Authors: Mary Losure
When Victor did well at his lessons and his teacher praised him, happiness would spread across his face. He’d laugh out loud. But other times, when he didn’t understand, he’d become deeply unhappy. “I have seen him moisten with his tears the characters which are so unintelligible to him, although he has not been provoked by any word of reproach, threat, or punishment,” Itard wrote.
And still, the lessons went on.
Dr. Itard blindfolded Victor and had him listen to different sounds: a bell, a drum, a wind instrument, even the ringing of a rod struck upon a fire shovel. Victor liked these lessons — he used to bring the blindfold to Dr. Itard and “stamp with joy when he felt my hands tie it firmly behind his head.”
Dr. Itard said the sounds of the vowels (“Oh! Oh!”) and had Victor raise a different finger for each of the letters
a, e, i, o
Dr. Itard had Victor watch his teacher’s face and imitate the expressions he made. “Thus we have instructor and pupil facing each other and grimacing their hardest.” After that, Dr. Itard had Victor try to imitate his voice when he talked. But the sounds Victor made now were less like talking than they had been, long ago, when the lessons first began.
Once, on a day when Victor’s lessons had gone particularly badly, Dr. Itard sat down in despair. He recalled it later in his writings.
“‘Unhappy creature,’ I cried as if he could hear me, and with real anguish of heart, ‘since my labors are wasted and your efforts fruitless, take again the road to your forests and the taste for your primitive life. Or . . . go . . . die of misery and boredom at Bicêtre.’
“Scarcely had I finished speaking,” Dr. Itard wrote, “when I saw his chest heave noisily, his eyes shut, and a stream of tears escape through his closed eyelids, with him the signs of bitter grief.”
Itard wrote that at times he wished he’d never met the wild boy. Sometimes he wondered whether it had been right, so long ago, to tear the boy from his old, happy life in the forest and bring him to live in Paris.
But now, of course, it was too late.
ITHIN THE HIGH WALLS
of the Institute for Deaf-Mutes, the boy who was called Victor grew into a young man of about eighteen.
Then, one day in June of 1806, a letter arrived at the Institute, addressed to Dr. Itard. It was from the French Minister of the Interior, an office now held not by Lucien Bonaparte, the wild boy’s eccentric friend, but by one of his successors, Jean-Baptiste de Champagny. “I know, sir, that your care of the young Victor who was entrusted to you five years ago has been as generous as it has been diligent,” the Minister wrote.
For all those years, ever since Lucien Bonaparte first authorized it, the government had been sending money to the Institute for Deaf-Mutes to pay for Victor’s education. Now, the current Minister wrote, it was “essential for humanity and for science to know the results.”
And what could Dr. Itard say?
He would have to tell the Minister that Victor had not learned to speak.
The experiment Dr. Itard had begun with such “brilliant hopes” had ended in failure. And it was not just Victor’s failure, but Dr. Itard’s as well. He claimed that for himself, he didn’t care. “As for me,” he wrote, “I am quite indifferent both to forgetfulness and to disdain.”
There would be no more lessons.
Dr. Itard wrote that he had decided to resign himself to failure and abandon his pupil to “incurable dumbness.”
At about that same time, Madame Guérin’s husband, Monsieur Guérin, fell ill. For years, he had sat down every day to meals with Victor and Madame Guérin, but now he was taken away from the apartment to be nursed back to health. Victor didn’t know that, so he kept setting Monsieur Guérin’s place at the table, only to be told to put it away. Then finally, Monsieur Guérin died.
That evening Victor set Monsieur Guérin’s place. When she saw it, Madame Guérin burst into tears.
Victor put Monsieur Guérin’s dishes back in the cupboard and never set his place again.
Then Madame Guérin herself got sick. For days, she lay in bed. The hour for Victor’s walks came and went, but he waited patiently. Two weeks passed, and at last, Madame Guérin was able to get up again.
“As soon as his governess [Madame Guérin] left her sick bed, his happiness burst forth, and became greater still when, on a very beautiful day, he saw her prepare to go out,” Itard wrote. Madame Guérin put on her bonnet and shawl . . . but she left the apartment alone.
When she returned, she sent Victor to the kitchen to fetch their supper. He loped down the stairway and into the courtyard.
Just then, on the busy streets on the other side of the wall, a carriage rattled and came to a stop. The gatekeeper swung open the heavy wooden doors, and the carriage drove into the courtyard.
In the instant before the gates closed again, Victor slipped through and was gone.
might have noticed something odd about the silent, neatly dressed young man hurrying down the street called the rue d’Enfer. His gait, perhaps, was a little heavy. But soon, Victor was just one more figure in the crowds on the busy streets.
He hurried past the Luxembourg Gardens, where he’d once scampered with Dr. Itard. He passed the Observatory Gardens, where he’d gone for his walks with Madame Guérin and been taken, years ago, for rides in a wheelbarrow. What did that matter now?
At the end of the rue d’Enfer stood a massive stone gate known as the Barrière d’Enfer, one of many gates set in the wall that encircled the city of Paris. It was guarded by men in stiff blue-and-red coats and shiny boots.
Perhaps Victor stopped there and gazed uneasily, remembering the policemen who had once taken him by horseback to the orphanage. Perhaps he turned away from the gate. But in any case, he was not caught.
Days went by, and no one had any idea where Victor was. Perhaps Madame Guérin and Dr. Itard asked people in the neighborhood if they’d seen him. Maybe they went by carriage from police station to police station, asking if he’d been picked up. But beyond that, there was little they could do but wait for news that might — or might not — come.
Victor was free now. He was on his own.
The city all around him held many places to hide, for in those days, inside the walls of Paris, many leafy, sheltering places still remained. “From my window on the rue d’Enfer,” wrote one man, a playwright remembering Paris then, “I used to cast my eyes, as far as I could see in every direction, over a wealth of foliage.”
Behind the houses that lined many of the streets of Paris lay tree-shaded courtyards and sunny gardens separated only by low fences. In some parts of the city, not far from the Institute for Deaf-Mutes, it was almost like being in the country.
“Along all the left bank of the river [Seine],” the man wrote, “there were only scattered dwellings amidst orchards, kitchen-gardens, trellis-vineyards, farmyards, groves, and parks planted with century-old trees.”
Surely Victor would have preferred quiet, leafy places. It’s possible he worked his way from one green, wild place to the next, searching for a way past the city walls. But whether he went by busy streets or quiet ones, Victor headed north.
When he came to the river Seine, perhaps he stopped to look at brightly painted laundry boats where women washed clothes in the water and hung them, flapping, on lines in the breeze. Maybe he watched as men with poles guided long, narrow barges downstream.
A stone bridge, the Pont de la Tournelle, arched over the river to an island in the Seine. To reach the island, Victor would have joined a stream of carriages, carts, animals, and people on foot swarming across the bridge.
Just upstream, on another island, rose the famous cathedral of Notre Dame, with its two great stone towers, taller even than the cathedral of Rodez.
A second bridge, and Victor would have crossed the Seine to the narrow, crowded streets on the other side.
When night came, he had to find a place to sleep. Perhaps he bedded down in the straw in one of the horse stables that could be found throughout the city, for runaways often took shelter there. Maybe he slept on the streets, but in any case, no one seems to have noticed him, as no news of his whereabouts reached Madame Guérin or Dr. Itard. All alone, he made his way through a city of half a million people.
Somehow, after starting from the Barrière d’Enfer on the very southern and western end of Paris, he managed to travel all the way to the other end of the city, to its far northeast edge. And somehow, by a means known only to himself, Victor passed through the city gates to the open country beyond.