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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand

IV THE FIRST GAMES

|I loved to play,| Augustin says, in telling us of those far-off years.

Is it surprising if this quick and supple intelligence, who mastered without effort, and as if by instinct, the encyclopaedic knowledge of his age, who found himself at his ease amidst the deepest abstractions, did, at the beginning, take life as a game?

The amusements of the little Africans of to-day are not very many, nor very various either. They have no inventive imagination. In this matter their French playfellows have taught them a good deal. If they play marbles, or hopscotch, or rounders, it is in imitation of the Roumis. And yet they are great little players. Games of chance attract them above all. At these they spend hour after hour, stretched out flat on their stomachs in some shady corner, and they play with an astonishing intensity of passion. All their attention is absorbed in what they are about; they employ on the game all the cunning of their wits, precociously developed, and so soon stuck fast in material things.

When Augustin recalls the games of his childhood, he only mentions |nuts,| handball, and birds. To capture a bird, that winged, light, and brilliant thing, is what all children long to do in every country on earth. But in Africa, where there are plenty of birds, big people as well as little love them. In the Moorish cafes, in the wretchedest gourbis, cages made of reeds are hung on the walls, all rustling with trills and fluttering of wings. Quail, thrushes, nightingales are imprisoned in them. The nightingale, the singing-bird beyond all others, so difficult to tame, is the honoured guest, the privileged dweller in these rustic cages. With the rose, he is an essential part of Arab poetry. The woods round about Thagaste were full of nightingales. Not the least doubt that the child Augustin had felt the little musical throats of these singing-birds throb between his hands. His sermons, his heaviest treatises, have a recollection of them. He draws from them an evidence in favour of the creating Word who has put beauty and harmony everywhere. In the song of the nightingale he finds, as it were, an echo of the music of the spheres.

If he loved birds, as a poet who knows not that he is a poet, did he love as well to play at |nuts|? |Nuts,| or thimble-rigging, is only a graceful and crafty game, too crafty for a dreaming and careless little boy. It calls for watchfulness and presence of mind. Grown men play at it as well as children. A step of a staircase is used as a table by the players, or the pavement of a courtyard. Three shells are laid on the stone and a dried pea. Then, with rapid baffling movements, hands brown and alert fly from one shell to another, shuffle them, mix them up, juggle the dried pea sometimes under this shell, sometimes under that, -- and the point is to guess which shell the pea has got under. By means of certain astute methods, an artful player can make the pea stick to his fingers, or to the inside of the shell, and the opponent loses every time. They cheat with a calm shamelessness. Augustin cheated too -- which did not prevent him from bitterly denouncing the cheating of his fellow-players.

The truth is, that he would not have quite belonged to his country if he had not lied and stolen now and then. He lied to his tutor and to his schoolmasters. He stole at his parents' table, in the kitchen, and in the cellar. But he stole like a man of quality, to make presents and to win over his playfellows: he ruled the other boys by his presents -- a noteworthy characteristic in this future ruler of souls. Morals like these, a little rough, shape free and bold natures. Those African children were much less coddled, much less scolded, than to-day. Monnica had something else to do than to look after the boys. So for them it was a continual life in the open air, which makes the body strong and hard. Augustin and his companions should be pictured as young wild-cats.

This roughness came out strong at games of ball, and generally at all the games in which there are two sides, conquerors and prisoners, or fights with sticks and stones. Stone-throwing is an incurable habit among the little Africans. Even now in the towns our police are obliged to take measures against these ferocious children. In Augustin's time, at Cherchell, which is the ancient Caesarea Mauretaniae, the childish population was split into two hostile camps which stoned each other. On certain holidays the fathers and big brothers joined the children; blood flowed, and there were deaths.

The bishop Augustin recalls with severity the |superb victories| he won in jousts of this kind. But I find it hard to believe that such a delicate child (he was sickly almost all his life) could have got much pleasure out of these brutal sports. If he was drawn into them by the example of others, it must have been through the imagination they appealed to him. In these battles, wherein sides took the field as Romans against Carthaginians, Greeks against Trojans, he believed himself Scipio or Hannibal, Achilles or Hector. He experienced beforehand, as a rhetorician, the intoxication of a triumph which playfellows who were stronger and better provided with muscles gave him a hard fight for. He did not always get the upper hand, except perhaps when he bribed the enemy. But an eager young soul, such as he was, can hardly be content with half-victories; he wants to excel. Accordingly, he sought his revenge in those games wherein the mind has the chief part. He listened to stories with delight, and in his turn repeated them to his little friends, thus trying upon an audience of boys that charm of speech by which later he was to subdue crowds. They also played at acting, at gladiators, at drivers and horses. Some of Augustin's companions were sons of wealthy citizens who gave splendid entertainments to their fellow-countrymen. As these dramatic representations, or games of the arena or circus, drew near, the little child-world was overcome by a fever of imitation. All the children of Thagaste imitated the actors, the mirmillones, or the horsemen in the amphitheatre, just as the young Spaniards of to-day imitate the toreros.

In the midst of these amusements Augustin fell ill; he had fever and violent pains in the stomach. They thought he was going to die. It appears that it was himself who in this extreme situation asked for baptism. Monnica was making all haste to have the sacrament administered, when suddenly, against all expectation, the child recovered. Again was baptism postponed, and from the same reason: to lessen the gravity of the sins which young Augustin was bound to commit. His mother, who no doubt foresaw some of them, again fell in with the custom.

It is possible that Patricius interfered this time in a more decided way. Just at this period Catholicism was in an unfavourable situation. The short reign of Julian had started a violent pagan reaction. Everywhere the temples were reopening, the sacrifices beginning again. Moreover, the Donatists secretly aided the pagans. Their Seids, more or less acknowledged, the Circoncelliones, bands of fanatical peasants, scoured through the Numidian country, attacking the Catholics, ravaging and pillaging, and burning their farms and villas. Was this a good time to make a noisy profession of faith, to be enrolled among the ranks of the conquered party?

Little Augustin knew nothing of all these calculations of motherly prudence and fatherly diplomacy: he begged for baptism, so he tells us. This seems very remarkable in so young a child. But he lived in a house where all the service was done by Christians. He heard the talk of Monnica's friends; perhaps, too, of his grandparents, who were Catholics faithful and austere. And then, his soul was naturally religious. That explains everything: he asked for baptism to be like grown-up people, and because he was predestined. Among children, the chosen have these sudden flashes of light. At certain moments they feel what one day they shall be. Anyhow, Monnica must have seen this sign with joy.

He got well, and took up again his little boy's life, divided between play, and dawdling, and school.

School! painful memory for Augustin! They sent him to the primus magister, the elementary teacher, a real terror, armed with a long switch which came down without pity on idle boys. Seated on benches around him, or crouched on mats, the boys sang out all together: |One and one are two, two and two are four| -- horrible refrain which deafened the whole neighbourhood. The school was often a mere shed, or a pergola in the fields which was protected fairly well from sun and rain by cloths stretched overhead -- a hut rented for a trifle, wide open to the winds, with a mosquito-net stretched out before the entrance. All who were there must have frozen in winter and broiled in summer. Augustin remembered it as a slaves' chain-prison (ergastulum) of boyhood.

He hated school and what they taught there -- the alphabet, counting, and the rudiments of Latin and Greek grammar. He had a perfect horror of lessons -- of Greek above all. This schoolboy, who became, when his turn came, a master, objected to the methods of school. His mind, which grasped things instinctively at a single bound, could not stand the gradual procedure of the teaching faculty. He either mastered difficulties at once, or gave them up. Augustin was one of the numerous victims of the everlasting mistake of schoolmasters, who do not know how to arrange their lessons to accord with various kinds of mind. Like most of those who eventually become great men, he was no good as a pupil. He was often punished, thrashed -- and cruelly thrashed. The master's scourge filled him with an unspeakable terror. When he was smarting all over from cuts and came to complain to his parents, they laughed at him or made fun of him -- yes, even the pious Monnica. Then the poor lad, not knowing whom to turn to, remembered hearing his mother and the servants talk of a Being, very powerful and very good, who defends the orphan and the oppressed. And he said from the depths of his heart:

|O my God, please grant that I am not whipped at school.|

But God did not hear his prayer because he was not a good boy. Augustin was in despair.

It is evident that these punishments were cruel, because forty years afterwards he denounces them with horror. In his mind, they are tortures comparable to the wooden horse or the iron pincers. Nothing is small for children, especially for a sensitive child like Augustin. Their sensitiveness and their imagination exaggerate all things out of due measure. In this matter, also, schoolmasters often go wrong. They do not know how to handle delicate organizations. They strike fiercely, when a few words said at the right moment would have much more effect on the culprit.... Monnica's son suffered as much from the rod as he took pride in his successes at games. If, as Scipio, he was filled with a sensation of glory in his battles against other boys, no doubt he pictured himself a martyr, a St. Laurence or St. Sebastian, when he was swished. He never pardoned -- save as a Christian -- his schoolmasters for having brutalized him.

Nevertheless, despite his hatred for ill-ordered lessons, his precocious intelligence was remarked by everybody. It was clear that such lucky gifts should not be neglected. Monnica, no doubt, was the first to get this into her head, and she advised Patricius to make Augustin read for a learned profession.

The business of the curia was not exactly brilliant, and so he may have perceived that his son might raise their fortunes if he had definite employment. Augustin, a professor of eloquence or a celebrated pleader, might be the saviour and the benefactor of his family. The town councils, and even the Imperial treasury, paid large salaries to rhetoricians. In those days, rhetoric led to everything. Some of the professors who went from town to town giving lectures made considerable fortunes. At Thagaste they pointed with admiration to the example of the rhetorician Victorinus, an African, a fellow-countryman, who had made a big reputation over-seas, and had his statue in the Roman Forum. And many years before, had not M. Cornelius Fronto, of Cirta, another African, become the tutor of Marcus Aurelius, who covered him with honours and wealth and finally raised him to the Consulship? Pertinax himself, did he not begin as a simple teacher of grammar, and become Proconsul of Africa and then Emperor of Rome? How many stimulants for provincial ambition!...

Augustin's parents reasoned as the middle-class parents of to-day. They discounted the future, and however hard up they were, they resolved to make sacrifices for his education. And as the schools of Thagaste were inadequate, it was decided to send this very promising boy to Madaura.

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