Authors: Mary Losure
HE ROADS THAT LED OUT OF
were wide and smoothly paved, passing through countryside dotted with villages. After a time — perhaps one day, perhaps several days and nights — Victor reached a forest named after a village called Senlis.
The road that ran through it was perfectly straight, for it happened that the forest of Senlis had once been the king’s hunting preserve. It was pierced through with roads, built so that the king and his horsemen could chase their prey with ease. In places, many roads came together; signposts bristled with arrows pointing in all directions.
So no matter how far into the trees Victor ventured, he couldn’t avoid roads. And even if he
find a hiding place in those woods, then what?
At night, there was no fire to warm him, no light but the stars and the cold, distant moon. When he was hungry, he could search for bitter acorns or raw chestnuts, but he’d never find a warm meal or sit at a table with people who cared about him.
Perhaps now he also felt a different kind of hunger: a kind of loneliness he never knew in his old, wild days.
If he had a home in the world, it wasn’t here.
He left the forest and made his way back across the open fields.
By the time he came out of the woods, Victor’s clothes were muddy and torn. The next thing he knew, the police had mistaken him for a vagabond and arrested him.
They threw him into a country jail, perhaps into a dark cell with only a shred of sky glimpsed through a barred window. Day after day he languished there. Two weeks passed before, by some lucky chance, someone realized who he was: the strange, wild Savage of Aveyron.
He was taken back to Paris and held in a vast, castle-like prison called the Temple. In its stone towers, King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, had once been held captive before they were sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution.
And it was there that Madame Guérin came to rescue him.
When he saw her, Victor turned pale and almost fainted. Madame Guérin hugged and caressed him, and “he suddenly revived and showed his delight by sharp cries, convulsive clenching of his hands, and a radiant expression,” Dr. Itard wrote.
Dr. Itard wasn’t there himself, but he heard about it later from people who were. “In the eyes of all,” Itard wrote, “he appeared less like a fugitive obliged to return to the supervision of his keeper, than like an affectionate son who, of his own free will, comes and throws himself in the arms of the one who has given him life.”
And so Victor came home.
Early the next morning, Dr. Itard came to see him. Victor sat up in bed. He held his arms toward his teacher, but Dr. Itard only gave him a cold stare. Victor covered his head with the bedclothes and began to cry. Dr. Itard reproached him “in a loud and threatening tone,” until Victor was sobbing deeply. Then finally, Dr. Itard went and sat down on Victor’s bed.
“This was always the signal of forgiveness,” Itard wrote. “Victor understood me, made the first advances towards reconciliation, and all was forgotten.”
was not his teacher anymore. Victor was no longer a boy. What could he do now? Where could he go?
The other boys who had entered the Institute for Deaf-Mutes at the same time as he were now out in the world, plying the trades they’d learned at the Institute. Victor could work — he liked doing tasks for people, especially Madame Guérin — but he would never pass for an ordinary workman.
When he sawed logs for the fireplace, he always acted so overjoyed at the moment when the log was about to fall in two that someone who didn’t know him would think he was a “raving maniac,” Itard once wrote.
Around young women, he was unhappy and uneasy. Once, Itard saw him “sitting beside one of them and gently taking hold of her hand, her arms and knees until, feeling his restless desires increased instead of calmed by these odd caresses, and seeing no relief from his painful emotions in sight, he suddenly changed his attitude,” and pushed the young woman away.
Another time, after caressing another young lady in the same, odd way, “he took the lady by her hands and drew her, without violence however, into the depths of an alcove.
There . . . showing in his manners and in his extraordinary facial expression an indescribable mixture of gaiety and sadness, of boldness and uncertainty, he several times solicited the lady’s caresses by offering her his cheeks.”
He held his face still, waiting for the kiss that did not come. He gave the young lady a hug and held her for a minute. Then he walked away.
Who these mysterious young women were was never written down. Julie came often to visit her mother at the Institute, so perhaps they were Julie’s friends. Or maybe one of them was his old childhood friend, the astronomer’s daughter.
Whoever they were, it does not seem that they were frightened of the peculiar young man. But still, there was no denying it: Victor was different from other people.
When a stormy wind blew, he still laughed out loud. He was still filled with joy and longing — and sometimes sadness — at the sight of a bright moon, a snow-covered field, a deep woods filled with light and shadow. . . .
Sometimes his unhappiness would turn to fury and he would cry out loud, tear his clothes, and even scratch or bite his beloved Madame Guérin, though he was always sorry afterward.
In short, he would never, ever be like other people.
Once, years before, when Victor was first beginning his studies, a Minister of the Interior named Jean-Antoine Chaptal (who took office after Lucien Bonaparte) had declared that the Savage, if he could not be educated, should be sent to a hospital for the insane called Charenton. If that had happened, Victor would have woken each morning for the rest of his life in a place where patients were given icy baths and confined by night in narrow boxes that held them tight as coffins. His fellow patients would have included a mad nobleman famous for his perversion and cruelty, the Marquis de Sade.
It hadn’t happened then.
But what about now?
Dr. Itard could have listened to the people who wanted to throw Victor into an insane asylum. He could have listened when people said Victor was nothing more than an idiot and that he — and his teacher — were utter failures.
But he didn’t.
Instead, in a report he wrote to the current Minister of the Interior, Jean-Baptiste de Champagny, Dr. Itard pleaded for Victor’s future.
He wrote that while it was true Victor had never learned to speak, he had become human in the way that really mattered. Victor, his teacher wrote, had overcome the obstacles his “destiny so strange” had set before him; he had become someone with “those generous feelings which are the glory and happiness of the human heart.” He was, Itard wrote, an “extraordinary young man” who deserved the protection and care of others.
And for years afterward, Dr. Itard continued to defend his former pupil.
Because of Dr. Itard’s pleading and steadfast support, Victor was allowed to stay on at the Institute for Deaf-Mutes. He continued to live with Madame Guérin, as he had for so long.
And Julie still came to visit them.
Finally, in 1810, when Victor was twenty-two years old, Abbé Sicard and the administrators who oversaw the Institute for Deaf-Mutes decided it was time for him to find a new home.
They said that he couldn’t be made to obey the Institute’s rules. He did not belong in a place where “order and discipline” were important above all else.
And besides, the Institute for Deaf-Mutes now was only for boys. The administrators pointed out that Madame Guérin had a family who came to visit often, and girls were not welcome at the all-male Institute.
Neither were the curiosity seekers who still turned up from time to time, wanting to view the Savage.
So in the summer of 1811, when Victor was twenty-three, he and Madame Guérin moved into their own little house. It was close by the Institute for Deaf-Mutes, so Dr. Itard could come visit. The government offered Madame Guérin a small pension for as long as Victor lived. She wrote a letter saying she accepted “with my deep gratitude” and signed it “Widow Guérin.”
In another letter, she listed the things Victor would take with him: an old oaken bed, one mattress and a second straw mattress, a pillow, and a wool blanket.
Their house sat on a quiet, leafy street called the Feuillantines, close by an ancient convent that had been abandoned during the French Revolution. Inside the walls of the convent’s vast, overgrown garden, birds sang and butterflies floated on the still air.
“A park, a wood, a stretch of open country . . . an avenue of chestnuts with room for a swing, and a dry quarry in which to play at soldiers . . . all the flowers one could possibly want, and what, to a child’s eyes, was a virgin forest” is how the famous writer Victor Hugo described the convent grounds. The author, who was then only a boy, lived just a few doors down from Victor and Madame Guérin, and often played in the garden. Some say the hero of Hugo’s book
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
may have been based on the young boy’s glimpses of the strange, wild man who roamed the convent gardens and never spoke.
When he wandered the streets of Paris, people recognized him by his loping gait. They called him “le Sauvage,” the Wild One.
In his quiet, peaceful life at house number four, Feuillantines, he could gather chestnuts from the woods. He could lie by the fire on a winter afternoon, or set out for the quarry and watch clouds race across the sky.
On a summer morning, he might be outside sawing firewood when the sky turned dark and the stormy wind blew, and what was to stop him from laughing out loud? As the rain poured down and the wet earth released its scents, he might lope through the woods, stand by the quarry and pause for a minute, listening.
When autumn came, he could lean from a stone bridge over the Seine and watch the yellow leaves drift down the river or visit the horse market with its sweet-smelling hay. He could amble through sunny vineyards and up the slopes of Montmartre’s high hill, where the windmills turned.
He could do whatever he wanted, for the rest of his life.