The strange story book/Aurore at Play
AURORE AT PLAY
When Aurore Dupin went to Paris she found herself in the Rue Thiroux, where Madame Dupin had taken a suite of rooms, or, as the French say, an 'appartement.' For this 'appartement' the old lady paid a high rent—more than she could afford, indeed; but she clung to the ancient custom of a flat with a large drawing-room, where the friends of the host and hostess could meet once or twice a year. During the rest of the time it was kept shut, and all but rich and fashionable people lived in their bedrooms. As Madame Dupin never gave parties at all, she might have done without the salon and housed herself for half the price, but that she would have thought beneath her dignity, and would have starved first.
Though Ursule was left behind at Nohant, Aurore had other playfellows, with one of whom, Pauline de Pontcarré, she did lessons. Pauline was a very pretty little girl, much less heedless than Aurore, and less in the habit of losing her gloves and dropping her handkerchief. Madame Dupin was always praising her for being so well brought up, and wishing that Aurore had such nice manners; but instead of this making Pauline hated by her new friend, Aurore admired her beauty and was quite fond of her. Three times a week they had lessons together at Madame Dupin's in music, writing, and dancing. The dancing- master came direct from the opera, and was one of the best in Paris; the writing-master was also a person of high reputation, but unluckily he was of opinion that a graceful attitude at a desk was of more importance than a clear hand, and Aurore soon became very impatient with his teaching.
On the other three days Madame de Pontcarré (who, unlike Madame Dupin, loved walking) came to fetch Aurore to her own house, where Pauline was awaiting them.
It was Madame de Pontcarré herself who taught them geography and history by a method invented by the Abbé Gaultier that was much in fashion at that period. It sounds as if it must have been like those used in the kindergartens to-day, for everything was a sort of game, and played with balls and counters. But best of all the hours spent at Madame de Pontcarré's were those when Aurore sat and listened to her friend singing and playing, or learned from her some of the principles of musical composition. This was even a greater joy than the romps with Pauline's cousins in a big garden in the Rue de la Victoire belonging to Madame de Pontcarré's mother, where there was plenty of room for blindman's buff, or for the game known in Scotland as 'tig.' In this game—barres was the French name the children were formed into two camps, the object being to take as many prisoners as possible. Sometimes they all dined together and afterwards the dining-room was cleared out, and they played games in which their mothers or even the servants joined. How horrified old Madame Dupin would have been at the noise they made! She would not have thought them at all 'well brought up.'
Aurore gives a very funny account of the way in which Hippolyte danced, for he lived at home and only went to school for certain classes. It was all very well for him and Aurore to laugh secretly when M. Gogault, the dancing-master, entered the room 'like a zephyr cutting a caper'; but it was M. Gogault's turn to smile when Hippolyte, who was more heavy and awkward than it was possible to imagine, nearly brought down the house when he did his steps, and shook the walls in his attempts to chasser. If he was told to hold his head up and not to poke, he took his chin in his hand, and kept it there all the time he was dancing. And all this he did with the utmost seriousness, and with no idea of being troublesome. But at school he only got into mischief, and when the whole Dupin family returned to Nohant in the spring, it was thought best for Hippolyte to go with them.
It was there during the next few months that, in the intervals of play and laughter, Aurore first paid attention to the conversation of her elders as to the result of the Russian campaign and the future of France. Nowadays it seems to us almost impossible to believe that for a whole fortnight no news was received of the French Army of 300,000 men, and still more that Napoleon, 'the man who filled the universe with his name and Europe with his presence,' should have disappeared like a pilgrim lost in the snow. At Nohant no one spoke of anything else, till one night this child of eight, who had silently brooded over the words of her elders, had a curious dream, so clear that it was almost a vision. She felt herself hovering in the air above endless white plains, with the wandering columns of the vanished army straggling they knew not where, and guided them towards France. When she awoke she was as tired and hungry as if she had taken a long flight, and her eyes were still dazzled by the snow.
In the summer of 1813—the year of the victories of Lutzen, Bautzen, and Dresden—prisoners of war were sent to all parts of the country, many of them not even under a guard. The first prisoner that the children noticed was an officer sitting on the steps of a little pavilion at the end of their garden. His shoes were dropping to pieces though his coat and shirt were of the finest material, and in his hand he held the miniature of a woman suspended from his neck by a black ribbon, which he was examining sadly. They both felt awed—they did not know why—and were afraid to speak to him. But in a moment his servant came up, and the two went away silently together. After that, such numbers passed by that the peasants paid no attention to them, and even Aurore and Hippolyte speedily grew accustomed to the sight. One morning, in spite of the stifling heat, they were again playing near the pavilion, when one of these poor wretches passed and flung himself wearily on the steps. He was a German with a simple good-natured face, and the children went up and spoke to him, but he only shook his head and answered in French, 'me not understand.' Then Aurore made signs to ask if he was thirsty, and in reply the man pointed to some stagnant water in the ditch. They contrived to convey to him by violent head-shakings that it was not good to drink, and, further, that he must wait a minute and they would get him something. As fast as they could, they ran to the house and brought back a bottle of wine and some bread, which he swallowed. When he had finished, and felt better, he held out his hand repeatedly and they thought he wanted money. Not having any themselves, Aurore was going to ask her grandmother for some, but the German, guessing her intention, stopped her, and made signs that he only desired to shake hands. His eyes were full of tears, and he was evidently trying hard to say something. At last he got it out: 'Children very good.'
Filled with pity they ran back to tell Madame Dupin, who, remembering how her own son had been taken prisoner by the Croats, gave orders that every day a certain number of bottles of wine and loaves of bread should be placed in the pavilion for the use of these unfortunate Germans. Every instant of freedom that Hippolyte and Aurore could get was spent in that pavilion, handing slices of bread and cups of wine to the weary creatures sitting on the steps, who were so gentle and grateful for the unexpected help. Sometimes, when three or four arrived together, they would sing to their little hosts some of their national songs before they left. Their talent for singing and dancing gained them friends all through the country, and now and then gained them wives also.
The troubled years from 1814 to 1817 passed away and Aurore remained at Nohant with her grandmother, who was constantly growing more and more helpless from a stroke of paralysis. Aurore was left very much to herself, but studied music under the organist of the neighbouring village, learnt history and geography, and read Homer and Tasso in translations. But her real life was the one she created for herself, presided over by a mystic personage to whom she gave the name of Corambé. In her mind, he represented all that was kind and pitiful, and in the thickness of a wood in the corner of the garden she made him a temple. That is to say, she decorated the trees which stood about a round green space, with coloured pebbles, fresh moss, or anything else she could
Aurore sets free the captive Birds at the Altar of Corambé.
find. A sort of altar was next put together at the foot of a large maple from whose boughs hung wreaths of pink and white shells, while trails of ivy reaching from one tree to another formed an arcade. Empty birds' nests, chaplets of flowers and moss were soon added, and when the temple was done it seemed so lovely to the child that often she could hardly sleep at night for thinking of it.
It is needless to say all would have been spoilt for Aurore had the 'grown-ups' guessed at the existence of her precious temple or of Corambé. She took the greatest care to pick up her shells and the fallen birds' nests as if she really hardly knew what she was doing, and was thinking of something else all the time. Never did she enter the wood except when alone, and then from a direction different from that which she had taken before.
When the temple was ready, it was necessary to know what the sacrifice was to be. Nothing dead should be offered to Corambé. Of that she was certain. Then if no dead sacrifice was to be laid before him, why should he not become the champion and deliverer of living objects in danger of death? So Liset, a boy older than herself and her faithful follower, was ordered to catch birds and butterflies and even insects in the fields, and carry them to her, unhurt. What she was going to do with them, he neither knew nor cared, for Aurore had kept her secret well. Great would have been his surprise had he known that daily these captive swallows, redbreasts, chaffinches, or dragon-flies were borne tenderly to the altar of Corambé, and there set free. If one happened to perch for an instant on a branch above her head before disappearing into the blue, a thrill of ecstasy ran through the priestess.
But one day Liset, who had been sent to look for her, caught sight of her white frock as she was entering the wood. And with his words:
'Oh, ma'mselle, what a pretty little altar!' the spell of her story was broken, and it is a spell that can never be cast twice.
Aurore, however, did not always have dryads and cherubs and wonder-working spirits for company; Hippolyte would not have allowed anything of the sort, for he liked Aurore to be with him, whatever he was doing. They had many friends too, both boys and girls, with whom they climbed trees, played games, and even kept sheep, which means that they did not keep them at all, but let them trample down the young wheat in the fields or eat it, if they preferred, while they themselves were dancing. If they were thirsty, they milked the cows and the goats; if they were hungry they ate wild apples or made a fire and cooked potatoes. Aurore's particular favourites were two girls called Marie and Solange, daughters of a small farmer, and whenever she could get away she ran up to the farm, and helped them seek for eggs, pick fruit, or nurse the sickly little lambs. And apart from the pleasure the others took in all this, Aurore found one of her own, for the orchard became transformed by her fancy into a fairy wood, with little creatures having sharp ears and merry eyes peeping from behind the trees. Then her dreams would be roughly dispersed by Hippolyte's voice, summoning her to the most delightful of all the games they ever played, which was to jump from some high place into the mountain of sheaves piled up in the barn.
'I should like to do it now, if I dared,' says Aurore thirty years after.
At length it occurred to Madame Dupin that Aurore was thirteen, and needed better teaching than M. Deschartres could give her, and, still worse, that the child was running wild, that her complexion was getting ruined, and that if she was ever to wear the thin elegant slippers worn by other young ladies, she must grow accustomed to them before the sabots, or wooden shoes worn by the peasants, had spoilt her for everything else. She wanted, in fact, proper training, so her grandmother was going to take her to Paris at once, and to place her in a convent.
'And shall I see my mother?' cried Aurore.
'Yes; certainly you will see her,' replied Madame Dupin;. 'and after that you will see neither of us, but will give all your time to your education.'
Aurore did not mind. She had not the slightest idea of the life she would lead in the convent, but it would at any rate be something new. So, 'without fear, or regret, or repugnance,' as she herself tells us, she entered the 'Couvent des Anglaises,' where both Madame Dupin and her own mother had been imprisoned during the Revolution. This, of course, gave the convent a special interest for Aurore.
The Couvent des Anglaises was the only remaining one of three or four British religious houses which had been founded in Paris during the time of Cromwell, and as a school, ranked with the convents of the Sacré-Coeur and of l'Abbaye-aux-Bois. Queen Henrietta Maria used often to come and pray in the chapel, and this fact rendered the Couvent des Anglaises peculiarly dear to English royalists. All the nuns were either English, Scotch, or Irish, and nearly all the girls—at least, when Aurore went there—were subjects of King George also. As it was strictly forbidden during certain hours of the day to speak a word of French, Aurore had every possible chance of learning English. She learnt, too, something about English habits, for the nuns drank tea three times a day, and invited the best behaved of the girls to share it with them. All was as English as it could be made. In the chapel were the tombs bearing English texts and epitaphs, of holy exiles who had died abroad. On the walls of the Superior's private rooms hung the portraits of English princes and bishops long dead, among whom Mary Queen of Scots—counted as a saint by the nuns—held the central place. In fact, the moment the threshold was crossed, you seemed to have crossed the Channel also. The Mother Superior at the date of Aurore's entrance was a certain Madame Canning, a clever woman with a large experience of the world.
Like many children brought up at home, Aurore had read a great deal in her own way, but was very ignorant of other subjects familiar to girls younger than herself, who had been educated at school. This she was well aware of, so it was no surprise to her, though a disappointment to her grandmother, when she was confided by the Superior to the pupils of the second class, whose ages varied from six to thirteen or fourteen. Aurore was never shy and did not in the least mind being stared at by thirty or forty pairs of eyes, and at once set out to explore the garden and examine everything in company with one of the older girls, in whose charge she had been put. When they had visited every corner, they were called to play at 'bars,' and as Aurore could run like a hare, she soon gained the respect of her schoolfellows.
The three years passed by Aurore in the Couvent des Anglaises were, she tells us, happy ones for her, though almost without exception her schoolfellows were pining, or thought they were, for their homes and their mothers. But after the free life and country air of Nohant the confinement and lack of change tried her, and for a while she grew weak and languid. Twice in every month the girls were allowed to spend the day with their friends, and on New Year's Day they might sleep at home. Of course, in the summer there were regular holidays, but Madame Dupin decided that Aurore had better stay at school and learn all she could, so by that means she might finish the regular course earlier than usual, and save money. It was then the custom of all schools both in England and France to keep the girls under strict watch, and never permit them to be one moment alone. The garden was very large, and Aurore at least would have been perfectly content to remain in it, had not such elaborate precautions been taken to prevent the girls even seeing through tho door when it was opened, into the dull street outside. These precautions enraged the others, and only made them eager for glimpses of a passing cab or a horse and cart, though on their days of freedom they would walk through the most brilliant parts of Paris with their parents, and never trouble to turn their heads. But Aurore was only amused at what irritated them, and felt, for her part, that
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage.
It was foolish, she thought, to make so much fuss about nothing; but after all, what did it matter?
Now both the big and little classes had divided themselves into three camps: the 'good' girls, who would probably one day become nuns; the 'demons,' or rebels, who were always inventing some new kind of mischief; and the 'idiots,' who were afraid to take sides. These profoundly despised by the rest, would shake with laughter over the pranks of the 'demons,' but put on a solemn face at the appearance of one of the mistresses, and hastened to cry at the approach of danger: 'It was not I!' 'It was not I!' unless they went further and exclaimed, 'It was Dupin,' or 'it was G.' 'Dupin' was Aurore, and 'G.' a wild Irish girl of eleven, tall and strong and truthful and clever, but utterly unruly, and the terror of the 'idiots' of the younger class.
As soon as Mary G. discovered that Aurore did not mind being teased or being thumped on the shoulder by a hand which might have felled an ox, she felt that she had found a friend who would join in her maddest tricks. Aurore's education in this respect was not long in beginning. The very next day as the mistress was handing round books and slates to the class, Mary quietly walked out, followed in two or three minutes by Aurore. Both girls went to the empty cloister, and began to talk:
'I am glad you came,' said Mary. 'The others are always making excuses for getting away, and declaring their noses are bleeding or they want to practise, or some stupid old story like that. I never tell lies; it is so cowardly. If they ask me where I have been, I don't answer. If they punish me—well, let them! I just do as I like.'
'That would just suit me.'
'You are a demon then!'
'I should like to be.'
'As much as I am?'
'Neither more nor less.'
'Accepted,' answered Mary, giving Aurore a shake of the hand. 'Now we will go back and behave quite properly to Mother Alippe. She is a good old thing. We will reserve ourselves for Mother D. Ah, you don't know her yet! Every evening outside the class-room. Do you understand?'
'No. What do you mean by "outside the class room"?'
'Well, the games after supper under the superintendence of Mother D. are dreadfully dull. So when we come out of the dining-room we will slip away, and not come back till it is time for prayers. Sometimes Mother D. does not miss us, but generally she is enchanted that we should run away, because then she can have the pleasure of punishing us when we come in. The punishment is to wear your nightcap all the next day, even in chapel. In this kind of weather it is very pleasant and good for the health, and though the nuns you meet cry 'Shame! shame!' that hurts nobody. If in the course of a fortnight you have worn many nightcaps, the Superior threatens not to allow you to go out on the next holiday, but she either forgets or forgives you at the request of your parents. When you have worn the nightcap so long that it seems to have grown on your head, you are locked up for a day. But after all, it is better to give up amusing yourself for a single day than to bore yourself perpetually of your own freewill.'
Aurore quite agreed with Mary's reasoning, and found the time very long till supper. The whole school had meals together, and then came the hour of play before prayers and bed. The older ones went to their large and beautiful study, but the rest had only quite a little room where there was no space to play, so that they were thankful when the evening was over. In leaving the refectory there was always a certain confusion, and it was easy for both big and little demons to slip away down the ill-lighted passages to the dark side of the cloisters.
Here Aurore, with Irish Mary for her guide, found a number of girls assembled, each with something in her hand. One held a stick, another a pair of tongs, a third a poker. What could they be going to do? 'Dupin' asked herself. Something exciting, of course; but she never guessed that it would be her favourite game of 'pretending.' For all these strange weapons were intended for the deliverance of a prisoner who was hidden in a dungeon somewhere under the convent.
Certainly it would have been impossible to have invented a better place in which to hide any number of prisoners than the immense cellars and vaults and dark holes of all sorts, that ran underneath. The building itself was more like a village than a house, and, since its foundation, had been constantly added to and altered, so that it was full of irregularities and steps up and down and roofs at different heights, and passages which once led to something but were now blocked up. On one side of the garden, whose magnificent chestnut trees were the pride of the nuns, stood small houses in which lived noble ladies retired from the world, but free from vows. There was besides a very large vegetable garden for the use of the convent, which at this time contained about a hundred and thirty people. It was possible, if you stood on tip-toe, to snatch a glimpse through the grating of melons or grapes or feathery pinks, but the door was not easy to climb, and only two or three of the bolder girls had ever managed to penetrate into the enclosure and taste these forbidden joys.
The legend of the concealed prisoner had been handed on from generation to generation of school girls, as well as the terrors which were half a joy, that thrilled through them as they crept along the narrow passages, ending no one knew where—perhaps in the Catacombs, perhaps in the baths of Julian, perhaps outside Paris itself! Who could tell? Could life have any feeling more exciting in store than the sensation that at any moment your feet might meet the empty air, and that you might fall into one of those terrible pits common in castles of the Middle Ages, known by the evil name of oubliettes or holes of forgetfulness? And many of these dangers were not at all imaginary, whatever the 'prisoner' might be.
It was the knowledge of the heavy punishments that would fall on their heads in case of discovery that made it a point of honour with the demons to risk everything in order to explore this underground world. Very few, however, gained an entrance to these vaults during their school lives, and only then after years of patience and perseverance. The memory of these heroines was kept green, and their names whispered reverently 'to encourage the rest.'
In Aurore's day the question had come up again—the burning question of how to get into the underground world. Not by the main door which led to it, that was clear; for close by were the kitchens, where nuns passed continually! But if the main door was barred, there must be a hundred other doors or walled-up staircases, by which you could get there; and if these failed, there was always the roof.
Now, the very last thought that would occur to most people, if they want to penetrate into an underground passage, is to go first on to the roof; but then they are not school girls, and have forgotten all about these things, if, indeed, they ever knew them. To Aurore and her friends it was a matter of everyday knowledge that 'the longest way round is the shortest way home.' Had not Aurore sat breathless for days together over Mrs. Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, and her companions lain awake trembling at the recollections of Scotch or Irish ancestral ghosts?
Why, even in the convent, where the great dormitories were filled with girls and the terrors of loneliness were unknown, did they not shudder sometimes in the dark in the certainty that they caught the echo of the sighs, the groans, the clanking of chains of the victim?
As to whether it was always the same victim who had to be rescued, or whether in every generation a fresh victim was somehow mysteriously supplied, nobody inquired and nobody minded.
On the never-to-be-forgotten evening of Aurore's initiation into the company of the demons, she was conducted by the rest of the band into the oldest and most irregular part of the convent. At length they found themselves standing on a gangway with a wooden railing, ending in a little room, from which there was no outlet. By the light of their single taper they beheld a staircase below them, also with a wooden railing, and protected at the top by a strong oaken door. In order to get on to the staircase it was necessary to drop from one balustrade to the other—and the more experienced of the explorers strongly suspected that both of them were wormeaten—while the staircase hung over black depths which no eye could penetrate.
It was an adventure which required a good deal of courage, but not one of the girls flinched. Isabelle, one of the oldest of the demons, claimed her right to go first, and accomplished her dangerous feat with the resolution of a heroine. Mary followed with the calm of a gymnastic professor, the remainder as best they could, but somehow or other they all managed to arrive safely on the staircase. At the foot was another little hall or room, without door or window or issue of any kind; but this, for some strange reason, caused the girls more joy than regret.
'Certainly,' they said, 'nobody would make a staircase which went nowhere! There must be some way out and we have got to find it.'
So the little taper was divided into several parts and each girl began a careful examination of the walls, pressing the plaster, which they hoped might conceal a ring or a button that, if touched, would reveal an opening. What would have happened if a sudden blast had blown out their candles, they never thought, for they had no means of lighting them again; and, of course, none of the Sisters had the slightest idea where they might be. Happily this did not occur, and though the surface of the walls was perfectly smooth, Isabelle declared that when she tapped the part under the staircase it sounded hollow.
This discovery threw the whole party into a state of wild excitement.
'We have found it at last!' they cried; 'this staircase leads down to the cell where living victims have been buried.' They jostled each other so as to place their ears against the wall, but strange to say, in spite of their fervent wish, they were compelled to confess that they heard nothing. All, that is except Isabelle, who persisted in declaring that they must every one of them be deaf, as the sounds of groans and clanking chains were quite plain.
'Then we must break down the wall,' said Mary, 'and the sooner we begin the better.'
In an instant the wall was attacked by the collection of arms the girls had brought with them. Tongs, pokers, shovels were all brought into play, but luckily without making any impression on the stones, which otherwise might have come rattling about their heads. Besides, the demons dared not make too much noise, for they were afraid of being heard, as they did not know exactly in which part of the convent they might happen to be.
Only a few pieces of plaster had fallen when the warning bell for prayers clanged through the building. How they contrived the upward climb from one balustrade to another, they never knew, and that they were able to do it at all was almost a miracle. Down they dashed along the passages, brushing the plaster from their dresses as they ran, and arrived breathless as the two classes were forming to enter the chapel.
During the whole winter they worked at the wall, but, persevering though they were, the obstacles encountered were so many that at length they decided it was sheer folly to waste more time on it, and they had better try to force an entrance by some other way.
There was a little room—one of many under the roof—which contained one of the thirty pianos of the convent, and there Aurore was accustomed to practise for an hour daily. From its window could be seen a whole world of roofs, penthouses, sheds, and buildings of all sorts, covered with mossy tiles, and most tempting to the adventurous. It seemed quite reasonable that somewhere amongst the buildings should exist a staircase leading to the underground passages, and one fine, starlight night the demons met in the little music-room, and in a few minutes they had all scrambled from the window on to the roof six feet below them. From there they climbed over gables, jumped from one incline to another, and behaved in fact as if they were cats, taking care to hide behind a chimney or crouch in a gutter whenever they caught sight of a nun in the garden or courtyard beneath them.
They had managed to get a long way downwards when prayer- time drew near, and they knew they must begin their return journey. As the Latin proverb tells you, it is easy enough to go down, but what about getting back again? And to make matters worse, the demons had not the slightest idea where they were. Still, they contrived to retrace some of their footsteps and at last recognised to their joy the window of Sidonie Macdonald, daughter of the general. But to reach this window it was necessary to spring upwards a considerable distance, and the chances of hitting exactly the right spot were very few. Aurore, at any rate, almost lost her life in the attempt. She jumped in too great a hurry, and very nearly fell thirty feet through a skylight into a gallery where the little class were playing. As it was, her heel struck against the glass, and several panes went crashing in their midst. Clinging to the window-sill, with her knees scratched and bleeding, Aurore heard the voice of Sister Therese below accusing Whisky, Mother Alippe's big black cat, of fighting with his neighbours on the roof and breaking all the windows in the convent. Mother Alippe warmly denied that her cat ever quarrelled with anyone, and in spite of her wounds and her danger, Aurore burst into fits of laughter at the hot dispute, in which she was joined by Fanelly stretched in the gutter, and Mary lying in a 'spread-eagle' on the tiles, feeling about for her comb. They heard the nuns mounting the stairs, and discovery seemed inevitable.
Nothing of the sort, however, occurred. The overhanging gables preserved them from being seen, and as soon as they felt they were safe, the young demons began to mew loudly, so that Sister Thérèse proved triumphantly that she was right, and that the mischief had been caused by Whisky and his friends!
This being happily settled, the girls climbed at their leisure into the window where Sidonie was quietly practising her scales, undisturbed by the noise in the cat-world. She was a gentle, nervous child, who had no sympathy with a passion for roofs, and when a procession of demons entered her room she hid her face in her hands and screamed loudly. But before the nuns could hurry to the spot, the girls had dispersed in all directions, and, up to the end, the blame of the broken window was laid upon Whisky.