The funniest history of my life, writes to me the amiable poet? You embarrass me very much, my dear colleague. First did I have really funny stories, and among those really funny stories what’s the funniest?
Finally, going up the river of my memories, I find one … that I give you as it is, without flourishes, for what it is worth.
It was in 1872, after the war. I had taken part in the siege of Paris as a mere soldier of the national mobile guard. I was only twenty-two years old, a meter eighty in size, a robust health, in spite of the exhaustion of the siege, and a fine beard which spread out over two long points on my chest and of which I was very proud . In short, an established and solid man. As a good patriot … that I am always (I confess to you being very old-fashioned!) I had suffered deeply from the misfortunes of the country. I had been humiliated not only by military superiority, but … how could I say? … of the academic superiority of our enemies.
Many Germans spoke French, and very well, while we…! As the first revenge I wanted to learn German. In college I had drawn English and after a few short stays in England I spoke quite a lot; But I did not know a word of the language of Schiller and Goethe. I courageously began to study the Ollendorff method, which, by the way, and without wishing to advertise my friend Ollendorff, is an excellent method; I took lessons from a no less excellent Professor, Dr. Karpeles, recommended by the same Ollendorff. At the end of six months I began to manage it. But a stay in the country was indispensable. Now, to go to Germany immediately after the war… That shook my heart. It was necessary, however. I choose a country not too German, recently annexed: Hanover. Anyway, they speak the purest German. The friend of a friend of my parents had written to his correspondent over there to ask him the address of a pension of young people. Dr. Davisson had been mentioned in the city of Hanover itself. Excellent food; careful instruction; around twenty students, no more …. On the way to the Davisson‘s pension!
On a pretty morning in July, I rang the doorbell of the doctor. I was quite astonished when, with this door open, I found myself in a courtyard where some young boys, whose age could vary between at least eight years and fourteen at the most, played balls, top, balloon and other rather childish games.
Dr. Davisson rushed forward. He was a shaved old man, thin, petulant, with glasses, with gray favorites, with velvet cap, an escaped of Hoffmann’s tales. I introduced myself. He had a movement of surprise, looked at me from top to bottom, from bottom to top, with my tall stature, my great beard, my aspect of a fellow having campaigned.
— Ah! Ah! It is you … You are the student who was recommended to me by M. X.…?
Meanwhile the young boys, intrigued, had stopped playing and surrounded me curiously. I felt a little like Gulliver in Lilliput.
— Yes, it’s me, Herr Doctor: my luggage is in the car … and …
The doctor took courageously his part and with a circular gesture: “But it is a pension of little boys, here!” M. X…., in writing to me, neglected to tell me your age, he only said: a young Frenchman… I thought you was about twelve years old!”
I was very embarrassed! The prospect of staying in the midst of all these kids smiled little to me, but, on the other hand, the look of brave man of the doctor seduced me. And then, what would I do alone in this city where I knew no one; in this country which was the enemy, and still more, the conqueror of mine?
— Do you still want me? I said to the doctor. And I added, laughing, “I promise you to be wise.”
He said, handing me his hand: “Let’s try it!”
* * *
I stayed with Dr. Davisson for two months. I was the “great class.” I was admired and envied by my young English, American or German comrades. During the studies, I was alone on the first bench, in front of the teacher. This bench was too low for my big legs and saw them mid-thigh. I was obliged to stand aside. A bit too short the bed I occupied in a separate room. (I had avoided the dormitory.) But stoic, I had wanted not to give the bad example, to submit as much as possible to the rule of the house. I had only been dispensed from playing marbles during recess and also from “lighting the pipe.”
This ignition consisted of this. When a pupil was first, he had the honor of lighting the pipe, the big porcelain pipe, the Pfeife of the doctor. I was several times first: but, in this case, it was the second who lit the pipe.
M. Davisson was a good man who remained very attached to the dynasty, and detested the Prussians. He told me the worst of it. It was always that! As to my progress, they were considerable. I was rewarded with my courage. After two months I spoke German very well. But, there are twenty-six years of this, and I have quite forgotten it. If I want to find what I lost, I will have to go back to Hanover and get back to school! I’ll think about it.