WITH what ardour I attacked my Latin! How anxious I was to show the
boys, and Marc above all, that although I might be stupid at playing
Prisoner’s Base, I was not stupid at my lessons.

Marc recited the best in the class, and I felt as much pleasure at his
doing so as if I had been the first in the class myself. I came out
second, to my great joy. The others stammered through their lessons
somehow; as for _The Count_ he could scarcely decline a noun correctly.
But after all, what could be expected, when all study time was spent by
him in making paper boxes for chocolate, and writing on them his names
in full, the place and date of his birth, and his present address; or
else in making little scales with cotton and pieces of paper, in which
he weighed flies, wafers and little bits of feather cut from the quill
pens,—while the rest of us were busy humming over our lessons to
ourselves, with our thumbs pressed into our ears.

When I returned home in the evening I spoke of nothing but my new
friend, and the pleasure I had had in playing at Prisoner’s Base. I kept
to myself the unpleasant and disparaging remarks made by _The Count_. I
was happy, animated and chatty. My father looked at me with an
expression of good-natured curiosity and my mother smiled. I explained
to them, at great length, but without the least clearness, the rules of
Prisoner’s Base, talking exactly as if it was a new game just invented;
as if no one had ever heard of it before, and as if my father had never
been a schoolboy. It is one of the peculiarities of childhood to think
that the world begins with themselves, and to wish to explain everything
from beginning to end to grown-up people. My excitement seemed quite to
change my nature, habits and disposition. I kept interrupting the
conversation by saying in a loud tone, “_He_ told me this,” or “_he_ did
that,” the _he_ being in each instance my new friend Marc.

My father was most kind and considerate that evening in making allowance
for my excitement and enthusiasm, and never once said that children
should not bore grown-up people with their foolish chatter. On the
contrary he rather encouraged me and exchanged glances of satisfaction
with my mother. Ah, that was a happy evening!

THE more I saw of Marc the better I liked him. Every day I respected and
admired him more. I secretly made him the model which I did all I could
to copy. In every situation which troubled and puzzled me in my
character of schoolboy, I would ask myself the question, “Now in my
place what would Marc do?” and that decided me.

One night when my father was reading his newspaper in the dining-room, I
sat beside my mother talking quietly to her, and, as was my wont,
extolling my hero Marc: for the hundredth time did I draw his picture in
vivid word-painting for my mother’s edification. She listened as usual
and smiled. Presently I noticed that she began looking about her as if
she had lost something. She searched in her work-basket, on the floor,
in the table drawers, and at last she tapped her forehead and said: “To
be sure! I remember now, I must have left them in the garden.”

“What is it, mamma?” I asked.

“My scissors; I went into the garden this afternoon and was working
there. I must have left them on the bench, or perhaps they fell under

She turned to go out of the room; as she did so I followed softly, and
without her seeing me I opened the door which led from the corridor into
the garden and went out. It was very dark. I saw little squares of light
thrown through the kitchen window on the gravel; and that seemed to be
the only light I could see anywhere. There was no moon, and no stars. I
hesitated for a moment, one moment only, and then I said to myself,
“What would Marc do? He would go and find his mother’s scissors, I am
sure; _I_ will go then: yes, I will certainly go.” But as I made an
uncertain and trembling step forward, my courage almost forsook me: it
seemed as if it was not I walking there in the dark. I heard the loud
beating of my heart, each throb was painful! I heard a surging in my
ears and I held my breath involuntarily. All sorts of vague forms
floated before my eyes. Something, surely, moved amongst the dead leaves
to the right, I thought. I passed by quickly. But something is surely
stealing along at the top of the wall to the left? Here I stopped, and
waited a moment. What could it be? Something, I felt certain, was
watching me, following every movement! However, on I went, and arrived
at last, more dead than alive, at the wooden seat under the large
cherry-tree. I passed my hand rapidly over the seat—no! the scissors
were not there. “They must, then, be upon the ground,” said I to myself,
and I said again, in a whisper, “What is easier than to pick them up? I
must of course feel for them under the seat. Of course I must pick them

It was very easy to talk of picking them up; but _how_ was I to do it?
If I stooped, surely that _mysterious something_ that had certainly been
stealthily following me, would pounce out upon my back. And if it should
be hidden behind the seat! If it should jump into my face! Horrible!
Then, too, what a dreadful feeling it would be to pass one’s hand over
the earth without being able to see what one touched! who could tell
what dirty, horrible, slimy and cold creature I might not come in
contact with? Without trying to invent any new monster to terrify myself
with, supposing a toad should touch my hand!

But I now remembered Marc, and I determined I would be worthy of his
friendship. In desperation I stooped suddenly and placed my hand on the
gravel under the seat. I uttered a piercing cry and lost consciousness.

WHEN I recovered my senses I found myself lying in my bed; my father and
mother were standing at the side of it, and our doctor was holding my

“The serpent! the serpent!” were my first words.

Dr. Brissaud looked at my father, who said a few words to him in a low
tone. My head felt so weak that I seemed to hear his voice from a long
distance; I succeeded, however, in distinguishing these words: “He went
into the garden without a light to look for his mother’s scissors, and
in feeling for them he must have put his hand on a coil of rope used for
hanging up the linen to dry, and which was left under the garden seat.”
Upon that I went off to sleep.

I kept my bed for a long time after this, for I was very ill. I was
continually having dreams and fancies, in which all the fantastic and
horrid creatures conjured up by Montézuma were perpetually playing a
part. Always the same: Croquemitaine, the Colonel’s horse, the monkey in
the Jardin des Plantes, the little boy who lived opposite who put out
his tongue at me, Montézuma himself and Dr. Lombalot, who both made
faces at me, and, at last, that dreadful serpent that I had, in fancy,
touched with my hand. As the creatures of my imagination would torment
me more and more, I would fall to shaking and shivering all over, my
poor father standing pale by my bedside, and my mother crying. Then, as
they caressed me, I would implore them “not to tell Marc; not let Marc
know that I was a coward!”

In saying this, I was not just to myself, I can see that now. I had
really displayed great courage; and, under the influence of the best
feeling, I had obliged my poor little trembling body to obey my will.
Only, in a moment of great excitement, I had trusted too much to my
strength and it had failed me. I had attempted too much. If I had not
been so determined, if I had only asked advice, I should not have
imposed upon myself a task so terribly severe to me. To brave unknown
dangers in the dark was too great a trial for my nature to attempt all
at once. I should have begun more gradually to overcome my fears, and
then I should not have failed so sadly.

Indeed, after this adventure, I was, for a long time, in a worse state
of mind than I had ever been before.

THE snow was on the ground and the ponds all frozen when I was well
enough to return to school. I was warmly welcomed by my schoolfellows,
above all by Marc, who had called to ask after me every day during my
illness, although he lived quite at the other end of the town. He looked
upon me now with the profoundest interest, blended with affection: that
respectful sort of interest which one child feels for another who has
been brought near to death.

_The Count_ alone, of all the boys, said nothing kind to me when I first
met him on my return to Miss Porquet’s. He was too much taken up with
arranging a new violet comforter well over his nose, under which
comforter he managed to bury his face and hide himself like a dormouse.

I was too weak at first to join in any violent games; the boys still
played at prisoner’s base, and hockey, they made slides, and put snow
down one another’s backs, much to the horror of poor Miss Porquet. When
the sun shone, Marc and I walked together up and down the playground
until I was tired. When it was too cold for me to go out, he and I
remained indoors and had a game at dominoes or draughts in the

I was quite sure, from Marc’s manner to me, that he was ignorant of my
terrible secret; that neither he, nor any of the other boys, knew that I
was a coward. My late illness was sufficient excuse for any nervous
timidity which I might display on occasions. All went well with me at
the school now. If any new pupil who came during that term appeared
anxious to make unpleasant remarks respecting the size of my nose or any
other peculiarity, he was always stopped at once by the information,
“That is the boy who has been so ill.” Some of them indeed seemed to
take quite a pride in themselves that they numbered amongst them a boy
who had been so very ill. What will not people be proud of?