo, Guadaloupe, or Martinico, and to have been purchased there by some Frenchman, who soon after returned, with his family, to France, and settled in Lorraine, having brought these two children thither along with him. It is probable that they would soon make their escape. This would very naturally account for the little Le Blanc's seeming to understand some French words, and mincing others, almost immediately after she was caught; and likeways, for the circumstances which they at first discovered by her signs, and afterwards by her conversation, of her having been about a Lady whom she had seen working at a sort of tapestry. This last supposition too requires but a very short space of time, twelve or fifteen days perhaps, between her escape from her master in Lorrain, and her appearing near Chalons. Whence we may more easily conceive how her black colour still continued, altho' she had swam across one river at least. This appears to me to be only attended with one difficulty, namely, that altho' these two children were found so near the place from whence they had escaped, and their story became public, yet their masters never discovered themselves. This objection, however, is by nσ means unanswerable. Perhaps their master or mistress being tired of them, and having despaired of being able to tame them, were not at all displeased to get rid of them, and therefore gave themselves no trouble about recovering them, or, at least, did not insist on their being restored. This is, in some measure, confirmed by what M. de L—— told me of some enquiry having been made from Holland, as he thinks, in consequence of which the young savage was claimed from the late M d'Epinoy, who refused to return her: But it should seem that the requisition has been but faintly insisted on.
Were any nation known which made use of such shrill piercing cries thro' the throat, as were familiar to Madamoiselle le Blanc, by way of language, we should have no doubt about her native country: But still she must have come into France in some such way as we have been describing. It is alledged, that the demand of the young savage was made, on occasion of the letter published in the Mercury; but I have not been able certainly to discover from whence it came. Then was the time to have traced her to her source, and to have been much more exactly acquainted with her history. Perhaps it may not be too late still; and the publication of this relation may procure new light in this very curious and dark affair; which is one of the principal motives that have induced me to compose it.
I Have proved that there is great reason to think, that Madamoiselle le Blanc is of the Esquimaux nation; but as my proofs are equally applicable to the savages of Greenland, Spitzbergen, and Nova Zembla, if it were of importance to know exactly, whether she is a native of the continent of America, or of that of Europe, it is still in our power; for we know that American savages, both men and women, have a certain peculiarity, which distinguishes them both from Europeans, Africans, and Asiatics.
- Some persons who knew the young savage soon after her first appearance, give a different account of the adventure of the dog, placing it at Chalons, soon after she was caught. It is however certain, that the girl was not at all afraid of a great dog, having on several occasions given proofs of the contrary.