Le Coq d’Or

That morning⁠—I no longer remember the day, but it was the summer solstice⁠—I awoke at the very point of dawn, awoke sharply, suddenly, without any slow transition between the states of sleep and waking. I awoke fresh and cheerful, knowing that down there beneath my windows, in the clear light of the newborn day, some simple yet exquisite marvel was waiting. Already, even before the dawn, the joyous song of the starling had reached me, and the pert, melodious whistle of the blackbird.

I threw open a window and sat down upon the sill. The air, still cool, was impregnated with the fine, spicy odor of herbs, of flowers, of leaves. In the thick foliage of the chestnut trees, like diaphanous wisps of muslin, traces of the night mists still lingered; but the trees were already stretching out their branches, grown heavy in sleep, and opening gladly yet lazily their millions of eyes. Who, then, has ventured to pretend that trees can neither see nor hear?

But now the starling, joyous prattler that he is, and even that bold, careless whistler, the blackbird, were silent. Perhaps they lent an astonished attention, like myself, to those strange noises, incomprehensible, unheard till now, whose powerful bursts of sound seemed to set every particle of the atmosphere to vibrating. For a few seconds I felt as though from all the earth trumpets of gold and silver were sending up to heaven appeals of unthinkable purity and sonorous beauty. At length I understood: the cocks were crowing.

I recognized the vigor and the keenness of their song. Once, long ago, when I was hunting grouse in the immense Russian forests, ten or fifteen miles from any dwelling, I trained my hearing to so high a pitch that I could make out, just before the sun rose, the only two sounds that recalled mankind⁠—the distant whistling of the locomotives and the crowing of the cocks in far-off villages. The last sounds from earth that reached my ears during the silence of balloon ascensions used to be the whistles of little boys and, more persistent still, the triumphant cries of the cocks. And now, in this modest hour, when earth and trees and heaven, coming forth from their life-giving immersion in the freshness of night, were silently resuming their dresses for the day, I fell to musing, greatly moved: “See, all the cocks are singing here; all of them, to the very last one, young and old; all those that live within the immense space lighted by the sun, and upon which, in a few moments more, the solar rays will gleam in splendor.”

In all the country round about, as far as ear could hear, there was not a village, not a single farm, where every cock, with his head stretched out to heaven and the feathers of his neck bristling, was not hurling forth the sounds of fine, triumphal fury. Everywhere: at Versailles, at St.-Germain, at Malmaison, at Rueil, Suresnes, Garches, Marnes-la-Coquette, Vaucresson, Meudon, in every suburb, simultaneously, were ringing forth the morning songs of hundreds of thousands of inspired cocks. What human orchestra would not seem pitiable, compared to this magic chorus, in which the tone of reddish purple was the dominant?

There were instants when the nearest cocks were silent for a few moments, as if observing a rest rigorously fixed in advance; then I would hear the wave of sound roll out, ever farther and farther, to the extreme limit of hearing, and then, as if rebounding, come rolling back to crash more loudly still upon my windows, the roofs, the summits of the trees; and these great waves of sound rolled from north to south, from east to west, in a kind of enchanted, incomprehensible fugue. So it was, no doubt, that the soldiers of ancient Rome received their victorious Caesar. The cohorts stationed on the hills and summits first perceived his car of triumph and hailed him from afar with joyful shouts, while from the legions in the plain arose the iron voices of the frenzied warriors, whose ranks already were aflame with the gleam of sparkling eyes.

I listened to this marvelous music with emotion, almost with inspiration. What a strange morning, what an extraordinary morning! Had it reached the cocks of the whole neighborhood, of the whole land, perhaps of all the universe? Who knows? Were they not celebrating, in this morning hour, the year’s longest day? Were they not praising all the charms of summer? The warmth of solar rays; the glowing sands; the odorous, savory herbs; the gladness of their victories in love; the gallant joy of combat, when two robust, spur-armed bodies struggled furiously in air, when the supple wings met with dull blows, when the sharp beaks buried themselves in flesh, and when in a cloud of billowing dust there flew plumes and drops of blood? Or were they, perhaps, glorifying the many-thousandth anniversary of the Ancestral Rooster⁠—the progenitor of all the cocks in the world, invincible warrior, sovereign monarch of immeasurable fields, rivers, and forests?

Or perhaps, I said to myself, before beginning the longest day of his summer’s work, the sun is late by the millionth part of a second; and with all the impatience of devotees, the cocks, the sun’s adorers, deifiers of light and warmth, are crying to their god to unveil his fiery face.

Behold, the sun! No living being⁠—man, beast, or bird⁠—has ever known how to seize the moment of his first appearance, to note the instant when everything in the world grows from pale to rose and from rose to gold. Already the golden flame has penetrated everything⁠—heaven, air, and earth. In an ecstatic effort of their highest forces, the innumerable choir, glorying in their happiness, raise a marvelous hymn. And now, I believe, the solar rays themselves resound, like golden bugles, and the hymn of the cocks glows like the face of the sun. The great Cock of Gold swings up across the firmament in fiery solitude. One is ready to recall again the ancient myth of the Phoenix, the fabulous bird that consumed himself to ashes in the fiery glow of evening to rise again from ashes the next morning, amid the smoking, glowing coals of the East.

The cocks of earth fall silent, one by one, first those near at hand, then those more distant, until at last, almost beyond the limit of my hearing, I hear a faint, sweet pianissimo, which presently dies away.

All day long I was held by the spell of that grand and beautiful music. In the afternoon I went to see some friends. In the middle of the court strutted an enormous gamecock. In the glowing light of the sun, the gold of his tunic, the green and blue reflections of his cuirasse of burnished steel, the satin of his red and white ribbons, flamed in dazzling light. Cautiously approaching, I bent above him to ask: “Was it you, glorious Cock, that sang so beautifully this morning, at the dawn?” He cast an oblique glance of dissatisfaction upon me, turned aside, scratched in the sand to right and left, and grumbled something in a great, hoarse voice. I am not sure I understood aright, and yet I think he said:⁠—

“What’s that to you?”

I took no offense. I am, I know, a man⁠—a poor and feeble man. My dry heart cannot know the sacred ardors of the cock, worshiping his Golden God. Yet is it not permitted to me also to adore, modestly, but after the best fashion that I know, the fair, good sun, eternal, fruitful?