13. A Sneeze out of Season
I had occasion to smile - nay, to laugh, at madame again, within the space of four-and-
twenty hours after the little scene treated of in the last chapter.
Villette owns a climate as variable, though not so humid, as that of any English town. A
night of high wind followed upon that soft sunset, and all the next day was one of dry
storm - dark, be-clouded, yet rainless - the streets were dim with sand and dust, whirled
from the boulevards. I know not that even lovely weather would have tempted me to
spend the evening-time of study and recreation, where I had spent it yesterday. My alley,
and, indeed, all the walks and shrubs in the garden, had acquired a new, but not a pleasant
interest; their seclusion was now become precarious; their calm - insecure. That casement
which rained billets, had vulgarised the once dear nook it overlooked; and elsewhere, the
eyes of the flowers had gained vision, and the knots in the tree boles listened like secret
ears. Some plants there were, indeed, trodden down by Dr. John in his search, and his
hasty and heedless progress, which I wished to prop up, water, and revive; some foot-
marks, too, he had left on the beds: but these, in spite of the strong wind, I found a
moment's leisure to efface very early in the morning, ere common eyes had discovered
them. With a pensive sort of content, I sat down to my desk and my German, while the
pupils settled to their evening lessons, and the other teachers took up their needlework.
The scene of the 'étude du soir' was always the refectory, a much smaller apartment than
any of the three classes or school-rooms; for here none, save the boarders, were ever
admitted, and these numbered only a score. Two lamps hung from the ceiling over the
two tables; these were lit at dusk, and their kindling was the signal for school-books
being set aside, a grave demeanour assumed, general silence enforced, and then
commenced 'la lecture pieuse.' This said 'lecture pieuse' was, I soon found, mainly
designed as a wholesome mortification of the Intellect, a useful humiliation of the
Reason; and such a dose for Common Sense as she might digest at her leisure, and thrive
on as she best could.
The book brought out (it was never changed, but when finished, recommenced) was a
venerable volume, old as the hills - grey as the Hôtel de Ville.
I would have given two francs for the chance of getting that book once into my hands,
turning over the sacred yellow leaves, ascertaining the title, and perusing with my own
eyes the enormous figments which, as an unworthy heretic, it was only permitted me to
drink in with my bewildered ears. This book contained legends of the saints. Good God!
(I speak the words reverently) what legends they were. What gasconading rascals those
saints must have been, if they first boasted these exploits or invented these miracles.
These legends, however, were no more than monkish extravagances, over which one
laughed inwardly; there were, besides, priestly matters, and the priestcraft of the book
was far worse than its monkery. The ears burned on each side of my head as I listened,
perforce, to tales of moral martyrdom inflicted by Rome; the dread boasts of confessors,
who had wickedly abused their office, trampling to deep degradation high-born ladies,