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15. The Long Vacation
Following Madame Beck's fête, with its three preceding weeks of relaxation, its brief
twelve hours' burst of hilarity and dissipation, and its one subsequent day of utter
languor, came a period of reaction; two months of real application, of close, hard study.
These two months, being the last of the 'année scolaire', were indeed the only genuine
working months in the year. To them was procrastinated - into them concentrated, alike
by professors, mistresses and pupils - the main burden of preparation for the
examinations preceding the distribution of prizes. Candidates for rewards had then to
work in good earnest; masters and teachers had to set their shoulders to the wheel, to urge
on the backward, and diligently aid and train the more promising. A showy
demonstration - a telling exhibition - must be got up for public view, and all means were
fair to this end.
I scarcely noted how the other teachers went to work; I had my own business to mind:
and my task was not the least onerous, being to imbue some ninety sets of brains with a
due tincture of what they considered a most complicated and difficult science, that of the
English language; and to drill ninety tongues in what, for them, was an almost impossible
pronunciation - the lisping and hissing dentals of the Isles.
The examination-day arrived. Awful day! Prepared for with anxious care, dressed for
with silent despatch - nothing vaporous or fluttering now - no white gauze or azure
streamers; the grave, close, compact was the order of the toilette. It seemed to me that I
was this day especially doomed - the main burden and trial falling on me alone of all the
female teachers. The others were not expected to examine in the studies they taught; the
professor of literature, M. Paul, taking upon himself this duty. He, this school-autocrat,
gathered all and sundry reins into the hollow of his one hand; he irefully rejected any
colleague; he would not have help. Madame herself; who evidently rather wished to
undertake the examination in geography - her favourite study, which she taught well -
was forced to succumb, and be subordinate to her despotic kinsman's direction. The
whole staff of instructors, male and female, he set aside, and stood on the examiner's
estrade alone. It irked him that he was forced to make one exception to this rule. He could
not manage English: he was obliged to leave that branch of education in the English
teacher's hands; which he did, not without a flash of naïve jealousy.
A constant crusade against the amour-propre of every human being but himself; was the
crotchet of this able, but fiery and grasping little man. He had a strong relish for public
representation in his own person, but an extreme abhorrence of the like display in any
other. He quelled, he kept down when he could; and when he could not, he fumed like a
bottled storm.
On the evening preceding the examination-day, I was walking in the garden, as were the
other teachers and all the boarders. M. Emanuel joined me in the 'allée défendue'; his
cigar was at his lips; his paletôt - a most characteristic garment of no particular shape -
hung dark and menacing; the tassel of his bonnet grec sternly shadowed his left temple;