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   Chapter 2 SAD CHANGES

A Romance of Youth -- Complete By Francois Coppee Characters: 17060

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

Trees are like men; there are some that have no luck. A genuinely unfortunate tree was the poor sycamore which grew in the playground of an institution for boys on the Rue de la Grande-Chaumiere, directed by M. Batifol.

Chance might just as well have made it grow upon the banks of a river, upon some pretty bluff, where it might have seen the boats pass; or, better still, upon the mall in some garrison village, where it could have had the pleasure of listening twice a week to military music. But, no! it was written in the book of fate that this unlucky sycamore should lose its bark every summer, as a serpent changes its skin, and should scatter the ground with its dead leaves at the first frost, in the playground of the Batifol institution, which was a place without any distractions.

This solitary tree, which was like any other sycamore, middle-aged and without any singularities, ought to have had the painful feeling that it served in a measure to deceive the public. In fact, upon the advertisement of the Batifol institution (Cours du lycee Henri IV. Preparation au baccalaureat et aux ecoles de l'Etat), one read these fallacious words, "There is a garden;" when in reality it was only a vulgar court graveled with stones from the river, with a paved gutter in which one could gather half a dozen of lost marbles, a broken top, and a certain number of shoe-nails, and after recreation hours still more. This solitary sycamore was supposed to justify the illusion and fiction of the garden promised in the advertisement; but as trees certainly have common sense, this one should have been conscious that it was not a garden of itself.

It was a very unjust fate for an inoffensive tree which never had harmed anybody; only expanding, at one side of the gymnasium portico, in a perfect rectangle formed by a prison wall, bristling with the glass of broken bottles, and by three buildings of distressing similarity, showing, above the numerous doors on the ground floor, inscriptions which merely to read induced a yawn: Hall 1, Hall 2, Hall 3, Hall 4, Stairway A, Stairway B, Entrance to the Dormitories, Dining-room, Laboratory.

The poor sycamore was dying of ennui in this dismal place. Its only happy seasons-the recreation hours, when the court echoed with the shouts and the laughter of the boys-were spoiled for it by the sight of two or three pupils who were punished by being made to stand at the foot of its trunk. Parisian birds, who are not fastidious, rarely lighted upon the tree, and never built their nests there. It might even be imagined that this disenchanted tree, when the wind agitated its foliage, would charitably say, "Believe me! the place is good for nothing. Go and make love elsewhere!"

In the shade of this sycamore, planted under an unlucky star, the greater part of Amedee's infancy was passed.

M. Violette was an employe of the Ministry, and was obliged to work seven hours a day, one or two hours of which were devoted to going wearily through a bundle of probably superfluous papers and documents. The rest of the time was given to other occupations as varied as they were intellectual; such as yawning, filing his nails, talking about his chiefs, groaning over the slowness of promotion, cooking a potato or a sausage in the stove for his luncheon, reading the newspaper down to the editor's signature, and advertisements in which some country cure expresses his artless gratitude at being cured at last of an obstinate disease. In recompense for this daily captivity, M. Violette received, at the end of the month, a sum exactly sufficient to secure his household soup and beef, with a few vegetables.

In order that his son might attain such a distinguished position, M. Violette's father, a watch-maker in Chartres, had sacrificed everything, and died penniless. The Silvio Pellico official, during these exasperating and tiresome hours, sometimes regretted not having simply succeeded his father. He could see himself, in imagination, in the light little shop near the cathedral, with a magnifying-glass fixed in his eye, ready to inspect some farmer's old "turnip," and suspended over his bench thirty silver and gold watches left by farmers the week before, who would profit by the next market-day to come and get them, all going together with a merry tick. It may be questioned whether a trade as low as this would have been fitting for a young man of education, a Bachelor of Arts, crammed with Greek roots and quotations, able to prove the existence of God, and to recite without hesitation the dates of the reigns of Nabonassar and of Nabopolassar. This watch-maker, this simple artisan, understood modern genius better. This modest shopkeeper acted according to the democratic law and followed the instinct of a noble and wise ambition. He made of his son-a sensible and intelligent boy-a machine to copy documents, and spend his days guessing the conundrums in the illustrated newspapers, which he read as easily as M. Ledrain would decipher the cuneiform inscriptions on an Assyrian brick. Also-an admirable result, which should rejoice the old watch-maker's shade-his son had become a gentleman, a functionary, so splendidly remunerated by the State that he was obliged to wear patches of cloth, as near like the trousers as possible, on their seat; and his poor young wife, during her life, had always been obliged, as rent-day drew near, to carry the soup-ladle and six silver covers to the pawn-shop.

At all events, M. Violette was a widower now, and being busy all day was very much embarrassed with the care of his little son. His neighbors, the Gerards, were very kind to Amedee, and continued to keep him with them all the afternoon. This state of affairs could not always continue, and M. Violette hesitated to abuse his worthy friends' kindness in that way.

However, Amedee gave them little trouble, and Mamma Gerard loved him as if he were her own. The orphan was now inseparable from little Maria, a perfect little witch, who became prettier every day. The engraver, having found in a cupboard the old bearskin cap which he had worn as a grenadier in the National Guard, a headdress that had been suppressed since '98, gave it to the children. What a magnificent plaything it was, and how well calculated to excite their imagination! It was immediately transformed in their minds into a frightfully large and ferocious bear, which they chased through the apartment, lying in wait for it behind armchairs, striking at it with sticks, and puffing out their little cheeks with all their might to say "Boum!" imitating the report of a gun. This hunting diversion completed the destruction of the old furniture. Tranquil in the midst of the joyous uproar and disorder, the engraver was busily at work finishing off the broad ribbon of the Legion of Honor, and the large bullion epaulettes of the Prince President, whom, as a suspicious republican and foreseeing the 'coup d'etat', he detested with all his heart.

"Truly, Monsieur Violette," said Mother Gerard to the employe, when he came for his little son upon his return from the office, and excused himself for the trouble that the child must give his neighbors, "truly, I assure you, he does not disturb us in the least. Wait a little before you send him to school. He is very quiet, and if Maria did not excite him so-upon my word, she is more of a boy than he-your Amedee would always be looking at the pictures. My Louise hears him read every day two pages in the Moral Tales, and yesterday he amused Gerard by telling him the story of the grateful elephant. He can go to school later-wait a little."

But M. Violette had decided to send Amedee to M. Batifol's. "Oh, yes, as a day scholar, of course! It is so convenient; not two steps' distance. This will not prevent little Amedee from seeing his friends often. He is nearly seven years old, and very backward; he hardly knows how to make his letters. One can not begin with children too soon," and much more to the same effect.

This was the reason why, one fine spring day, M. Violette was ushered into M. Batifol's office, who, the servant said, would be there directly.

M. Batifol's office was hideous. In the three bookcases which the master of the house-a snob and a greedy schoolmaster-never opened, were some of those books that one can buy upon the quays by the running yard; for example, Laharpe's Cours de Litterature, and an endless edition of Rollin, whose tediousness seems to ooze out through their bi

ndings. The cylindrical office-table, one of those masterpieces of veneered mahogany which the Faubourg St. Antoine still keeps the secret of making, was surmounted by a globe of the world.

Suddenly, through the open window, little Amedee saw the sycamore in the yard. A young blackbird, who did not know the place, came and perched for an instant only upon one of its branches.

We may fancy the tree saying to it:

"What are you doing here? The Luxembourg is only a short distance from here, and is charming. Children are there, making mud-pies, nurses upon the seats chattering with the military, lovers promenading, holding hands. Go there, you simpleton!"

The blackbird flew away, and the university tree, once more solitary and alone, drooped its dispirited leaves. Amedee, in his confused childish desire for information, was just ready to ask why this sycamore looked so morose, when the door opened and M. Batifol appeared. The master of the school had a severe aspect, in spite of his almost indecorous name. He resembled a hippopotamus clothed in an ample black coat. He entered slowly and bowed in a dignified way to M. Violette, then seated himself in a leather armchair before his papers, and, taking off his velvet skull-cap, revealed such a voluminous round, yellow baldness that little Amedee compared it with terror to the globe on the top of his desk.

It was just the same thing! These two round balls were twins! There was even upon M. Batifol's cranium an eruption of little red pimples, grouped almost exactly like an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean.

"Whom have I the honor-?" asked the schoolmaster, in an unctuous voice, an excellent voice for proclaiming names at the distribution of prizes.

M. Violette was not a brave man. It was very foolish, but when the senior clerk called him into his office to do some work, he was always seized with a sort of stammering and shaking of the limbs. A person so imposing as M. Batifol was not calculated to give him assurance. Amedee was timid, too, like his father, and while the child, frightened by the resemblance of the sphere to M. Batifol's bald head, was already trembling, M. Violette, much agitated, was trying to think of something to say, consequently, he said nothing of any account. However, he ended by repeating almost the same things he had said to Mamma Gerard: "My son is nearly seven years old, and very backward, etc."

The teacher appeared to listen to M. Violette with benevolent interest, inclining his geographical cranium every few seconds. In reality, he was observing and judging his visitors. The father's scanty overcoat, the rather pale face of the little boy, all betokened poverty. It simply meant a day scholar at thirty francs a month, nothing more. So M. Batifol shortened the "speech" that under like circumstances he addressed to his new pupils.

He would take charge of his "young friend" (thirty francs a month, that is understood, and the child will bring his own luncheon in a little basket) who would first be placed in an elementary class. Certain fathers prefer, and they have reason to do so, that their sons should be half-boarders, with a healthful and abundant repast at noon. But M. Batifol did not insist upon it. His young friend would then be placed in the infant class, at first; but he would be prepared there at once, 'ab ovo', one day to receive lessons in this University of France, 'alma parens' (instruction in foreign languages not included in the ordinary price, naturally), which by daily study, competition between scholars (accomplishments, such as dancing, music, and fencing, to be paid for separately; that goes without saying) prepare children for social life, and make men and citizens of them.

M. Violette contented himself with the day school at thirty francs, and for a good reason. The affair was settled. Early the next morning Amedee would enter the "ninth preparatory."

"Give me your hand, my young friend," said the master, as father and son arose to take their leave.

Amedee reached out his hand, and M. Batifol took it in his, which was so heavy, large, and cold that the child shivered at the contact, and fancied he was touching a leg of mutton of six or seven pounds' weight, freshly killed, and sent from the butcher's.

Finally they left. Early the next morning, Amedee, provided with a little basket, in which the old snuff-taker had put a little bottle of red wine, and some sliced veal, and jam tarts, presented himself at the boarding-school, to be prepared without delay for the teaching of the 'alma parens'.

The hippopotamus clothed in black did not take off his skullcap this time, to the child's great regret, for he wished to assure himself if the degrees of latitude and longitude were checked off in squares on M. Batifol's cranium as they were on the terrestrial globe. He conducted his pupil to his class at once and presented him to the master.

"Here is a new day scholar, Monsieur Tavernier. You will find out how far advanced he is in reading and writing, if you please." M. Tavernier was a tall young man with a sallow complexion, a bachelor who, had he been living like his late father, a sergeant of the gendarmes, in a pretty house surrounded by apple trees and green grass, would not, perhaps, have had that 'papier-mache' appearance, and would not have been dressed at eight o'clock in the morning in a black coat of the kind we see hanging in the Morgue. M. Tavernier received the newcomer with a sickly smile, which disappeared as soon as M. Batifol left the room.

"Go and take your place in that empty seat there, in the third row," said M. Tavernier, in an indifferent tone.

He deigned, however, to conduct Amedee to the seat which he was to occupy. Amedee's neighbor, one of the future citizens preparing for social life-several with patches upon their trousers-had been naughty enough to bring into class a handful of cockchafers. He was punished by a quarter of an hour's standing up, which he did soon after, sulking at the foot of the sycamore-tree in the large court.

"You will soon see what a cur he is," whispered the pupil in disgrace; as soon as the teacher had returned to his seat.

M. Tavernier struck his ruler on the edge of his chair, and, having reestablished silence, invited pupil Godard to recite his lesson.

Pupil Godard, who was a chubby-faced fellow with sleepy eyes, rose automatically and in one single stream, like a running tap, recited, without stopping to take breath, "The Wolf and the Lamb," rolling off La Fontaine's fable like the thread from a bobbin run by steam.

"The-strongest-reason-is-always-the-best-and-we-will-prove-it-at-once, a-lamb-was-quenching-his-thirst-in-a-stream-of-pure-running-water-"

Suddenly Godard was confused, he hesitated. The machine had been badly oiled. Something obstructed the bobbin.

"In-a-stream-of-pure-running-water-in-a stream-"

Then he stopped short, the tap was closed. Godard did not know his lesson, and he, too, was condemned to remain on guard under the sycamore during recess.

After pupil Godard came pupil Grosdidier; then Blanc, then Moreau (Gaston), then Moreau (Ernest), then Malepert; then another, and another, who babbled with the same intelligence and volubility, with the same piping voice, this cruel and wonderful fable. It was as irritating and monotonous as a fine rain. All the pupils in the "ninth preparatory" were disgusted for fifteen years, at least, with this most exquisite of French poems.

Little Amedee wanted to cry; he listened with stupefaction blended with fright as the scholars by turns unwound their bobbins. To think that to-morrow he must do the same! He never would be able. M. Tavernier frightened him very much, too. The yellow-complexioned usher, seated nonchalantly in his armchair, was not without pretension; in spite of his black coat with the "take-me-out-of-pawn" air, polished his nails, and only opened his mouth at times to utter a reprimand or pronounce sentence of punishment.

This was school, then! Amedee recalled the pleasant reading-lessons that the eldest of the Gerards had given him-that good Louise, so wise and serious and only ten years old, pointing out his letters to him in a picture alphabet with a knitting-needle, always so patient and kind. The child was overcome at the very first with a disgust for school, and gazed through the window which lighted the room at the noiselessly moving, large, indented leaves of the melancholy sycamore.

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