School Days at the Convent, by George Sand

from The Story of My Life (adapted)

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?]

Louise de la Ramee