Nobody's Boy/Chapter VII
CHILD AND ANIMAL LEARNING
Vitalis’ small group of actors were certainly very clever, but their talent was not very versatile. For this reason we were not able to remain long in the same town. Three days after our arrival in Ussel we were on our way again. Where were we going? I had grown bold enough to put this question to my master.
"Do you know this part of the country?" he asked, looking at me.
"Then why do you ask where we are going?"
"So as to know."
"To know what?"
I was silent.
"Do you know how to read?" he asked, after looking thoughtfully at me for a moment.
"Then I'll teach you from a book the names and all about the towns through which we travel. It will be like having a story told to you."
I had been brought up in utter ignorance. True, I had been sent to the village school for one month, but during this month I had never once had a book in my hand. At the time of which I write, there were many villages in France that did not even boast of a school, and in some, where there was a schoolmaster, either he knew nothing, or he had some other occupation and could give little attention to the children confided to his care.
This was the case with the master of our village school. I do not mean to say that he was ignorant, but during the month that I attended his school, he did not give us one single lesson. He had something else to do. By trade he was a shoe-maker, or rather, a clog maker, for no one bought shoes from him. He sat at his bench all day, shaving pieces of beech wood into clogs. So I learnt absolutely nothing at school, not even my alphabet.
"Is it difficult to read?" I asked, after we had walked some time in silence.
"Have you got a hard head?"
"I don't know, but I'd like to learn if you'll teach me."
"Well, we'll see about that. We've plenty of time ahead of us."
Time ahead of us! Why not commence at once? I did not know how difficult it was to learn to read. I thought that I just had to open a book and, almost at once, know what it contained.
The next day, as we were walking along, Vitalis stooped down and picked up a piece of wood covered with dust.
"See, this is the book from which you are going to learn to read," he said.
A book! A piece of wood! I looked at him to see if he were joking. But he looked quite serious. I stared at the bit of wood. It was as long as my arm and as wide as my two hands. There was no inscription or drawing on it.
"Wait until we get to those trees down there, where we'll rest," said Vitalis, smiling at my astonishment. "I'll show you how I'm going to teach you to read from this."
When we got to the trees we threw our bags on the ground and sat down on the green grass with the daisies growing here and there. Pretty-Heart, having got rid of his chain, sprang up into a tree and shook the branches one after the other, as though he were making nuts fall. The dogs lay down beside us. Vitalis took out his knife and, after having smoothed the wood on both sides, began to cut tiny pieces, twelve all of equal size.
"I am going to carve a letter out of each piece of wood," he said, looking up at me. I had not taken my eyes off of him. "You will learn these letters from their shapes, and when you are able to tell me what they are, at first sight, I'll form them into words. When you can read the words, then you shall learn from a book."
I soon had my pockets full of little bits of wood, and was not long in learning the letters of the alphabet, but to know how to read was quite another thing. I could not get along very fast, and often I regretted having expressed a wish to learn. I must say, however, it was not because I was lazy, it was pride.
While teaching me my letters Vitalis thought that he would teach Capi at the same time. If a dog could learn to tell the hour from a watch, why could he not learn the letters? The pieces of wood were all spread out on the grass, and he was taught that with his paw he must draw out the letter for which he was asked.
At first I made more progress than he, but if I had quicker intelligence, he had better memory. Once he learnt a thing he knew it always. He did not forget. When I made a mistake Vitalis would say:
"Capi will learn to read before you, Remi."
And Capi, evidently understanding, proudly shook his tail.
I was so hurt that I applied myself to the task with all my heart, and while the poor dog could get no farther than pulling out the four letters which spelled his name, I finally learned to read from a book.
"Now that you know how to read words, how would you like to read music?" asked Vitalis.
"If I knew how to read music could I sing like you?" I asked.
"Ah, so you would like to sing like me," he answered.
"I know that would be impossible, but I'd like to sing a little."
"Do you like to hear me sing, then?"
"I like it more than anything. It is better than the nightingales, but it's not like their song at all. When you sing, sometimes I want to cry, and sometimes I want to laugh. Don't think me silly, master, but when you sing those songs, I think that I am back with dear Mother Barberin. If I shut my eyes I can see her again in our little house, and yet I don't know the words you sing, because they are Italian."
I looked up at him and saw the tears standing in his eyes; then I stopped and asked him if what I had said hurt him.
"No, my child," he said, his voice shaking, "you do not pain me; on the contrary, you take me back to my younger days. Yes, I will teach you to sing, little Remi, and, as you have a heart, you also will make people weep with your songs."
He stopped suddenly, and I felt that he did not wish to say more at that moment. I did not know the reason why he should feel sad.
The next day he cut out little pieces of wood for the music notes the same as he had for the letters. The notes were more complicated than the alphabet, and this time I found it much harder and more tedious to learn. Vitalis, so patient with the dogs, more than once lost patience with me.
"With an animal," he cried, "one controls oneself, because one is dealing with a poor dumb creature, but you are enough to drive me mad!" He threw up his hands dramatically.
Pretty-Heart, who took special delight in imitating gestures he thought funny, mimicked my master, and as the monkey was present at my lessons every day, I had the humiliation to see him lift his arms in despair every time I hesitated.
"See, Pretty-Heart is even mocking you," cried Vitalis.
If I had dared, I would have said that he mocked the master just as much as the pupil, but respect, as well as a certain fear, forbade me.
Finally, after many weeks of study, I was able to sing an air from a piece of paper that Vitalis himself had written. That day my master did not throw up his hands, but instead, patted me on the cheek, declaring that if I continued thus I should certainly become a great singer.