22. The Letter
When all was still in the house; when dinner was over and the noisy recreation hour past;
when darkness had set in, and the quiet lamp of study was lit in the refectory; when the
externes were gone home, the clashing door and clamorous bell hushed for the evening;
when Madame was safely settled in the salle-à-manger in company with her mother and
some friends; I then glided to the kitchen, begged a bougie for one half hour for a
particular occasion, found acceptance of my petition at the hands of my friend Goton,
who answered 'Mais certainement, chou-chou, vous en aurez deux, si vous voulez.' And,
light in hand, I mounted noiseless to the dormitory.
Great was my chagrin to find in that apartment a pupil gone to bed indisposed - greater
when I recognised amid the muslin nightcap borders, the 'figure chiffonnée' of Mistress
Ginevra Fanshawe; supine at this moment, it is true - but certain to wake and overwhelm
me with chatter when the interruption would be least acceptable: indeed, as I watched
her, a slight twinkling of the eyelids warned me that the present appearance of repose
might be but a ruse, assumed to cover sly vigilance over 'Timon's' movements; she was
not to be trusted. And I had so wished to be alone, just to read my precious letter in
Well, I must go to the classes. Having sought and found my prize in its casket, I
descended. Ill-luck pursued me. The classes were undergoing sweeping and purification
by candlelight according to hebdomadal custom: benches were piled on desks, the air was
dim with dust, damp coffee-grounds (used by Labassecourien housemaids instead of tea-
leaves) darkened the floor; all was hopeless confusion. Baffled, but not beaten, I
withdrew, bent as resolutely as ever on finding solitude somewhere.
Taking a key whereof I knew the repository, I mounted three staircases in succession,
reached a dark, narrow, silent landing, opened a worm-eaten door, and dived into the
deep, black, cold garret. Here none would follow me - none interrupt - not Madame
herself. I shut the garret door; I placed my light on a doddered and mouldy chest of
drawers; I put on a shawl, for the air was ice-cold; I took my letter, trembling with sweet
impatience, I broke its seal.
'Will it be long - will it be short?' thought I, passing my hand across my eyes to dissipate
the silvery dimness of a suave, south wind shower.
It was long.
'Will it be cool? - will it be kind?'
It was kind.
To my checked, bridled, disciplined expectation, it seemed very kind: to my longing and
famished thought it seemed, perhaps, kinder than it was.