The novels, romances, and memoirs of Alphonse Daudet (8 page)

BOOK: The novels, romances, and memoirs of Alphonse Daudet
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It would have been so delightful to lie down on the green grass in the shade of the chestnut trees, and to breathe in the scent of the wild thyme, listening to the song of the little spring! Instead of that, I had to watch, shout, and punish. I had the whole school on my hands; it was terrible.

But the most terrible part of all, was not keeping charge of the boys in the Meadow; it was passing through the town with my division, the division of the juniors. The other divisions fell into step wonderfully well, and made their heels ring, like old soldiers, as if they had been drilled to the sound of the drum. But my little boys had none of these fine accomplishments. They did not march in line, but took hands and chattered all along the way. It was useless for me to call: " Keep your intervals! " for they could not understand me and walked on in disorder.

I was rather pleased with the head of my column. 5

There I placed the biggest and most serious boys, those who wore coats; but at the tail, what confusion and disarray ! A wild set of little brats with rumpled hair, dirty hands and tattered trousers! I did not dare look at them.

" Desinit in piscem," said the smiling M. Viot, in reference to this, for even he could be witty on occasions. The truth is that the tail of my column presented a sorry appearance.

Can you understand the despair I felt at showing myself in such a plight in the streets of Sar-lande, especially on Sunday? The bells were pealing, and the streets full of people. I met boarding-school misses going to vespers, milliners in pink bonnets, and dandies in pearl-gray trousers. I had to go past all these people with a threadbare coat and a ridiculous class. What a mortification !

Among all those little dishevelled demons that I took to walk in town twice a week, there was one in particular, a half-boarder, who drove me to despair by his ugliness and bad behavior.

Fancy a horrible little stunted creature, so little that he was absurd; besides that, awkward, dirty, uncombed, ill-dressed, smelling of the gutter; and, moreover, to cap the climax, horribly bandylegged.

Never had such a scholar, if such an object as that may be called a scholar, been inscribed before upon the books of an institution of learning. It was enough to dishonor any school.

For my part, I had taken a dislike to him, and when I saw him, on the days that we went for our

walk, slouching at the tail of the column with the grace of a young cub, I felt a furious desire to kick him away, for the honor of my division.

Bamban — we had nicknamed him Bamban on account of his more than irregular gait — Bamban was far from belonging to an aristocratic family. It was easy to see that by his manners, by his way of speaking, and, above all, by the strange acquaintances he made in the place.

All the little street urchins of Sarlande were his friends.

Thanks to him, when we went out, we always had at our heels a crowd of scamps turning cartwheels behind us, calling Bamban by name, pointing at him, throwing chestnut shells, and playing a thousand other pranks of the same description. My children were much amused by it, but it did not divert me, and every week I addressed to the principal a circumstantial report of Bamban and the numerous disorders his presence involved.

Unfortunately I received no answer to my reports, and I was obliged to appear in the streets, accompanied by Bamban dirtier and more bandylegged than ever.

On one particular Sunday, a bright sunshiny holiday, he arrived for the walk in such a state of dress that we were all horrified. You have never dreamt of anything like it. His hands were black, there were no strings to his shoes; he was covered with mud up to his ears; his trousers had almost entirely gone, — he was a monster.

The most ludicrous part of it was that he had

evidently been made very fine that day, before he was sent to me. His hair had been better combed than usual, and was still stiff with pomade; and there was something about the way in which his cravat was tied that spoke of his mother's fingers. But there were many gutters to pass before reaching the school!

Bamban had rolled in every one of them.

When I saw him take his place among the others, peaceful and smiling, as if nothing had happened, I felt an impulse of indignation and disgust.

I shouted to him: " Go home."

Bamban thought I was joking, and continued to smile. He considered himself especially fine that day.

I cried again: " Go home ! Go home ! "

He looked at me sadly and submissively, with imploring eyes; but I was inexorable, and the division started, leaving him alone, motionless in the middle of the street.

I thought myself rid of him for the day; but, as we were leaving the town I heard laughter and whispering in my rear that made me turn my head.

Four or five steps behind us, Bamban was gravely following the column.

" Double your step," said I to the first two.

The boys understood that they were asked to play a trick on Bamban, and the division set off at the devil's own pace.

From time to time we turned to find whether

Bamban could keep up with us, and laughed to see him a long way off, the size of a man's hand, trotting along on the dusty road, in the midst of the cake and lemonade sellers.

The crazy boy arrived at the Meadow almost at the same time with us, only he was pale with fatigue, and dragged his legs along pitifully.

My heart was touched; and, a little ashamed of my cruelty, I called him gently to me.

He wore a little faded blouse, with red checks, like the blouse Little VVhat's-His-Name had when he went to school at Lyons.

I recognized the blouse at once, and said to myself: "Aren't you ashamed, you wretch? It is yourself, it is Little What's-His-Name whom you take pleasure in torturing." And full of secret tears, I began to devote myself to the poor outcast with all my heart.

Bamban had sat down upon the ground because his legs hurt him. I sat down beside him, and talked to him. I bought an orange for him ; I should have liked to wash his feet.

From that day, Bamban became my friend. I learned some affecting details concerning him.

He was the son of a farrier, who had heard the advantages of education extolled on all sides, and was slaving himself to death, poor man, to send his son to school as a half-boarder. But alas! Bamban was not fitted for going to school, and did not profit by it in the least.

The day of his arrival, they gave him a model of pothooks, and told him to copy them. So for a

yo Little What 's-His-Name.

year, Bamban made pothooks, and what pothooks, good Heavens! Crooked, blotted, lame, halting pothooks; pothooks peculiar to Bamban !

Nobody paid attention to him. He did not belong to any class in particular ; generally, he entered any one that he saw open. One day, he was found making pothooks in the class of philosophy. Bamban was certainly an odd little scholar.

Sometimes, I looked at him in the class-room, bent double over his paper, perspiring, panting, sticking out his tongue, holding his pen in both hands and leaning on it with all his might, as if he wanted to pierce the table. At every pothook he dipped his pen in the ink, and, at the end of every line, put his tongue in again, and stopped to rest, rubbing his hands. Bamban worked with a better will now that we were friends.

When he had finished a page, he made haste to scramble up the steps to my seat, and placed his masterpiece in front of me, in silence.

I would give him an affectionate little pat, and say: " That's very nice ! " It was hideous, but I did not like to discourage him.

In fact, little by little, the pothooks began to stand up straighter, the pen spluttered less, and there was less ink on the copybooks. I think I might have succeeded in teaching him something, but, unfortunately, destiny separated us. The master of the intermediates left the school, and, as the end of the year was at hand, the principal was unwilling to engage a new master. A bearded rhe-

toriclan was put in charge of the junior class, and I was given that of the intermediates.

I considered this a catastrophe.

In the first place, I was afraid of the intermediates. I had seen their behavior on the days at the Meadow, and the thought that I was now to spend all my time with them made my heart sink.

Then I was forced to leave my little boys, the dear little fellows I loved so much. How would the bearded rhetorician treat them? What would become of Bamban? I was genuinely unhappy.

And the juniors, too, were grieved to have me go. The last time I held their study hour, there was a moment of emotion when the bell rang. They all wanted to kiss me, and some of them even, I assure you, thought of charming things to say to me.

And Bamban?

Bamban did not speak; only, just as I was leaving the room, he approached me, quite flushed, and put solemnly into my hand, a splendid copybook of pothooks that he had made expressly for me.

Poor Bamban!

CHAPTER VII.

THE UNDER-MASTER.

So I was put in possession of the class of intermediates.

In it I found about fifty mischievous boys, chubby-cheeked young mountaineers from twelve to fourteen years old. They were sons of farmers who had made money and had sent their boys to school to get them made into little bourgeois, upon payment of a hundred and twenty francs a quarter.

Rough, rude, and arrogant, speaking among themselves only a coarse dialect of the Cevennes which I could not understand, they had, almost all of them, the kind of ugliness peculiar to boys just growing up ; big hands covered with chilblains, voices like braying donkeys, brutal expressions, and above all the rest, a special school flavor. They hated me at once, before they knew me. For them, I was the enemy, the under-master, and from the first day that I took my seat in their classroom, there was war between us, war relentless, continual, unremitting.

Ah, cruel boys, how they made me suffer!

I should like to speak of it without bitterness, for those melancholy times are now so far distant;

and yet, I cannot, for, if you will believe it, as I write these lines, I feel my hand tremble feverishly with emotion. I seem to be back there again.

They do not think of me any more, I suppose. They no longer remember Little What 's-His-Name, nor the beautiful eye-glass he bought to give himself a more dignified air.

My former pupils are now men, serious-minded men. Soubeyrol must be a notary somewhere up there in the Cevennes; Veillon junior, a clerk of the court; Loupi, an apothecary, and Bouzanquet, a veterinary. They have positions, and are stout and successful.

Sometimes, however, when they meet at the club, or on the square in front of the church, they remember their good times at school, and then, perhaps, they may talk of me.

" Look here, Veillon, do you recollect little Eyssette, the under-master at Sarlande, with his long hair and his pasty face? What fine tricks we used to play upon him! "

It is true, gentlemen, you did play fine tricks upon him, and your old under-master has not yet forgotten them.

Ah, that unhappy under-master! He made you laugh enough, and you made him cry enough ! Yes, cry; you made him cry, and that added zest to your tricks.

How many times, at the end of a day of torture, the poor wretch, cowering in his little bed, bit the sheet to prevent your hearing his sobs!

It is so terrible to live in the midst of ill-will, to

be always afraid, always on the lookout, always angry and in arms; it is so terrible to punish, for one can be unjust against his will, — so terrible to doubt, to be watching everywhere for pitfalls, not to be able to eat or sleep in peace, and to be always thinking, even in a quiet moment: "O God ! what are they going to do now? "

No, even should he live a hundred years, Daniel Eyssette the under-master will never forget all he suffered in the school of Sarlande, after the sad day in which he took charge of the intermediates.

And yet, for I must tell the truth, I had gained something by changing my class: now I saw the black eyes.

Twice a day, at the recreation hours, I caught sight of them at a distance working at a window on the first story that overlooked the court-yard of the intermediates. They were there, bigger and blacker than ever, bending from morning to night over an interminable seam, for the black eyes were sewing; they sewed without ceasing. It was for sewing, for nothing else but sewing that the old fairy in spectacles had taken them from a foundling asylum, — the black eyes had never known either father or mother, — and from one end of the year to the other, they sewed, sewed without respite under the implacable gaze of the horrible fairy in spectacles, who was spinning her distaff beside them.

I watched them. The hours of recreation seemed to me too short. I could have passed my life under the blessed window at which the black

eyes were working. And they, too, knew I was there. From time to time, they were raised from the seam, and we talked to each other with a glance, without speaking.

" You are very unhappy, then, Monsieur Eyssette ? "

"And you, too, poor black eyes?"

" We have neither father nor mother."

" And my father and mother are far away."

" The fairy in spectacles is terrible, if you only knew."

" And the boys make me very miserable, I can tell you."

" Courage, Monsieur Eyssette."

" Courage, beautiful black eyes."

We never said more than this. I was always afraid of seeing M. Viot appear with his keys, —■ clink, clank, clink; —and up there, at the window, the black eyes had their M. Viot, too. After a moment's conversation, they fell again very quickly, and returned to their seam under the fierce glare of the huge steel-mounted spectacles.

Dear black eyes, we never spoke except at a long distance, and by furtive glances, and yet I loved them with my whole soul.

There was the Abbe Germane, besides, whom I was fond of.

This Abb6 was the professor of philosophy. He was considered eccentric, and in the school everybody feared him, even the principal and M. Viot. He spoke little, and in a curt dictatorial tone, using ceremony to no one; and walked with

BOOK: The novels, romances, and memoirs of Alphonse Daudet
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