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SCHOOL DAYS AT THE CONVENT

SCHOOL DAYS AT THE CONVENT

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Written by Hunter   
Wednesday, 08 October 2008 00:46
 
I waited for night and supper very impatiently. Recreation time began as
soon as we left the refectory. [Footnote: Refectory: the dining hall.]
In summer the two classes went to the garden. In winter each class went
to its own room: the seniors to their fine and spacious study; we to our
forlorn quarters, where there was no room to play, and where our teacher
forced us to "amuse" ourselves quietly,--that is, not at all. Leaving
the refectory always made a momentary confusion, and I admired the way
the "devils" of the two classes managed to create the slight disorder
under whose favor one could easily escape. The cloister [Footnote:
Cloister: the covered arched passage on the side of a court.] had but
one little lamp to light it: this left the other three galleries in
semi-darkness. Instead of walking straight ahead towards the juniors'
room, you stepped to the left, let the flock pass on, and you were free.
I did so, and found myself in the dark with my friend Mary and the other
"devils" she had told me would be there. They were all armed, some with
logs, others with tongs. I had nothing, but was bold enough to go to the
school-room, get a poker, and return to my accomplices without being
noticed.

Then they initiated me into the great secret, and we started on our
expedition.

The great secret was the traditional legend of the convent: a dream
handed down from generation to generation, and from "devil" to "devil,"
for about two centuries; a romantic fiction which may have had some
foundation of truth at the beginning, but now rested merely on the needs
of our imagination. Its object was to "deliver the victim." There was a
prisoner, some said several prisoners, shut up somewhere in an
impenetrable retreat: either a cell hidden and bricked up in the
thickness of the walls, or in a dungeon under the vaults of the immense
sub-basements extending beneath the monastery as well as under a great
part of the Saint-Victor district. There were indeed magnificent cellars
there,--a real subterranean city, whose limits we never found,--and they
had many mysterious outlets at different points within the vast area of
the inclosure. We were told that at a great distance off, these cellars
joined the excavations running under the greater part of Paris and the
surrounding country as far as Vincennes. [Footnote: Vincennes: a town
about two miles from Paris.] They said that by following our convent
cellars you could reach the Catacombs, [Footnote: Catacombs:
subterranean passages.] the quarries, the baths of Julian, [Footnote:
Baths of Julian: a Roman emperor of the fourth century.] and what not.
These vaults were the key to a world of darkness, terrors, mysteries: an
immense abyss dug beneath our feet, closed by iron gates, whose
exploration was as perilous as the descent into hell of AEneas or Dante.
For this reason it was absolutely imperative to get there, in spite of
the insurmountable difficulties of the enterprise, and the terrible
punishments the discovery of our secret would provoke.

Entering these subterranean domains was one of those unhoped-for strokes
of good luck that occurred once, or at most twice, in the life of a
"devil," after years of perseverance and mental effort. It was of no use
thinking of getting in by the main door. That door was at the bottom of
a wide staircase next to the kitchens, which were cellars too; and here
the lay sisters [Footnote: Lay sisters: the nuns who are not in holy
orders.] congregated.

But we were sure that the vaults could be reached by a thousand other
ways, even by the roof. According to us, every nailed-up door, every
dark corner under a staircase, every hollow-sounding wall, might
communicate mysteriously with the subterranean region; and we looked for
that communication most earnestly up to the very attic.

I had read Mrs. Radcliffe's "Castle of the Pyrenees" [Footnote: Castle
of the Pyrenees. Mrs. Radcliffe's novels were the first "mystery and
horror" tales to become popular.] at Nohant, with terror and delight. My
companions had many another Scotch and Irish legend in their heads, all
fit to set one's hair on end. The convent too had innumerable stories of
its own lamentable events,--about ghosts, dungeons, inexplicable
apparitions, and mysterious noises. All this, and the thought of finally
discovering the tremendous secret of the victim, so kindled our
imaginations that we were sure we heard sighs and groans start from
under the stones, or breathe through the cracks of doors and walls.

We started off, my companions for the hundredth, I for the first time,
in search of that elusive captive,--languishing no one knew where, but
certainly somewhere, and whom perhaps we were called to discover. She
must have been very old, considering how long she had been sought in
vain! She might have been over two hundred years old, but we did not
mind that! We sought her, called her, thought of her incessantly, and
never despaired.

That evening I was led into the oldest and most broken-up part of the
buildings,--perhaps the most exciting locality for our exploration. We
selected a little passage with wooden railings overlooking an empty
space without any known outlet. A staircase with banisters led to this
unknown region, but an oaken door forbade access to the stairs. We had
to get around the obstacle by passing from the railing to the banisters,
and walk down the outside of the worm-eaten balusters. There was a dark
void below us whose depth we could not fathom. We had only a little
taper (a "rat"), and that hardly let us see more than the first steps of
the mysterious staircase.

We were at the bottom in a moment; and with more joy than disappointment
found that we were directly under the passage, in a square space without
any opening. Not a door nor a window, nor any explicable purpose for
this sort of closed vestibule. Why was there a staircase leading into a
blind space? Why was there a strong padlocked door shutting off the
staircase?

The little taper was divided into several lengths, and each one began
examining for herself. The staircase was made of wood. A secret spring
in one of the steps must lead to a passage, another staircase, or a
hidden trap. While some explored the staircase, and tried to force its
old planks apart, others groped along the wall in search of a knob, a
rack, a ring, or any of the thousand contrivances mentioned in the
chronicles of old manors as moving a stone, turning a panel, or opening
an entrance into unknown regions.

Alas, there was nothing! The wall was smooth and plastered. The pavement
sounded dull; not a stone was loose, and the staircase hid no spring.
One of us looked further. She declared that in the extreme corner under
the staircase the wall had a hollow sound; we struck it, and found it
true. "It's here!" we all exclaimed. "There's a walled-up passage in
there, but that passage leads to the awful dungeon. That is the way down
to the sepulchre holding the living victims." We glued our ears to the
wall, heard nothing; still the discoverer maintained that she could hear
confused groans and clanking chains. What was to be done?

"Why, it's quite plain," said Mary: "we must pull the wall down. All of
us together can surely make a hole in it."

Nothing seemed easier to us; and we all went to work,--some trying to
knock it down with their logs, others scraping it with their shovels and
tongs,--never thinking that by worrying those poor shaky walls, we
risked tumbling the building down on our heads. Fortunately we could not
do much harm, because the noise made by the logs would have attracted
some one.

We had to be satisfied with pushing and scratching. Yet we had managed
to make quite a noticeable hole in the plaster, lime, and stones, when
the bell rang for prayers. We had just time to repeat our perilous
escapade, [Footnote: Escapade: prank.] put out our lights, separate, and
grope our way back to the schoolrooms. We put off the continuation of
the enterprise till the next day, and appointed the same place of
meeting. Those who got there first were not to wait for those who might
be detained by punishment or unusual surveillance. Each one was to do
her best to scoop out the wall. It would be just so much done toward the
next day's work. There was no chance of any one's noticing it, as no one
ever went down into that blind hallway given over to mice and spiders.

We dusted each other off, regained the cloister, slipped into our
respective class-rooms, and were ready to kneel at prayers with the
others. I forget whether we were noticed and punished that evening. It
happened so often that no single event of the kind has any special date
in the great number. Still we could often carry on our work with
impunity.

The search for the great secret and the dungeon lasted the whole winter
I spent in the junior class. The wall was perceptibly damaged, but we
were stopped by reaching wooden girders. We looked elsewhere, ransacked
twenty different places, never having the least success, yet never
losing hope.

One day we thought we would look for some mansard [Footnote: Mansard:
having two slopes.] window which might be, so to speak, the upper key to
the so ardently desired subterranean world. There were many such
windows, whose purpose we ignored. There was a little room in the attic
where we practiced on one of the thirty pianos scattered through the
establishment. We had an hour for this practice every day, and very few
of us cared for it. As I always loved music, I liked to practice. But I
was becoming more of an artist in romance than music; for what more
beautiful poem could there be than the romance in action we were
pursuing with our joint imaginations, courage, and palpitating emotions?

In this way the piano hour became the daily hour for adventures, without
detriment, however, to the evening ones. We appointed meetings in one of
these straggling rooms, and from there would go to the "I don't know
where" or the "As you please" of fancy.

From the attic where I was supposed to be playing scales, I could see a
labyrinth of roofs, sheds, lofts, and slopes, all covered with
moss-grown tiles and decorated with broken chimneys, offering a vast
field for new explorations. So on the roof we went. It was not hard to
jump out of the window. Six feet below us there was a gutter joining two
gables. It was more imprudent than difficult to scale these gables, meet
others, jump from slope to slope, and run about like cats; and danger,
far from restraining, only seemed to stimulate us.

There was something exceedingly foolish, but at the same time heroic, in
this mania of "seeking the victim"; foolish, because we had to suppose
that the nuns, whose gentleness and kindness we worshipped, were
practicing horrible tortures upon some one; heroic, because we risked
our lives every day to deliver an imaginary creature, who was the object
of our most generous thought and most chivalrous undertakings.

We had been out about an hour, spying into the garden, looking down on a
great part of the courts and buildings, and carefully hiding behind
chimneys whenever we saw a black-veiled nun, who might have raised her
head and seen us in the clouds, when we asked ourselves how we should
get back. The arrangement of the roofs had allowed us to step or jump
down. Going up was not so easy. I think it would have been impossible
without a ladder. We scarcely knew where we were. At last we recognized
a parlor-boarder's window,--Sidonie Macdonald's, the celebrated
general's daughter. It could be reached by a final jump, but would be
more dangerous than the others. I jumped too hurriedly, and caught my
heel in a flat sky-light, through which I should have fallen thirty feet
into a hall near the junior's room, if by chance my awkwardness had not
made me swerve. I got off with two badly flayed knees, but did not give
them a second thought. My heel had broken into a part of the sash of
that deuced window, and smashed half a dozen panes, which dropped with a
frightful crash quite near the kitchen entrance. A great noise arose at
once among the lay sisters, and through the opening I had just made, we
could hear Sister Theresa's loud voice screaming, "Cats!" and accusing
Whisky--Mother Alippe's big tom-cat--of fighting with all his fellows,
and breaking all the windows in the house. But sister Mary defended the
cat's morals, and Sister Helen was sure that a chimney had fallen on the
roof. This discussion started the nervous giggle that nothing can stop
in little girls. We heard the sisters on the stairs, we should be caught
in the very act of walking on the roofs, and still we could not stir to
find refuge. Then I discovered that one of my shoes was gone,--that it
had dropped through the broken sash into the kitchen hall. Though my
knees were bleeding, my laughter was so uncontrollable that I could not
say a word, but merely showed my unshod foot and explained what had
happened by dumb show. A new explosion of laughter followed, although
the alarm had been given and the lay sisters were near.

We were soon reassured. Being sheltered and hidden by overhanging roofs,
we could hardly be discovered without getting up to the broken window by
a ladder, or following the road we had taken. And that was something we
could safely challenge any of the nuns to do. So when we had recognized
the advantage of our position, we began to me-ouw Homerically, so that
Whisky and his family might be accused and convicted in our stead. Then
we made for the window of Sidonie, who did not welcome us. The poor
child was practicing on the piano, and paying no attention to the feline
howls vaguely striking her ear. She was delicate and nervous, very
gentle, and quite incapable of understanding what pleasure we could find
in roaming over roofs. As she sat playing, her back was turned to the
window; and when we burst into it in a bunch, she screamed aloud. We
lost little time in quieting her. Her cries would attract the nuns; so
we sprang into the room and scampered to the door, while she stood
trembling and staring, seeing all the strange procession flit by without
understanding it nor recognizing any one of us, so terrified was she. In
a moment we had all dispersed: one went to the upper room whence we had
started, and played the piano with might and main; another took a
round-about way to the school-room. As for me, I had to find my shoe,
and secure that piece of evidence, if I still had the time. I managed to
avoid the lay sisters, and to find the kitchen entry free. "Audaces
fortuna juvat," [Footnote: Audaces fortuna juvat: "Fortune favors the
brave."] said I to myself thinking of the aphorisms Deschartres
[Footnote: Deschartres: the tutor of George Sand's father.] had taught
me And indeed I found the lucky shoe, where it had fallen in a dark
corner and not been seen. Whisky alone was accused. My knees hurt me
very much for a few days but, I did not brag of them; and the
explorations did not slacken.

--GEORGE SAND (adapted).

[Footnote: George Sand is a nom de plume. The author's real name is
Armandine Lucile Aurore Dupin. She was a famous French novelist and
playwright--born 1804, died 1876.]

[Footnote: Could you tell from the context where the scene is laid? What
kind of child do you imagine the writer was? Has the narrative the stamp
of a real experience? Do you know any books similar to what you may
imagine the "Castle of the Pyrenees" to be?]


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