One September afternoon in 1751, towards half-past five, about a score of small boys,
chattering, pushing, and tumbling over one another like a covey of partridges, issued
from one of the religious schools of Chartres. The joy of the little troop just escaped
from a long and wearisome captivity was doubly great: a slight accident to one of the
teachers had caused the class to be dismissed half an hour earlier than usual, and in
consequence of the extra work thrown on the teaching staff the brother whose duty it
was to see all the scholars safe home was compelled to omit that part of his daily task.
Therefore not only thirty or forty minutes were stolen from work, but there was also
unexpected, uncontrolled liberty, free from the surveillance of that black-cassocked
overseer who kept order in their ranks. Thirty minutes! at that age it is a century, of
laughter and prospective games! Each had promised solemnly, under pain of severe
punishment, to return straight to his paternal nest without delay, but the air was so fresh
and pure, the country smiled all around! The school, or preferably the cage, which had
just opened, lay at the extreme edge of one of the suburbs, and it only required a few
steps to slip under a cluster of trees by a sparkling brook beyond which rose undulating
ground, breaking the monotony of a vast and fertile plain. Was it possible to be
obedient, to refrain from the desire to spread one's wings? The scent of the meadows
mounted to the heads of the steadiest among them, and intoxicated even the most
timid. It was resolved to betray the confidence of the reverend fathers, even at the risk
of disgrace and punishment next morning, supposing the escapade were discovered.
A flock of sparrows suddenly released from a cage could not have flown more wildly into
the little wood. They were all about the same age, the eldest might be nine. They flung
off coats and waistcoats, and the grass became strewn with baskets, copy-books,
dictionaries, and catechisms. While the crowd of fair-haired heads, of fresh and smiling
faces, noisily consulted as to which game should be chosen, a boy who had taken no
part in the general gaiety, and who had been carried away by the rush without being
able to escape sooner, glided slyly away among the trees, and, thinking himself unseen,
was beating a hasty retreat, when one of his comrades cried out--
"Antoine is running away!"
Two of the best runners immediately started in pursuit, and the fugitive, notwithstanding
his start, was speedily overtaken, seized by his collar, and brought back as a deserter.
"Where were you going?" the others demanded.
"Home to my cousins," replied the boy; "there is no harm in that."