You can't be too careful, by H. G. Wells

Chapter 14

Do Belgians Speak French?

ANOTHER stimulus to the patriotic consciousness of Edward Albert was those newly arrived Belgian refugees from Antwerp, always sitting together in a bunch, watchful to behave well, and talking of their affairs and hopes with the utmost freedom, to anyone whom on the slightest provocation they imagined might understand their French. In a little while the Germans would be driven out of Belgium again and they would return. Miss Pooley and the widow lady who had first spoken to Edward Albert really did have a working knowledge of French, and so it fell to them to hear and hand on their account of what in those milder days were regarded as the horrors of war.

They seemed pretty dreadful then to everyone. Antwerp had been shelled and scores of civilians had been killed. One story was of a human shoulder-blade lying in the street far away from the heap of clothes and the pool of blood that had once been its body, and the other was of a man who just stepped out on a balcony to see what was happening. His wife called out to him to come in for his coffee, and, getting no answer, went out to find him — headless!

That sort of thing. It was strange to listen to people who could not speak three words of English talking so freely and quickly in their own difficult tongue.

Harold Thump was disposed to be critical of those Belgians from the first, and cast a doubt, some indefinite sort of doubt, upon them. They constituted a rival attraction and he could not bear it. He would make a humorous face and discover Edward Albert was not looking at him. He tried to recover that attention by affecting to jump and be alarmed at Monsieur Harcourt’s more emphatic gestures, and watching him with extreme caution and looking round at him suddenly, as if he was something that might explode at any moment. This succeeded partially. But only partially.

Because Tewler was listening most of the time for bits of Elementary French and hoping against hope that he might be able to cut in. But it was just gabble, gabble, so that at times he doubted if it really was French at all.

Never once did he hear of Lar mair, ler frair, that ever — present tante, the gardener, the books of my uncle, the house that is ours, the dog, the cat, and all that curious world which pullulates round and round and round the foundations laid for the French language in English.

Did these Belgians really speak good French? There was talk fostered by Mrs Doober of everybody having French lessons now while they had the opportunity. But you cannot be too careful. Edward Albert, listening attentively, heard Monsieur Harcourt say, whenever he was interrupted, “Comment?” Now that wasn’t the proper French for “What”, which was what he was trying to say. The proper French for “What” is “Quoi.” “Comment” means “How.” In Elementary French it does, anyhow, because it said so in the vocabulary at the end of his French Primer. And anyhow he wasn’t going to be taught French if he wasn’t to be taught French in English, and the Harcourts had no English. No fear!

So it was that Edward Albert became one of that vast majority of humanity who, after courses and examinations and certificates and so forth in French, are still unable to speak or understand or even read a dozen words in that language. When at long last, if ever — for the outlook for civilisation seems still very uncertain — when the history of the human mind comes to be written, it will be noted incidentally that from first to last throughout the earth, in the course of the centuries, some billions of people — using “billions” in the English and not the American sense —“learnt French” and still remained entirely uncontaminated. The vast edifice of things the world has been “taught” and which yet remained unknown! Whackings, keepings-in, yells and insults, forced competitions, bogus examinations, sham graduations, gowns, hoods and honours, a vast parade of learning. And what have we got?

The world knows little as yet of what it owes to its teachers. But it is beginning to suspect.

It did glimmer at times in Edward Albert’s dim and now rapidly closing mind that in some hidden way a certain number of people “got the hang of” this French. It wasn’t all a bluff.

He watched Miss Pooley closely. She wasn’t just pretending to understand and making up a story. She really did appear to be understanding and to be saying things that were understood.

Anyhow, Edward Albert reflected, he didn’t intend ever to talk French. So why worry? He wanted it, if he wanted it at all, only for examination purposes, and that was that Nevertheless —

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30