The strange story book/The Trials of M. Deschartres
THE TRIALS OF M. DESCHARTRES
For many years Aurore Dupin spent her life between Berry and Paris, travelling in a coach drawn by six strong horses, till lack of money obliged them to sell the big and heavy 'Berlin,' and go in a sort of gig which could only hold two people, with a child between them. Of course, the journey took some days, and Aurore, sitting between her mother and her nurse, was thinking all the way of the forests they would have to pass through, and how, on their way to Paris, she had overheard her grandmother telling her maid that she remembered well when the Forest of Orleans was the haunt of robbers, who stopped the passers-by and stripped them of everything that was valuable. If the thieves were caught, they were hung on the trees along the road, to prevent others from following in their footsteps, though, to judge from the numbers of the bodies seen by Madame Dupin, the warning had no effect whatever.
Aurore was thought to be asleep when Madame Dupin told this gloomy tale, but it made a deep impression on her mind, and she never quite forgot it, even amongst the wonders of Paris. So when they started for Nohant she trembled at the sight of every wood, and only breathed freely when they came out safely on the other side. What a comfort it was to arrive safely at the town of Chateauroux, and know that you were only nine miles from home!
They had dinner with an old friend, who insisted on showing them every fruit and flower in his garden, so that it was getting dusk when they climbed into the only sort of carriage to be hired in the place, a kind of springless cart drawn by a horse whose bones could be counted. The coachman was a boy of twelve or thirteen, new to that part of the world and with no idea at all how to make his way in the dark, through a lonely trackless waste, scattered over with pools of water and long heather. For miles round there was only one cottage and that belonged to a gardener.
For five hours the cart rocked and floundered as the horse found itself knee-deep in gorse or picking its way through a marsh, and every instant Aurore—and her mother also—expected a robber to spring up out of the darkness and seize them. They need not have been afraid; it was not worth any robber's while to waste his time in that barren district; but there was a great risk of their being upset. This did at length happen, and about midnight they suddenly found themselves in a deep sandy hole out of which their horse was unable to drag them. The boy soon understood this, and, unharnessing the beast, jumped on his back and, wishing them gaily goodnight, disappeared in the darkness, quite unmoved by the prayers of Madame Maurice Dupin, the threats of Rose, or the sobs of Aurore.
For a new terror had taken hold of the child. A strange hoarse noise had burst out all round them, unlike anything she had ever heard.
'It is all right; it is only the frogs croaking,' said Rose; but Aurore knew much better. How absurd to talk of frogs when everyone could guess the voices were those of gnomes or ill-natured water-sprites, irritated at having their solitude disturbed, and Aurore sobbed on, and clung to her mother.
It was only when Rose flung stones into the water that the croaking stopped, and Aurore was persuaded to go to sleep in the cart. Her mother had decided that she must make the best of it, as they could not get on till morning, and was talking cheerfully to Rose, when about two o'clock they suddenly beheld a light moving jerkily about, some distance off. Rose declared it was the moon rising, Mme. Maurice that it was a meteor, but it soon became plain that it was coming in their direction. The boy was not so faithless as he seemed. He had ridden in search of the gardener's cottage of which he had heard, and the good man, who was used to these accidents, had brought his sons, his horses, and a long torch dipped in oil to the help of the travellers. By their aid, the cart was soon out of the hole and two stout farm-horses harnessed to it, and as it was too late to proceed to Nohant, the hungry and tired travellers were taken back to the cottage, and given a good supper and warm beds, in which they slept till morning, in spite of the noise made by cocks and children.
The next day at twelve they reached Nohant.
It is never possible to forget that Aurore's childhood was streaked through and through with Napoleon, though she does not write down her recollections till three kings had succeeded him on the throne of France. Still, he more or less pervades her book just as he pervaded the hearts of the people, and when she was fifteen one of his generals wanted to marry her. Which? How much we should like to know! But that she does not tell us. Her grandmother, old Madame Dupin, did not share the almost universal enthusiasm for the Emperor—she had lived her long life mostly under the Bourbons, had nearly lost her head under the Terror, and had been a pupil of the philosophers who were in fashion during the last days of the old régime. She had inspired her son with some of her feelings towards Napoleon; yet, though Maurice might and did condemn many of the Emperor's acts, he could not, as he says himself, help loving him. 'There is something in him,' he writes to his wife, 'apart from his genius, which moves me in spite of myself when his eye catches mine,' and it is this involuntary fascination, his daughter tells us, which would have prevented him not only from betraying Napoleon, but from rallying to the Bourbons. Even his mother, Royalist as she was, knew this.
'Ah!' she would exclaim in after years; 'if my poor Maurice had been alive he would certainly have found death at Waterloo or beneath the walls of Paris, or if he had escaped there, he would have blown out his brains at seeing the Cossacks marching through the gates.'
But in the springtime of 1811, none of the dark days so near at hand were throwing their shadows over France. 'His Majesty the King of Rome' was only a few weeks old, and the sound of the hundred-and-one guns which had greeted his birth were still ringing in the ears of Aurore, who had heard them in Paris. No doubt she often talked to her friend Ursule and her half-brother Hippolyte, both then at Nohant, of the excitement of the people in the streets of Paris when she walked through them with her mother, for Aurore was a child who noticed things and also remembered them; but soon the life of the country absorbed her, and besides, there were her lessons to do. Old Madame Dupin taught her music, which they both loved, and from M. Deschartres—who had lived at Nohant for years and years and was a little of everything—she learnt grammar, and, much against her will, Latin too, as Deschartres thought it would be of use to her in understanding and speaking French. He was perfectly right, but even as a middle-aged woman Aurore protests that the time spent in such studies was wasted, for at the end of years children knew nothing about them.
What would she have said if she had known of the seven or eight extraordinarily difficult and different languages which the little Austrian Archdukes learnt to speak and write correctly while they were still children? Luckily Aurore loved books, though she preferred to choose them for herself, and she knew a good many curious things which she would never have learned from any tutor.
Poor M. Deschartres did not have an easy time with his three pupils Aurore, Hippolyte, and Ursule. He was rather a dandy and was very particular about his shoes, and walked always with stiff knees and toes turned out. One day Hippolyte took it into his naughty head to prepare a 'booby trap' for his tutor, of a kind very popular with the village children. He dug, right in the middle of Deschartres' favourite walk, a hole filled with fine liquid mud and concealed by sticks crossed on the top, and covered with earth scattered over with dead leaves, collected by Aurore and Ursule. They were old hands at this game, and many a time had the gardener or the peasants fallen victims to it, but this was the first occasion on which they had been bold enough to try it on M. Deschartres. Walking a little in front, in his accustomed manner, his head up, his hands behind him, he proceeded down the path, the children following with dancing eyes. Suddenly plop, a splash, and a stagger! and M. Deschartres was seen pulling himself up on the other side, but without his beautiful shoes, which had stuck in the mud. Hippolyte pressed forward, his face expressing surprise and horror at such a misfortune, and the tutor, easily taken in, turned angrily upon the little girls, who ran away shrieking with laughter. They knew they would get nothing worse than a scolding, whatever they did, whereas a beating, and a bad one, would be the certain fate of Hippolyte.
Deschartres, as has been said, performed the duties of a steward of the estate, as well as those of tutor to the children, and on one occasion he left Nohant quite early in the morning to superintend the sale of some cattle at a neighbouring fair. Hippolyte always did his lessons in the room of the great man, and it occurred to him that it would be fun to play at being the great man himself. So without more ado he pulled out of the wardrobe a hunting-coat, which reached to his heels, took a hunting-cap from a peg, and marched up and down with his toes turned out and his hands behind his back, in exact imitation of M. Deschartres, the little girls watching it all from a corner. He next approached the blackboard, and began to draw some figures with a piece of chalk, stopped in the middle, stammered and grew angry, abusing his pupil for being a doll and a blockhead. When he was satisfied that he could really imitate the voice and manner of his master, he went to the window and found fault with the gardener's way of pruning trees, threatening in loud tones to inform Madame of his stupidity. The gardener, standing a little distance off, fell into the trap and defended himself sulkily, but what was his surprise when he lifted his eyes and beheld the true Deschartres standing a few paces from him, but out of sight of his copy at the window? The tutor may possibly have been amused at the imitation, but he was not the man to allow his dignity to be tampered with. He noiselessly mounted the staircase to his room, to find Hippolyte with his back turned, saying, in a loud voice, to an invisible pupil at the table:
'What is the good of expecting you to work? You write like a cat and spell like a porter. Perhaps this will wake you up a little'—and here there was the sound of a smack—'you lazy little dog.'
And for the spectators the scene was at this moment doubled, and while the false Deschartres was boxing the ears of an imaginary Hippolyte, the real Hippolyte was having his ears boxed by the true Deschartres.
There is no doubt, Aurore tells us in after years, that Hippolyte was really very ill-treated by his tutor, and lacked the courage to stand up to him, or even to complain to his grandmother. On the other hand, it is not to be denied that the boy displayed the most amazing ingenuity in showing up the absurdities of Deschartres. Often, during lesson hours, Deschartres would be obliged hurriedly to leave his pupils to attend to something which had gone wrong in the house or the farm. Then Hippolyte would instantly seize his master's flageolet and play it with all the airs and graces assumed by Deschartres. Ursule on her side, who worked steadily as long as her tutor was present, grew perfectly wild when they were left to themselves. She climbed over the furniture, played ball with Deschartres' slippers, flung about his clothes, and mixed together all the little bags of seeds that he had put aside for experiments in the garden. In this sport she was joined by Aurore, and together they shuffled the pages of manuscripts which he had received from learned men of the Society of Agriculture. It is strange that, with all his experience of his pupils, Deschartres never suspected that they were the authors of these misfortunes, and, still more, that he did not lock up his treasures. But as Aurore makes no mention of discovery or whippings, we must suppose they did not receive the punishments they richly deserved.
As the winter drew near, old Madame Dupin began to consider the question of their move to Paris, and what was to be done with the children. At length she decided that Hippolyte must be sent to school there, and that he should make the journey on horseback in company with M. Deschartres. As we know, Hippolyte loved to run wild, and was not anxious to lose his freedom and be shut up in a French school (which was much stricter than an English one), but all possible future pains were forgotten in the fact that if he rode he must have a pair of high boots—for long the object of his dearest ambition. How he pined for them may be guessed from the fact that he had tried when at Nohant to make some for himself. He had found an old pair of his tutor's, which he fancied might form the upper part, while he expected to get the foot-soles out of a large piece of leather probably once the apron of a 'chaise'—that he picked up in the stables. For four days and nights the boy worked, cutting, measuring and sewing, till he succeeded in producing a pair of shapeless objects, worthy of an Esquimaux, which split the first day he wore them.
'Never,' writes his sister thirty years after, 'never did I see anybody so entirely happy as Hippolyte when the shoemaker brought him home real riding-boots with heels clamped with iron, and tiny holes to receive the spurs. The prospect of the journey to Paris—the first he had ever taken—the joy of performing it on horseback, the idea of getting rid of Deschartres, all were as nothing in the light of those boots. Even now,' she continues, 'he will tell you himself that his whole life did not contain a joy to compare with the joy of that moment. "Talk of a first love!" he would cry; "my first love was a pair of boots."
We may be quite sure Hippolyte did not allow his friends to forget the treasure which had come into his possession. To Aurore, in particular, he showed them so often, displaying their special excellences and calling on her to admire them, that at last they haunted her dreams. The evening before their departure he drew them proudly on, and never took them off till he reached Paris! But even so, he could not sleep. Not that he was afraid of his spurs tearing the sheets, but of the sheets dimming the brilliance of his boots. By midnight he was so distracted at this terrible prospect that he got out of bed and went into Aurore's room to examine them by the light of her fire. Aurore's maid, who slept next door, tried to make him go away, as she said they would all have to be up early next morning and would be very tired before they finished their journey. But she need not have troubled herself; Hippolyte did not pay the slightest attention to her, but merely woke up Aurore to ask her opinion about the boots, and then sat down before the fire, not wishing even to sleep, as that would be to lose some minutes of exquisite joy. At length, however, fatigue got the better of him, and in the morning when the maid came to wake Aurore, she found Hippolyte stretched on the floor in front of the hearth, unconscious of everybody and everything—even of his boots.