The world, meanwhile, was so new, and still such an unknown country. About that time I was making the discovery of fresh elements.
I was not afraid of what I did not like. To overcome dislike of a thing often satisfied one's feeling of honour.
"Are you afraid of the water?" asked my brisk uncle one day. I did not know exactly what there was to be afraid of, but answered unhesitatingly: "No." I was five years old; it was Summer, consequently rainy and windy.
I undressed in the bathing establishment; the old sailor fastened a cork belt round my waist. It was odiously wet, as another boy had just taken it off, and it made me shiver. Uncle took hold of me round the waist, tossed me out into the water, and taught me to take care of myself. Afterwards I learnt to swim properly with the help of a long pole fastened to the cork belt and held by the bathing-man, but my familiarity with the salt element dated from the day I was flung out into it like a little package. Without by any means distinguishing myself in swimming, any more than in any other athletic exercise, I became a very fair swimmer, and developed a fondness for the water and for bathing which has made me very reluctant, all my life, to miss my bath a single day.
There was another element that I became acquainted with about the same time, and which was far more terrifying than the water. I had never seen it uncontrolled: fire.
One evening, when I was asleep in the nursery, I was awaked by my mother and her brother, my French uncle. The latter said loudly: "We must take the children out of bed."
I had never been awaked in the night before. I opened my eyes and was thrilled by a terror, the memory of which has never been effaced. The room was brightly illuminated without any candle having been lighted, and when I turned my head I saw a huge blaze shoot up outside the window. Flames crackled and sparks flew. It was a world of fire. It was a neighbouring school that was burning. Uncle Jacob put his hand under my "night gown," a long article of clothing with a narrow cotton belt round the waist, and said laughing: "Do you have palpitations of the heart when you are afraid?" I had never heard of palpitations of the heart before. I felt about with my hand and for the first time found my heart, which really was beating furiously. Small though I was, I asked the date and was told that it was the 25th of November; the fright I had had was so great that I never forgot this date, which became for me the object of a superstitious dread, and when it drew near the following year, I was convinced that it would bring me fresh misfortune. This was in so far the case that next year, at exactly the same time, I fell ill and was obliged to spend some months in bed.