The strange story book/The Pets of Aurore Dupin
THE PETS OF AURORE DUPIN
During the years in which Napoleon and his armies were fighting in Spain, in Germany, and in Russia, a little girl might be seen running wild in the province of Berry, which is almost in the very centre of France. In those days if you had asked her name she would have answered that it was 'Aurore Dupin'; but by and bye she took another, which by her books she made famous—nearly as famous, indeed, in its own way as that of her great ancestor, the general Count Maurice de Saxe.
But it is not the celebrated writer who called herself 'George Sand' with whom we have to do now, but the child Aurore Dupin, and her friends the birds and beasts, dwellers like herself in the bare and desolate plains that surrounded her grandmother's chateau of Nohant. Maurice Dupin, father of Aurore, was a soldier like his grandfather, Maurice de Saxe; but her mother was the daughter of a bird-seller, who, curiously enough, lived in the 'Street of the Birds' (Quai des Oiseaux) in Paris. To this fact Aurore always declared that she owed her powers of fascination over the chaffinches, robins, or starlings that would sit on her shoulders or perch on her hands as she walked with her mother in the garden. And far from being frightened at the presence of a grown-up person, the birds often seemed to prefer Madame Maurice Dupin to Aurore herself.
Aurore became very learned about birds and their ways, considering them far cleverer than men or animals, and endowed with finer qualities than either. Warblers she held superior to any other small bird, and says that at fifteen days a warbler is as old in the feathered world as a child of ten is in that which speaks instead of chirping. When she was a little girl at Nohant, she brought up by hand two baby warblers of different sorts and different nests.
The one with a yellow breast she named Jonquil; while the other, who had a grey waistcoat, was called Agatha. Jonquil was as much as a fortnight older than Agatha, and when under the care of Aurore she was a slim, gentle young creature, inclined to be thin, and with scarcely enough feathers to cover her skin, and not yet able to fly with certainty from one branch to another, or even to feed herself. This Aurore knew was her own fault, because if Jonquil had remained at home she would have learned these things far earlier, for bird-mothers are much better teachers than our mothers, and insist that their children shall find out how to get on by themselves.
Agatha was a most tiresome child. She would never be quiet for a moment, but was always hopping about, crying out and tormenting Jonquil, who was beginning to wonder at all she saw around her, and would sit thinking with one claw drawn up under her wing, her eyes half shut, and her head sunk between her shoulders. But Agatha, who never thought at all, did not see why anybody else should do so either, and would peck at Jonquil's legs and wings in order to attract attention, unless Aurore happened to be in the room and glance at her. Then Agatha would dance up and down the branch uttering plaintive cries, till some bread or biscuit was given to her. For Agatha was always hungry, or always greedy; you did not quite know which.
One morning Aurore was absorbed in writing a story, and her two little friends were seated on a green branch some distance away. It was rather cold, and Agatha, whose feathers still only half covered her, was cuddling for warmth against Jonquil. They had actually been quiet for half an hour—a very rare occurrence—but at length they made up their minds it must be time for dinner, and if Aurore did not know it, she must be told.
So Jonquil hopped on to the back of a chair and from that to the table, and finally planted her claws upon the writing paper, making a great mess of the words; while Agatha, who was afraid to leave the branch by herself, flapped her wings and opened her beak, screaming with hunger.
Aurore was just in the middle of the great scene in her story, where the hero and heroine had found out the wicked uncle, and fond though she was of Jonquil, she felt for the first time very much provoked by her behaviour. She pointed out to her that by now she really was old enough to feed herself, and that close by was an excellent pasty in a pretty saucer, only she was too lazy to eat it, and expected her mistress to put it in her mouth. Jonquil was not accustomed to be scolded, and did not like it, and to show her displeasure hopped sulkily back to her branch. Agatha, however, had no mind to go without her dinner, and, turning to Jonquil, insisted that she should return at once and help her to that delicious dish. And she was so eloquent in her pleading that Jonquil seemed really moved, though she hesitated as to whether she should do as Agatha desired, or if she should keep her dignity and remain on her branch.
Of course, Aurore pretended to see nothing of all this, although in reality she was watching eagerly under her eyelids how it would end.
Suddenly there was a flutter in the air, and Jonquil stood on the edge of the saucer. She opened her mouth and chirped, expecting the food to fly into her beak; but as it did nothing of the sort, she stooped down and pecked it. To the surprise of her mistress, instead of swallowing the morsel herself, she flew back to the branch and gave it to Agatha.
From that day Jonquil took as much care of Agatha as if she had been her own child. She saw that her feathers were kept in order, taught her very soon to feed herself, and steadied her in her first nights from the branch. Agatha proved quicker and cleverer than her mistress expected, and in a month's time she and Jonquil had made a home for themselves amongst the big trees in the garden, from which they would often fly down to see their old friends at dinner in the garden, and to share their dessert.
All through her life Aurore and the birds around were close friends; others besides Jonquil and Agatha would come when she called them, not because they knew their names, but because they recognised the sound of her voice. In later years she had a splendid hawk whom everyone else was afraid of, but his mistress would trust him to perch on her baby's cot, and snap gently at any flies which settled on the child's face without waking him. Unluckily this charming gentleman was not always nice to people whom he did not like, and at last he was obliged to be placed in a strong cage, from which he easily escaped the next day after breaking the bars.
Maurice Dupin, the father of Aurore, was aide-de-camp to General Murat, afterwards King of Naples and Napoleon's brother-in-law. In April 1808, long before the time of Jonquil and Agatha, when the general was ordered to Madrid, the Dupins followed him, and they all lived for a time in a splendid palace belonging to the hated Spanish minister, known as the 'Prince of Peace,' who like his master the king, was now a captive in France. Here Aurore was very happy. The rooms were large, the passages long, and you never knew what kind of delightful beast you might not meet with in one or the other. Perhaps, on the whole, it was most likely that you would come across a rabbit, as there were so many of them that they came and went without the slightest attention from anyone. A beautiful white bunny, with eyes as red as rubies, at once bade Aurore welcome. He had established himself in the corner of her bedroom behind the looking-glass, and would come out from there to play games on the polished floor. When they were both tired, the little girl—Aurore was then about four—would throw herself into a chair, and the white rabbit would jump into her lap, and lie quietly there for hours, while Aurore made up all kinds of interesting stories to amuse him.
Besides the white rabbit, Aurore greatly admired General Murat (especially when he wore his uniform) and was quite convinced he was a fairy prince. Her mother made her a uniform too, not like the general's, of course, but an exact copy of her father's. It consisted of a white cashmere vest with sleeves fastened by gold buttons, over which was a loose pelisse, trimmed with black fur, while the breeches were of yellow cashmere embroidered with gold. The boots of red morocco had spurs attached; at her side hung a sabre and round her waist was a sash of crimson silk cords. In this guise Aurore was presented by Murat to his friends, but though she was intensely proud of her uniform, the little aide-de-camp found the fur and the gold very hot and heavy, and was always thankful to change it for the black silk dress and black mantilla worn by Spanish children. One does not know in which costume she must have looked most strange.
Murat, who was a good-natured man, grew very fond of the child, and one evening when he returned from hunting he went up to the rooms in the palace occupied by the Dupins bearing in his arms a tiny fawn. Aurore was sound asleep, for it was nearly midnight, but, followed by her father and mother, the general entered the room and laid the fawn beside her on the pillow. The child half-opene'd her eyes, and seeing the little head close to her face, put her arm round its neck and dozed off again. The next morning when she woke up, she found Murat standing by her bed, for M. Dupin had told him what a pretty picture the two made, and he wished to see it. The poor little creature—probably not more than a few days old—had been chased by dogs the previous evening, and though it had escaped unhurt, which was a marvel, was absolutely worn out, and had settled itself comfortably to sleep like a kitten. It lay curled up on Aurore's chest, with its head on the pillow and her arms still remained round its neck. At the sound of voices she awoke, and rubbed her cheek against the nose of her bedfellow, who, feeling warm and comfortable and sure of a friend, licked her hands gratefully. But the little thing pined for its mother, and though Aurore did her very best to replace her, it was too late, and early one morning Madame Dupin found the fawn quite dead under the pile of coverings Aurore had spread over it. She dared not tell the child what had happened, so she said it had run away in the night, and was now quite happy with its family in the woods. All of which Aurore believed.
After a few months spent in Spain, the Dupins returned to Nohant at the end of August, exhausted by the hardships they had undergone and their terrible journey. For a few
Besides the white Rabbit Aurore greatly admired General Murat.
days they had peace and rest; then the little blind baby died, and, at his mother's express wish, was buried by his father secretly under a pear-tree in the garden of Nohant. Nine days later Maurice Dupin mounted a hard-mouthed horse named Leopardo, and rode off to dine with some friends in the country. On his return Leopardo stumbled in the darkness over a heap of stones on one side of the road, and threw his master.
'Weber! Come quickly! I am dying,' Maurice called to his groom, and it was true. His back was broken; and though help was speedily got and he was taken to an inn near by, there was no hope from the first, and he spoke no more. For the second time in her life, his mother put her feet on the ground, and walked to meet him as they carried him back to Nohant. The other occasion was when she awaited him on the road at Passy, after his release from prison.
The blow was a dreadful one, but the elder Madame Dupin was a woman of strong and silent courage, and tried to take up her life as usual. She wished to adopt Aurore entirely, and leave Madame Maurice to take care of another daughter named Caroline, whom she had had by a former husband. But Madame Maurice could not bear to part from her younger child, and as Caroline was at this time in a convent there was no need to decide the matter at present. In this manner two or three years slipped past, and Aurore grew strong and healthy in the open air, playing with any children who came in her way, or, better still, with any animals she could get hold of.
Among her particular friends at Nohant was a donkey—the best donkey in the world. Of course, he might have been obstinate and fond of kicking in his youth, like some other donkeys; but now he was old, very old indeed, and was a model of good behaviour.
His walk was slow and stately, and, owing to the respect due to his age and his long service in the house of Madame Dupin, no one either scolded or corrected him. Every day Aurore and Ursule, the little girl who was her companion, were placed in panniers on his back, and made what seemed to them long journeys through the world. On their return home he was unharnessed, and left to wander where he wished, for nobody ever dreamed of interfering with him. He might have been met in the village, in the fields, or in the garden, but always conducting himself as an elderly gentleman should. Now and then the fancy took him to walk in at Madame Dupin's front door, from which he would enter the dining-room or even the lady's private apartments. One day she found him installed in her dressing-room, sniffing curiously at a box of oris powder. As the doors were only fastened by a latch after the old custom, he could easily open them, and could find his way all over the ground floor, which he generally explored in search of Madame Dupin, for he knew quite well she would be sure to have something nice for him in her pocket. As to being laughed at for his odd habits, he was quite indifferent to that, and listened to the jokes made about him with the air of a philosopher.
One hot night in summer he could not sleep, and a wandering fit seized him. He passed through a door which had been left open, mounted six or eight steps, crossed the hall and the kitchen and arrived at Madame Dupin's bedroom. He tried as usual to lift the latch, but as a bolt had been put on the inside, he could not get in. He then began to scratch with his hoofs, but Madame Dupin only thought that it was a thief, cutting through the door, and rang for her maid violently. The maid, fearing that her mistress had been taken ill, did not wait even to obtain a light, but ran along the passage as fast as she could, falling right over the donkey. The maid set up piercing cries; the donkey uttered loud hee-haws, and Madame Dupin jumped hastily out of bed to see what in the world could be happening. It took a good deal to move her stately composure, but on that occasion she really did allow herself to smile, if only the maid and the donkey had not been too frightened to notice it. But when Aurore heard the story next morning, she laughed more than she had ever done in her life.
So good-bye to her for the present. When we next hear of her, she will be busy with lessons.