The strange story book/How Aurore learned to Ride
HOW AURORE LEARNT TO RIDE
When Aurore was old enough to leave the convent she went back to Nohant to live with her grandmother, who was failing fast and died the following year. Aurore was sixteen now, and things looked very different from what they did three years earlier. The trees were not so tall nor the garden so big as she remembered them; that was disappointing, no doubt. But on the other hand, what joy to do your hair as you liked without being told that no nice girl ever let her temples be seen; to wear a pink cotton frock instead of one of yellow serge, and to have as many cakes and sweet things as you wanted! Of course it had been terrible to part from your friends at the convent, but then at Nohant there were all those of long ago—and the dogs almost better than any friend! Then, too, it was delightful to be so changed that even M. Deschartres did not know you, and to be called 'Mademoiselle' by him and everyone else. At least it was delightful just at first, but soon it began to be tiresome to find the girls with whom you had climbed trees and played blind man's buff treating you very much as they treated your grandmother. No; decidedly there were some drawbacks to being 'grown up'!
For a few days Aurore ran about the country nearly as much as she had done in former years, but after a while she made plans for study, and drew up a time-table. History, drawing, music, English and Italian, had each its hour; but somehow when that hour struck there was always something else to be done, and Aurore's books were still unopened when, at the end of a month, Madame de Pontcarré and Pauline arrived on a visit.
Pauline was just the same as she had always been; 'growing up' had worked no transformation in her. She was pretty, pleasant, gentle as ever, and quite as indifferent to everybody. Indeed, she was still exactly the opposite of her mother, who had played with Aurore's father when she was a child, and in consequence was a great favourite with Madame Dupin. And now that Madame de Pontcarré was there, there was no more dreaming for Aurore. Instead, they all three took walks twice a day and studied music together. When they came in the evenings, they would sing airs from Gluck's beautiful old operas 'Armida' and 'Iphigenia' to Madame Dupin, whose criticisms and judgment were as good as of old. They even acted a play or, rather, a proverb to amuse the old lady, who was nevertheless a little shocked to see her granddaughter dressed as a boy. After that the Pontcarrés went away, and perhaps it was as well, for Madame Dupin was getting jealous of Aurore being so much with them.
Aurore would have been very dull without her friends had not Hippolyte, now a hussar, come back to spend his leave at Nohant. He was such a splendid person, rolling his r's, making fun of everybody, riding horses which no one else would go near, that at first Aurore was quite afraid of him. But this soon wore off, and they were speedily on the old footing, taking long walks across country, and going off into fits of laughter at the silliest jokes.
'Now I am going to teach you to ride,' he said one day. 'Of course, I might give you the book of instructions that I am obliged to read to the poor young soldiers in the barracks, who don't understand a word; but it all comes to this—you either fall off or you don't. And as one must be prepared for a fall, we will pick out a place for your lesson where you can't hurt yourself much.' So saying he led the way to a field of soft grass, mounted on General Pépé, and holding Colette by the bridle.
Pépé was a grandson of the horse which had killed Maurice Dupin, and Colette (who was occasionally known as Mademoiselle Deschartres) had been trained—or supposed to be—by the tutor; she had only lately been brought into the stable, and had never yet felt a human being on her back. Of course it was nothing short of madness on the part of Hippolyte to dream of mounting his sister upon her, but the mare seemed very gentle, and after taking her two or three times round the field he declared she was all right, and swung Aurore into the saddle. Then, without giving either mare or rider time to think what was happening, he struck Colette a smart cut with his whip, and off she started on a wild gallop, shying and leaping and bounding out of pure gaiety of heart.
'Sit up straight,' shouted Hippolyte. 'Hold on to her mane if you like, but don't drop the bridle, and stick on. To fall or not to fall—that is the whole thing.'
Aurore heard and obeyed with all her might. Five or six times she wa*s jerked upwards out of the saddle, but she always returned to it again, and at the end of an hour—breathless, untidy, and intoxicated with delight—she guided Colette to the stable, feeling that she was capable of managing all the horses of the French Army. As to Colette, who was as new to the business as her mistress, she also had experienced a fresh joy, and from that day till her death she was Aurore's faithful companion.
'Lean, big and ugly when standing,' writes Aurore, 'when moving she became beautiful by force of grace and suppleness. I have ridden many splendid horses admirably trained, but for cleverness and intelligence I have never found the equal of Colette. I have had falls, of course, but they were always the result of my own carelessness, for she never shied nor made a false step. She would suffer nobody else to mount her, but from the first moment she and I understood each other absolutely. At the end of a week we jumped hedges and ditches and swam rivers, for I was suddenly transformed into something bolder than a hussar, and more robust than a peasant.'
Curiously enough, Madame Dupin, so little given to exercise herself, was not in the least nervous as to Aurore's adventures, while Madame Maurice never beheld her on a horse's back without hiding her face in her hands and declaring she would die like her father. One day Aurore heard some visitors inquiring why Madame Dupin allowed her granddaughter to do such wild things, and the old lady in reply quoted with rather a sad smile the well-known story of the sailor and the citizen.
'What, sir! Do you tell me that your father and your grandfather both died at sea, and yet you are a sailor? In your place, I would never have set foot in a boat!'
'And your parents, sir? How did they die?'
'In their beds, I am thankful to say!'
'Then, in your place, I would never set foot in a bed.'
After Hippolyte's leave was over, and he had rejoined his regiment, Aurore was obliged to ride with M. Deschartres, which was not nearly so amusing; still, it was a great deal better than not riding at all. And as the months went on, the poor girl grew more and more dependent on the hours that she and Colette spent together, for it was quite plain that Madame Dupin's life was fast drawing to a close. She lost her memory, and though she was never really awake, she was never really asleep either. Her maid Julie, Aurore, or M. Deschartres were with her always, and as Aurore did not find the four hours of sleep which fell to her share enough to carry her through the day, she tried the plan of going to bed every other night only, and watching her grandmother on alternate ones. Very soon she got used to this mode of life, although sometimes even the nights spent in bed were broken. Her grandmother would insist on Aurore coming to assure her that it was really two o'clock, as Julie had told her, for she did not believe it; or whether the cat was in the room, as she was sure she heard it. The girl's presence always soothed her, and the old lady would murmur a few tender words and send her back to bed. If this only happened once in the night it did not so much matter; but when Madame Dupin had a restless fit, Aurore would be summoned two or three times over. Then she gave up the idea of sleep, and passed the night with a book by the side of her grandmother.
It was a sad and lonely existence for a girl not seventeen, and Aurore soon fell into melancholy ways, and had strange fancies. The companions she might have sought seemed years younger than herself at this time, and she was out of tune for their gaiety. In these days she had grown to have more sympathy with Deschartres than she could have believed possible, and she was very grateful for his devotion to her grandmother. So it came to pass that when one of the other maids could be spared to help Julie, Aurore and her old tutor might be met riding on the commons or fields that surrounded Nohant.
They were returning one afternoon after paying a visit to a sick man and took a road which ran along the banks of the river Indre. Suddenly Deschartres stopped.
'We must cross here,' he said. 'But be careful. The ford is very dangerous, for if you go the least bit too much to the right, you will find yourself in twenty feet of water. I will go first, and you must follow me exactly.'
'I think I would rather not try it,' answered Aurore, seized with a fit of nervousness. 'You cross by yourself, and I will take the bridge below the mill.'
This was so unlike the Aurore he knew that Deschartres turned in his saddle and stared at her in surprise.
'Why, when did you begin to be a coward!' asked he. 'We have been over worse places twenty times, and you never dreamed of being frightened! Come along! If we are not home by five we shall keep your grandmother waiting for her dinner.'
Feeling much ashamed of herself, Aurore said no more and guided Colette into the water. But in the very middle of the ford a sudden giddiness attacked her: her eyes grew dim, and there was a rushing sound in her ears. Pulling the right rein she turned Colette into the deep water, against which Deschartres had warned her.
If Colette had plunged or struggled, nothing could have saved either of them, but happily she was a beast who took things quietly, and at once began to swim towards the opposite bank. Deschartres, seeing the girl's danger, screamed loudly, and his agitation brought back Aurore's presence of mind.
'Stay where you are! I am all right,' she cried, as he was about to put his horse into the river for her rescue, which was the more courageous of him, as he was a bad rider and his steed was ill-trained. He would certainly be drowned, she knew, and in spite of her words she was not very certain that she would not be drowned also, as it is not easy to sit on a swimming horse. The rider is uplifted by the water, and at the same time the animal is pressed down by his weight. Luckily Aurore was very light, and Colette was both brave and strong, and everything went well till they reached the opposite bank, which was very steep. Here Deschartres in an agony of terror, was awaiting her.
'Catch hold of that branch of willow and draw yourself up,' he cried, and she managed to do as he told her. But when she saw the frantic efforts of Colette to obtain a footing, she forgot all about her own danger and thought only of her friend's. She was about to drop back again into the water, which would not have helped Colette and would have caused her own death, when Deschartres seized her arm; and at the same moment Colette remembered the ford and swam back to it.
When her grandmother died, as she did during that year, and Aurore went to live with some relations, Colette went with her. They remained together till Colette died of old age, friends to the last.
Once they were all safe on land again, Deschartres' fright showed itself in the abuse which he heaped upon his pupil, but Aurore understood the reason of his anger, and threw her arms round his neck and kissed him.
AURORE RESCUED BY DESCHARTRES FROM A WATERY GRAVE.