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Villette

8. Madame Beck
Being delivered into the charge of the maîtresse, I was led through a long narrow passage
into a foreign kitchen, very clean but very strange. It seemed to contain no means of
cooking - neither fireplace nor oven; I did not understand that the great black furnace
which filled one corner, was an efficient substitute for these. Surely pride was not already
beginning its whispers in my heart; yet I felt a sense of relief when, instead of being left
in the kitchen, as I half anticipated, I was led forward to a small inner room termed a
'cabinet.' A cook in a jacket, a short petticoat and sabots, brought my supper: to wit -
some meat, nature unknown, served in an odd and acid, but pleasant sauce, some chopped
potatoes, made savoury with, I know not what: vinegar and sugar, I think: a tartine, or
slice of bread and butter, and a baked pear. Being hungry, I ate and was grateful.
After the 'Prière du Soir', Madame herself came to have another look at me. She desired
me to follow her upstairs. Through a series of the queerest little dormitories - which, I
heard afterwards, had once been nuns' cells: for the premises were in part of ancient date
- and through the oratory - a long, low, gloomy room, where a crucifix hung, pale, against
the wall, and two tapers kept dim vigils - she conducted me to an apartment where three
children were asleep in three tiny beds. A heated stove made the air of this room
oppressive; and, to mend matters, it was scented with an odour rather strong than
delicate: a perfume, indeed, altogether surprising and unexpected under the
circumstances, being like the combination of smoke with some spirituous essence - a
smell, in short, of whisky.
Beside a table, on which flared the remnant of a candle guttering to waste in the socket, a
coarse woman, heterogeneously clad in a broad striped showy silk dress, and a stuff
apron, sat in a chair fast asleep. To complete the picture, and leave no doubt as to the
state of matters, a bottle and an empty glass stood at the sleeping beauty's elbow.
Madame contemplated this remarkable tableau with great calm; she neither smiled nor
scowled: no impress of anger, disgust, or surprise, ruffled the equality of her grave
aspect; she did not even wake the woman. Serenely pointing to a fourth bed, she
intimated that it was to be mine; then, having extinguished the candle and substituted for
it a night-lamp, she glided through an inner door, which she left ajar - the entrance to her
own chamber, a large, well furnished apartment; as was discernible through the aperture.
My devotions that night were all thanksgiving. Strangely had I been led since morning -
unexpectedly had I been provided for. Scarcely could I believe that not forty-eight hours
had elapsed since I left London, under no other guardianship than that which protects the
passenger bird - with no prospect but the dubious cloud tracery of hope.
I was a light sleeper; in the dead of night I suddenly awoke. All was hushed but a white
figure stood in the room - Madam in her night-dress. Moving without perceptible sound,
she visited the three children in the three beds; she approached me: I feigned sleep, and
she studied me long. A small pantomime ensued, curious enough. I daresay she sat a
 
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