THE ADVENTURES OF NONO
by JEAN GRAVE
[continued from Chapter IX]
The group was returning very slowly, without hurrying, when Nono saw a splendid death’s-head hawkmoth. He immediately decided to catch it. But when he tried to seize it, the insect, with an unexpected flap of its wings, escaped from the net and came fluttering, as if to taunt him, very close to the hunter who, carried away by the heat of the chase, soon found himself led far from his friends.
Finally, stopping near a large oak, the moth seemed within range, and Nono thought the moment favorable to capture it. He calculated the distance that separated him from the insect, grasped the handle of the net and swung it... right on the nose of a stout gentleman, pot-bellied, finely dressed, with coarse features and a flat nose; an enormous gold chain dangled over his paunch. Diamonds adorned his shirt-front, a big carbuncle shone at the knot of his cravat; his fingers were covered with rings. He leaned on a golden walking stick.
“Well, sonny, pay attention. A little more and you would have flattened my nose.” — Nono thought to himself that it would have been hard to make it flatter. — “You didn’t intend, did you, to take me in your net? It seems a little bit small for that.
And pleased with what he took to be a fine joke, the fat man laughed in loud bursts. But his laugh sounded false, and his face was far from inspiring sympathy, when you examined it up close.
But Nono was a little bit young to be a physiognomist. And if he was frightened, it was at the sudden appearance of the fat man, and at finding himself far from his comrades, recalling the recommendations of Solidaria.
However, as he heard, at intervals, the songs and the bursts of laughter of the little troop, he realized that they could not be very far off, which reassured him a bit.
However, it did not explain very well how he had found a fat man under his net when it was a moth that he had chased.
“Pardon me, sir; I didn’t see you. I was pursuing a moth that I wanted to catch when I struck you with my net. Did I hurt you?
“No, it is nothing. You caught me on the tip of the nose,” said the fat man, rubbing it. “But how is it that you are all alone, running after moths?”
“Oh! I am not alone, Nono quickly replied, still dominated by a vague fear. My friends are playing in the woods ... You hear them!” And he listened.
“Ah! And you came to walk here, with your schoolmasters?
“We have no masters,” Nono said proudly. “They are friends! They work with us, play with us, teach us what they know, but do not force us to do what we do not know or do not want to do.”
“Oh! Little man, don’t get all up in arms,” laughed the fat man. "That's what I meant. I can see that you're from Autonomie. And does it please you to never be with anyone but children of your own age, and to always see and to the same things?
“We do not always do the same thing. We change our work and play as we wish, whenever we please.
“Yes, but that doesn’t prevent it from always being the same existence. Yu always see the same country, and the same people. Wouldn’t you like to travel, to see new countries?
“In the country where I live,” continued the fat man, “we travel all the time. We go to the sea, and we go to the mountains. So, me, I have nothing to concern myself with but going for a stroll. It is enough to have a magic wand like I have — and he indicated his walked stick — in order to have all that one desires.
“So, here you are sweating from running around after an insect that you want, but you couldn’t catch. Me, without troubling myself, I will give you this silkmoth fluttery there, above that bush you see close to you.”
And, raising his wand in the direction that he indicated, he made a sign, and the silkmoth found itself in Nono’s hand.
The child took the insect fearfully and examined it attentively. It was a female of the order Lepidoptera. It seemed to him that the insect regarded him with a pleading look, while its legs shook with a convulsive trembling.
“Hey! Here is a pin to stick it in your collection,” said the man, holding out a thin, gold pin to Nono.”
But Nono opened his fingers, letting the insect escape. It flew away, whirring.
“You were wrong to do that,” said the fat man. “That was a very rare species. You could have got a good price for it, if you did not want if for your collection. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Sit, eat and drink. The table is set.”
He again extended his wand in the direction of the big oak. Nono, gaping, saw some tables set themselves, bearing a variety of dishes filled with meats, sauces, and pastries. Flasks containing drinks of all colors chilled in silver buckets full of ice.
“No, I am not hungry,” said Nono. The fat man began to interest him and seemed to him less ugly.
“You have a very nice air about you, and I like you,” said the fat man. “I would love to have a son like you. Will you follow me? I will show you lots of nice things you do not know about.”
“Thank you, but I do not know you. I do not want to leave my friends from Autonomie. They would be too worried if they did not see me return.”
“You see that I can do anything I want. I have a way to prevent that.”
“No,” replied the child, his apprehensions returning. “I want to return to Solidaria.
“Do you think I’m lying? That I am not capable of showing you what I promised? Here! My pig-headed little friend, take these opera glasses. Look at the spectacles you could join in every day!”
Saying this, he propped on his belly a case that hung by a strap at his side and took out a magnificent pair of binoculars that he handed to the child.
Nono raised it to his eyes. He first distinguished a large room where a multitude of children were assembled. All sorts of sweets were passed out to them.
Then, they put on magnificent clothes; they climbed into fine carriages pulled by pretty white horses, driven by little coachmen wearing powdered wigs, high riding boots, and clothes tasseled at all the seems.
Then, they were sent in sturdier carriages, across the plain and to the sea; then into the mountains, which they climbed on mules. And then parties, everywhere. He could see that they were only concerned with enjoying themselves.
However, Nono noticed that their faces, at times, had an air of strain and boredom, like he had not known since he came to Autonomie.
The scenes changed again. He saw again a large semicircular room, lined with large gold-fringed draperies. From the floor to the ceiling, that room was divided into compartments also lined with draperies and fringes of gold. In those compartments, gentlemen in shirts of blinding whiteness and black jackets, women in low-cut dresses covered with diamonds, children lavishly dressed.
At the back of the room, on the stage, another group of people, still more lavishly dressed, appeared to him, moved, danced to the sound of a music that was sometimes sweet and mysterious, sometimes brisk and lively.
Nono, dazzled by all that movement, by the countless lights that lit the room took the binoculars from his eyes, amazed.
“Well?” questioned the tempter, insidiously.
“Oh! That is beautiful!” And he asked himself if he would not follow the man.
Then, wanting to take one last look, he put the binoculars to his eyes again. But having inadvertently turned the glasses around, he saw a horrible spectacle.
He barely had the time to distinguish some filthy, labyrinthine streets, houses like barracks, squalid dwellings, inhabited by a miserable, ragged population, with faces marked with suffering, occupied with tasks that he had no time to distinguish, but which seemed repugnant.
He only had time for a glimpse. The binoculars were violently torn from his hands by the fat man, who said to him, in a harsh voice:
“Do not look that way. It is not your affair, and it is not worth the trouble anyway.”
Nono, taken aback, stared at the man with a frightened air!
But he had recovered his smooth demeanor, and it was in an oily voice that he continued:
“I have frightened you; but it is because I have been frightened myself. That item is one of a kind. I would not trade those opera glasses for anything, and I saw that you were about to drop them.
Nono wondered if he had actually seen, or if it was not an illusion. He calmed down a little, but his first fears had returned. He recoiled from the man, and in an altered voice, he cried, “Hans! Mab!”
“What a fool you are,” said the man, trying to take his hand. “Decide, and I’ll take you. But hurry, because I’m in a hurry!”
They heard the voices of Hans, Dick and Mab, who called to their absent comrade.
And Nono stepped by further from the man, calling his friends.
“Where are you hiding?” said the voice of Hans, who, this time, seemed very close.
“Over here, over here,” called Nono.
He saw Hans appear from a thicket, then Dick, and then Mab from a nearby path.
“How you scared us,” they said, all together. “We thought you were lost. We have searched for you for an hour.” And they all hugged his neck.
The fat man had disappeared.
Nono was going to tell his friends about his adventure; but as at one time he had been close to letting himself be won over and following the man, he didn’t dare admit to his friend that he had been at the point of forgetting and abandoning them; a false shame restrained him. He resolved to conceal his adventure, telling only what led to the pursuit of the moth that he had lost. Explaining his emotion by the fear he had felt at finding himself alone, isolated, fearing he wouldn’t be able to rejoin his friends.
“Ah! There was no danger that we would forget you,” said Hans; “we would have spent the night searching for you instead.”
And as the other children called, they went towards the bulk of the column, responding to their calls.
Hans’ last words were a cruel reproach for Nono who felt some ingratitude toward them, blaming himself for having wanted to leave them for the first unknown to come along.
He was more and more convinced that he should conceal his adventure, maintaining his silence in that regard.
In this he was still more wrong, for Solidaria would have warned him that the fat man was none other than Monnaïus, the eternal enemy of Solidaria and her children: that would have put him on his guard, and he would have avoided greater misfortunes thereafter. But it is rare that a first mistake does not lead to others, and that a first lack of trust is not followed by one or even several lies.
[to be continued in Chapter XI]
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]