The Trials Of M Deschartres

: 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


'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


* * * * *

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


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.