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The Trials Of M Deschartres

from The Strange Story Book





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 good-night, 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 regime. 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.





Next: Aurore At Play

Previous: The Pets Of Aurore Dupin



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