At the moment when Manya, dulled by the tiresome journey, descended from the train to the smoky platform of the Gare du Nord, the familiar grip of servitude was suddenly loosened, her shoulders straightened, her lungs and heart felt at ease. For the first time she was breathing the air of a free country, and in her enthusiasm everything seemed miraculous: miraculous that the passers-by who loitered along the pavement spoke the language they wanted to speak, miraculous that the book-sellers sold works from the whole world without restraint. . . . Before and above everything else, it was miraculous that these straight avenues, inclined in a gentle slope toward the heart of the city, were leading her, Manya Sklodovska, to the wide-open doors of a university. And what a university! The most famous; the one described centuries ago as “an abridgement of the Universe”; the very one of which Luther had said: “It is in Paris that we find the most celebrated and most excellent of schools: it is called the Sorbonne.” The adventure was fit for a fairy tale. This slow, icy, disorderly omnibus was the enchanted carriage which took the poor fair princess from her modest lodging to the palace of her dreams.
The student seized her portfolio and gathered up the folds of her heavy woolen skirt. In her haste she carelessly bumped into one of her neighbours, and excused herself timidly, in hesitating French. Then, having leaped down the steps from the “imperial,” she was in the street, with intense face, running toward the iron gate of the palace.
This palace of wisdom offered a rather unexpected picture in 1891: the Sorbonne, which had been under reconstruction for six years, resembled some great python changing its skin. Behind the long new facade, still quite white, the worn buildings of Richelieu’s day rubbed shoulders with builders’ shanties resounding with the noise of the pick and shovel. This general hubbub put a picturesque disorder into student life. The courses migrated from one hall to another as the work advanced. Some temporary laboratories had to be installed in the unused old houses of the Rue Saint-Jacques. But what did such things matter? This year, as in other years, you could read on the white poster stuck on the wall near the porter’s lodge:
FACULTY OF SCIENCES FIRST QUARTER
COURSES WILL BEGIN AT THE SORBONNE ON NOVEMBER 3, 1891.
The magic, sparkling words! With the small amount of money she had saved, rouble by rouble, the girl had won the right to listen to such lessons, among the innumerable ones listed in the complicated schedule on the poster, as it would please her to choose. She had her place in the experimental laboratories, where, guided and advised, she could handle apparatus without fumbling and succeed in one simple experiments. Manya was now – oh, delight! – a student in the Faculty of Science.
In fact she was no longer called Manya, or even Marya: on her registration card she had written, in the French style, “Marie Sklodovska.” But as her fellow-students could not succeed in pronouncing the barbarous syllables of “Sklodovska,” and the little Polish girl gave nobody the right to call her Marie, she kept a sort of mysterious anonymity.