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Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cévennes

a short story

by Anna Tambour

Travels with a Donkey, by Ian BoyterI'm only glad that most of you have never read my story, but for those of you who have, it is a lie without meaning to be, a tragic mistake, a misconception as dangerous to leave uncorrected as that sweet nut in your hand on the way to your mouth, which is really a stone.

But I should begin at the beginning, in 1870 something by your calendar, when a young Scot gentleman, Robert Louis Stevenson, bought me for the price of 65 francs and a glass of brandy from one Father Adam, a greasy trader who had already torn me from the company of my mother and grandmother two harvests past. The man reeked of his passion: pig sausage that looked just like his own fat runny nose.

While striking his bargain, Father Adam petted my neck for the first time. At our separation he shed a tear, and the tear made a clean mark down one cheek as he fingered with delight his heavy coins. And although everyone in the village knew the truth about his loving attachment to me, they waved in complicity as my new owner led me away. As we rounded the corner, my left ear pointed back to the laughter from where we had been, while my right leaned toward a chortle at my side. "Cheaper than my sleeping sack!" Mr. Stevenson exclaimed, in words that sounded like pebbles rolling down the cobblestones. I felt quite deflated. I had been quite proud at the price he paid for me, and here he thought me cheap. He spent the next few steps congratulating himself rather insultingly until he interrupted himself with "What shall I call her?"

"Zuleika!" I thought at him as hard as I could. "My mother named me Zuleika."

"Modestine?" he said, and stopped. He stroked his chin and gazed into the clouds. "A nice ring to it for a little donkey. Modestine, then."

C'est la vie. At least Modestine was better than Gertrude, my last name, when it wasn't just "beast".

My new master Stevenson led me to his inn, and soon emerged with a variety of sacks, bags, and ropes; he then proceeded to load me in a manner that if I were to return the favour, would have him wearing his boots on his head and carrying his pack balanced between his knees. A few rough ropes dug in to various parts of my anatomy to complete the assemblage. I shifted the load and put my ears back to tell him that this would not do, and he replied by patting my rump with an "Our adventure begins now, Modestine, my little companion."

Well, I was so startled by this fine talk that I decided we would deal with the problem of the load on my back another time. Companion?! This boded very well. If my poor mother could see me now!

We set out and the awkward, poking burden strapped to me felt like the touch of dandelion fluff, I was so delighted. And adventure? How exciting! We walked to the crossroads at the edge of the village, and to my surprise, my companion turned in the wrong direction. For why would the man want to go up through the mountains?

I told him that he was misguided, and led with my nose the other way. But he again pulled away from me, away from the flat land of Le Puy that everyone knows is the desirable destination. It has a soft path along the way, and once there, such richness to explore: fat pumpkins lolling in the fields, the yellowed but delicious trash of summer's lentils, fallen heads of wild sunflowers hedgehogged with seeds. By nightfall, we'd snuggle into scattered shelters that I have found most comfortable against the wind that comes without warning down from the inhospitable hills.

But instead, he seemed determined to pick the rocky slopes leading to X, a most evil place--where it is true, my grandmother now lives, but I would only be able to bray from a distance, and she would probably not even hear, bent as she always is under the great loads of faggots that the woodcutter heaps on her back in his forays into frightening forests where he cuts trees that have limbs so crooked that no matter how they are loaded, they dig in like creatures made entirely of elbows born to poke. My grandmother's skin is always raw, and her nerves are as worn as her master's voice is sharp and impatient. No, I don't want to go to X and neither should he. It is a place of cursedness, and all donkeys know it.

I tried to tell my companion this, first gently, then by pulling back and trying to guide his hand with my neck. I laid my ears back to show my seriousness. I gave a little bark when he tugged. Ho! He got a look in his eye--a dangerous look that said, I don't care what you want. I've made up my mind.

I gave in. Experience would be his teacher. But now I needed to teach him something rather more urgently, as my load no longer felt like dandelion fluff.

We shambled up the path, me picking my way along the stones until we were sufficiently far enough away that I could have this fellow to myself. Then, with the barest of shakes, I shifted the load so that it hung under my belly in a manner that even He could see was shambolic, to show him how inconsiderate he'd been to a companion deserving a modicum of respect.

He is a good-smelling man with a (mostly) kindly expression. But no sooner had he taken off all the bags, bundles and baskets, then he piled everything back on me again and secured it all with those rough, chafing ropes. I wondered how he thought this was going to work, when he took my reins and pulled back towards the village with a "Let's be on our way, Modestine."

We travelled back to the village whence we had set out, and I had a silent laugh outside old Hipole's shop until my young companion returned with another pad and a barde--a common donkey pack-saddle but a new creature to him. He looked at me and the pile of gear resting beside me in disarray; and with the assistance of the whole village, I was loaded again. Many feet pushed against my sides as the ropes were tightened. Many words of advice were yelled and laughed out.

Finally the arrangement was done to the satisfaction of the crowd. A vast assortment of unnecessary necessities had been loaded upon my back and sides held by a knotted spiderweb of rope. The barde was stiff and new, the ropes hard and scratchy, the knots tight and knuckled against my flanks. And worst of all, the gear chosen so completely wrong. The bread, yes. The chocolate smelt interesting. But the tins of bologna sausage were sharp, heavy, and uncivilized. And an egg beater? Bottles of wine? So many clothes, but no blanket for me--in raw October in the mountains of the Cévennes. I determined to ditch what I could at the earliest opportunity, but first we had to get far enough away from our point of origin that even this rash adventurer would think it silly to turn back.

It didn't take me long to educate my fellow adventurer as to who should carry what. Soon much of the superfluity riding on me was left by the side of the road, and an empty pack that he had loaded onto me was filled and riding on my companion's back--a much more equitable arrangement. However, what a mumbler he was for a companion--and his fits! First, he rumbled incessantly under his breath as we walked. Then, when you least expect it, he stops in mid-grumble, in any illogical place. His hands flap at his pockets, and he pulls out notebook and pencil. This is the signal for the next stage. Vacant-eyed, he flops on the ground. Banging his pencil against his forehead with a clunk that I find quite irritating, his mouth spurts tumbles of words in bursts as if he is angry, but he is not. Sometimes he jumps up and paces very fast, but he goes only a few steps and then reverses. I couldn't watch this stage. It made me dizzy. In the next stage, he settles down and writes completely silently--to end, like the sun coming out after a storm. Incroyable! I was expected to wait, standing quiet as a stone, until he felt restored to a state of mobility (and sanity) again. My patience was never rewarded by affording me a stroll to, say, browse some inviting gorse.

More irksome is that for all his talk of the Grand Adventure, his object was (fits aside) to get from here to there at a pace at which no one can appreciate anything at all. His stride is uncivilized. He has no nose for scents nor eyes for beauty, though he sometimes stopped to look at himself in a pocket mirror; cocking his head, raising his lips to show his teeth, pulling a lock of his hair down toward his left eye, ending our brief rest with a smile at the mirror before turned his face to stone again for our trek. We travelled rock-strewn routes along the sides of hills that only winds love. And at night, while he settled in his sheepskin and tent-cloth sleeping bag, he left me to be his windbreak and protector in case of wolves. Just who was having the brave adventure?

As for our companionship, the day I saw him write of me as a mere "appurtenance of my mattress, or self-acting bedstead on four casters" I was so shocked I sat down, but his teapot was between my rump and the ground. The rest of that day was even less companionable than before.

For my efforts to pace his trip I began to earn harsh words, then a big stick. He beat me until we were both sore, and he still refused to learn. I tried to advise with every method of communication we have when a man's course of action is wrong. I dug in my heels, rolled back my eyes, threw back my ears, strained with my body, hawed with my voice till I felt hoarse. But there is an old donkey saying: "There is none so blind as those who will not see, none so deaf as those who will not hear." Indeed, my companion's stubbornness was so great, it left me speechless. Except for one time, when I saw him write in his flowing script, "Many are the mighty things, and nought is more mighty than man."

Well, I just brayed. Just hung my head and shook it in laughter at the memory of my master at his bath that morning. Mighty! Oh, how I wished my father Guillaume could have seen this man as he emerged from the mountain brook. And even his ears, like mushrooms--and just as deaf.

My brain felt small though, against the riddle of Mr. Stevenson himself. Stubborn or stupid? Insane or ignorant? While he wrote, I mulled these questions day after day, and couldn't make up my mind. So one morning, after a night in a windswept village where to my delight, we had enjoyed respectively, a bed and a stall, I settled on his problem being a case of slow wits, and decided to persevere with his training.

Jauntily we set out, and reached the crossroads. Up through even more desolate mountains, down to the blissful valley. This was where the lesson would begin. And just as I turned, lo! He patted my rump, and his palm was sharp. It held the enemy of all asses: a goad. This little wooden stick with a pin at the end draws blood with no effort, and is the tool of choice for stubborn men who refuse to learn from their donkey. The goad was a present from our night's host, who looked a better quality man than he obviously is. My companion was delighted with the effect, for it certainly allowed him to go much faster from here to there.

Of the relationship between us, he was also well content. Now grinning master and trotting slave. At one particularly toothsome patch of bramble, when I was just reaching out my lips, what do I hear but "Blessed be the man who invented goads!" And as for what I felt in my tender rump, I let him know with my hooves but he was not as slow-witted here as I had hoped.

Of the Adventure--if adventure means danger, adversity, discomfort, it was I who had the grand adventure, while he ate chocolate and warming brandy, and stumbled in agony over the proper words to write about his trip. Sometimes we slept under roofs, sometimes under the stars, he grumbling about stones under his soft body, but trying out different praises in the morning about the glory of nature. Sometimes we slept in the icy rain, he in his warm bag, and me standing, tied to a wizened tree, streaming with cold torrents. He romanced about how he tamed me into compliance, while he never noticed that I had nothing more to say to the man.

He talked to many people. People seem to like that. We sojourned through many villages and I met some of my old friends, but he never considered that it might be nice for me to stop and hang our heads together and breath each other's nosebreath.

Our final "adventure" was on the tenth day of my bondage, when we were traversing the side of a very steep mountain. All of a sudden, he found the switchbacks intolerable as they offended his idea of efficiency. He decided that our route was to be straight down an almost vertical slope of boulders only interrupted by scraggly trees. Goad or no, I told him that he was not thinking logically. The more I talked, the more stubborn he became, and finally, he pulled me down the slope. I almost tumbled over my own neck countless times, and if I were a man, would have made my eyes look upwards and put my hands together as they do.

People have weak memories, as we donkeys often note. The miller who forgets to tell the housewife that he added chalk to the flour. The teller of tales who makes himself out greater than he is. And so with Mr. Stevenson's tale: the details of our parting he sadly mis-remembers, maybe through shame. So I will tell. By the time we reached the base of that vertical slope my hooves were sorely chipped, the tender pads in my feet soft as raspberries, and my feelings about this man so strong that I was incoherent, but I very eloquently--sat.

Now, when we sit, no goad can get us up. He prodded and poked, and hit me with his walking stick. It hurt, but I held my position till he did right by me. He unbuckled my load and slipped it off. After a proper rest, a bite of bread, and a lesson from me in load distribution that I made sure he understood, we set off again on the Great Adventure, this time with me carrying the barde saddle made for donkeys, and he, everything else, including the sleeping sack and canvas tarp slung over his shoulders.

I felt quite restored. Beginning to enjoy this adventure, I increased my pace to his favourite racing speed, but my companion began to lag behind. We walked this way all day through a deserted stretch of mountain pass, and at the hint of dusk, he stopped abruptly. It took him longer to shed his load then it did to make the most rudimentary camp--just arranging his blankets. He was snoring in minutes, having eaten no supper. Though he forgot to feed me, I had a night of content.

The next morning after he was loaded, something I had to insist upon unfortunately, and he was in no shape to argue--we continued on our way. It was a glorious day, but my companion seemed quite downcast. We had been travelling for most of the morning when his eyes suddenly brightened, and he waved his arms as well as he could.

"Hail, fellow!" he called, as there was a man approaching on this lonely road. He was on foot and carried a short carpenter's saw. The man stopped and stared at us, but didn't come closer. "Hup, Modestine!" my master urged me, and he rushed towards the stranger as fast as he could. When we reached the man, my fellow adventurer was panting hard.

"What you say, mister?" the carpenter asked suspiciously. His eyes had widened at my companion, but now they narrowed at me.

Mr. Stevenson drew himself upright as best he could. "'Tis a pity, but another engagement forces me to end this sojourn."

"Eh?" said the carpenter, still peering at me.

Mr. Stevenson shifted his shoulders. "I must sell my equipment and this faithful ass. Would you care to buy?" "Ohhh," the carpenter said, and made a sorry face. "Don't know as if I'd want an ass, and as for a gen'leman's travelling things. I have a home. I don't..." and he shifted his saw and lifted his leg to stride off.

"One hundred francs for the lot," my master gasped.

The gasp seemed to bring the carpenter's attention around. "Seems you need some help," he said, and he lifted the heavy sleeping sack and canvas off my master's shoulders, and Mr. Stevenson shed the rest of his load with a loud series of thumps on the ground, and a grateful sigh at the end.

The carpenter gave a desultory shove with his foot to all the equipment. "Worthless to me." Then he turned to me; poked my bottom, felt my rump, picked up each of my feet. "To help you out. You being a guest in our country--thirty francs."

"What?! Do my ears betray me?"

"Twenty francs for the beast. Ten to take your rubbish." The carpenter cleared his throat and spat a huge gob onto the road.

"But I paid sixty-five for her just days ago!"

The carpenter laughed. "And a fine bargain you made! She's too weak to carry anything. And her feet!"

"Feet?" Mr. Stevenson exclaimed. And my feet were suddenly picked up and examined by my travelling companion with a look of pain creasing his forehead.

The man with the saw turned away and Mr. Stevenson yelled, "Thirty and all yours."

The carpenter pulled a leather bag out of his shirt, counted out his coins and promptly handed them over. He turned towards me, and suddenly my companion and master of ten days threw his arms around my neck. "Good old Modestine. We've had a bonny time, haven't we, lass?"

I was so startled, I didn't know what to say. My lower lip trembled. He put his hand to my mouth and in it was a fat chunk of chocolate. As I tasted, my tongue asked why it had never known anything this good before. My heart flooded with love. I nuzzled his chest to show him. He put his head on top of mine, and began to recite some sort of verse with many more stones-rolling-sounding words, all about nature, love, the bond between all creatures great and small. I felt so tender towards him as he finally tried to amends. My nose and lips found themselves in his coat pocket, and there was the rest of the chocolate he wanted me to have. Every part of my mouth tingled with joy, and my nose breathed in the smell of sweetness melting down my throat. Oh, for this moment never to end.

"Sir, I must be on my way," the carpenter interrupted. And with a "Come, brute," he put his hand to my side.

"Aye, and good bye it is," my former owner sighed, so I picked up my head, but he forgot to pick up his, and his nose was in the way of my forehead. "Begorrah!" he stuttered. "The devil take you!" and he whirled away in one of his fits and stomped off down the road.

My new master snorted at the moodiness of foreigners and gave my rump a rough but not unfriendly slap. "Home we go, you little devil. What shall your name be? Hortense? Do you like that?" We gazed into each other's eyes. It took but a moment for him to pack everything comfortably on me, including Mr. Stevenson's knapsack. "Don't really want these gen'lman's things, but..." he said.

Thus we began our life together. We had only gone a short way, when what comes down the road to us, but in distinct tones, "Thief!" We looked back to see my beloved former companion jumping up and down shaking his fist.

My new master smiled and stroked my neck. "You WERE a steal!"

And as to the story of the journey as Mr. Stevenson remembered. He wrote of how we had been fast companions over many a rocky and boggy by-road. But when he held the goad in one hand and the reins in the other, how could I be anything but? He bragged about my trust in him by stating how I ate bread out of his hand, but when that was the only food offered, and his palm the only vessel, why should I refuse? "She was patient," he said. I had to be, but he never knew how patient. "She was elegant of form." He never told me that. "She loved me like a god." His perception here is so dim that it leads to the saying we have, "Men have weak eyes, small ears, and a mighty little pin."

The tragedy is that if he had SHOWED me he loved me, I would have forgiven him all his faults and loved him back. If he had noticed that we have the big ears and the better eyesight, I would have led him to places of adventures worth writing about. I would have shown him where apples grow crisp as last night's snow, sweet as summer's sun. I would have told him when to cease his mumbling to himself so he could hear the subtle sigh of a dormouse snoring in a hollow branch. We would have watched together, flushes of partridges parting the tall valley grass.

I would have taken him up into the hills where he yearned to go. But not his way. No, in the direction few men venture, up through rotting villages where cursed ghosts wander (as men's tales go), to the village of V. where there is a maiden so fair she hurts your eyes until she speaks and hurts your ears.

I would have taken him (if he had only shown he loved me) to a path with no trail, down and down to a place that only I and one now-dead man know. A place where an ancient bramble bush holds in its arms the homes of dozens of little fatbellied birds, while its toes knock hard against a heavy box of what the man called Treasure.

My master the carpenter is good as masters go, but he is no companion. Not with him will I ever experience that unforgettable communion I knew only once in my life, from a meeting of souls and true love--that immortal moment when Mr. Stevenson had his arms around me as he whispered his poetry into my ears.

So dear reader, I beseech you. Find him, and give him this message: Come back. I forgive you. Bring chocolate.

© Anna Tambour 2003.
This story is published here for the first time, and is reprinted in Anna's collection Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales & (Prime Books, 2003).

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