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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Convent of the English Augustines
By George Sand (1804–1876)
 
From ‘The Story of my Life’

THIS convent was one of the three or four British communities established in Paris during Cromwell’s ascendency…. It is the only one now in existence, its house having endured the various revolutions without suffering greatly. Its traditions say that Henriette of France, the daughter of our Henry IV. and wife of the unfortunate Charles I. of England, had often come to pray in our chapel with her son James II. All our nuns were English, Scotch, or Irish. Two-thirds of the boarding pupils and lodgers, as well as some of the priests who came to officiate, belonged to these nations. During certain hours of the day the whole school was forbidden to speak a word of French, which was the best means for learning English rapidly. Naturally our nuns hardly ever spoke anything else to us. They retained the habits of their country; drank tea three times a day allowing those among us who were good to take it with them.  1
  The cloister and the church were paved with long tombstones, beneath which were the venerated bones of those Catholics of Old England who had died in exile, and been buried by favor in this inviolable sanctuary. There were English epitaphs and pious inscriptions everywhere on tombs and walls. Large old portraits of English princes and prelates hung in the Superior’s room and in her private parlor. The beautiful and amorous Mary Stuart, reputed a saint by our chaste nuns, shone there like a star. In short, everything in that house was English, both of the past and of the present; and when within its gates, one seemed to have crossed the Channel. All this was a “nine days’ wonder” to me, the Berri peasant.  2
  My grandmother on presenting me could not forego the little vanity of saying that I was very well informed for my age, and that it would be a waste of time to put me in a class with young children. The school was divided into two sections: a junior and a senior class. By my age I belonged to the juniors, where there were about thirty boarding pupils between six and fourteen years old. By my reading, and the ideas it had developed, I belonged to a third class that would have had to be created for me and two or three others; but I had not been trained to work methodically, and did not know a word of English. I understood a great deal about history, and even philosophy; but I was very ignorant, or at least very uncertain, about the order of epochs and events. I might have been able to talk about everything with the professors, and perhaps have seen a little clearer and a little further than those who directed us; but the merest college fag would have greatly puzzled me on facts, and I could not have passed a regular examination on any subject whatever. I felt this perfectly; and was much relieved to hear the Superior say that as I had not yet been confirmed, I should have to enter the junior class.  3
  We were cloistered in the full sense of the word. We went out twice a month only, and never spent a night out except at New-Year’s. There were vacations, but I had none; as my grandmother said she preferred not to interrupt my studies, so as to have me at the convent a shorter time. She left Paris a few weeks after our separation, and did not come back for a year; then went away for another year. She had demanded that my mother was not to ask to take me out. My cousins the Villeneuves offered me their home for all holidays, and wrote to my grandmother for her permission. I wrote too, and begged her not to grant it; and had the courage to tell her, that not going out with mother, I ought not and did not wish to go out with any one. I trembled lest she should not listen to me; and though I felt the need and the wish to enjoy these outings, I made up my mind to pretend illness if my cousins came to fetch me armed with a permit. This time my grandmother approved my action; and instead of finding fault, praised my feeling in a way I found rather exaggerated. I had done nothing but my duty; yet it made me spend two whole years behind bars.  4
  We had mass in our chapel, received visits in the parlor, took our private lessons there; the professor being on one side of the grating while we were on the other. All the convent windows towards the street had not only gratings, but immovable linen screens besides. It was really a prison, but a prison with a large garden and plenty of company. I must confess that I never felt the rigors of captivity for an instant; and that the minute precautions taken to keep us locked up and prevent us from getting a glimpse of the outer world, often made me laugh. This care was the only stimulant we had to long for freedom; for there was not one of us who would ever have dreamt of crossing her mother’s threshold unattended: yet almost every girl at the convent watched for the opening of the cloister door, or peeped furtively through the slits in the linen screens. To outwit supervision, go down into the court three or four steps, see a cab pass by, was the dream and the ambition of forty or fifty wild and mischievous girls, who the very next day would go about Paris without in the least enjoying it; because once outside the convent inclosure, stepping on the pavement and looking at people were no longer forbidden fruit.  5
 
  [After describing the immense and complicated medley of buildings within this inclosure, their inconvenient and illogical arrangement, “so scattered that one lost a quarter of a day going to and fro,” and the curious way the one hundred and twenty or thirty persons living there were lodged,—some crowded into the closest quarters, while others were spread over more space than ten families would have needed for living at ease,—George Sand describes the nuns’ cells, their cleanliness, and how their patient devotion ornamented them with the trifles dear to the pious heart. She then resumes as follows:—]  6
 
  My first feeling on entering the junior school-room was a painful one. Thirty girls were crowded into a room neither large nor high enough for the number. Its walls were covered with ugly yolk-of-egg-colored paper, the ceiling was stained and cracked, the benches, tables, and stools were all dirty, the stove was ugly and smoky, and the smell of coal was mixed with that coming from the near poultry-yard; the plaster crucifix was common, the flooring broken, and we were to spend two thirds of the day here, three quarters of it in winter,—and it was winter just then.  7
  I do not know of anything more unpleasant than the custom followed in educational arrangements of making school-rooms the saddest and most forlorn of places: under the pretense that children would spoil the furniture and ruin the ornaments, people take away everything that would stimulate their imagination. They pretend that pictures and decorations, even the patterns on the wall-paper, would make them inattentive. Why are churches and chapels decorated with paintings and statues, if not to elevate the soul and revive its languor by the sight of venerated objects? Children, we are told, have dirty and clumsy habits. They spill ink over everything, and love to destroy. Surely they do not bring these tastes and habits from their homes, where they are taught to respect whatever is beautiful or useful; and as soon as they are old enough to think, they never dream of doing the mischief that becomes so attractive at school only because there it is a sort of revenge on the neglect and parsimony practiced upon them. The better they are housed, the more careful they would be. They would think twice before soiling a carpet or breaking a frame. Those ugly bare walls in which you shut them up soon become an object of horror; and they would knock them down if they could. You want them to work like machines, and make their minds run on by the hour, free from all personal consciousness and untouched by all that makes up life and the renewal of intellectual life. That is both false and impossible. The studying child has all the needs of a creating artist. He must breathe pure air; his body must be at ease; he must have things to look at, and be able to change his thoughts at will by enjoying form and color. Nature is a continual spectacle for him. By shutting him up in a bare, sad, unwholesome room, you suffocate his heart and brain as well as his body. I should like everything around a city child to be cheerful, from its cradle. The country child has the sky, trees, plants, and sun. The other is too often stunted both physically and morally by the squalor of a poor home, the bad taste of a rich one, or the absence of all taste in the middle-class home.  8
  Why are Italians born, as it were, with a feeling for the beautiful? Why does a Veronese mason, a Venetian tradesman, a peasant of the Roman Campagna, love to look at fine monuments? Why do they understand good pictures and music, while our proletarians more intelligent in other respects, and our middle class though educated with more care, love what is false, vulgar—even ugly—in art, unless a special training corrects their instincts? It is because we live amidst what is ugly and vulgar; because our parents have no taste, and we hand down the traditional bad taste to our children. It would be so easy to surround childhood with things at once noble, agreeable, and instructive.  9
 
  [Owing to her grandmother’s Voltairean principles, Aurore Dupin’s religious training had been rather neglected: this shocked her present pious teachers. The means taken to correct this seemed silly to her already philosophical mind; and after a short time she decided to “set her cap on her ear and join the devils’ camp.” This was the name given to those who were not pious. The latter were called “the good,” while there was an intermediate variety called “the stupid.” Mary G——, a bright Irish girl, generally spoken of as “the boy,” became Aurore’s best friend, after ridiculing her and nicknaming her Rising Sun (Aurora) and Some Bread (Du pain). Being the leading spirit in the devils’ camp, she offered to admit Aurore to its ranks.]  10
 
  “You shall be initiated this evening.”  11
  I waited for night and supper very impatiently. Recreation time began as soon as we left the refectory. 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 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.  12
  Then they initiated me into the great secret, and we started on our expedition.  13
  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. They said that by following our convent cellars you could reach the Catacombs, the quarries, the Baths of Julian, 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, and whose exploration was as perilous as the descent into hell of Æneas 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.  14
  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 congregated.  15
  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.  16
  I had read Mrs. Radcliffe’s ‘Castle of the Pyrenees’ 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.  17
  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.  18
  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 twisted taper (a “rat”), and that hardly let us see more than the first steps of the mysterious staircase.  19
  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 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?  20
  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 crack, 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.  21
  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?  22
  “Why, it’s quite plain,” said Mary: “we must pull the wall down. All of us together can surely make a hole in it.”  23
  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.  24
  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 escalade, put out our lights, separate, and grope our way back to the school-rooms. 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 towards the next day’s work. There was no chance of any one’s noticing it, as no one ever went down into that blind hall-way given over to mice and spiders.  25
  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 ofter carry on our work with impunity.  26
  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.  27
  One day we thought we would look for some mansard 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?  28
  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.  29
  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 to 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.  30
  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 worshiped, 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 thoughts and most chivalrous undertakings.  31
  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 juniors’ 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.  32
  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 this 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, said I to myself, thinking of the aphorisms Deschartres 1 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.  33
  I needed all this romantic excitement to bear up against the convent regulations, which went very much against me. We were fed well enough, yet that is a thing I have always cared least for; but we suffered most cruelly from the cold, and that year the winter was very severe. The rules for rising and retiring were as harmful as they were disagreeable to me. I have always loved to sit up late, and not to rise early. At Nohant I had done as I pleased—read or written in my room at night, and not been compelled to confront the morning cold. My circulation is sluggish, and the word “cool-blooded” describes both my physical and my mental organization. A “devil” among the “devils” of the convent, I never lost my wits, and did the wildest things in a solemn way that always delighted my accomplices; but the cold really paralyzed me, especially during the first half of the day. The dormitory was in the mansard roof, and so icy that I could not go to sleep, but sadly heard every hour of the night strike. At six o’clock two servants came and waked us pitilessly. It has always seemed a melancholy thing to me to rise and dress by lamplight. We had to wash in water whose icy crust we had to break, and then it could not be washed with. We had chilblains, and our feet bled in our tight shoes. We went to mass by candle-light, and shivered on the benches or dozed on our knees, in the attitude of piety. At seven o’clock we breakfasted on a piece of bread and a cup of tea. At last, on reaching the school-room, we could see a little light dawn in the sky, and a bit of fire in the stove. I never thawed until about noon; I had frightful colds, and sharp pains in all my limbs, and suffered from them fifteen years later.  34
  But Mary could not bear complaining; being as strong as a boy, she made pitiless fun of all who were not stoical. She taught me to be pitiless towards myself. I deserved some credit for this, for I suffered more than any one else; and the Paris climate was killing me already. Sallow, apathetic, and silent, I seemed the calmest and most submissive of persons when in the school-room. I never answered back: anger was foreign to my nature, and I do not remember having an attack of it during the three years I spent in the convent. Thanks to this disposition, I was always loved, even at the time of my worst impishness, by my most disagreeable companions and the most exacting teachers and nuns. The Superior told my grandmother that I was “still waters.” Paris had frozen the fever of movement I had had at Nohant. Yet this did not prevent me from climbing over roofs in the month of December, or spending whole evenings bare-headed in the garden in the middle of winter: for we hunted “the great secret” in the garden too; and when the doors were closed, we got down there by the windows. And that was because we lived by our brain at those times, and I never noticed then that I was dragging about a sick body.  35
 
Note 1. Her father’s tutor. [back]
 
 
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