The First Assault upon the Sorbonne

by Rudyard Kipling

[a short tale]

KNOW O EDUCATEDS, and Well Educateds, and Indifferently Educateds, that in the prehistoric period, when the Tour Eiffel despatched picture postcards, and people were drawn by mere horses, because neither T.S.F. nor automobiles had been conceived or imagined, there lived in Paris, at irregular intervals, a young Englishman who had not the gift of passing examinations.

And there associated with him, at irregular intervals, a student of the Beaux Arts who desired the radical reform of French Art, and the destruction of the Cluny Museum (I don’t know why that, but he declared that it was necessary), and a student of the Sorbonne who, having failed to pass an examination on account of the injustice of the examiners, demanded the abolition of the Sorbonne in its architectural entirety; and also the Only Nephew of his Aunt, who, after repeated consommations, desired no more than to go to bed. (I don’t know why, but it always took him that way.)

And it chanced through the psychology of Youth, which is immortal, immutable, and vagrant, that these four found themselves at one o’clock in the morning between the Cluny and the Sorbonne under the light of the summer moon which, in that epoch, and on that meridian, was of a splendour incomparable, and of a stimulus beyond all stimuli. It stimulated the student of the Beaux Arts to deliver a reverberating discourse upon all French Art to the address of the Cluny Museum (I don’t know why there, but he said he was an anti-traditionalist) at precisely the same time as it stimulated the student of the Sorbonne to deliver to the facade of the Sorbonne, asleep in the moonlight, a reverberating discourse upon the injustice of examiners. And the simultaneous discourses reverberated like those unfrozen words in the great battle of the Arimaspians and the Nephelibates.

So it was, and so it continued, O Excessively Educateds and Approximately Educateds, till, in due time, there arrived a gendarme ignorant alike of the desires of Youth and the necessity for artistic and educational reforms. And he, in his turn, delivered a reverberating oration upon public manners, so that there were three simultaneous orations in full reverberation between the Cluny and the Sorbonne.

So it was, and so it continued, O Discreetly Educateds, till the Only Nephew of his Aunt began to sing (he always did that before he went to sleep) a song of that epoch which was a compendium of the habits and morals of gendarmes.

So, then, there were three reverberating allocutions, and one song full of acute anthropological observation, in simultaneous reverberation, between the Cluny and the Sorbonne. And they were each delivered at the top of the voice at the full trot, in full circulation, round and round the Sorbonne in the full summer moonlight of Paris which through every epoch has excelled all the moonlight that falls elsewhere on the planet. And when the gendarme, ignorant of the effects of that moonlight, which he mistook for repeated consommations, was tired of running and talking, and the orators and the Only Nephew of his Aunt were tired of running and orating and singing, it occurred to every one, except the gendarme, that now was the time to abolish the Sorbonne in its architectural entirety by pushing it down with the bare hands in the moonlight.

And that, O Scientifically and Astronomically Educateds, was due to the idealistic inspiration of the moonlight of that Paris, which made all actions at that hour logical, inevitable, possible, and desirable.

So it was, indeed, and so, indeed, they began to do, all four in a row pushing with their bare hands. But the gendarme, fatally unimaginative, and only concerned for the preservation of public buildings, summoned cowardly reinforcements, which made it necessary to escape in that moonlight, leaving behind (for he really wanted to go to bed) the Only Nephew of his Aunt, not necessarily for prosecution, but as a guarantee of good faith. So the gendarme took him away (I don’t know where, but it cost him fifty francs).

And the coming of the dawn terminated the Delights and separated the Companions.

After this, O Highly Educateds, and Early Educateds, and Lately Educateds, the years passed with mathematical precision and a velocity exactly proportioned to their number, which was thirty. Then the Englishman perceived that he had become the father of himself (I don’t know why, but you will find that this always happens) and the Sorbonne desired to see him officially.

‘Alas,’ said the Englishman, ‘I have not the gift of passing examinations, but it lies on my conscience that -‘ ‘Never mind your conscience,’ said the Sorbonne. ‘We will make you a Doctor without any examination at all.’

So he advanced at three o’clock in the afternoon, which God knows is not two o’clock in the morning, across the absolutely asphalted pavements of all Paris in an automobile conceived on the highest plane of mechanical efficiency; and he certainly saw all the sons of the gendarme who had been ignorant alike of poesy and the desires of Youth (but they neither addressed him nor chased him), and he also saw all the sons and daughters of that student who had failed to pass his examination. And he was made Doctor in a vast hall filled with the living and five times filled with the dead (who always attend on these occasions), and he said the words that he possessed for fear he should say the words that possessed him; and he laughed the laugh that one laughs for fear that one should weep.

And when it was all accomplished he met a man (Jamet Brayer by name, for he had piloted many little ships to great harbours) who had also, unhappily, become the father of himself, and the Englishman said to him: ‘It lies on my conscience that I begin to recall, if not the face, at least the eyes of a certain student who failed to pass an examination here.’

And the Man replied quickly: ‘Qu’est-ce que tu me chantes là?’.

And the Englishman said: ‘It lies on my conscience that I now begin to recall his name also.’ ‘Negatur,’ said the Man, ‘for that is a secret of the confessional.’ ‘Negatur,’ said the Englishman. ‘it was a secret of the police’. ‘Negatur,’ said the Man. ‘For if you remember, the only name the gendarme secured that night was that of the Only Nephew of his Aunt. We left him -‘

‘Going to sleep in the arms of the gendarme,’ said the Englishman, ‘and he called him Mathilde.’

‘And he was idiot enough to give his real name,’ said the Man.

‘Which gravely distressed his Aunt,’ said the Englishman.

‘And it cost us twelve francs fifty each to pay our share of his fine,’ said the Man.

‘But it was worth it,’ said the two together. ‘it was well worth it.’

‘I am very glad,’ said the Englishman, after an interval of profound thought, ‘that I am a Doctor of Letters and not of History; for it lies on my conscience to confide this tale to your children.’

‘Then do not forget to introduce the moral applications,’ said the Man. Behold them!

(1) It is not expedient to try to push down the Sorbonne with your bare hands if you have failed in an examination; for you may one day yourself become a Professor or a Doctor of Letters there.

(2) The psychology of Youth is immortal, homogeneous, and immutable.

(2a) So is also the psychology of the gendarme of Paris.

(3) The French and the English together can accomplish anything at any hour – even with their bare hands!



December 21st 1921