Villette by Charlotte Bronte - HTML preview
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1. Bretton ........................................................................................................................... 3
2. Paulina ......................................................................................................................... 10
3. The Playmates ............................................................................................................. 16
4. Miss Marchmont ......................................................................................................... 32
6. London ......................................................................................................................... 42
7. Villette .......................................................................................................................... 51
8. Madame Beck .............................................................................................................. 59
9. Isidore........................................................................................................................... 70
10. Dr. John ..................................................................................................................... 79
11. The Portresse's Cabinet............................................................................................ 84
12. The Casket ................................................................................................................. 89
13. A Sneeze out of Season ............................................................................................. 97
14. The Fête.................................................................................................................... 105
15. The Long Vacation.................................................................................................. 128
16. Auld Lang Syne ....................................................................................................... 137
17. La Terrasse .............................................................................................................. 148
18. We Quarrel.............................................................................................................. 155
19. The Cleopatra.......................................................................................................... 161
20. The Concert ............................................................................................................. 171
21. Reaction ................................................................................................................... 187
22. The Letter ................................................................................................................ 201
23. Vashti ....................................................................................................................... 210
24. M. De Bassompierre................................................................................................ 221
25. The Little Countess................................................................................................. 232
26. A Burial.................................................................................................................... 244
27. The Hôtel Crécy ...................................................................................................... 256
28. The Watchguard ..................................................................................................... 269
29. Monsieur's Fête ....................................................................................................... 279
30. M. Paul ..................................................................................................................... 290
31. The Dryad................................................................................................................ 299
32. The First Letter....................................................................................................... 308
33. M. Paul Keeps His Promise.................................................................................... 316
34. Malevola................................................................................................................... 323
35. Fraternity................................................................................................................. 332
36. The Apple of Discord.............................................................................................. 343
37. Sunshine................................................................................................................... 354
38. Cloud ........................................................................................................................ 368
39. Old And New Acquaintance................................................................................... 386
40. The Happy Pair....................................................................................................... 394
41. Faubourg Clotilde ................................................................................................... 399
42. Finis.......................................................................................................................... 411
My godmother lived in a handsome house in the clean and ancient town of Bretton. Her husband's family had been residents there for generations, and bore, indeed, the name of their birth-place - Bretton of Bretton: whether by coincidence, or because some remote ancestor had been a personage of sufficient importance to leave his name to his neighbourhood, I know not.
When I was a girl I went to Bretton about twice a year, and well I liked the visit. The house and its inmates specially suited me. The large peaceful rooms, the well-arranged furniture, the clear wide windows, the balcony outside, looking down on a fine antique street, where Sundays and holidays seemed always to abide - so quiet was its atmosphere, so clean its pavement - these things pleased me well.
One child in a household of grown people is usually made very much of, and in a quiet way I was a good deal taken notice of by Mrs. Bretton, who had been left a widow, with one son, before I knew her; her husband, a physician, having died while she was yet a young and handsome woman.
She was not young, as I remember her, but she was still handsome, tall, well-made, and though dark for an Englishwoman, yet wearing always the clearness of health in her brunette cheeks, and its vivacity in a pair of fine, cheerful black eyes. People esteemed it a grievous pity that she had not conferred her complexion on her son, whose eyes were blue - though, even in boyhood, very piercing - and the colour of his long hair such as friends did not venture to specify, except as the sun shone on it, when they called it golden. He inherited the lines of his mother's features, however; also her good teeth, her stature (or the promise of her stature, for he was not yet full-grown), and, what was better, her health without flaw, and her spirits of that tone and equality which are better than a fortune to the possessor.
In the autumn of the year - I was staying at Bretton; my godmother having come in person to claim me of the kinsfolk with whom was at that time fixed my permanent residence. I believe she then plainly saw events coming, whose very shadow I scarce guessed; yet of which the faint suspicion sufficed to impart unsettled sadness, and made me glad to change scene and society.
Time always flowed smoothly for me at my godmother's side; not with tumultuous swiftness, but blandly, like the gliding of a full river through a plain. My visits to her resembled the sojourn of Christian and Hopeful beside a certain pleasant stream, with green trees on each bank, and meadows beautified with lilies all the year round.' The charm of variety there was not, nor the excitement of incident; but I liked peace so well, and sought stimulus so little, that when the latter came I almost felt it a disturbance, and wished rather it had still held aloof.
One day, a letter was received of which the contents evidently caused Mrs. Bretton surprise and some concern. I thought at first it was from home, and trembled, expecting I knew not what disastrous communication; to me, however, no reference was made, and the cloud seemed to pass.
The next day, on my return from a long walk, I found, as I entered my bedroom, an unexpected change. In addition to my own French bed in its shady recess, appeared in a corner a small crib, draped with white; and in addition to my mahogany chest of drawers, I saw a tiny rosewood chest. I stood still, gazed, and considered.'Of what are these things the signs and tokens?' I asked. The answer was obvious. 'A second guest is coming: Mrs. Bretton expects other visitors.'
On descending to dinner, explanations ensued. A little girl, I was told, would shortly be my companion: the daughter of a friend and distant relation of the late Dr. Bretton's. This little girl, it was added, had recently lost her mother; though indeed, Mrs. Bretton ere long subjoined, the loss was not so great as might at first appear. Mrs. Home (Home it seems was the name) had been a very pretty, but a giddy, careless woman, who had neglected her child, and disappointed and disheartened her husband. So far from congenial had the union proved, that separation at last ensued - separation by mutual consent, not after any legal process. Soon after this event, the lady having over-exerted herself at a ball, caught cold, took a fever, and died after a very brief illness. Her husband, naturally a man of very sensitive feelings, and shocked inexpressibly by too sudden communication of the news, could hardly, it seems, now be persuaded but that some over-severity on his part - some deficiency in patience and indulgence - had contributed to hasten her end. He had brooded over this idea till his spirits were seriously affected; the medical men insisted on travelling being tried as a remedy; and meanwhile, Mrs. Bretton had offered to take charge of his little girl. 'And I hope', added my godmother in conclusion, 'the child will not be like her mama; as silly and frivolous a little flirt as ever sensible man was weak enough to marry. For', said she, 'Mr. Home is a sensible man in his way, though not very practical: he is fond of science, and lives half his life in a laboratory trying experiments - a thing his butterfly wife could neither comprehend nor endure; and indeed', confessed my godmother, 'I should not have liked it myself.'
In answer to a question of mine, she further informed me that her late husband used to say, Mr. Home had derived this scientific turn from a maternal uncle, a French savant; for he came, it seems, of mixed French and Scottish origin, and had connections now living in France, of whom more than one wrote de before his name, and, called himself noble.
That same evening, at nine o'clock, a servant was despatched to meet the coach by which our little visitor was expected. Mrs. Bretton and I sat alone in the drawing-room waiting her coming; John Graham Bretton being absent on a visit to one of his school-fellows who lived in the country. My godmother read the evening paper while she waited; I sewed. It was a wet night; the rain lashed the panes, and the wind sounded angry and restless.'Poor child!' said Mrs. Bretton from time to time. 'What weather for her journey! I wish she were safe here.'
A little before ten the doorbell announced Warren's return. No sooner was the door opened than I ran down into the hall: there lay a trunk and some band-boxes, beside them stood a person like a nurse-girl, and at the foot of the staircase was Warren with a shawled bundle in his arms.'Is that the child?' I asked. 'Yes, miss.' I would have opened the shawl, and tried to get a peep at the face, but it was hastily turned from me to Warren's shoulder.
'Put me down, please', said a small voice when Warren opened the drawing-room door, 'and take off this shawl', continued the speaker, extracting with its minute hand the pin, and with a sort of fastidious haste doffing the clumsy wrapping. The creature which now appeared made a deft attempt to fold the shawl; but the drapery was much too heavy and large to be sustained or wielded by those hands and arms. 'Give it to Harriet, please', was the direction, 'and she can put it away.' This said, it turned and fixed its eyes on Mrs Bretton.'Come here, little dear', said that lady, 'Come and let me see if you are cold and damp: come and let me warm you at the fire.'
The child advanced promptly. Relieved of her wrapping, she appeared exceedingly tiny; but was a neat, completely-fashioned little figure, light, slight, and straight. Seated on my godmother's ample lap, she looked a mere doll; her neck, delicate as wax, her head of silky curls, increased, I thought, the resemblance.
Mrs. Bretton talked in little fond phrases as she chafed the child's hands, arms, and feet; first she was considered with a wistful gaze, but soon a smile answered her, Mrs. Bretton was not generally a caressing woman; even with her deeply-cherished son, her manner was rarely sentimental, often the reverse; but when this small stranger smiled at her, she kissed it, asking:'What is my little one's name?' 'Missy.' 'But besides Missy?' 'Polly, papa calls her.' 'Will Polly be content to live with me?' 'Not always; but till papa comes home. Papa is gone away.' She shook her head expressively. 'He will return to Polly, or send for her.' 'Will he, ma'am? Do you know he will?' 'I think so.' 'But Harriet thinks not: at least not for a long while. He is ill.' Her eyes filled. She drew her hands down from Mrs. Bretton's, and made a movement to leave her lap; it was at first resisted, but she said: 'Please, I wish to go: I can sit on a stool.'
She was allowed to slip down from the knee, and taking a footstool, she carried it to a corner where the shade was deep, and there seated herself. Mrs. Bretton, though a commanding, and in grave matters even a peremptory woman, was often passive in trifles: she allowed the child, her way. She said to me, 'Take no notice at present.' But I did take notice: I watched Polly rest her small elbow on her small knee, her head on her hand; I observed her draw a square-inch or two of pocket handkerchief from the dollpocket of her doll-skirt, and then I heard her weep. Other children in grief or pain cry aloud, without shame or restraint; but this being wept; the tiniest occasional sniff testified to her emotion. Mrs. Bretton did not hear it: which was quite as well. Ere long, a voice, issuing from the corner, demanded:'May the bell be rung for Harriet?' I rang; the nurse was summoned and came. 'Harriet, I must be put to bed', said her little mistress. 'You must ask where my bed is.' Harriet signified that she had already made that inquiry. 'Ask if you sleep with me, Harriet.' 'No, missy', said the nurse: 'You are to share this young lady's room', designating me. Missy did not leave her seat, but I saw her eyes seek me. After some minutes' silent scrutiny, she emerged from her corner. 'I wish you, ma'am, good night', said she to Mrs. Bretton; but she passed me mute. 'Good night, Polly', I said.
'No need to say good night, since we sleep in the same chamber'; was the reply with which she vanished from the drawing-room. We heard Harriet propose to carry her upstairs. 'No need', was again her answer - 'No need, no need:' and her small step toiled wearily up the staircase.
On going to bed an hour afterwards, I found her still wide awake. She had arranged her pillows so as to support her little person in a sitting posture; her hands, placed one within the other, rested quietly on the sheet, with an old-fashioned calm, most unchildlike. I abstained from speaking to her for some time, but just before extinguishing the light, I recommended her to lie down.'By and by', was the answer. 'But you will take cold, missy.'
She took some tiny article of raiment from the chair at her crib side, and with it covered her shoulders. I suffered her to do as she pleased. Listening awhile in the darkness, I was aware that she still wept - wept under restraint, quietly and cautiously.
On awaking with daylight, a trickling of water caught my ear. Behold! there she was risen and mounted on a stool near the wash-stand, with pains and difficulty inclining the ewer (which she could not lift) so as to pour its contents into the basin. It was curious to watch her as she washed and dressed, so small, busy, and noiseless. Evidently she was little accustomed to perform her own toilet; and the buttons, strings, hooks and eyes, offered difficulties which she encountered with a perseverance good to witness. She folded her nightdress, she smoothed the drapery of her couch quite neatly; withdrawing into a corner, where the sweep of the white curtain concealed her, she became still. I half rose, and advanced my head to see how she was occupied. On her knees, with her forehead bent on her hands, I perceived that she was praying.Her nurse tapped at the door. She started up. 'I am dressed, Harriet', said she: 'I have dressed myself, but I do not feel neat. Make me neat!' 'Why did you dress yourself, missy?' 'Hush! speak low, Harriet, for fear of waking the girl' (meaning me, who now lay with my eyes shut). 'I dressed myself to learn, against the time you leave me.'
'Do you want me to go?' 'When you are cross, I have many a time wanted you to go, but not now. Tie my sash straight; make my hair smooth, please.''Your sash is straight enough. What a particular little body you are!' 'It must be tied again. Please to tie it.' 'There, then. When I am gone you must get that young lady to dress you.' 'On no account.' 'Why? She is a very nice young lady. I hope you mean to behave prettily to her, missy, and not show your airs.' 'She shall dress me on no account.' 'Comical little thing!' 'You are not passing the comb straight through my hair, Harriet: the line will be crooked.' 'Ay, you are ill to please. Does that suit?' 'Pretty well. Where should I go now that I am dressed?' 'I will take you into the breakfast-room.' 'Come, then.' They proceeded to the door. She stopped. 'Oh! Harriet, I wish this was papa's house! I don't know these people.' 'Be a good child, missy.' 'I am good, but I ache here'; putting her hand to her heart, and moaning while she reiterated 'Papa! papa!' I roused myself and started up, to check this scene while it was yet within bounds. 'Say good morning to the young lady', dictated Harriet. She said 'good morning', and then followed her nurse from the room. Harriet temporarily left that same day, to go to her own friends, who lived in the neighbourhood.
On descending, I found Paulina (the child called herself Polly, but her full name was Paulina Mary) seated at the breakfast table, by Mrs. Bretton's side; a mug of milk stood before her, a morsel of bread filled her hand, which lay passive on the table-cloth: she was not eating.'How we shall conciliate this little creature', said Mrs. Bretton to me, 'I don't know: she tastes nothing, and, by her looks, she has not slept.' I expressed my confidence in the effects of time and kindness. 'If she were to take a fancy to anybody in the house, she would soon settle; but not till then', replied Mrs. Bretton.
Some days elapsed, and it appeared she was not likely to take much of a fancy to anybody in the house. She was not exactly naughty or wilful: she was far from disobedient; but an object less conducive to comfort - to tranquillity even - than she presented, it was scarcely possible to have before one's eyes. She moped: no grown person could have performed that uncheering business better; no furrowed face of adult exile, longing for Europe at Europe's antipodes, ever bore more legibly the signs of homesickness than did her infant visage. She seemed growing old and unearthly. I, Lucy Snowe, plead guiltless of that curse, an overheated and discursive imagination; but whenever, opening a room-door, I found her seated in a corner alone - her head on her pigmy hand - that room seemed to me not inhabited, but haunted.
And again, when of moonlight nights, on waking, I beheld her figure, white and conspicuous in its night-dress, kneeling upright in bed, and praying like some Catholic or Methodist enthusiast - some precocious fanatic or untimely saint - I scarcely know what thoughts I had; but they ran risk of being hardly more rational and healthy than that child's mind must have been.
I seldom caught a word of her prayers, for they were whispered low: sometimes, indeed, they were not whispered at all, but put up unuttered; such rare sentences as reached my ear still bore the burden, 'Papa; my dear papa!' This, I perceived, was a one-idea'd nature; betraying that monomaniac tendency I have ever thought the most unfortunate with which man or woman can be cursed.What might have been the end of this fretting, had it continued unchecked, can only be conjectured: it received, however, a sudden turn.
One afternoon Mrs. Bretton, coaxing her from her usual station in a corner, had lifted her into the window-seat, and, by way of occupying her attention, told her to watch the passengers and count how many ladies should go down the street in a given time. She had sat listlessly, hardly looking, and not counting, when - my eye being fixed on hers - I witnessed in its iris and pupil a startling transfiguration. These sudden, dangerous natures
- sensitive as they are called - offer many a curious spectacle to those whom a cooler temperament has secured from participation in their angular vagaries. The fixed and heavy gaze swum, trembled, then glittered in fire; the small overcast brow cleared; the trivial and dejected features lit up; the sad countenance vanished, and in its place appeared a sudden eagerness, an intense expectancy.
Like a bird or a shaft, or any other swift thing, she was gone from the room. How she got the house-door open I cannot tell; probably it might be ajar; perhaps Warren was in the way and obeyed her behest, which would be impetuous enough. I - watching calmly from the window - saw her, in her black frock and tiny braided apron (to pinafores she had an antipathy), dart half the length of the street; and, as I was on the point of turning, and quietly announcing to Mrs. Bretton that the child was run out mad, and ought instantly to be pursued, I saw her caught up, and rapt at once from my cool observation, and from the wondering stare of the passengers. A gentleman had done this good turn, and now, covering her with his cloak, advanced to restore her to the house whence he had seen her issue.I concluded he would leave her in a servant's charge and withdraw; but he entered: having tarried a little while below, he came upstairs.
His reception immediately explained that he was known to Mrs. Bretton. She recognised him; she greeted him, and yet she was fluttered, surprised, taken unawares. Her look and manner were even expostulatory; and in reply to these, rather than her words, he said,'I could not help it, madam: I found it impossible to leave the country without seeing with my own eyes how she settled.' 'But you will unsettle her.' 'I hope not. And how is papa's little Polly?' This question he addressed to Paulina, as he sat down and placed her gently on the ground before him. 'How is Polly's papa?' was the reply, as she leaned on his knee, and gazed up into his face.
It was not a noisy, not a wordy scene: for that I was thankful; but it was a scene of feeling, too brimful, and which, because the cup did not foam up high, or furiously overflow, only oppressed one the more. On all occasions of vehement, unrestrained expansion, a sense of disdain or ridicule comes to the weary spectator's relief; whereas I have ever felt most burdensome that sort of sensibility which bends of its own will, a giant slave under the sway of good sense.
Mr. Home was a stern-featured, perhaps I should rather say, a hard-featured man: his forehead was knotty, and his cheek-bones were marked and prominent. The character of his face was quite Scotch; but there was feeling in his eye, and emotion in his now agitated countenance. His northern accent in speaking harmonised with his physiognomy. He was at once proud-looking and homely-looking.He laid his hand on the child's uplifted head. She said: 'Kiss Polly.'
He kissed her. I wished she would utter some hysterical cry, so that I might get relief and be at ease. She made wonderfully little noise: she seemed to have got what she wanted - all she wanted - and to be in a trance of content. Neither in mien nor features was this creature like her sire, and yet she was of his strain: her mind had been filled from his, as the cup from the flagon.
Indisputably Mr. Home owned manly self-control, however he might secretly feel on some matters. 'Polly', he said, looking down on this little girl, 'go into the hall; you will see papa's greatcoat lying on a chair; put your hand into the pockets, you will find a pocket handkerchief; bring it to me.'
She obeyed; went and returned deftly and nimbly. He was talking to Mrs. Bretton when she came back, and she waited with the handkerchief in her hand. It was a picture, in its way, to see her, with her tiny stature and trim, neat shape, standing at his knee. Seeing that he continued to talk - apparently unconscious of her return - she took his hand, opened the unresisting fingers, insinuated into them the handkerchief, and closed them upon it one by one. He still seemed not to see or feel her; but by-and-by, he lifted her to his knee; she nestled against him, and though neither looked at or spoke to the other for an hour following, I suppose both were satisfied.During tea, the minute thing's movements and behaviour gave, as usual, full occupation to the eye. First she directed Warren, as he placed the chairs. 'Put papa's chair here, and mine near it, between papa and Mrs. Bretton: I must hand his tea.' She took her own seat, and beckoned with her hand to her father. 'Be near me, as if we were at home, papa.'
And again, as she intercepted his cup in passing, and stirred the sugar and put in the cream herself, 'I always did it for you at home, papa: nobody could do it as well, not even your own self.'
Throughout the meal she continued her attentions: rather absurd they were. The sugartongs were too wide for one of her hands, and she had to use both in wielding them; the weight of the silver cream-ewer, the bread and butter plates, the very cup and saucer tasked her insufficient strength and dexterity; but she would lift this, hand that, and luckily contrived through it all to break nothing. Candidly speaking, I thought her a little busy-body; but her father, blind like other parents, seemed perfectly content to let her wait on him, and even wonderfully soothed by her offices.
'She is my comfort!' he could not help saying to Mrs. Bretton. That lady had her own 'comfort' and nonpareil on a much larger scale, and for the moment, absent; so she sympathised with his foible.
This second 'comfort' came on the stage in the course of the evening. I knew this day had been fixed for his return, and was aware that Mrs. Bretton had been expecting him through all its hours. We were seated round the fire, after tea, when Graham joined our circle: I should rather say, broke it up - for, of course, his arrival made a bustle; and then, as Mr. Graham was fasting, there was refreshment to be provided. He and Mr. Home met as old acquaintance; of the little girl he took no notice for a time.
His meal over, and numerous questions from his mother answered, he turned from the table to the hearth. Opposite where he had placed himself was seated Mr. Home, and at his elbow, the child. When I say child I use an inappropriate and undescriptive term - a term suggesting any picture rather than that of the demure little person in a mourning frock and white chemisette, that might just have fitted a good-sized doll - perched now on a high chair beside a stand, whereon was her toy work-box of white varnished wood, and holding in her hands a shred of a handkerchief, which she was professing to hem, and at which she bored perseveringly with a needle, that in her fingers seemed almost a skewer, pricking herself ever and anon, marking the cambric with a track of minute red dots; occasionally starting when the perverse weapon - swerving from her control - inflicted a deeper stab than usual; but still silent, diligent, absorbed, womanly.
Graham was at that time a handsome, faithless-looking youth of sixteen. I say faithlesslooking, not because he was really of a very perfidious disposition, but because the epithet strikes me as proper to describe the fair, Celtic (not Saxon) character of his good looks; his waved light auburn hair, his supple symmetry, his smile frequent, and destitute neither of fascination nor of subtlety, (in no bad sense.) A spoiled, whimsical boy he was in those days.
'Mother', he said, after eyeing the little figure before him in silence for some time, and when the temporary absence of Mr. Home from the room relieved him from the halflaughing bashfulness, which was all he knew of timidity - 'Mother, I see a young lady in the present society to whom I have not been introduced.''Mr. Home's little girl, I suppose you mean', said his mother.
'Indeed, ma'am', replied her son, 'I consider your expression of the least ceremonious: Miss Home I should certainly have said, in venturing to speak of the gentlewoman to whom I allude.''Now, Graham, I will not have that child teased. Don't flatter yourself that I shall suffer you to make her your butt.'
'Miss Home', pursued Graham, undeterred by his mother's remonstrance, 'might I have the honour to introduce myself, since no one else seems willing to render you and me that service? Your slave, John Graham Bretton.'
She looked at him; he rose and bowed quite gravely. She deliberately put down thimble, scissors, work; descended with precaution from her perch and, curtsying with unspeakable seriousness, said, 'How do you do?'
'I have the honour to be in fair health, only in some measure fatigued with a hurried journey. I hope, ma'am, I see you well.'
'Tor-rer-ably well', was the ambitious reply of the little woman; and she now essayed to regain her former elevation, but finding this could not be done without some climbing and straining - a sacrifice of decorum not to be thought of - and being utterly disdainful of aid in the presence of a strange young gentleman, she relinquished the high chair for a low stool: towards that low stool Graham drew in his chair.'I hope, ma'am, the present residence, my mother's house, appears to you a convenient place of abode?' 'Not par-tic-er-er-ly: I want to go home.'
'A natural and laudable desire, ma'am; but one which, notwithstanding, I shall do my best to oppose. I reckon on being able to get out of you a little of that precious commodity called amusement, which mama and Mistress Snowe there fail to yield me.''I shall have to go with papa soon: I shall not stay long at your mother's.' 'Yes, yes; you will stay with me I am sure. I have a pony on which you shall ride, and no end of books with pictures to show you.' 'Are you going to live here now?' 'I am. Does that please you? Do you like me?' 'No.' 'Why?' 'I think you queer.' 'My face, ma'am?' 'Your face and all about you. You have long red hair.'
'Auburn hair, if you please: mama calls it auburn, or golden, and so do all her friends. But even with my "long red hair,"' (and he waved his mane with a sort of triumph - tawny he himself well knew that it was, and he was proud of the leonine hue) 'I cannot possibly be queerer than is your ladyship.''You call me queer?' 'Certainly.' (After a pause) 'I think I shall go to bed.' 'A little thing like you ought to have been in bed many hours since; but you probably sat up in the expectation of seeing me?' 'No, indeed.' 'You certainly wished to enjoy the pleasure of my society. You knew I was coming home, and would wait to have a look at me.' 'I sat up for papa, and not for you.' 'Very good, Miss Home. I am going to be a favourite: preferred before papa soon, I dare say.'
She wished Mrs. Bretton and myself good night; she seemed hesitating whether Graham's deserts entitled him to the same attention, when he caught her up with one hand, and with that one hand held her poised aloft above his head. She saw herself thus lifted up on high, in the glass over the fireplace. The suddenness, the freedom, the disrespect of the action were too much.
'For shame, Mr. Graham!' was her indignant cry, 'put me down!' - and when again on her feet, 'I wonder what you would think of me if I were to treat you in that way, lifting you with my hand' (raising that mighty member) 'as Warren lifts the little cat?'So saying, she departed.
3. The Playmates
Mr. Home stayed two days. During his visit he could not be prevailed on to go out: he sat all day long by the fireside, sometimes silent, sometimes receiving and answering Mrs. Bretton's chat, which was just of the proper sort for a man in his morbid mood - not oversympathetic, yet not too uncongenial; sensible, and even with a touch of the motherly - she was sufficiently his senior to be permitted this touch.
As to Paulina, the child was at once happy and mute, busy and watchful. Her father frequently lifted her to his knee; she would sit there till she felt or fancied he grew restless; then it was:'Papa, put me down; I shall tire you with my weight.'
And the mighty burden slid to the rug, and establishing itself on carpet or stool just at 'papa's' feet, the white work-box and the scarlet-speckled handkerchief came into play. This handkerchief it seems was intended as a keepsake for 'papa', and must be finished before his departure; consequently the demand on the sempstress's industry (she accomplished about a score of stitches in half an hour) was stringent.
The evening, by restoring Graham to the maternal roof (his days were passed at school), brought us an accession of animation - a quality not diminished by the nature of the scenes pretty sure to be enacted between him and Miss Paulina.A distant and haughty demeanour had been the result of the indignity put upon her the first evening of his arrival: her usual answer, when he addressed her, was: 'I can't attend to you; I have other things to think about.' Being implored to state what things: 'Business.'
Graham would endeavour to seduce her attention by opening his desk and displaying its multifarious contents: seals, bright sticks of wax, pen-knives, with a miscellany of engravings - some of them gaily coloured - which he had amassed from time to time. Nor was this powerful temptation wholly unavailing: her eyes, furtively raised from her work, cast many a peep towards the writing-table, rich in scattered pictures. An etching of a child playing with a Blenheim spaniel happened to flutter to the floor.'Pretty little dog!' said she, delighted.
Graham prudently took no notice. Ere long, stealing from her corner, she approached to examine the treasure more closely. The dog's great eyes and long ears, and the child's hat and feathers, were irresistible.'Nice picture!' was her favourable criticism. 'Well - you may have it', said Graham. She seemed to hesitate. The wish to possess was strong, but to accept would be a compromise of dignity. No. She put it down and turned away. 'You won't have it then, Polly?' 'I would rather not, thank you.' 'Shall I tell you what I will do with the picture if you refuse it?' She half turned to listen. 'Cut it into strips for lighting the taper.' 'No!' 'But I shall.' 'Please - don't.' Graham waxed inexorable on hearing the pleading tone; he took the scissors from his mother's work-casket. 'Here goes!' said he, making a menacing flourish. 'Right through Fido's head, and splitting little Harry's nose.' 'No! No! NO!' 'Then come to me. Come quickly, or it is done.' She hesitated, lingered, but complied. 'Now, will you have it?' he asked, as she stood before him. 'Please.' 'But I shall want payment.' 'How much?' 'A kiss.'
'Give the picture first into my hand.' Polly, as she said this, looked rather faithless in her turn. Graham gave it. She absconded a debtor, darted to her father, and took refuge on his knee. Graham rose in mimic wrath and followed. She buried her face in Mr. Home's waistcoat.'Papa - papa - send him away!' 'I'll not be sent away', said Graham. With face still averted, she held out her hand to keep him off. 'Then, I shall kiss the hand', said he; but that moment it became a miniature fist, and dealt him payment in a small coin that was not kisses.
Graham not failing in his way to be as wily as his little playmate - retreated apparently quite discomfited; he flung himself on a sofa, and resting his head against the cushion, lay like one in pain. Polly, finding him silent, presently peeped at him. His eyes and face were covered with his hands. She turned on her father's knee, and gazed at her foe anxiously and long. Graham groaned.'Papa, what is the matter?' she whispered. 'You had better ask him, Polly.' 'Is he hurt?' (groan second.) 'He makes a noise as if he were', said Mr. Home. 'Mother', suggested Graham, feebly, 'I think you had better send for the doctor. Oh my eye!' (renewed silence broken only by sighs from Graham.) 'If I were to become blind --?' suggested this last. His chastiser could not bear the suggestion. She was beside him directly. 'Let me see your eye: I did not mean to touch it, only your mouth; and I did not think I hit so very hard.' Silence answered her. Her features worked, 'I am sorry; I am sorry!' Then succeeded emotion, faltering, weeping. 'Have done trying that child, Graham', said Mrs. Bretton.
'It is all nonsense, my pet', cried Mr. Home. And Graham once more snatched her aloft, and she again punished him; and while she pulled his lion's locks, termed him:'The naughtiest, rudest, worst, untruest person that ever was.' On the morning of Mr. Home's departure, he and his daughter had some conversation in a window-recess by themselves; I heard part of it. 'Couldn't I pack my box and go with you, papa?' she whispered earnestly. He shook his head. 'Should I be a trouble to you?' 'Yes, Polly.' 'Because I am little?' 'Because you are little and tender. It is only great, strong people that should travel. But don't look sad, my little girl; it breaks my heart. Papa will soon come back to his Polly.' 'Indeed, indeed, I am not sad, scarcely at all.' 'Polly would be sorry to give papa pain; would she not?' 'Sorrier than sorry.' 'Then Polly must be cheerful: not cry at parting; not fret afterwards. She must look forward to meeting again, and try to be happy meanwhile. Can she do this?' 'She will try.' 'I see she will. Farewell, then. It is time to go.' 'Now? - just now?' 'Just now.' She held up quivering lips. Her father sobbed, but she, I remarked, did not. Having put her down, he shook hands with the rest present, and departed.
When the street-door closed, she dropped on her knees at a chair with a cry - 'Papa!' It was low and long; a sort of 'Why hast thou forsaken me?' During an ensuing space of some minutes, I perceived she endured agony. She went through, in that brief interval of her infant life, emotions such as some never feel; it was in her constitution: she would have more of such instants if she lived. Nobody spoke. Mrs. Bretton, being a mother, shed a tear or two. Graham, who was writing, lifted up his eyes and gazed at her. I, Lucy Snowe, was calm.
The little creature, thus left unharassed, did for herself what none other could do - contended with an intolerable feeling; and, ere long, in some degree, repressed it. That day she would accept solace from none; nor the next day: she grew more passive afterwards.
On the third evening, as she sat on the floor, worn and quiet, Graham, coming in, took her up gently, without a word. She did not resist: she rather nestled in his arms, as if weary. When he sat down, she laid her head against him; in a few minutes she slept; he carried her upstairs to bed. I was not surprised that, the next morning, the first thing she demanded was, 'Where is Mr. Graham?'
It happened that Graham was not coming to the breakfast-table; he had some exercises to write for that morning's class, and had requested his mother to send a cup of tea into the study. Polly volunteered to carry it: she must be busy about something, look after somebody. The cup was entrusted to her: for, if restless, she was also careful. As the study was opposite the breakfast-room, the doors facing across the passage, my eye followed her.'What are you doing?' she asked, pausing on the threshold. 'Writing', said Graham. 'Why don't you come to take breakfast with your mama?' 'Too busy.' 'Do you want any breakfast?' 'Of course.' 'There then.' And she deposited the cup on the carpet, like a jailer putting a prisoner's pitcher of water through his cell-door, and retreated. Presently she returned. 'What will you have besides tea - what to eat?' 'Anything good. Bring me something particularly nice; that's a kind little woman.' She came back to Mrs. Bretton. 'Please, ma'am, send your boy something good.' 'You shall choose for him, Polly; what shall my boy have?'
She selected a portion of whatever was best on the table, and, ere long, came back with a whispered request for some marmalade, which was not there. Having got it, however (for Mrs. Bretton refused the pair nothing), Graham was, shortly after heard lauding her to the skies, promising that, when he had a house of his own, she should be his housekeeper, and perhaps - if she showed any culinary genius - his cook; and, as she did not return, I went to look after her, I found Graham and her breakfasting tête-à-tête - she standing at his elbow, and sharing his fare: excepting the marmalade, which she delicately refused to touch; lest, I suppose, it should appear that she had procured it as much on her own account as his. She constantly evinced these nice perceptions and delicate instincts.
The league of acquaintanceship thus struck up was not hastily dissolved; on the contrary, it appeared that time and circumstances served rather to cement than loosen it. Illassimilated as the two were in age, sex, pursuits, &c., they somehow found a great deal to say to each other. As to Paulina, I observed that her little character never properly came out, except with young Bretton. As she got settled, and accustomed to the house, she proved tractable enough with Mrs. Bretton; but she would sit on a stool at that lady's feet all day long, learning her task, or sewing, or drawing figures with a pencil on a slate, and never kindling once to originality, or showing a single gleam of the peculiarities of her nature. I ceased to watch her under such circumstances: she was not interesting. But the moment Graham's knock sounded of an evening, a change occurred; she was instantly at the head of the staircase. Usually her welcome was a reprimand or a threat.'You have not wiped your shoes properly on the mat. I shall tell your mama.' 'Little busybody! Are you there?' 'Yes - and you can't reach me: I am higher up than you' (peeping between the rails of the banister; she could not look over them). 'Polly!' 'My dear boy!' (such was one of her terms for him, adopted in imitation of his mother.)
'I am fit to faint with fatigue', declared Graham, leaning against the passage-wall in seeming exhaustion. 'Dr. Digby' (the headmaster) 'has quite knocked me up with overwork. Just come down and help me to carry up my book.''Ah! you're cunning!' 'Not at all, Polly - it is positive fact. I'm as weak as a rush. Come down.' 'Your eyes are quiet like the cat's, but you'll spring.' 'Spring? Nothing of the kind: it isn't in me. Come down.' 'Perhaps I may - if you'll promise not to touch - not to snatch me up, and not to whirl me round.' 'I? I couldn't do it!' (sinking into a chair.) 'Then put the books down on the first step, and go three yards off.'
This being done, she descended warily, and not taking her eyes from the feeble Graham. Of course her approach always galvanised him to new and spasmodic life: the game of romps was sure to be exacted. Sometimes she would be angry; sometimes the matter was allowed to pass smoothly, and we could hear her say as she led him upstairs:'Now, my dear boy, come and take your tea - I am sure you must want something.'
It was sufficiently comical to observe her as she sat beside Graham, while he took that meal. In his absence she was a still personage, but with him the most officious, fidgety little body possible. I often wished she would mind her self and be tranquil; but no - herself was forgotten in him: he could not be sufficiently well waited on, nor carefully enough looked after; he was more than the Grand Turk in her estimation. She would gradually assemble the various plates before him, and, when one would suppose all he could possibly desire was within his reach, she would find out something else:
'Ma'am', she would whisper to Mrs. Bretton, 'perhaps your son would like a little cake - sweet cake, you know - there is some in there' (pointing to the side-board cupboard). Mrs. Bretton, as a rule, disapproved of sweet cake at tea, but still the request was urged, 'One little piece - only for him - as he goes to school: girls - such as me and Miss Snowe - don't need treats, but he would like it.'
Graham did like it very well, and almost always got it. To do him justice, he would have shared his prize with her to whom he owed it; but that was never allowed: to insist, was to ruffle her for the evening. To stand by his knee, and monopolise his talk and notice, was the reward she wanted - not a share of the cake.
With curious readiness did she adapt herself to such themes as interested him. One would have thought the child had no mind or life of her own, but must necessarily live, move, and have her being in another: now that her father was taken from her, she nestled to Graham, and seemed to feel by his feelings, to exist in his existence. She learned the names of all his school-fellows in a trice; she got by heart their characters as given from his lips: a single description of an individual seemed to suffice. She never forgot, or confused identities: she would talk with him the whole evening about people she had never seen, and appear completely to realise their aspect, manners, and dispositions. Some she learned to mimic: an under-master, who was an aversion of young Bretton's, had, it seems, some peculiarities, which she caught up in a moment from Graham's representation, and rehearsed for his amusement; this, however, Mrs. Bretton disapproved and forbade.The pair seldom quarrelled; yet once a rupture occurred, in which her feelings received a severe shock.
One day Graham, on the occasion of his birthday, had some friends - lads of his own age
- to dine with him. Paulina took much interest in the coming of these friends; she had frequently heard of them; they were amongst those of whom Graham oftenest spoke. After dinner, the young gentlemen were left by themselves in the dining-room, where they soon became very merry and made a good deal of noise. Chancing to pass through the hall, I found Paulina sitting alone on the lowest step of the staircase, her eyes fixed on the glossy panels of the dining-room door, where the reflection of the hall-lamp was shining; her little brow knit in anxious meditation.
'Nothing particular; only I wish that door was clear glass - that I might see through it. The boys seem very cheerful, and I want to go to them: I want to be with Graham, and watch his friends.''What hinders you from going?'
'I feel afraid: but may I try, do you think? May I knock at the door, and ask to be let in?' I thought perhaps they might not object to have her as a playmate, and therefore encouraged the attempt.She knocked - too faintly at first to be heard, but on a second essay the door unclosed; Graham's head appeared; he looked in high spirits but impatient. 'What do you want, you little monkey?' 'To come to you.'
'Do you indeed? As if I would be troubled with you! Away to mama and Mistress Snowe, and tell them to put you to bed.' The auburn head and bright flushed face, vanished; the door shut peremptorily. She was stunned.'Why does he speak so? He never spoke so before', she said in consternation. 'What have I done?' 'Nothing, Polly; but Graham is busy with his school friends.' 'And he likes them better than me! He turns me away now they are here!'
I had some thoughts of consoling her, and of improving the occasion by inculcating some of those maxims of philosophy whereof I had ever a tolerable stock ready for application. She stopped me, however, by putting her fingers in her ears at the first words I uttered, and then lying down on the mat with her face against the flags; nor could either Warren or the cook root her from that position: she was allowed to lie, therefore, till she chose to rise of her own accord.
Graham forgot his impatience the same evening, and would have accosted her as usual when his friends were gone, but she wrenched herself from his hand; her eye quite flashed; she would not bid him good-night; she would not look in his face. The next day he treated her with indifference, and she grew like a bit of marble. The day after, he teased her to know what was the matter; her lips would not unclose. Of course he could not feel real anger on his side: the match was too unequal in every way; he tried soothing and coaxing. 'Why was she angry? What had he done?' By-and-by tears answered him; he petted her and they were friends. But she was one on whom such incidents were not lost: I remarked that never after this rebuff did she seek him, or follow him, or in any way solicit his notice. I told her once to carry a book or some other article to Graham when he was shut up in his study.'I shall wait till he comes out', said she, proudly; 'I don't choose to give him the trouble of rising to open the door.'
Young Bretton had a favourite pony on which he often rode out; from the window she always watched his departure and return. It was her ambition to be permitted to have a ride round the courtyard on this pony; but far be it from her to ask such a favour. One day she descended to the yard to watch him dismount; as she leaned against the gate, the longing wish for the indulgence of a ride glittered in her eye.'Come, Polly, will you have a canter?' asked Graham, half carelessly. I suppose she thought he was too careless. 'No thank you', said she, turning away with the utmost coolness. 'You'd better'; pursued he. 'You will like it, I am sure.' 'Don't think I should care a fig about it', was the response. 'That is not true. You told Lucy Snowe you longed to have a ride.'
'Lucy Snowe is a tatter-box', I heard her say: (her imperfect articulation was the least precocious thing she had about her), and with this, she walked into the house. Graham coming in soon after, observed to his mother:
'Mama, I believe that creature is a changeling: she is a perfect cabinet of oddities; but I should be dull without her: she amuses me a great deal more than you or Lucy Snowe.'
'Miss Snowe', said Paulina to me once (she had now got into the habit of occasionally chatting with me when we were alone in our room at night), 'do you know on what day in the week I like Graham best?''How can I possibly know anything so strange? Is there one day out of the seven when he is otherwise than on the other six?' 'To be sure! Can't you see? Don't you know? I find him the most excellent on a Sunday; then we have him the whole day, and he is quiet, and, in the evening, so kind.'
This observation was not altogether groundless: going to church, &c., kept Graham quiet on the Sunday, and the evening he generally dedicated to a serene, though rather indolent sort of enjoyment by the parlour fireside. He would take possession of the couch, and then he would call Polly.
Graham was a boy not quite as other boys are; all his delight did not lie in action: he was capable of some intervals of contemplation; he could take a pleasure, too, in reading, nor was his selection of books wholly indiscriminate: there were glimmerings of characteristic preference and even of instinctive taste in the choice. He rarely, it is true, remarked on what he read, but I have seen him sit and think of it.
Polly being near him, kneeling on a little cushion or the carpet, a conversation would begin in murmurs, not inaudible, though subdued. I caught a snatch of their tenor now and then; and, in truth, some influence better and finer than that of every day, seemed to soothe Graham at such times into no ungentle mood.'Have you learned any hymns this week, Polly?' 'I have learned a very pretty one, four verses long. Shall I say it?' 'Speak nicely, then: don't be in a hurry.'
The hymn being rehearsed, or rather half-chanted, in a little singing voice, Graham would take exceptions at the manner, and proceed to give a lesson in recitation. She was quick in learning, apt in imitating; and, besides, her pleasure was to please Graham: she proved a ready scholar. To the hymn would succeed some reading - perhaps a chapter in the Bible; correction was seldom required here, for the child could read any simple narrative chapter very well; and, when the subject was such as she could understand and take an interest in, her expression and emphasis were something remarkable. Joseph cast into the pit; the calling of Samuel; Daniel in the lion's den; - these were favourite passages: of the first especially she seemed perfectly to feel the pathos.
'Poor Jacob!' she would sometimes say, with quivering lips. 'How he loved his son Joseph! As much', she once added - 'as much, Graham, as I love you: if you were to die' (and she re-opened the book, sought the verse, and read), 'I should "refuse to be comforted, and go down into the grave to your mourning."'
With these words she gathered Graham in her little arms, drawing his long-tressed head towards her. The action, I remember, struck me as strangely rash; exciting the feeling one might experience on seeing an animal dangerous by nature, and but half-tamed by art, too heedlessly fondled. Not that I feared Graham would hurt, or very roughly check her; but I thought she ran risk of incurring such a careless, impatient repulse, as would be worse almost to her than a blow. On the whole, however, these demonstrations were borne passively: sometimes even a sort of complacent wonder at her earnest partiality would smile not unkindly in his eyes. Once he said:'You like me almost as well as if you were my little sister, Polly.' 'Oh! I do like you', said she; 'I do like you very much.'
I was not long allowed the amusement of this study of character. She had scarcely been at Bretton two months, when a letter came from Mr. Home, signifying that he was now settled amongst his maternal kinsfolk on the Continent, that, as England was become wholly distasteful to him, he had no thoughts of returning thither, perhaps, for years; and that he wished his little girl to join him immediately.'I wonder how she will take this news?' said Mrs. Bretton, when she had read the letter. I wondered, too, and I took upon myself to communicate it.
Repairing to the drawing-room - in which calm and decorated apartment she was fond of being alone, and where she could be implicitly trusted, for she fingered nothing, or rather soiled nothing she fingered - I found her seated, like a little Odalisque, on a couch, half shaded by the drooping draperies of the window near. She seemed happy; all her appliances for occupation were about her; the white wood work-box, a shred or two of muslin, an end or two of ribbon, collected for conversion into doll-millinery. The doll, duly night-capped and night-gowned, lay in its cradle; she was rocking it to sleep, with an air of the most perfect faith in its possession of sentient and somnolent faculties; her eyes, at the same time, being engaged with a picture-book, which lay open on her lap.
'Miss Snowe', said she in a whisper, 'this is a wonderful book. Candace' - the doll, christened by Graham; for, indeed, its begrimed complexion gave it much of an Ethiopian aspect - 'Candace is asleep now, and I may tell you about it; only we must both speak low, lest she should waken. This book was given me by Graham; it tells about distant countries, a long, long way from England, which no traveller can reach without sailing thousands of miles over the sea. Wild men live in these countries, Miss Snowe, who wear clothes different from ours: indeed, some of them wear scarcely any clothes, for the sake of being cool, you know; for they have very hot weather. Here is a picture of thousands gathered in a desolate place - a plain, spread with sand - round a man in black, a good, good Englishman, a missionary, who is preaching to them under a palm-tree.' (She showed a little coloured cut to that effect.) 'And. here are pictures' (she went on) 'more stranger' (grammar was occasionally forgotten) 'than that. There is the wonderful Great Wall of China; here is a Chinese lady, with a foot littler than mine. There is a wild horse of Tartary; and here - most strange of all - is a land of ice and snow, without green fields, woods, or gardens. In this land, they found some mammoth bones: there are no mammoths now. You don't know what it was; but I can tell you, because Graham told me. A mighty, goblin creature, as high as this room, and as long as the hall; but not a fierce, flesh-eating thing, Graham thinks. He believes, if I met one in a forest, it would not kill me, unless I came quite in its way; when it would trample me down amongst the bushes, as I might tread on a grasshopper in a hay-field without knowing it.'Thus she rambled on. 'Polly', I interrupted, 'should you like to travel?'
'Not just yet', was the prudent answer; 'but perhaps in twenty years, when I am grown a woman, as tall as Mrs. Bretton, I may travel with Graham. We intend going to Switzerland, and climbing Mount Blanck; and some day we shall sail over to South America, and walk to the top of Kim - kim - borazo.''But how would you like to travel now, if your papa was with you?' Her reply - not given till after a pause - evinced one of those unexpected turns of temper peculiar to her:
'Where is the good of talking in that silly way?' said she. 'Why do you mention papa? What is papa to you? I was just beginning to be happy, and not think about him so much; and there it will be all to do over again!'
Her lip trembled. I hastened to disclose the fact of a letter having been received, and to mention the directions given that she and Harriet should immediately rejoin this dear papa. 'Now, Polly, are you not glad?' I added.She made no answer. She dropped her book, and ceased to rock her doll; she gazed at me with gravity and earnestness. 'Shall you not like to go to papa?'
'Of course', she said at last in that trenchant manner she usually employed in speaking to me; and which was quite different from that she used with Mrs. Bretton, and different again from the one dedicated to Graham. I wished to ascertain more of what she thought; but no: she would converse no more. Hastening to Mrs. Bretton, she questioned her, and received the confirmation of my news. The weight and importance of these tidings kept her perfectly serious the whole day. In the evening, at the moment Graham's entrance was heard below, I found her at my side. She began to arrange a locket-ribbon about my neck, she displaced and replaced the comb in my hair; while thus busied, Graham entered.'Tell him by-and-by', she whispered; 'tell him I am going.'
In the course of tea-time I made the desired communication. Graham, it chanced, was at that time greatly preoccupied about some school-prize, for which he was competing. The news had to be told twice before it took proper hold of his attention; and even then he dwelt on it but momently.'Polly going? What a pity! Dear little Mousie, I shall be sorry to lose her: she must come to us again, mama.' And hastily swallowing his tea, he took a candle and a small table to himself and his books, and was soon buried in study.
'Little Mousie' crept to his side, and lay down on the carpet at his feet, her face to the floor; mute and motionless she kept that post and position till bed-time. Once I saw Graham - wholly unconscious of her proximity - push her with his restless foot, She receded an inch or two. A minute after one little hand stole out from beneath her face, to which it had been pressed, and softly caressed the heedless foot. When summoned by her nurse she rose and departed very obediently, having bid us all a subdued good-night.
I will not say that I dreaded going to bed, an hour later; yet I certainly went with an unquiet anticipation that I should find that child in no peaceful sleep. The forewarning of my instinct was but fulfilled, when I discovered her, all cold and vigilant, perched like a white bird on the outside of the bed. I scarcely knew how to accost her; she was not to be managed like another child. She, however, accosted me. As I closed the door, and put the light on the dressing-table, she turned to me with these words:'I cannot, cannot sleep; and in this way I cannot, cannot live!' I asked what ailed her. 'Dedful miz-er-y!' said she, with her piteous lisp. 'Shall I call Mrs. Bretton?'
'That is downright silly', was her impatient reply; and, indeed, I well knew that if she had heard Mrs. Bretton's foot approach, she would have nestled quiet as a mouse under the bedclothes. While lavishing her eccentricities regardlessly before me - for whom she professed scarcely the semblance of affection - she never showed my godmother one glimpse of her inner self: for her, she was nothing but a docile, somewhat quaint little maiden. I examined her; her cheek was crimson; her dilated eye was both troubled and glowing, and painfully restless: in this state it was obvious she must not be left till morning. I guessed how the case stood.
'Would you like to bid Graham good-night again?' I asked. 'He is not gone to his room yet.'
I put her to bed. 'Will he forgive me this one time?' she asked as I undressed myself. I assured her that he would; that as yet he was by no means alienated; that she had only to be careful for the future.'There is no future', said she: 'I am going. Shall I ever, ever, see him again, after I leave England?'
I returned an encouraging response. The candle being extinguished, a still half-hour elapsed. I thought her asleep, when the little white shape once more lifted itself in the crib, and the small voice asked, 'Do you like Graham, Miss Snowe?''Like him! Yes, a little.' 'Only a little! Do you like him as I do?' 'I think not. No. Not as you do.' 'Do you like him much?' 'I told you I liked him a little. Where is the use of caring for him so very much? He is full of faults.' 'Is he?' 'All boys are.' 'More than girls?' 'Very likely. Wise people say it is folly to think anybody perfect; and as to likes and dislikes, we should be friendly to all, and worship none.' 'Are you a wise person?' 'I mean to try to be so. Go to sleep.' 'I cannot go to sleep. Have you no pain just here' (laying her elfish hand on her elfish breast), 'when you think you shall have to leave Graham; for your home is not here?'
'Surely, Polly', said I, 'you should not feel so much pain when you are very soon going to rejoin your father. Have you forgotten him? Do you no longer wish to be his little companion?'Dead silence succeeded this question. 'Child, lie down and sleep', I urged. 'My bed is cold', said she. 'I can't warm it.'
I saw the little thing shiver. 'Come to me', I said, wishing, yet scarcely hoping, that she would comply: for she was a most strange, capricious, little creature, and especially whimsical with me. She came, however, instantly, like a small ghost gliding over the carpet. I took her in. She was chill; I warmed her in my arms. She trembled nervously; I soothed her. Thus tranquilised and cherished she at last slumbered.
'A very unique child', thought I, as I viewed her sleeping countenance by the fitful moonlight, and cautiously and softly wiped her glittering eyelids and her wet cheeks with my handkerchief. 'How will she get through this world, or battle with this life? How will she bear the shocks and repulses, the humiliations and desolations, which books, and my own reason tell me are prepared for all flesh?'She departed the next day; trembling like a leaf when she took leave, but exercising selfcommand.
4. Miss Marchmont
On quitting Bretton, which I did a few weeks after Paulina's departure - little thinking then I was never again to visit it: never more to tread its calm old streets - I betook myself home, having been absent six months. It will be conjectured that I was of course glad to return to the bosom of my kindred. Well! the amiable conjecture does no harm, and may therefore be safely left uncontradicted. Far from saying nay, indeed, I will permit the reader to picture me, for the next eight years, as a bark slumbering through halcyon weather, in a harbour still as glass - the steersman stretched on the little deck, his face up to heaven, his eyes closed: buried, if you will, in a long prayer. A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?
Picture me then idle, basking, plump, and happy, stretched on a cushioned deck, warmed with constant sunshine, rocked by breezes indolently soft. However, it cannot be concealed that, in that case, I must somehow have fallen over-board, or that there must have been wreck at last. I too well remember a time - a long time, of cold, of danger, of contention. To this hour, when I have the nightmare, it repeats the rush and saltness of briny waves in my throat, and their icy pressure on my lungs. I even know there was a storm, and that not of one hour nor one day. For many days and nights neither sun nor stars appeared; we cast with our own hands the tackling out of the ship; a heavy tempest lay on us; all hope that we should be saved was taken away. In fine, the ship was lost, the crew perished.
As far as I recollect, I complained to no one about these troubles. Indeed, to whom could I complain? Of Mrs. Bretton I had long lost sight. Impediments, raised by others, had, years ago, come in the way of our intercourse, and cut it off. Besides, time had brought changes for her too: the handsome property of which she was left guardian for her son, and which had been chiefly invested in some joint-stock undertaking, had melted, it was said, to a fraction of its original amount. Graham, I learned from incidental rumours, had adopted a profession; both he and his mother were gone from Bretton, and were understood to be now in London. Thus, there remained no possibility of dependence on others; to myself alone could I look. I know not that I was of a self-reliant or active nature; but self-reliance and exertion were forced upon me by circumstances, as they are upon thousands besides; and when Miss Marchmont, a maiden lady of our neighbourhood, sent for me, I obeyed her behest, in the hope that she might assign me some task I could undertake.
Miss Marchmont was a woman of fortune, and lived in a handsome residence; but she was a rheumatic cripple, impotent, foot and hand, and had been so for twenty years. She always sat upstairs: her drawing-room adjoined her bedroom. I had often heard of Miss Marchmont, and of her peculiarities (she had the character of being very eccentric), but till now had never seen her. I found her a furrowed, grey-haired woman, grave with solitude, stern with long affliction, irritable also, and perhaps exacting. It seemed that a maid, or rather companion, who had waited on her for some years, was about to be married; and she, hearing of my bereaved lot, had sent for me, with the idea that I might supply this person's place. She made the proposal to me after tea, as she and I sat alone by her fireside.
'It will not be an easy life', said she candidly, 'for I require a good deal of attention, and you will be much confined; yet, perhaps, contrasted with the existence you have lately led, it may appear tolerable.'
I reflected. Of course it ought to appear tolerable, I argued inwardly; but somehow, by some strange fatality, it would not. To live here, in this close room, the watcher of suffering, sometimes, perhaps, the butt of temper, through all that was to come of my youth; while all that was gone had passed, to say the least, not blissfully - my heart sunk one moment, then it revived; for though I forced myself to realise evils, I think I was too prosaic to idealise, and consequently to exaggerate them.'My doubt is whether I should have strength for the undertaking', I observed. 'That is my own scruple', said she; 'for you look a worn-out creature.'
So I did. I saw myself in the glass, in my mourning-dress, a faded, hollow-eyed vision. Yet I thought little of the wan spectacle. The blight, I believed, was chiefly external: I still felt life at life's sources.'What else have you in view - anything?' 'Nothing clear as yet: but I may find something.' 'So you imagine: perhaps you are right. Try your own method, then; and if it does not succeed, test mine. The chance I have offered shall be left open to you for three months.'
This was kind. I told her so, and expressed my gratitude. While I was speaking, a paroxysm of pain came on. I ministered to her; made the necessary applications, according to her directions, and, by the time she was relieved, a sort of intimacy was already formed between us. I, for my part, had learned from the manner in which she bore this attack, that she was a firm, patient woman (patient under physical pain, though sometimes perhaps excitable under long mental canker); and she, from the good-will with which I succoured her, discovered that she could influence my sympathies (such as they were). She sent for me the next day; for five or six successive days she claimed my company. Closer acquaintance, while it developed both faults and eccentricities, opened, at the same time, a view of a character I could respect. Stern and even morose as she sometimes was, I could wait on her and sit beside her with that calm which always blesses us when we are sensible that our manners, presence, contact, please and soothe the persons we serve. Even when she scolded me - which she did, now and then, very tartly - it was in such a way as did not humiliate, and left no sting; it was rather like an irascible mother rating her daughter, than a harsh mistress lecturing a dependent: lecture, indeed, she could not, though she could occasionally storm. Moreover, a vein of reason ever ran through her passion: she was logical even when fierce. Ere long a growing sense of attachment began to present the thought of staying with her as companion in quite a new light; in another week I had agreed to remain.
Two hot, close rooms thus became my world; and a crippled old woman, my mistress, my friend, my all. Her service was my duty - her pain, my suffering - her relief, my hope - her anger, my punishment - her regard, my reward. I forgot that there were fields, woods, rivers, seas, an ever-changing sky outside the steam-dimmed lattice of this sick-chamber; I was almost content to forget it. All within me became narrowed to my lot. Tame and still by habit, disciplined by destiny, I demanded no walks in the fresh air; my appetite needed no more than the tiny messes served for the invalid. In addition she gave me the originality of her character to study: the steadiness of her virtues, I will add, the power of her passions, to admire, the truth of her feelings to trust. All these things she had, and for these things I clung to her.
For these things I would have crawled on with her for twenty years, if for twenty years longer her life of endurance had been protracted. But another decree was written. It seemed I must be stimulated into action. I must be goaded, driven, stung, forced to energy. My little morsel of human affection, which I prized as if It were a solid pearl, must melt in my fingers and slip thence like a dissolving hailstone. My small adopted duty must be snatched from my easily contented conscience. I had wanted to compromise with Fate: to escape occasional great agonies by submitting to a whole life of privation and small pains. Fate would not so be pacified; nor would Providence sanction this shrinking sloth and cowardly indolence.
One February night - I remember it well - there came a voice near Miss Marchmont's house, heard by every inmate, but translated, perhaps, only by one. After a calm winter, storms were ushering in the spring. I had put Miss Marchmont to bed; I sat at the fireside sewing. The wind was wailing at the windows: it had wailed all day; but, as night deepened, it took a new tone an accent keen, piercing, almost articulate to the ear; a plaint, piteous and disconsolate to the nerves, trilled in every gust.
'Oh, hush! hush!' I said in my disturbed mind, dropping my work, and making a vain effort to stop my ears against that subtle, searching cry. I had heard that very voice ere this, and compulsory observation had forced on me a theory as to what it boded. Three times in the course of my life, events had taught me that these strange accents in the storm - this restless, hopeless cry - denote a coming state of the atmosphere unpropitious to life. Epidemic diseases, I believed, were often heralded by a gasping, sobbing, tormented, long-lamenting east wind. Hence, I inferred, arose the legend of the Banshee. I fancied, too, I had noticed - but was not philosopher enough to know whether there was any connection between the circumstances - that we often at the same time hear of disturbed volcanic action in distant parts of the world; of rivers suddenly rushing above their banks; and of strange high tides flowing furiously in on low seacoasts. 'Our globe', I had said to myself, 'seems at such periods torn and disordered; the feeble amongst us wither in her distempered breath, rushing hot from steaming volcanoes.'
I listened, and trembled; Miss Marchmont slept. About midnight, the storm in one half hour fell to a dead calm. The fire, which had been burning dead, glowed up vividly. I felt the air change, and become keen. Raising blind and curtain, I looked out, and saw in the stars the keen sparkle of a sharp frost.Turning away, the object that met my eyes was Miss Marchmont awake, lifting her head from the pillow, and regarding me with unusual earnestness. 'Is it a fine night?' she asked. I replied in the affirmative.
'I thought so', she said; 'for I feel so strong, so well. Raise me. I feel young to-night', she continued; 'young, light-hearted, and happy. What if my complaint be about to take a turn, and I am yet destined to enjoy health? It would be a miracle!'
'And these are not the days of miracles', I thought to myself, and wondered to hear her talk so. She went on directing her conversation to the past, and seeming to recall its incidents, scenes, and personages with singular vividness.
'I love Memory to-night', she said: 'I prize her as my best friend. She is just now giving me a deep delight; she is bringing back to my heart, in warm and beautiful life, realities - not mere empty ideas - but what were once realities, and that I long, have thought decayed, dissolved, mixed in with grave-mould. I possess just now the hours, the thoughts, the hopes of my youth. I renew the love of my life - its only love - almost its only affection; for I am not a particularly good woman: I am not amiable. Yet I have had my feelings, strong and concentrated; and these feelings had their object; which, in its single self, was dear to me, as, to the majority of men and women, are all the unnumbered points on which they dissipate their regard. While I loved, and while I was loved, what an existence I enjoyed! What a glorious year I can recall - how bright it comes back to me! What a living spring - what a warm, glad summer - what soft moonlight, silvering the autumn evenings - what strength of hope under the ice-bound waters and frost-hoar fields of that year's winter! Through that year my heart lived with Frank's heart. O my noble Frank - my faithful Frank - my good Frank! so much better than myself - his standard in all things so much higher! This I can now see and say - if few women have suffered as I did in his loss, few have enjoyed what I did in his love. It was a far better kind of love than common; I had no doubts about it or him: it was such a love as honoured, protected, and elevated, no less than it gladdened her to whom it was given. Let me now ask, just at this moment, when my mind is so strangely clear, let me reflect why it was taken from me? For what crime was I condemned, after twelve months of bliss, to undergo thirty years of sorrow?'
'I do not know', she continued, after a pause: 'I cannot, cannot see the reason; yet at this hour I can say with sincerity, what I never tried to say before - Inscrutable God, Thy will be done! And at this moment I can believe that death will restore me to Frank. I never believed it till now.'
'He is dead, then?' I inquired in a low voice.
'My dear girl', she said, 'one happy Christmas Eve I dressed and decorated myself, expecting my lover, very soon to be my husband, would come that night to visit me. I sat down to wait. Once more I see that moment - I see the snow-twilight stealing through the window over which the curtain was not dropped, for I designed to watch him ride up the white walk; I see and feel the soft firelight warming me, playing on my silk dress, and fitfully showing me my own young figure in a glass. I see the moon of a calm winter night float full, clear and cold, over the inky mass of shrubbery, and the silvered turf of my grounds. I wait, with some impatience in my pulse, but no doubt in my breast. The flames had died in the fire, but it was a bright mass yet; the moon was mounting high, but she was still visible from the lattice; the clock neared ten; he rarely tarried later than this, but once or twice he had been delayed so long.
'Would he for once fail me? No - not even for once; and now he was coming and coming fast - to atone for lost time. 'Frank! you furious rider,' I said inwardly, listening gladly, yet anxiously, to his approaching gallop, 'you shall be rebuked for this: I will tell you it is my neck you are putting in peril; for whatever is yours is, in a dearer and tenderer sense, mine.' There he was: I saw him; but I think tears were in, my eyes; my sight was so confused. I saw the horse; I heard it stamp - I saw at least a mass; I heard a clamour. Was it a horse? or what heavy, dragging thing was it, crossing, strangely dark, the lawn? How could I name that thing in the moonlight before me? or how could I utter the feeling which rose in my soul?'I could only run out. A great animal - truly, Frank's black horse - stood trembling, panting, snorting before the door; a man held it: Frank, as I thought.
'"What is the matter?" I demanded. Thomas, my own servant, answered by saying sharply, "Go into the house, madam." And then calling to another servant, who came hurrying from the kitchen as if summoned by some instinct, "Ruth, take missis into the house directly." But I was kneeling down in the snow, beside something that lay there - something that I had seen dragged along the ground - something that sighed, that groaned on my breast, as I lifted and drew it to me. He was not dead; he was not quite unconscious. I had him carried in; I refused to be ordered about and thrust from him. I was quite collected enough, not only to be my own mistress, but the mistress of others. They had begun by trying to treat me like a child, as they always do with people struck by God's hand; but I gave place to none except the surgeon; and when he had done what he could, I took my dying Frank to myself. He had strength to fold me in his arms; he had power to speak my name; he heard me as I prayed over him very softly; he felt me as I tenderly and fondly comforted him.'"Maria," he said, "I am dying in Paradise." He spent his last breath in faithful words for me. When the dawn of Christmas morning broke, my Frank was with God.
'And that', she went on, 'happened thirty years ago. I have suffered since. I doubt if I have made the best use of all my calamities. Soft, amiable natures they would have refined to saintliness; of strong, evil spirits they would have made demons; as for me, I have only been a woe-struck and selfish woman.''You have done much good', I said; for she was noted for her liberal almsgiving.
'I have not withheld money, you mean, where it could assuage affliction. What of that? It cost me no effort or pang to give. But I think from this day I am about to enter a better frame of mind, to prepare myself for reunion with Frank. You see I still think of Frank more than of God; and unless it be counted that in thus loving the creature so much, so long, and so exclusively, I have not at least blasphemed the Creator, small is my chance of salvation. What do you think, Lucy, of these things? Be my chaplain and tell me.'This question I could not answer: I had no words. It seemed as if she thought I had answered it.
'Very right, my child. We should acknowledge God merciful, but not always for us comprehensible. We should accept our own lot whatever it be, and try to render happy that of others. Should we not? Well, to-morrow I will begin by trying to make you happy. I will endeavour to do something for you, Lucy: something that will benefit you when I am dead. My head aches now with talking too much; still I am happy. Go to bed. The clock strikes two. How late you sit up; or rather how late I, in my selfishness, keep you up. But go now; have no more anxiety for me: I feel I shall rest well.'
She composed herself as if to slumber. I, too, retired to my crib in a closet within her room. The night passed in quietness; quietly her doom must at last have come: peacefully and painlessly: in the morning she was found without life, nearly cold, but all calm and undisturbed. Her previous excitement of spirits and change of mood had been the prelude of a fit; one stroke sufficed to sever the thread of an existence so long fretted by affliction.
5. Turning a New Leaf
My mistress being dead, and I once more alone, I had to look out for a new place. About this time I might be a little - a very little - shaken in nerves. I grant I was not looking well, but, on the contrary, thin, haggard, and hollow-eyed; like a sitter-up at night, like an over-wrought servant, or a placeless person in debt. In debt, however, I was not; nor quite poor; for though Miss Marchmont had not had time to benefit me, as, on that last night, she said she intended, yet, after the funeral, my wages were duly paid by her second cousin, the heir, an avaricious-looking man, with pinched nose and narrow temples, who, indeed, I heard long afterwards, turned out a thorough miser: a direct contrast to his generous kinswoman, and a foil to her memory, blessed to this day by the poor and needy. The possessor, then, of fifteen pounds; of health, though worn, not broken, and of a spirit in similar condition; I might still, in comparison with many people, be regarded as occupying an enviable position. An embarrassing one it was, however, at the same time; as I felt with some acuteness on a certain day, of which the corresponding one in the next week was to see my departure from my present abode, while with another I was not provided.
In this dilemma I went, as a last and sole resource, to see and consult an old servant of our family; once my nurse, now housekeeper at a grand mansion not far from Miss Marchmont. I spent some hours with her; she comforted, but knew not how to advise me. Still all inward darkness, I left her about twilight; a walk of two miles lay before me; it was a clear, frosty night. In spite of my solitude, my poverty, and my perplexity, my heart, nourished and nerved with the vigour of a youth that had not yet counted twentythree summers, beat light and not feebly. Not feebly, I am sure, or I should have trembled in that lonely walk, which lay through still fields and passed neither village, nor farmhouse, nor cottage: I should have quailed in the absence of moonlight, for it was by the leading of stars only I traced the dim path; I should have quailed still more in the unwonted presence of that which to-night shone in the north, a moving mystery - the Aurora Borealis. But this solemn stranger influenced me otherwise than through my fears. Some new power it seemed to bring. I drew in energy with the keen, low breeze that blew on its path. A bold thought was sent to my mind; my mind was made strong to receive it.'Leave this wilderness', it was said to me, 'and go out hence.' 'Where?' was the query.
I had not very far to look; gazing from this country parish in that flat, rich middle of England - I mentally saw within reach what I had never yet beheld with my bodily eyes; I saw London.
The next day I returned to the hall, and asking once more to see the housekeeper, I communicated to her my plan.
Mrs. Barrett was a grave, judicious woman, though she knew little more of the world than myself; but grave and judicious as she was, she did not charge me with being out of my senses: and, indeed, I had a staid manner of my own which ere now had been as good to me as cloak and hood of hodden grey; since under its favour I had been enabled to achieve with impunity, and even approbation, deeds that, if attempted with an excited and unsettled air, would in some minds have stamped me as a dreamer and zealot.
The housekeeper was slowly propounding some difficulties, while she prepared orangerind for marmalade, when a child ran past the window and came bounding into the room. It was a pretty child, and as it danced, laughing, up to me - for we were not strangers (nor, indeed, was its mother - a young married daughter of the house - a stranger) - I took it on my knee. Different as were our social positions now, this child's mother and I had been schoolfellows, when I was a girl of ten and she a young lady of sixteen; and I remembered her - good-looking, but dull - in a lower class than mine.
I was admiring the boy's handsome dark eyes, when the mother, young Mrs. Leigh, entered. What a beautiful and kind-looking woman was the good-natured and comely, but unintellectual girl become! Wifehood and maternity had changed her thus, as I have since seen them change others even less promising than she. Me she had forgotten. I was changed too; though not, I fear, for the better. I made no attempt to recall myself to her memory: why should I? She came for her son to accompany her in a walk, and behind her followed a nurse, carrying an infant. I only mention the incident because, in addressing the nurse, Mrs. Leigh spoke French (very bad French, by the way, and with an incorrigibly bad accent, again forcibly reminding me of our schooldays): and I found the woman was a foreigner. The little boy chattered volubly in French too. When the whole party were withdrawn, Mrs. Barrett remarked that her young lady had brought that foreign nurse home with her two years ago, on her return from a Continental excursion; that she was treated almost as well as a governess, and had nothing to do but walk out with the baby and chatter French with Master Charles; 'and', added Mrs. Barrett, 'she says there are many Englishwomen in foreign families as well placed as she.'
I stored up this piece of casual information, as careful housewives store seemingly worthless shreds and fragments for which their prescient minds anticipate a possible use some day. Before I left my old friend, she gave me the address of a respectable oldfashioned inn in the city, which, she said, my uncles used to frequent in former days.
In going to London, I ran less risk and evinced less enterprise than the reader may think. In fact, the distance was only fifty miles. My means would suffice both to take me there, to keep me a few days, and also to bring me back if I found no inducement to stay. I regarded it as a brief holiday, permitted for once to work-weary faculties, rather than as an adventure of life and death. There is nothing like taking all you do at a moderate estimate: it keeps mind and body tranquil; whereas grandiloquent notions are apt to hurry both into fever.
Fifty miles were then a day's journey (for I speak of a time gone by: my hair, which, till a late period, withstood the frosts of time, lies now, at last white, under a white cap, like snow beneath snow). About nine o'clock of a wet February night I reached London.
My reader, I know, is one who would not thank me for an elaborate reproduction of poetic first impressions; and it is well, inasmuch as I had neither time nor mood to cherish such; arriving as I did late, on a dark, raw, and rainy evening, in a Babylon and a wilderness, of which the vastness and the strangeness tried to the utmost any powers of clear thought and steady self-possession with which, in the absence of more brilliant faculties, Nature might have gifted me.
When I left the coach, the strange speech of the cabmen and others waiting round, seemed to me odd as a foreign tongue. I had never before heard the English language chopped up in that way. However, I managed to understand and to be understood, so far as to get myself and trunk safely conveyed to the old inn whereof I had the address. How difficult, how oppressive, how puzzling seemed my flight! In London for the first time; at an inn for the first time; tired with travelling; confused with darkness; palsied with cold; unfurnished with either experience or advice to tell me how to act, and yet - to act obliged.
Into the hands of Common-sense I confided the matter. Common-sense, however, was as chilled and bewildered as all my other faculties, and it was only under the spur of an inexorable, necessity that she spasmodically executed her trust. Thus urged, she paid the porter; considering the crisis, I did not blame her too much that she was hugely cheated; she asked the waiter for a room; she timorously called for the chambermaid; what is far more, she bore, without being wholly overcome, a highly supercilious style of demeanour from that young lady, when she appeared.
I recollect this same chambermaid was a pattern of town prettiness and smartness. So trim her waist, her cap, her dress - I wondered how they had all been manufactured. Her speech had an accent which in its mincing glibness seemed to rebuke mine as by authority; her spruce attire flaunted an easy scorn to my plain country garb.'Well, it can't be helped', I thought, 'and then the scene is new, and the circumstances; I shall gain good.'
Maintaining a very quiet manner towards this arrogant little maid, and subsequently observing the same towards the parsonic-looking, black-coated, white-neckclothed waiter, I got civility from them ere long. I believe at first they thought I was a servant; but in a little while they changed their minds, and hovered in a doubtful state between patronage and politeness.
I kept up well till I had partaken of some refreshment, warmed myself by a fire, and was fairly shut into my room; but, as I sat down by the bed and rested my head and arms on the pillow, a terrible oppression overcame me. All at once my position rose on me like a ghost. Anomalous; desolate, almost blank of hope, it stood. What was I doing here alone in great London? What should I do on the morrow? What prospects had I in life? What friends had I on earth? Whence did I come? Whither should I go? What should I do?
I wet the pillow, my arms, and my hair, with rushing tears. A dark interval of most bitter thought followed this burst; but I did not regret the step taken, nor wish to retract it. A strong, vague persuasion that it was better to go forward than backward, and that I could go forward - that a way, however narrow and difficult, would in time open - predominated over other feelings: its influence hushed them so far, that at last I became sufficiently tranquil to be able to say my prayers and seek my couch. I had just extinguished my candle and lain down, when a deep, low, mighty tone swung through the night. At first I knew it not; but it was uttered twelve times, and at the twelfth colossal hum and trembling knell, I said: 'I lie in the shadow of St. Paul's.'
The next day was the first of March, and when I awoke, rose and opened my curtain, I saw the risen sun struggling through fog. Above my head, above the house-tops, coelevate almost with the clouds, I saw a solemn, orbed mass, dark-blue and dim - THE DOME. While I looked, my inner self moved: my spirit shook its always-fettered wings half loose; I had a sudden feeling as if I, who never yet truly lived, were at last about to taste life: in that morning my soul grew as fast as Jonah's gourd.
'I did well to come', I said, proceeding to dress with speed and care. 'I like the spirit of this great London which I feel around me. Who but a coward would pass his whole life in hamlets, and for ever abandon his faculties to the eating rust of obscurity?'
Being dressed, I went down; not travel-worn and exhausted, but tidy and refreshed. When the waiter came in with my breakfast, I managed to accost him sedately, yet cheerfully; we had ten minutes discourse, in the course of which we became usefully known to each other.
He was a grey-haired elderly man; and, it seemed, had lived in his present place twenty years. Having ascertained this, I was sure he must remember my two uncles, Charles and Wilmot, who, fifteen years ago, were frequent visitors here. I mentioned their names; he recalled them perfectly and with respect. Having intimated my connection, my position in his eyes was henceforth clear, and on a right footing. He said I was like my uncle Charles: I suppose he spoke truth, because Mrs. Barrett was accustomed to say the same thing. A ready and obliging courtesy now replaced his former uncomfortably doubtful manner: henceforth I need no longer be at a loss for a civil answer to a sensible question.
The street on which my little sitting-room window looked was narrow, perfectly quiet, and not dirty: the few passengers were just such as one sees in provincial towns: here was nothing formidable; I felt sure I might venture out alone.
Having breakfasted, out I went. Elation and pleasure were in my heart: to walk alone in London seemed of itself an adventure. Presently I found myself in Paternoster Row - classic ground this. I entered a bookseller's shop, kept by one Jones; I bought a little book
- a piece of extravagance I could ill afford; but I thought I would one day give or send it to Mrs. Barrett. Mr. Jones, a dried-in man of business, stood behind his desk; he seemed one of the greatest, and I one of the happiest, of beings.
Prodigious was the amount of life I lived that morning. Finding myself before St. Paul's, I went in; I mounted to the dome: I saw thence London, with its river, and its bridges, and its churches; I saw antique Westminster, and the green Temple Gardens, with sun upon them, and a glad, blue sky, of early spring above; and, between them and it, not too dense a cloud of haze.
Descending, I went wandering whither chance might lead, in a still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment; and I got - I know not how - I got into the heart of city life. I saw and felt London at last: I got into the Strand; I went up Cornhill; I mixed with the life passing along; I dared the perils of crossings. To do this, and to do it utterly alone, gave me, perhaps an irrational, but a real pleasure. Since those days I have seen the West-end, the parks, the fine squares, but I love the city far better. The city seems so much more in earnest: its business, its rush, its roar, are such serious things, sights and sounds. The city is getting its living - the West-end but enjoying its pleasure. At the West-end you may be amused, but in the city you are deeply excited.
Faint, at last, and hungry (it was years since I had felt such healthy hunger), I returned, about two o'clock, to my dark, old and quiet inn. I dined on two dishes - a plain joint and vegetables; both seemed excellent: how much better than the small, dainty messes Miss Marchmont's cook used to send up to my kind, dead mistress and me, and to the discussion of which we could not bring half an appetite between us! Delightfully tired, I lay down on three chairs for an hour (the room did not boast a sofa.) I slept, then I woke and thought for two hours.
My state of mind, and all accompanying circumstances, were just now such as most to favour the adoption of a new, resolute and daring - perhaps desperate - line of action. I had nothing to lose. Unutterable loathing of a desolate existence past, forbade return. If I failed in what I now designed to undertake, who, save myself would suffer? If I died far away from - home, I was going to say, but I had no home - from England, then, who would weep?
I might suffer; I was inured to suffering: death itself had not, I thought, those terrors for me which it has for the softly reared. I had, ere this, looked on the thought of death with a quiet eye. Prepared then for any consequences, I formed a project.
That same evening I obtained from my friend, the waiter, information respecting the sailing of vessels for a certain continental port, Boue-Marine. No time, I found, was to be lost: that very night I must take my berth. I might, indeed, have waited till the morning before going on board, but would not run the risk of being too late.
'Better take your berth at once, ma'am', counselled the waiter. I agreed with him, and having discharged my bill, and acknowledged my friend's services at a rate which I now know was princely, and which in his eyes must have seemed absurd - and indeed, while pocketing the cash, he smiled a faint smile which intimated his opinion of the donor's savoir-faire - he proceeded to call a coach. To the driver he also recommended me, giving at the same time an injunction about taking me, I think, to the wharf and not leaving me to the watermen; which that functionary promised to observe, but failed in keeping his promise. On the contrary, he offered me up as an oblation, served me as a dripping roast, making me alight in the midst of a throng of watermen.
This was an uncomfortable crisis. It was a dark night. The coachman instantly drove off as soon as he had got his fare; the watermen commenced a struggle for me and my trunk. Their oaths I hear at this moment: they shook my philosophy more than did the night, or the isolation, or the strangeness of the scene. One laid hands on my trunk. I looked on and waited quietly; but when another laid hands on me I spoke up, shook off his touch, stepped at once into a boat, desired austerely that the trunk should be placed beside me - 'Just there' - which was instantly done; for the owner of the boat I had chosen became now an ally: I was rowed off.
Black was the river as a torrent of ink: lights glanced on it from the piles of building round, ships rocked on its bosom. They rowed me up to several vessels; I read by lanternlight their names painted in great, white letters on a dark ground. The Ocean, the Phoenix, the Consort, the Dolphin, were passed in turns; but the Vivid was my ship, and it seemed she lay further down.
Down the sable flood we glided; I thought of the Styx, and of Charon rowing some solitary soul to the Land of Shades. Amidst the strange scene, with a chilly wind blowing in my face, and midnight-clouds dropping rain above my head; with two rude rowers for companions, whose insane oaths still tortured my ear, I asked myself if I was wretched or terrified. I was neither. Often in my life have I been far more so under comparatively safe circumstances. 'How is this?' said I. 'Methinks I am animated and alert, instead of being depressed and apprehensive?' I could not tell how it was.The Vivid started out, white and glaring, from the black night at last. 'Here you are!' said the waterman, and instantly demanded six shillings.
'You ask too much', I said. He drew off from the vessel and swore he would not embark me till I paid it. A young man, the steward as I found afterwards, was looking over the ship's side; he grinned a smile in anticipation of the coming contest; to disappoint him, I paid the money. Three times that afternoon I had given crowns where I should have given shillings; but I consoled myself with the reflection, 'It is the price of experience.''They've cheated you!' said the steward exultantly when I got on board. I answered phlegmatically that 'I knew it', and went below.
A stout, handsome and showy woman was in the ladies' cabin. I asked to be shown my berth; she looked hard at me, muttered something about it being unusual for passengers to come on board at that hour, and seemed disposed to be less than civil. What a face she had - so comely - so insolent and so selfish!'Now that I am on board, I shall certainly stay here', was my answer. 'I will trouble you to show me my berth.'
She complied, but sullenly. I took off my bonnet, arranged my things, and lay down. Some difficulties had been passed through; a sort of victory was won: my homeless, anchorless, unsupported mind had again leisure for a brief repose: till the Vivid arrived in harbour, no further action would be required of me; but then. . . . Oh! I could not look forward. Harassed, exhausted, I lay in a half-trance.
The stewardess talked all night; not to me but to the young steward, her son and her very picture. He passed in and out of the cabin continually: they disputed, they quarrelled, they made it up again twenty times in the course of the night. She professed to be writing a letter home - she said to her father; she read passages of it aloud, heeding me no more than a stock - perhaps she believed me asleep: several of these passages appeared to comprise family secrets, and bore special reference to one 'Charlotte', a younger sister who, from the bearing of the epistle, seemed to be on the brink of perpetrating a romantic and imprudent match; loud was the protest of this elder lady against the distasteful union. The dutiful son laughed his mother's correspondence to scorn. She defended it, and raved at him. They were a strange pair. She might be thirty-nine or forty, and was buxom and blooming as a girl of twenty. Hard, loud, vain and vulgar, her mind and body alike seemed brazen and imperishable. I should think, from her childhood, she must have lived in public stations; and in her youth might very likely have been a bar-maid.
Towards morning her discourse ran on a new theme: 'the Watsons', a certain expected family-party of passengers, known to her, it appeared, and by her much esteemed on account of the handsome profit realised in their fees. She said, 'it was as good as a little fortune to her whenever this family crossed.'
At dawn all were astir, and by sunrise the passengers came on board. Boisterous was the welcome given by the stewardess to the 'Watsons', and great was the bustle made in their honour. They were four in number, two males and two females. Besides them, there was but one other passenger - a young lady, whom a gentlemanly, though languid-looking man escorted. The two groups offered a marked contrast. The Watsons were doubtless rich people, for they had the confidence of conscious wealth in their bearing; the women - youthful both of them, and one perfectly handsome, as far as physical beauty went - were dressed richly, gaily, and absurdly out of character for the circumstances. Their bonnets - with bright flowers - their velvet cloaks and silk dresses seemed better suited for park or promenade than for a damp packet deck. The men were of low stature, plain, fat and vulgar; the oldest, plainest, greasiest, broadest, I soon found was the husband - the bridegroom I suppose, for she was very young - of the beautiful girl. Deep was my amazement at this discovery; and deeper still when I perceived that, instead of being desperately wretched in such a union, she was gay even to giddiness. 'Her laughter', I reflected, 'must be the mere frenzy of despair.' And even while this thought was crossing my mind, as I stood leaning quiet and solitary against the ship's side, she came tripping up to me, an utter stranger, with a camp stool in her hand, and smiling a smile of which the levity puzzled and startled me, though it showed a perfect set of perfect teeth, she offered me the accommodation of this piece of furniture. I declined it of course, with all the courtesy I could put into my manner; she danced off heedless and lightsome. She must have been good-natured; but what had made her marry that individual, who was at least as much like an oil-barrel as a man?
The other lady-passenger, with the gentleman companion, was quite a girl - pretty and fair: her simple print dress, untrimmed straw bonnet and large shawl, gracefully worn, formed a costume plain to quakerism: yet, for her, becoming enough. Before the gentleman quitted her, I observed him throwing a glance of scrutiny over all the passengers, as if to ascertain in what company his charge would be left. With a most dissatisfied air did his eye turn from the ladies with the gay flowers; he looked at me, and then he spoke to his daughter, niece, or whatever she was: she also glanced in my direction, and slightly curled her short, pretty lip. It might be myself or it might be my homely mourning habit, that elicited this mark of contempt; more likely, both. A bell rang; her father (I afterwards knew that it was her father) kissed her, and returned to land. The packet sailed.
Foreigners say that it is only English girls who can thus be trusted to travel alone, and deep is their wonder at the daring confidence of English parents and guardians. As for the 'jeunes Miss', by some their intrepidity is pronounced masculine and 'inconvenant', others regard them as the passive victims of an educational and theological system which wantonly dispenses with proper 'surveillance.' Whether this particular young lady was of the sort that can the most safely be left unwatched, I do not know: or rather did not then know; but it soon appeared that the dignity of solitude was not to her taste. She paced the deck once or twice backwards and forwards; she looked with a little sour air of disdain at the flaunting silks and velvets, and the bears which thereon danced attendance, and eventually she approached me and spoke.'Are you fond of a sea voyage?' was her question. I explained that my fondness for a sea voyage had yet to undergo the test of experience; I had never made one.
'Oh, how charming!' cried she. 'I quite envy you the novelty: first impressions, you know, are so pleasant. Now I have made so many, I quite forget the first: I am quite blasée about the sea and all that.'I could not help smiling. 'Why do you laugh at me?' she inquired, with a frank testiness that pleased me better than her other talk. 'Because you are so young to be blasée about anything.' 'I am seventeen' (a little piqued.) 'You hardly look sixteen. Do you like travelling alone?' 'Bah! I care nothing about it. I have crossed the Channel ten times, alone; but then I take care never to be long alone; I always make friends.'
'You will scarcely make many friends this voyage, I think' (glancing at the Watson group, who were now laughing and making a great deal of noise on deck).
'Not of those odious men and women', said she: 'such people should be steerage passengers. Are you going to school?'
'I am going to school. Oh, the number of foreign schools I have been at in my life! And yet I am quite an ignoramus. I know nothing - nothing in the world - I assure you; except that I play and dance beautifully - and French and German of course I know, to speak; but I can't read or write them very well. Do you know they wanted me to translate a page of an easy German book into English the other day, and I couldn't do it. Papa was so mortified: he says it looks as if M. de Bassompierre - my god-papa, who pays all my school-bills - had thrown away all his money. And then, in matters of information - in history, geography, arithmetic, and so on, I am quite a baby; and I write English so badly
- such spelling and grammar, they tell me. Into the bargain I have quite forgotten my religion; they call me a Protestant, you know, but really I am not sure whether I am one or not: I don't well know the difference between Romanism and Protestantism. However, I don't the least care for that. I was a Lutheran once at Bonn - dear Bonn! charming Bonn!
- where there were so many handsome students. Every nice girl in our school had an admirer; they knew our hours for walking out, and almost always passed us on the promenade: "Schönes Maädchen," we used to hear them say. I was excessively happy at Bonn!'
Now, Miss Ginevra Fanshawe (such was this young person's name) only substituted this word 'chose' in temporary oblivion of the real name. It was a habit she had: 'chose' came in at every turn in her conversation - the convenient substitute for any missing word in any language she might chance at the time to be speaking. French girls often do the like; from them she caught the custom. 'Chose', however, I found in this instance, stood for Villette - the great capital of the great kingdom of Labassecour.'Do you like Villette?' I asked. 'Pretty well. The natives, you know, are intensely stupid and vulgar; but there are some nice English families.' 'Are you in a school?' 'Yes.' 'A good one?'
'Oh no! horrid: but I go out every Sunday, and care nothing about the maîtresses or the professeurs, or the élèves, and send lessons au diable; (one daren't say that in English, you know, but it sounds quite right in French), and thus I get on charmingly. . . . You are laughing at me again?''No - I am only smiling at my own thoughts.' 'What are they?' (without waiting for an answer) - 'Now, do tell me where you are going.' 'Where Fate may lead me. My business is to earn a living where I can find it.' 'To earn!' (in consternation) 'are you poor, then?' 'As poor as Job.'
(After a pause) 'Bah! how unpleasant! But I know what it is to be poor: they are poor enough at home - papa and mamma, and all of them. Papa is called Captain Fanshawe; he is an officer on half-pay, but well descended, and some of our connections are great enough; but my uncle and god-papa De Bassompierre, who lives in France, is the only one that helps us: he educates us girls. I have five sisters and three brothers. By-and-by we are to marry - rather elderly gentlemen, I suppose, with cash: papa and mamma manage that. My sister Augusta is married now to a man much older looking than papa. Augusta is very beautiful - not in my style - but dark; her husband, Mr. Davies, had the yellow fever in India, and he is still the colour of a guinea; but then he is rich, and Augusta has her carriage and establishment, and we all think she has done perfectly well. Now, this is better than "earning a living," as you say. By the way, are you clever?''No - not at all.' 'You can play, sing, speak three or four languages?' 'By no means.' 'Still I think you are clever' (a pause and a yawn). 'Shall you be sea-sick?' 'Shall you?'
'Oh, immensely! as soon as ever we get in sight of the sea: I begin, indeed, to feel it already. I shall go below; and won't I order about that fat odious stewardess. Heureusement je sais faire aller mon monde.' Down she went.
It was not long before the other passengers followed her: throughout the afternoon I remained on deck alone. When I recall the tranquil, and even happy mood in which I passed those hours, and remember, at the same time, the position in which I was placed: its hazardous - some would have said its hopeless - character; I feel that, as:
so peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long, especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star.
I was not sick till long after we passed Margate, and deep was the pleasure I drank in with the sea-breeze; divine the delight I drew from the heaving channel-waves, from the sea-birds on their ridges, from the white sails on their dark distance, from the quiet yet beclouded sky, overhanging all. In my reverie, methought I saw the continent of Europe, like a wide dream-land, far away. Sunshine lay on it, making the long coast one line of gold; tiniest tracery of clustered town and snow-gleaming tower, of woods deep-massed, of heights serrated, of smooth pasturage and veiny stream, embossed the metal-bright prospect. For background, spread a sky, solemn and dark-blue, and - grand with imperial promise, soft with tints of enchantment - strode from north to south a God-bent bow, an arch of hope.Cancel the whole of that, if you please, reader - or rather let it stand, and draw thence a moral - an alliterative, text-hand copy: 'Day-dreams are delusions of the demon.' Becoming excessively sick, I faltered down into the cabin.
Miss Fanshawe's berth chanced to be next mine; and, I am sorry to say, she tormented me with an unsparing selfishness during the whole time of our mutual distress. Nothing could exceed her impatience and fretfulness. The Watsons, who were very sick too, and on whom the stewardess attended with shameless partiality, were stoics compared with her. Many a time since have I noticed, in persons of Ginevra Fanshawe's light, careless temperament, and fair, fragile style of beauty, an entire incapacity to endure: they seem to sour in adversity, like small-beer in thunder: the man who takes such a woman for his wife, ought to be prepared to guarantee her an existence all sunshine. Indignant at last with her teasing peevishness, I curtly requested her 'to hold her tongue.' The rebuff did her good, and it was observable that she liked me no worse for it.
As dark night drew on, the sea roughened: larger waves swayed strong against the vessel's side. It was strange to reflect that blackness and water were round us, and to feel the ship ploughing straight on her pathless way, despite noise, billow and rising gale. Articles of furniture began to fall about, and it became needful to lash them to their places; the passengers grew sicker than ever; Miss Fanshawe declared, with groans, that she must die.'Not just yet, honey', said the stewardess. 'We're just in port.' Accordingly, in another quarter of an hour, a calm fell upon us all; and about midnight the voyage ended.
I was sorry: yes, I was sorry. My resting time was past; my difficulties - my stringent difficulties - recommenced. When I went on deck, the cold air and black scowl of the night seemed to rebuke me for my presumption in being where I was: the lights of the foreign sea-port town, glimmering round the foreign harbour, met me like unnumbered threatening eyes. Friends came on board to welcome the Watsons; a whole family of friends surrounded and bore away Miss Fanshawe; I - but I dared not for one moment dwell on a comparison of positions.
Yet where should I go? I must go somewhere. Necessity dare not be nice. As I gave the stewardess her fee - and she seemed surprised at receiving a coin of more value than, from such a quarter, her coarse calculations had probably reckoned on - I said:'Be kind enough to direct me to some quiet, respectable inn, where I can go for the night.' She not only gave me the required direction, but called a commissionaire, and bid him take charge of me, and - not my trunk, for that was gone to the custom-house.
I followed this man along a rudely-paved street, lit now by a fitful gleam of moonlight; he brought me to the inn. I offered him sixpence, which he refused to take; supposing it not enough, I changed it for a shilling; but this also he declined, speaking rather sharply, in a language to me unknown. A waiter, coming forward into the lamp-lit inn-passage, reminded me, in broken English, that my money was foreign money, not current here. I gave him a sovereign to change. This little matter settled, I asked for a bedroom; supper I could not take; I was still sea-sick and unnerved, and trembling all over. How deeply glad I was when the door of a very small chamber at length closed on me and my exhaustion. Again I might rest: though the cloud of doubt would be as thick to-morrow as ever; the necessity for exertion more urgent, the peril (of destitution) nearer, the conflict (for existence) more severe.
7. VilletteI awoke next morning with courage revived and spirits refreshed: physical debility no longer enervated my judgment; my mind felt prompt and clear. Just as I finished dressing, a tap came to the door; I said, 'Come in', expecting the chambermaid, whereas a rough man walked in and said: 'Gif me your keys, Meess.' 'Why?' I asked. 'Gif!' said he impatiently; and as he half-snatched them from my hand, he added, 'All right! haf your tronc soon.' Fortunately it did turn out all right: he was from the custom-house. Where to go to get some breakfast I could not tell; but I proceeded, not without hesitation, to descend.
I now observed, what I had not noticed in my extreme weariness last night, viz., that this inn was, in fact, a large hotel; and as I slowly descended the broad staircase, halting on each step (for I was in wonderfully little haste to get down), I gazed at the high ceiling above me, at the painted walls around, at the wide windows which filled the house with light, at the veined marble I trod (for the steps were all of marble, though uncarpeted and not very clean), and contrasting all this with the dimensions of the closet assigned to me as a chamber, with the extreme modesty of its appointments, I fell into a philosophising mood.
Much I marvelled at the sagacity evinced by waiters and chambermaids in proportioning the accommodation to the guest. How could inn-servants and ship-stewardesses everywhere tell at a glance that, I for instance, was an individual of no social significance and little burdened by cash? They did know it evidently: I saw quite well that they all, in a moment's calculation, estimated me at about the same fractional value. The fact seemed to me curious and pregnant; I would not disguise from myself what it indicated, yet managed to keep up my spirits pretty well under its pressure.
Having at last landed in a great hall, full of skylight glare, I made my way somehow to what proved to be the coffee-room. It cannot be denied that on entering this room I trembled somewhat; felt uncertain, solitary, wretched; wished to Heaven I knew whether I was doing right or wrong; felt convinced it was the last, but could not help myself. Acting in the spirit and with the calm of a fatalist, I sat down at a small table, to which a waiter presently brought me some breakfast; and I partook of that meal in a frame of mind not greatly calculated to favour digestion. There were many other people breakfasting at other tables in the room; I should have felt rather more happy if amongst them all I could have seen any women; however, there was not one - all present were men. But nobody seemed to think I was doing anything strange; one or two gentlemen glanced at me occasionally, but none stared obtrusively; I suppose if there was anything eccentric in the business, they accounted for it by this word 'Anglaise!'
Breakfast over, I must again move - in what direction? 'Go to Villette', said an inward voice; prompted doubtless by the recollection of this slight sentence uttered carelessly and at random by Miss Fanshawe, as she bid me goodbye:'I wish you would come to Madame Beck's; she has some marmots whom you might look after: she wants an English gouvernante, or was wanting one two months ago.'
Who Madame Beck was, where she lived, I knew not; I had asked, but the question passed unheard: Miss Fanshawe, hurried away by her friends, left it unanswered. I presumed Villette to be her residence - to Villette I would go. The distance was forty miles. I knew I was catching at straws; but in the wide and weltering deep where I found myself I would have caught at cobwebs. Having inquired about the means of travelling to Villette, and secured a seat in the diligence, I departed on the strength of this outline - this shadow of a project. Before you pronounce on the rashness of the proceeding, reader, look back to the point whence I started; consider the desert I had left, note how little I perilled: mine was the game where the player cannot lose and may win.
Of an artistic temperament, I deny that I am; yet I must possess something of the artist's faculty of making the most of present pleasure: that is to say, when it is of the kind to my taste; I enjoyed that day, though we travelled slowly, though it was cold, though it rained. Somewhat bare, flat, and treeless was the route along which our journey lay; and slimy canals crept, like half-torpid green snakes, beside the road; and formal pollard willows edged level fields, tilled like kitchen-garden beds. The sky too was monotonously grey; the atmosphere was stagnant and humid; yet amidst all these deadening influences, my fancy budded fresh and my heart basked in sunshine. These feelings, however, were well kept in check by the secret but ceaseless consciousness of anxiety lying in wait on enjoyment, like a tiger crouched in a jungle. The breathing of that beast of prey was in my ear always; his fierce heart panted close against mine; he never stirred in his lair but I felt him: I knew he waited only for sundown to bound ravenous from his ambush.
I had hoped we might reach Villette ere night set in, and that thus I might escape the deeper embarrassment which obscurity seems to throw round a first arrival at an unknown bourne; but, what with our slow progress and long stoppages - what with a thick fog and small, dense rain - darkness, that might almost be felt, had settled on the city by the time we gained its suburbs.
I know we passed through a gate where soldiers were stationed - so much I could see by lamplight; then, having left behind us the miry Chaussée, we rattled over a pavement of strangely rough and flinty surface. At a bureau, the diligence stopped, and the passengers alighted. My first business was to get my trunk: a small matter enough, but important to me. Understanding that it was best not to be importunate or over eager about luggage, but to wait and watch quietly the delivery of other boxes till I saw my own, and then promptly claim and secure it, I stood apart; my eye fixed on that part of the vehicle in which I had seen my little portmanteau safely stowed, and upon which piles of additional bags and boxes were now heaped. One by one, I saw these removed, lowered and seized on. I was sure mine ought to be by this time visible: it was not. I had tied on the direction card with a piece of green ribbon that I might know it at a glance; not a fringe or fragment of green was perceptible. Every package was removed; every tin case and brown paper parcel; the oilcloth cover was lifted; I saw with distinct vision that not an umbrella, cloak, cane, hat-box or band-box remained.And my portmanteau, with my few clothes and little pocket-book enclasping the remnant of my fifteen pounds, where were they?
I ask this question now, but I could not ask it then. I could say nothing whatever; not possessing a phrase of speaking French: and it was French, and French only, the whole world seemed now gabbling around me. What should I do? Approaching the conductor, I just laid my hand on his arm, pointed to a trunk, thence to the diligence roof and tried to express a question with my eyes. He misunderstood me, seized the trunk indicated, and was about to hoist it on the vehicle.'Let that alone - will you?' said a voice in good English; then, in correction, 'Qu'est ce que vous faites donc? Cette malle est à moi.' But I had heard the fatherland accents; they rejoiced my heart; I turned: 'Sir', said I, appealing to the stranger, without, in my distress, noticing what he was like, 'I cannot speak French. May I entreat you to ask this man what he has done with my trunk?'
Without discriminating for the moment what sort of face it was to which my eyes were raised and on which they were fixed, I felt in its expression half-surprise at my appeal and half-doubt of the wisdom of interference.'Do ask him; I would do as much for you', said I. I don't know whether he smiled, but he said in a gentlemanly tone; that is to say, a tone not hard nor terrifying: 'What sort of trunk was yours?'
I described it, including in my description the green ribbon. And forthwith he took the conductor under hand, and I felt, through all the storm of French which followed, that he raked him fore and aft. Presently he returned to me.
'The fellow avers he was overloaded, and confesses that he removed your trunk after you saw it put on, and has left it behind at Boue-Marine with other parcels; he has promised, however, to forward it to-morrow; the day after, therefore, you will find it safe at this bureau.''Thank you', said I: but my heart sank. Meantime what should I do? Perhaps this English gentleman saw the failure of courage in my face; he inquired kindly: 'Have you any friends in this city?' 'No, and I don't know where to go.'
There was a little pause, in the course of which, as he turned more fully to the light of a lamp above him, I saw that he was a young, distinguished and handsome man; he might be a lord for anything I knew; nature had made him good enough for a prince, I thought. His face was very pleasant; he looked high but not arrogant, manly but not overbearing. I was turning away, in the deep consciousness of all absence of claim to look for further help from such a one as he.'Was all your money in your trunk?' he asked, stopping me. How thankful was I to be able to answer with truth:
'No. I have enough in my purse' (for I had near twenty francs) 'to keep me at a quiet inn till the day after to-morrow; but I am quite a stranger in Villette, and don't know the streets and the inns.''I can give you the address of such an inn as you want', said he; 'and it is not far off; with my direction you will easily find it.'
He tore a leaf from his pocket-book, wrote a few words and gave it to me. I did think him kind; and as to distrusting him, or his advice, or his address, I should almost as soon have thought of distrusting the Bible. There was goodness in his countenance, and honour in his bright eyes.
'Your shortest way will be to follow the Boulevard and cross the park', he continued; 'but it is too late and too dark for a woman to go through the park alone; I will step with you thus far.'
He moved on, and I followed him, through the darkness and the small soaking rain. The Boulevard was all deserted, its path miry, the water dripping from its trees; the park was black as midnight. In the double gloom of trees and fog, I could not see my guide; I could only follow his tread. Not the least fear had I. I believe I would have followed that frank tread, through continual night, to the world's end.
'Now', said he, when the park was traversed, 'you will go along this broad street till you come to steps; two lamps will show you where they are: these steps you will descend: a narrower street lies below; following that, at the bottom you will find your inn. They speak English there, so your difficulties are now pretty well over. Good-night.'
The remembrance of his countenance, which I am sure wore a light not unbenignant to the friendless - the sound in my ear of his voice, which spoke a nature chivalric to the needy and feeble, as well as the youthful and fair - were a sort of cordial to me long after. He was a true young English gentleman.
On I went, hurrying fast through a magnificent street and square, with the grandest houses round, and amidst them the huge outline of more than one overbearing pile; which might be palace or church - I could not tell. Just as I passed a portico, two moustachioed men came suddenly from behind the pillars; they were smoking cigars, their dress implied pretensions to the rank of gentlemen, but, poor things! they were very plebeian in soul. They spoke with insolence, and, fast as I walked, they kept pace with me a long way. At last I met a sort of patrol, and my dreaded hunters were turned from the pursuit; but they had driven me beyond my reckoning: when I could collect my faculties, I no longer knew where I was; the staircase I must long since have passed; puzzled, out of breath, all my pulses throbbing in inevitable agitation, I knew not where to turn. It was terrible to think of again encountering those bearded, sneering simpletons; yet the ground must be retraced, and the steps sought out.
I came at last to an old and worn flight, and, taking it for granted that this must be the one indicated, I descended them. The street into which they led was indeed narrow, but it contained no inn. On I wandered. In a very quiet and comparatively clean and well paved street, I saw a light burning over the door of a rather large house, loftier by a storey than those round it. This might be the inn at last. I hastened on: my knees now trembled under me: I was getting quite exhausted.No inn was this. A brass plate embellished the great portecochère: 'Pensionnat de Demoiselles' was the inscription; and beneath, a name, 'Madame Beck.'
I started. About a hundred thoughts volleyed through my mind in a moment. Yet I planned nothing, and considered nothing: I had not time. Providence said, 'Stop here; this is your inn.' Fate took me in her Strong hand; mastered my will; directed my actions: I rang the door bell.
While I waited, I would not reflect. I fixedly looked at the street stones, where the door lamp shone, and counted them and noted their shapes, and the glitter of wet on their angles. I rang again. They opened at last. A bonne in a smart cap stood before me.
'May I see Madame Beck?' I inquired. I believe if I had spoken French she would not have admitted me; but, as I spoke English, she concluded I was a foreign teacher come on business connected with the pensionnat, and, even at that late hour, she let me in, without a word of reluctance or a moment of hesitation.The next moment I sat in a cold, glittering salon, with porcelain stove unlit, and gilded ornaments, and polished floor. A pendule on the mantel-piece struck nine o'clock.
A quarter of an hour passed. How fast beat every pulse in my frame! How I turned cold and hot by turns! I sat with my eyes fixed on the door - a great white folding-door, with gilt mouldings: I watched to see a leaf move and open. All had been quiet: not a mouse had stirred; the white doors were closed and motionless.'You ayre Engliss?' said a voice at my elbow. I almost bounded, so unexpected was the sound; so certain had I been of solitude. No ghost stood beside me, nor anything of spectral aspect; merely a motherly, dumpy little woman, in a large shawl, a wrapping-gown, and a clean, trim night-cap.
I said I was English, and immediately, without further prelude, we fell to a most remarkable conversation. Madame Beck (for Madame Beck it was - she had entered by a little door behind me, and, being shod with the shoes of silence, I had heard neither her entrance nor approach) - Madame Beck had exhausted her command of insular speech when she said 'You ayre Engliss', and she now proceeded to work away volubly in her own tongue. I answered in mine. She partly understood me, but as I did not at all understand her - though we made together an awful clamour (anything like Madame's gift of utterance I had not hitherto heard or imagined) - we achieved little progress. She rang, ere long, for aid; which arrived in the shape of a 'maîtresse', who had been partly educated in an Irish convent, and was esteemed a perfect adept in the English language. A bluff little personage this maîtresse was - Labassecourienne from top to toe: and how she did slaughter the speech of Albion! However, I told her a plain tale, which she translated. I told her how I had left my own country, intent on extending my knowledge, and gaining my bread; how I was ready to turn my hand to any useful thing, provided it was not wrong or degrading; how I would be a child's nurse, or a lady's-maid, and would not refuse even housework adapted to my strength. Madame heard this; and, questioning her countenance, I almost thought the tale won her ear.'Il n'y a que les Anglaises pour ces sortes d'entreprises', said she: 'sont-elles donc intrépides ces femmes-là!'
She asked my name, my age; she sat and looked at me - not pityingly, not with interest: never a gleam of sympathy, or a shade of compassion, crossed her countenance during the interview. I felt she was not one to be led an inch by her feelings: grave and considerate, she gazed, consulting her judgment and studying my narrative. A bell rang. 'Voilà pour la prière du soir!' said she, and rose. Through her interpreter, she desired me to depart now, and come back on the morrow; but this did not suit me: I could not bear to return to the perils of darkness and the street. With energy, yet with a collected and controlled manner, I said, addressing herself personally, and not the maîtresse:
'Be assured, madame, that by instantly securing my services, your interests will be served and not injured: you will find me one who will wish to give, in her labour, a full equivalent for her wages; and if you hire me, it will be better that I should stay here this night: having no acquaintance in Villette, and not possessing the language of the country, how can I secure a lodging?''It is true', said she; 'but at least you can give a reference?' 'None.'
She inquired after my luggage: I told her when it would arrive. She mused. At that moment a man's step was heard in the vestibule, hastily proceeding to the outer door. (I shall go on with this part of my tale as if I had understood all that had passed; for though it was then scarce intelligible to me, I heard it translated afterwards.)'Who goes out now?' demanded Madame Beck, listening to the tread. 'M. Paul', replied the teacher. 'He came this evening to give a reading to the first class.' 'The very man I should at this moment most wish to see. Call him.' The teacher ran to the salon door. M. Paul was summoned. He entered: a small, dark and spare man, in spectacles. 'Mon cousin', began Madame, 'I want your opinion. We know your skill in physiognomy; use it now. Read that countenance.'
The little man fixed on me his spectacles. A resolute compression of the lips, and gathering of the brow, seemed to say that he meant to see through me, and that a veil would be no veil for him.'I read it', he pronounced. 'Et qu'en dites-vous?' 'Mais - bien des choses', was the oracular answer. 'Bad or good?' 'Of each kind, without doubt', pursued the diviner. 'May one trust her word?' 'Are you negotiating a matter of importance?' 'She wishes me to engage her as bonne or gouvernante; tells a tale full of integrity, but gives no reference.' 'She is a stranger?' 'An Englishwoman, as one may see.' 'She speaks French?' 'Not a word.' 'She understands it?' 'No.' 'One may then speak plainly in her presence?' 'Doubtless.' He gazed steadily. 'Do you need her services?' 'I could do with them. You know I am disgusted with Madame Svini.' Still he scrutinised. The judgment, when it at last came, was as indefinite as what had gone before it.
'Engage her. If good predominates in that nature, the action will bring its own reward; if evil - eh bien! ma cousine, ce sera toujours une bonne oeuvre.' And with a bow and a 'bon soir', this vague arbiter of my destiny vanished.And Madame did engage me that very night - by God's blessing I was spared the necessity of passing forth again into the lonesome, dreary, hostile street.
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 quarter of an hour on the edge of my bed, gazing at my face. She then drew nearer, bent close over me, slightly raised my cap, and turned back the border so as to expose my hair; she looked at my hand lying on the bed-clothes. This done, she turned to the chair where my clothes lay: it was at the foot of the bed. Hearing her touch and lift them, I opened my eyes with precaution, for I own I felt curious to see how far her taste for research would lead her. It led her a good way: every article did she inspect. I divined her motive for this proceeding, viz., the wish to form from the garments a judgment respecting the wearer, her station, means, neatness, &c. The end was not bad, but the means were hardly fair or justifiable. In my dress was a pocket; she fairly turned it inside out; she counted the money in my purse; she opened a little memorandum-book, coolly perused its contents, and took from between the leaves a small plaited lock of Miss Marchmont's grey hair. To a bunch of three keys, being those of my trunk, desk and work-box she accorded special attention; with these, indeed, she withdrew a moment to her own room. I softly rose in my bed and followed her with my eye: these keys, reader, were not brought back till they had left on the toilet of the adjoining room the impress of their wards in wax. All being thus done decently and in order, my property was returned to its place, my clothes were carefully refolded. Of what nature were the conclusions deduced from this scrutiny? Were they favourable or otherwise? Vain question. Madame's face of stone (for of stone in its present night aspect it looked: it had been human, and, as I said before, motherly, in the salon) betrayed no response.
Her duty done - I felt that in her eyes this business was a duty - she rose, noiseless as a shadow: she moved towards her own chamber; at the door, she turned, fixing her eye on the heroine of the bottle, who still slept and loudly snored. Mrs. Svini (I presume this was Mrs. Svini, Anglicé or Hibernice, Sweeny) - Mrs. Sweeny's doom was in Madame Beck's eye - an immutable purpose that eye spoke: madame's visitations for shortcomings might be slow, but they were sure. All this was very un-English: truly, I was in a foreign land.
The morrow made me further acquainted with Mrs. Sweeny. It seems she had introduced herself to her present employer as an English lady in reduced circumstances: a native, indeed, of Middlesex, professing to speak the English tongue with the purest metropolitan accent. madame - reliant on her own infallible expedients for finding out the truth in time
- had a singular intrepidity in hiring service off-hand (as indeed seemed abundantly proved in my own case.) She received Mrs. Sweeny as nursery-governess to her three children. I need hardly explain to the reader that this lady was in effect a native of Ireland; her station I do not pretend to fix; she boldly declared that she had 'had the bringing-up of the son and daughter of a marquis.' I think, myself, she might possibly have been a hanger-on, nurse, fosterer, or washer-woman in some Irish family: she spoke a smothered tongue, curiously overlaid with mincing cockney inflections. By some means or other she had acquired, and now held in possession, a wardrobe of rather suspicious splendour - gowns of stiff and costly silk, fitting her indifferently, and apparently made for other proportions than those they now adorned; caps with real lace borders, and - the chief item in the inventory, the spell by which she struck a certain awe through the household, quelling the otherwise scornfully disposed teachers and servants, and, so long as her broad shoulders wore the folds of that majestic drapery, even influencing Madame herself - a real Indian shawl - 'un véritable Cachmire', as Madame Beck said, with unmixed reverence and amaze. I feel quite sure that without this 'Cachmire' she would not have kept her footing in the pensionnat for two days: by virtue of it, and it only, she maintained the same a month.
But when Mrs. Sweeny knew that I was come to fill her shoes, then it was that she declared herself - then did she rise on Madame Beck in her full power - then come down on me with her concentrated weight. Madame bore this revelation and visitation so well, so stoically, that I for very shame could not support it otherwise than with composure. For one little moment Madame Beck absented herself from the room; ten minutes after an agent of the police stood in the midst of us. Mrs. Sweeny and her effects were removed. Madame's brow had not been ruffled during the scene - her lips had not dropped one sharply accented word.
This brisk little affair of the dismissal was all settled before breakfast: order to march given, policeman called, mutineer expelled, 'chambre d'enfants' fumigated and cleansed, windows thrown open, and every trace of the accomplished Mrs. Sweeny - even to the fine essence and spiritual fragrance which gave token so subtle and so fatal of the head and front of her offending - was annihilated from the Rue Fossette: all this, I say, was done between the moment of Madame Beck's issuing like Aurora from her chamber, and that moment in which she coolly sat down to pour out her first cup of coffee.
About noon I was summoned to dress madame. (It appeared my place was to be a hybrid between gouvernante and lady's-maid.) Till noon she haunted the house in her wrappinggown, shawl and soundless slippers. How would the lady-chief of an English school approve this custom?
The dressing of her hair puzzled me; she had plenty of it: auburn, unmixed with grey: though she was forty years old. Seeing my embarrassment, she said, 'You have not been a femme de chambre in your own country?' And taking the brush from my hand, and setting me aside, not urgently or disrespectfully, she arranged it herself. In performing other offices of the toilet, she half-directed, half-aided me, without the least display of temper or impatience. N.B. - That was the first and last time I was required to dress her. Henceforth, on Rosine, the portress, devolved that duty.
When attired, Madame Beck appeared a personage of a figure rather short and stout, yet still graceful in its own peculiar way; that is, with the grace resulting from proportion of parts. Her complexion was fresh and sanguine, not too rubicund; her eye, blue and serene; her dark silk dress fitted her as a French sempstress alone can make a dress fit; she looked well, though a little bourgeoise; as bourgeoise, indeed, she was. I know not what of harmony pervaded her whole person; and yet her face offered contrast, too: its features were by no means such as are usually seen in conjunction with a complexion of such blended freshness and repose: their outline was stern; her forehead was high but narrow; it expressed capacity and some benevolence, but no expanse; nor did her peaceful yet watchful eye ever know the fire which is kindled in the heart or the softness which flows thence. Her mouth was hard: it could be a little grim; her lips were thin. For sensibility and genius, with all their tenderness and temerity, I felt somehow that madame would be the right sort of Minos in petticoats.
In the long run, I found she was something else in petticoats too. Her name was Modeste Maria Beck, née Kint: it ought to have been Ignacia. She was a charitable woman, and did a great deal of good. There never was a mistress whose rule was milder. I was told that she never once remonstrated with the intolerable Mrs. Sweeny, despite her tipsiness, disorder and general neglect; yet Mrs. Sweeny had to go the moment her departure became convenient. I was told, too, that neither masters nor teachers were found fault with in that establishment; yet both masters and teachers were often changed: they vanished and others filled their places, none could well explain how.
The establishment was both a pensionnat and an externat; the externes or day-pupils exceeded one hundred in number; the boarders were about a score. Madame must have possessed high administrative powers: she ruled all these, together with four teachers, eight masters, six servants, and three children, managing at the same time, to perfection, the pupils' parents and friends; and that without apparent effort; without bustle, fatigue, fever, or any symptom of undue excitement: occupied she always was - busy, rarely. It is true that madame had her own system for managing and regulating this mass of machinery; and a very pretty system it was: the reader has seen a specimen of it, in that small affair of turning my pocket inside out, and reading my private memoranda. 'Surveillance', 'espionage' - these were her watchwords.
Still, Madame knew what honesty was, and liked it - that is, when it did not obtrude its clumsy scruples in the way of her will and interest. She had a respect for Angleterre; and as to les Anglaises, she would have the women of no other country about her own children, if she could help it.
Often in the evening, after she had been plotting and counterplotting, spying and receiving the reports of spies all day, she would come up to my room - a trace of real weariness on her brow - and she would sit down and listen while the children said their little prayers to me in English: the Lord's Prayer, and the hymn beginning 'Gentle Jesus', these little Catholics were permitted to repeat at my knee; and, when I had put them to bed, she would talk to me (I soon gained enough French to be able to understand, and even answer her) about England and Englishwomen, and the reasons for what she was pleased to term their superior intelligence, and more real and reliable probity. Very good sense she often showed; very sound opinions she often broached: she seemed to know that keeping girls in distrustful restraint, in blind ignorance, and under a surveillance that left them no moment and no corner for retirement, was not the best way to make them grow up honest and modest women; but she averred that ruinous consequences would ensue if any other method were tried with continental children - they were so accustomed to restraint, that relaxation, however guarded, would be misunderstood and fatally presumed on: she was sick, she would declare, of the means she had to use, but use them she must; and after discoursing, often with dignity and delicacy, to me, she would move away on her souliers de silence, and glide ghost-like through the house, watching and spying everywhere, peering through every keyhole, listening behind every door. After all, Madame's system was not bad - let me do her justice. Nothing could be better than all her arrangements for the physical well-being of her scholars. No minds were overtasked; the lessons were well distributed and made incomparably easy to the learner; there was a liberty of amusement, and a provision for exercise which kept the girls healthy; the food was abundant and good: neither pale nor puny faces were anywhere to be seen in the Rue Fossette. She never grudged a holiday; she allowed plenty of time for sleeping, dressing, washing, eating; her method in all these matters was easy, liberal, salutary and rational: many an austere English schoolmistress would do vastly well to imitate it - and I believe many would be glad to do so, if exacting English parents would let them.
As Madame Beck ruled by espionage, she of course had her staff of spies: she perfectly knew the quality of the tools she used, and while she would not scruple to handle the dirtiest for a dirty occasion - flinging this sort from her like refuse rind, after the orange has been duly squeezed - I have known her fastidious in seeking pure metal for clean uses; and when once a bloodless and rustless instrument was found, she was careful of the prize, keeping it in silk and cottonwool. Yet, woe be to that man or woman who relied on her one inch beyond the point where it was her interest to be trustworthy; interest was the master-key of madame's nature - the mainspring of her motives - the alpha and omega of her life. I have seen her feelings appealed to, and I have smiled in half-pity, half-scorn at the appellants. None ever gained her ear through that channel, or swayed her purpose by that means. On the contrary, to attempt to touch her heart was the surest way to rouse her antipathy, and to make of her a secret foe. It proved to her that she had no heart to be touched: it reminded her where she was impotent and dead. Never was the distinction between charity and mercy better exemplified than in her. While devoid of sympathy, she had a sufficiency of rational benevolence: she would give in the readiest manner to people she had never seen - rather, however, to classes than to individuals. Pour les pauvres, she opened her purse freely - against the poor man, as a rule, she kept it closed. In philanthropic schemes for the benefit of society at large she took a cheerful part; no private sorrow touched her: no force or mass of suffering concentrated in one heart had power to pierce hers. Not the agony in Gethsemane, not the death on Calvary, could have wrung from her eyes one tear.
I say again, Madame was a very great and a very capable woman. That school offered her for her powers too limited a sphere; she ought to have swayed a nation: she should have been the leader of a turbulent legislative assembly. Nobody could have browbeaten her, none irritated her nerves, exhausted her patience, or over-reached her astuteness. In her own single person she could have comprised the duties of a first minister and a superintendent of police. Wise, firm, faithless; secret, crafty, passionless; watchful and inscrutable; acute and insensate - withal perfectly decorous - what more could be desired?
The sensible reader will not suppose that I gained all the knowledge here condensed for his benefit in one month, or in one half-year. No! what I saw at first was the thriving outside of a large and flourishing educational establishment. Here was a great house, full of healthy, lively girls, all well dressed and many of them handsome, gaining knowledge by a marvellously easy method, without painful exertion or useless waste of spirits; not, perhaps, making very rapid progress in anything; taking it easy, but still always employed, and never oppressed. Here was a corps of teachers and masters more stringently tasked, as all the real head-labour was to be done by them, in order to save the pupils, yet having their duties so arranged that they relieved each other in quick succession whenever the work was severe; here, in short, was a foreign school; of which the life, movement and variety made it a complete and most charming contrast to many English institutions of the same kind.
Behind the house was a large garden, and, in summer, the pupils almost lived out of doors amongst the rose bushes and the fruit trees. Under the vast and vine-draped berceau, madame would take her seat on summer afternoons, and send for the classes, in turns, to sit round her and sew and read. Meantime, masters came and went, delivering short and lively lectures, rather than lessons, and the pupils made notes of their instructions, or did not make them - just as inclination prompted; secure that, in case of neglect, they could copy the notes of their companions. Besides the regular monthly jours de sortie, the Catholic fête-days brought a succession of holidays all the year round; and sometimes on a bright summer morning, or soft summer evening, the boarders were taken out for a long walk into the country, regaled with gaufres and vin blanc, or new milk and pain bis, or pistolets au beurre (rolls) and coffee. All this seemed very pleasant, and madame appeared goodness itself; and the teachers not so bad, but they might be worse; and the pupils, perhaps, a little noisy and rough, but types of health and glee.
Thus did the view appear, seen through the enchantment of distance; but there came a time when distance was to melt for me, when I was to be called down from my watchtower of the nursery, whence I had hitherto made my observations, and was to be compelled into closer intercourse with this little world of the Rue Fossette.
I was one day sitting upstairs, as usual, hearing the children their English lessons, and at the same time turning a silk dress for Madame, when she came sauntering into the room with that absorbed air and brow of hard thought she sometimes wore, and which made her look so little genial. Dropping into a seat opposite mine, she remained some minutes silent. Désirée, the eldest girl, was reading to me some little essay of Mrs. Barbauld's, and I was making her translate currently from English to French, as she proceeded, by way of ascertaining that she comprehended what she read: Madame listened.Presently, without preface or prelude, she said, almost in the tone of one making an accusation, 'Meess, in England you were a governess.' 'No, madame', said I smiling, 'you are mistaken.' 'Is this your first essay at teaching - this attempt with my children?'
I assured her it was. Again she became silent; but looking up, as I took a pin from the cushion, I found myself an object of study: she held me under her eye; she seemed turning me round in her thoughts - measuring my fitness for a purpose, weighing my value in a plan. Madame had, ere this, scrutinised all I had, and I believe she esteemed herself cognisant of much that I was; but from that day, for the space of about a fortnight, she tried me by new tests. She listened at the nursery door when I was shut in with the children; she followed me at a cautious distance when I walked out with them, stealing within ear-shot whenever the trees of park or boulevard afforded a sufficient screen: a strict preliminary process having thus been observed, she made a move forward.
One morning, coming on me abruptly, and with the semblance of hurry, she said she found herself placed in a little dilemma. Mr. Wilson, the English master, had failed to come at his hour, she feared he was ill; the pupils were waiting in classe; there was no one to give a lesson; should I, for once, object to giving a short dictation exercise, just that the pupils might not have it to say they had missed their English lesson?'In classe, madame?' I asked. 'Yes, in classe: in the second division.'
'Where there are sixty pupils', said I; for I knew the number, and with my usual base habit of cowardice, I shrunk into my sloth like a snail into its shell, and alleged incapacity and impracticability as a pretext to escape action. If left to myself, I should infallibly have let this chance slip. Inadventurous, unstirred by impulses of practical ambition, I was capable of sitting twenty years teaching infants the hornbook, turning silk dresses and making children's frocks. Not that true contentment dignified this infatuated resignation: my work had neither charm for my taste, nor hold on my interest; but it seemed to me a great thing to be without heavy anxiety, and relieved from intimate trial; the negation of severe suffering was the nearest approach to happiness I expected to know. Besides, I seemed to hold two lives - the life of thought, and that of reality; and, provided the former was nourished with a sufficiency of the strange necromantic joys of fancy, the privileges of the latter might remain limited to daily bread, hourly work, and a roof of shelter.'Come', said Madame, as I stooped more busily than ever over the cutting out of a child's pinafore, 'leave that work.' 'But Fifine wants it, Madame.' 'Fifine must want it, then, for I want you'.
And as Madame Beck did really want and was resolved to have me - as she had long been dissatisfied with the English master, with his shortcomings in punctuality, and his careless method of tuition - as, too, she did not lack resolution and practical activity, whether I lacked them or not - she, without more ado, made me relinquish thimble and needle; my hand was taken into hers, and I was conducted downstairs. When we reached the carré, a large square hall between the dwelling-house and the pensionnat, she paused, dropped my hand, faced, and scrutinised me. I was flushed and tremulous from head to foot: tell it not in Gath, I believe I was crying. In fact, the difficulties before me were far from being wholly imaginary; some of them were real enough; and not the least substantial lay in my want of mastery over the medium through which I should be obliged to teach. I had, indeed, studied French closely since my arrival in Villette; learning its practice by day, and its theory in every leisure moment at night, to as late an hour as the rule of the house would allow candlelight, but I was far from yet being able to trust my powers of correct oral expression.'Dites donc', said madame sternly, 'vous sentez-vous réellement trop faible?'
I might have said 'Yes', and gone back to nursery obscurity, and there, perhaps, mouldered for the rest of my life; but looking up at Madame, I saw in her countenance a something that made me think twice ere I decided. At that instant, she did not wear a woman's aspect but rather a man's. Power of a particular kind strongly limned itself in all her traits, and that power was not my kind of power: neither sympathy nor congeniality, nor submission were the emotions it awakened. I stood - not soothed, nor won, nor overwhelmed. It seemed as if a challenge of strength between opposing gifts was given, and I suddenly felt all the dishonour of my diffidence - all the pusillanimity of my slackness to aspire.
'Will you', she said, 'go backward or forward?' indicating with her hand, first, the small door of communication with the dwelling-house, and then the great double portals of the classes or school-rooms.'En avant', I said.
'But', pursued she, cooling as I warmed, and continuing the hard look, from very antipathy to which I drew strength and determination, 'can you face the classes, or are you over-excited?'She sneered slightly in saying this: nervous excitability was not much to Madame's taste. 'I am no more excited than this stone', I said, tapping the flag with my toe: 'or than you', I added, returning her look.
'Bon! But let me tell you these are not quiet, decorous English girls you are going to encounter. Ce sont des Labassecouriennes, rondes, franches, brusques, et tant soit peu rebelles.'
I said: 'I know; and I know, too, that though I have studied French hard since I came here, yet I still speak it with far too much hesitation - too little accuracy to be able to command their respect: I shall make blunders that will lay me open to the scorn of the most ignorant. Still I mean to give the lesson.'
'They always throw over timid teachers', said she. 'I know that, too, madame; I have heard how they rebelled against and persecuted Miss Turner' - a poor, friendless English teacher, whom Madame had employed, and lightly discarded; and to whose piteous history I was no stranger.
'C'est vrai', said she, coolly. 'Miss Turner had no more command over them than a servant from the kitchen would have had. She was weak and wavering; she had neither tact nor intelligence, decision nor dignity. Miss Turner would not do for these girls at all.'I made no reply, but advanced to the closed school-room door. 'You will not expect aid from me, or from any one', said madame. 'That would at once set you down as incompetent for your office.'
I opened the door, let her pass with courtesy, and followed her. There were three schoolrooms, all large. That dedicated to the second division, where I was to figure, was considerably the largest, and accommodated an assemblage more numerous, more turbulent, and infinitely more unmanageable than the other two. In after days, when I knew the ground better, I used to think sometimes (if such a comparison may be permitted), that the quiet, polished, tame first division, was to the robust, riotous, demonstrative second division, what the English House of Lords is to the House of Commons.
The first glance informed me that many of the pupils were more than girls - quite young women; I knew that some of them were of noble family (as nobility goes in Labassecour), and I was well convinced that not one amongst them was ignorant of my position in madame's household. As I mounted the estrade (a low platform, raised a step above the flooring), where stood the teacher's chair and desk, I beheld opposite to me a row of eyes and brows that threatened stormy weather - eyes full of an insolent light, and brows hard and unblushing as marble. The continental 'female' is quite a different being to the insular 'female' of the same age and class: I never saw such eyes and brows in England. Madame Beck introduced me in one cool phrase, sailed from the room, and left me alone in my glory.
I shall never forget that first lesson, nor all the under-current of life and character it opened up to me. Then first did I begin rightly to see the wide difference that lies between the novelist's and poet's ideal 'jeune fille', and the said 'jeune fille' as she really is.
It seems that three titled belles in the first row had sat down predetermined that a bonne d'enfants should not give them lessons in English. They knew they had succeeded in expelling obnoxious teachers before now; they knew that madame would at any time throw overboard a professeur or maîtresse who became unpopular with the school - that she never assisted a weak official to retain his place - that if he had not strength to fight, or tact to win his way - down he went: looking at 'Miss Snowe' they promised themselves an easy victory.
Mesdemoiselles Blanche, Virginie, and Angélique opened the campaign by a series of titterings and whisperings; these soon swelled into murmurs and short laughs, which the remoter benches caught up and echoed more loudly. This growing revolt of sixty against one, soon became oppressive enough; my command of French being so limited, and exercised under such cruel constraint.
Could I but have spoken in my own tongue, I felt as if I might have gained a hearing; for, in the first place, though I knew I looked a poor creature, and in many respects actually was so, yet nature had given me a voice that could make itself heard, if lifted in excitement or deepened by emotion. In the second place, while I had no flow, only a hesitating trickle of language, in ordinary circumstances, yet - under stimulus such as was now rife through the mutinous mass - I could, in English, have rolled out readily phrases stigmatising their proceedings as such proceedings deserved to be stigmatised; and then with some sarcasm, flavoured with contemptuous bitterness for the ringleaders, and relieved with easy banter for the weaker, but less knavish followers, it seemed to me that one might possibly get command over this wild herd and bring them into training, at least. All I could now do was to walk up to Blanche - Mademoiselle de Melcy, a young baronne - the eldest, tallest, handsomest and most vicious - stand before her desk, take from under her hand her exercise-book, remount the estrade, deliberately read the composition, which I found very stupid, and, as deliberately, and in the face of the whole school, tear the blotted page in two.
This action availed to draw attention and check noise. One girl alone, quite in the background, persevered in the riot with undiminished energy. I looked at her attentively. She had a pale face, hair like night, broad, strong eyebrows, decided features, and a dark, mutinous, sinister eye: I noted that she sat close by a little door, which door, I was well aware, opened into a small closet where books were kept. She was standing up for the purpose of conducting her clamour with freer energies. I measured her stature and calculated her strength. She seemed both tall and wiry; but, so the conflict were brief and the attack unexpected, I thought I might manage her.
Advancing up the room, looking as cool and careless as I possibly could, in short, ayant l'air de rien; I slightly pushed the door and found it was ajar. In an instant, and with sharpness, I had turned on her. In another instant she occupied the closet, the door was shut, and the key was in my pocket.
It so happened that this girl, Dolores by name, and a Catalonian by race, was the sort of character at once dreaded and hated by all her associates; the act of summary justice, above noted, proved popular: there was not one present but, in her heart, liked to see it done. They were stilled for a moment; then a smile - not a laugh - passed from desk to desk: then - when I had gravely and tranquilly returned to the estrade, courteously requested silence and commenced a dictation as if nothing at all had happened - the pens travelled peacefully over the pages, and the remainder of the lesson passed in order and industry.
'C'est bien', said Madame Beck, when I came out of class, hot and a little exhausted. 'Ça ira.'
From that day I ceased to be nursery-governess, and became English teacher. Madame raised my salary; but she got thrice the work out of me she had extracted from Mr. Wilson, at half the expense.
My time was now well and profitably filled up. What with teaching others and studying closely myself, I had hardly a spare moment. It was pleasant. I felt I was getting on; not lying the stagnant prey of mould and rust, but polishing my faculties and whetting them to a keen edge with constant use. Experience of a certain kind lay before me, on no narrow scale. Villette is a cosmopolitan city, and in this school were girls of almost every European nation, and likewise of very varied rank in life. Equality is much practised in Labassecour; though not republican in form, it is nearly so in substance, and at the desks of Madame Beck's establishment the young countess and the young bourgeoise sat side by side. Nor could you always by outward indications decide which was noble and which plebeian; except that, indeed, the latter had often franker and more courteous manners, while the former bore away the bell for a delicately balanced combination of insolence and deceit. In the former there was often quick French blood mixed with the marshphlegm: I regret to say that the effect of this vivacious fluid chiefly appeared in the oilier glibness with which flattery and fiction ran from the tongue, and in a manner lighter and livelier, but quite heartless and insincere.
To do all parties justice, the honest aboriginal Labassecouriennes had an hypocrisy of their own, too; but it was of a coarse order, such as could deceive few. Whenever a lie was necessary for their occasions, they brought it out with a careless ease and breadth altogether untroubled by the rebuke of conscience. Not a soul in Madame Beck's house, from the scullion to the directress herself, but was above being ashamed of a lie; they thought nothing of it: to invent might not be precisely a virtue, but it was the most venial of faults. 'J'ai menti plusieurs fois' formed an item of every girl's and woman's monthly confession: the priest heard unshocked, and absolved unreluctant. If they had missed going to mass, or read a chapter of a novel, that was another thing: these were crimes whereof rebuke and penance were the unfailing meed.
While yet but half-conscious of this state of things, and unlearned in its results, I got on in my new sphere very well. After the first few difficult lessons, given amidst peril and on the edge of a moral volcano that rumbled under my feet and sent sparks and hot fumes into my eyes, the eruptive spirit seemed to subside, as far as I was concerned. My mind was a good deal bent on success: I could not bear the thought of being baffled by mere undisciplined disaffection and wanton indocility, in this first attempt to get on in life. Many hours of the night I used to lie awake, thinking what plan I had best adopt to get a reliable hold on these mutineers, to bring this stiff-necked tribe under permanent influence. In the first place, I saw plainly that aid in no shape was to be expected from madame: her righteous plan was to maintain an unbroken popularity with the pupils, at any and every cost of justice or comfort to the teachers. For a teacher to seek her alliance in any crisis of insubordination was equivalent to securing her own expulsion. In intercourse with her pupils, madame only took to herself what was pleasant, amiable and recommendatory; rigidly requiring of her lieutenants sufficiency for every annoying crisis, where to act with adequate promptitude was to be unpopular. Thus, I must look only to myself.
Imprimis - it was clear as the day that this swinish multitude were not to be driven by force. They were to be humoured, borne with very patiently: a courteous though sedate manner impressed them; a very rare flash of raillery did good. Severe or continuous mental application they could not, or would not, bear: heavy demand on the memory, the reason, the attention, they rejected point-blank. Where an English girl of not more than average capacity and docility would quietly take a theme and bind herself to the task of comprehension and mastery, a Labassecourienne would laugh in your face, and throw it back to you with the phrase - 'Dieu, que c'est difficile! Je n'en veux pas. Cela m'ennuie trop.'
A teacher who understood her business would take it back at once, without hesitation, contest, or expostulation - proceed with even exaggerated care to smooth every difficulty, to reduce it to the level of their understandings, return it to them thus modified, and lay on the lash of sarcasm with unsparing hand. They would feel the sting, perhaps wince a little under it; but they bore no malice against this sort of attack, provided the sneer was not sour, but hearty, and that it held well up to them, in a clear light and bold type, so that she who ran might read, their incapacity, ignorance and sloth. They would riot for three additional lines to a lesson; but I never knew them rebel against a wound given to their self-respect: the little they had of that quality was trained to be crushed, and it rather liked the pressure of a firm heel than otherwise.
By degrees, as I acquired fluency and freedom in their language, and could make such application of its more nervous idioms as suited their case, the elder and more intelligent girls began rather to like me in their way: I noticed that whenever a pupil had been roused to feel in her soul the stirring of worthy emulation, or the quickening of honest shame, from that date she was won. If I could but once make their (usually large) ears burn under their thick glossy hair, all was comparatively well. By-and-by bouquets began to be laid on my desk in the morning; by way of acknowledgment for this little foreign attention, I used sometimes to walk with a select few during recreation. In the course of conversation it befell once or twice that I made an unpremeditated attempt to rectify some of their singularly distorted notions of principle; especially I expressed my ideas of the evil and baseness of a lie. In an unguarded moment, I chanced to say that, of the two errors, I considered falsehood worse than an occasional lapse in church attendance. The poor girls were tutored to report in Catholic ears whatever the Protestant teacher said. An edifying consequence ensued. Something - an unseen, an indefinite, a nameless something - stole between myself and these my best pupils: the bouquets continued to be offered, but conversation thenceforth became impracticable. As I paced the alleys or sat in the berceau, a girl never came to my right hand but a teacher, as if by magic, appeared at my left. Also, wonderful to relate, Madame's shoes of silence brought her continually to my back, as quick, as noiseless and unexpected, as some wandering zephyr.
The opinion of my Catholic acquaintance concerning my spiritual prospects was somewhat naively expressed to me on one occasion. A pensionnaire, to whom I had rendered some little service, exclaimed one day as she sat beside me:'Mademoiselle, what a pity you are a Protestant!' 'Why, Isabelle?' 'Parce que, quand vous serez morte - vous brûlerez tout de suite dans l'Enfer.' 'Croyez-vous?' 'Certainement que j'y crois: tout le monde le sait; et d'ailleurs le prêtre me l'a dit.' Isabelle was an odd, blunt little creature. She added, sotto voce - 'Pour assurer votre salut là-haut, on ferait bien de vous brûler toute vive ici-bas.' I laughed, as, indeed, it was impossible to do otherwise.
Has the reader forgotten Miss Ginevra Fanshawe? If so, I must be allowed to re-introduce that young lady as a thriving pupil of Madame Beck's; for such she was. On her arrival in the Rue Fossette, two or three days after my sudden settlement there, she encountered me with very little surprise. She must have had good blood in her veins, for never was any duchess more perfectly, radically, unaffectedly nonchalante than she; a weak, transient amaze was all she knew of the sensation of wonder. Most of her other faculties seemed to be in the same flimsy condition: her liking and disliking, her love and hate, were mere cobweb and gossamer; but she had one thing about her that seemed strong and durable enough, and that was - her selfishness.
She was not proud; and - bonne d'enfants as I was - she would forthwith have made of me a sort of friend and confidant. She teased me with a thousand vapid complaints about school-quarrels and household economy: the cookery was not to her taste - the people about her, teachers and pupils, she held to be despicable, because they were foreigners. I bore with her abuse of the Friday's salt fish and hard eggs - with her invective against the soup, the bread, the coffee - with some patience for a time; but at last, wearied by iteration, I turned crusty, and put her to rights - a thing I ought to have done in the very beginning, for a salutary setting down always agreed with her.
Much longer had I to endure her demands on me in the way of work. Her wardrobe, so far as concerned articles of external wear, was well and elegantly supplied; but there were other habiliments not so carefully provided: what she had, needed frequent repair. She hated needle drudgery herself, and she would bring her hose, &c., to me in heaps, to be mended. A compliance of some weeks threatening to result in the establishment of an intolerable bore - I at last distinctly told her she must make up her mind to mend her own garments. She cried on receiving this information, and accused me of having ceased to be her friend; but I held by my decision, and let the hysterics pass as they could.
Notwithstanding these foibles, and various others needless to mention - but by no means of a refined or elevating character - how pretty she was! How charming she looked, when she came down on a sunny Sunday morning, well-dressed and well-humoured, robed in pale lilac silk, and with her fair long curls reposing on her white shoulders. Sunday was a holiday which she always passed with friends resident in town; and amongst these friends she speedily gave me to understand was one who would fain become something more. By glimpses and hints it was shown me, and by the general buoyancy of her look and manner it was ere long proved, that ardent admiration - perhaps genuine love - was at her command. She called her suitor 'Isidore': this, however, she intimated was not his real name, but one by which it pleased her to baptise him - his own, she hinted, not being 'very pretty.' Once, when she had been bragging about the vehemence of 'Isidore's' attachment, I asked if she loved him in return.'Comme cela,' said she: 'he is handsome, and he loves me to distraction, so that I am well amused. Ça suffit.'
Finding that she carried the thing on longer than, from her very fickle tastes, I had anticipated, I one day took it upon me to make Serious inquiries as to whether the gentleman was such as her parents, and especially her uncle - on whom, it appeared, she was dependent - would be likely to approve. She allowed that this was very doubtful, as she did not believe 'Isidore' had much money.'Do you encourage him?' I asked. 'Furieusement, sometimes', said she. 'Without being certain that you will be permitted to marry him?' 'Oh how dowdyish you are! I don't want to be married. I am too young.' 'But if he loves you as much as you say, and yet it comes to nothing in the end, he will be made miserable.' 'Of course he will break his heart. I should be shocked and disappointed if he didn't.' 'I wonder whether this M. Isidore is a fool?' said I.
'He is, about me; but he is wise in other things, à ce qu'on dit. Mrs. Cholmondeley considers him extremely clever: she says he will push his way by his talents; all I know is, that he does little more than sigh in my presence, and that I can wind him round my little finger.'
Wishing to get a more definite idea of this love-stricken M. Isidore, whose position seemed to me of the least secure, I requested her to favour me with a personal description; but she could not describe: she had neither words nor the power of putting them together so as to make graphic phrases. She even seemed not properly to have noticed him: nothing of his looks, of the changes in his countenance, had touched her heart or dwelt in her memory - that he was 'beau, mais plutôt bel homme que joli garçon', was all she could assert. My patience would often have failed, and my interest flagged, in listening to her, but for one thing. All the hints she dropped, all the details she gave, went unconsciously to prove, to my thinking, that M. Isidore's homage was offered with great delicacy and respect. I informed her very plainly that I believed him much too good for her, and intimated with equal plainness my impression that she was but a vain coquette. She laughed, shook her curls from her eyes, and danced away as if I had paid her a compliment.
Miss Ginevra's school studies were little better than nominal; there were but three things she practised in earnest, viz., music, singing, and dancing; also embroidering the fine cambric handkerchiefs which she could not afford to buy ready worked: such mere trifles as lessons in history, geography, grammar, and arithmetic, she left undone, or got others to do for her. Very much of her time was spent in visiting. Madame, aware that her stay at school was now limited to a certain period which would not be extended whether she made progress or not, allowed her great license in this particular. Mrs. Cholmondeley - her chaperon - a gay, fashionable lady, invited her whenever she had company at her own house, and sometimes took her to evening parties at the houses of her acquaintance. Ginevra perfectly approved this mode of procedure: it had but one inconvenience; she was obliged to be well dressed, and she had not money to buy variety of dresses. All her thoughts turned on this difficulty; her whole soul was occupied with expedients for effecting its solution. It was wonderful to witness the activity of her otherwise indolent mind on this point, and to see the much-daring intrepidity to which she was spurred by a sense of necessity, and the wish to shine.She begged boldly of Mrs. Cholmondeley - boldly, I say: not with an air of reluctant shame, but in this strain -
'My darling Mrs. C., I have nothing in the world fit to wear for your party next week; you must give me a book-muslin dress, and then a ceinture bleu céleste: do - there's an angel! will you?'
The 'darling Mrs. C.' yielded at first; but finding that applications increased as they were complied with, she was soon obliged, like all Miss Fanshawe's friends, to oppose resistance to encroachment. After a while I heard no more of Mrs. Cholmondeley's presents; but still, visiting went on, and the absolutely necessary dresses continued to be supplied: also many little expensive etceterae - gloves, bouquets, even trinkets. These things, contrary to her custom, and even nature - for she was not secretive - were most sedulously kept out of sight for a time; but one evening, when she was going to a large party for which particular care and elegance of costume were demanded, she could not resist coming to my chamber to show herself in all her splendour.
Beautiful she looked: so young, so fresh, and with a delicacy of skin and flexibility of shape altogether English, and not found in the list of continental female charms. Her dress was new, costly and perfect. I saw at a glance that it lacked none of those finishing details which cost so much, and give to the general effect such an air of tasteful completeness.
I viewed her from top to toe. She turned airily round that I might survey her on all sides. Conscious of her charms, she was in her best humour: her rather small blue eyes sparkled gleefully. She was going to bestow on me a kiss, in her school-girl fashion of showing her delight: but I said, 'Steady! Let us be steady, and know what we are about, and find out the meaning of our magnificence' - and so put her off at arm's length, to undergo cooler inspection.
She thought the praise not warm enough, and proceeded to direct attention to the various decorative points of her attire. 'Look at this parure', said she 'The brooch, the ear-rings, the bracelets: no one in the school has such a set - not madame herself.''I see them all.' (Pause.) 'Did M. de Bassompierre give you those jewels? 'My uncle knows nothing about them.' 'Were they presents from Mrs. Cholmondeley?' 'Not they, indeed. Mrs. Cholmondeley is a mean, stingy creature; she never gives me anything now.' I did not choose to ask any further questions, but turned abruptly away. 'Now, old Crusty - old Diogenes' (these were her familiar terms for me when we disagreed), 'what is the matter now?' 'Take yourself away. I have no pleasure in looking at you or your parure.' For an instant she seemed taken by surprise.
'What now, Mother Wisdom? I have not got into debt for it - that is, not for the jewels, nor the gloves, nor the bouquet. My dress is certainly not paid for, but uncle de Bassompierre will pay it in the bill: he never notices items, but just looks at the total; and he is so rich, one need not care about a few guineas more or less.'
'Will you go? I want to shut the door. . . . Ginevra, people may tell you you are very handsome in that ball attire; but, in my eyes, you will never look so pretty as you did in the gingham gown and plain straw bonnet you wore when I first saw you.' 'Other people have not your puritanical tastes:' was her angry reply. 'And, besides, I see no right you have to sermonise me.'
'Certainly! I have little right; and you, perhaps, have still less to come flourishing and fluttering into my chamber - a mere jay in borrowed plumes. I have not the least respect for your feathers, Miss Fanshawe; and especially the peacock's eyes you call a parure: very pretty things, if you had bought them with money which was your own, and which you could well spare, but not at all pretty under present circumstances.''On est là pour Mademoiselle Fanshawe!' was announced by the portress, and away she tripped. This semi-mystery of the parure was not solved till two or three days afterwards, when she came to make a voluntary confession.
'You need not be sulky with me', she began, 'in the idea that I am running somebody, papa or M. de Bassompierre, deeply into debt. I assure you nothing remains unpaid for, but the few dresses I have lately had: all the rest is settled.'
'There', I thought, 'lies the mystery; considering that they were not given you by Mrs. Cholmondeley, and that your own means are limited to a few shillings, of which I know you to be excessively careful.'
'Ecoutez!' she went on, drawing near and speaking in her most confidential and coaxing tone; for my 'sulkiness' was inconvenient to her: she liked me to be in a talking and listening mood, even if I only talked to chide and listened to rail. 'Ecoutez, chère grogneuse! I will tell you all how and about it; and you will then see, not only how right the whole thing is, but how cleverly managed. In the first place, I must go out. Papa himself said that he wished me to see something of the world: he particularly remarked to Mrs. Cholmondeley, that, though I was a sweet creature enough, I had rather a bread-andbutter-eating, school-girl air; of which it was his special desire that I should get rid, by an introduction to society here, before I make my regular début in England. Well, then, if I go out, I must dress. Mrs. Cholmondeley is turned shabby, and will give nothing more; it would be too hard upon uncle to make him pay for all the things I need: that you can't deny - that agrees with your own preachments. Well, but SOMEBODY who heard me (quite by chance, I assure you) complaining to Mrs. Cholmondeley of my distressed circumstances, and what straits I was put to for an ornament or two - somebody, far from grudging one a present, was quite delighted at the idea of being permitted to offer some trifle. You should have seen what a blanc-bec he looked when he first spoke of it: how he hesitated and blushed, and positively trembled from fear of a repulse.'
'That will do, Miss Fanshawe. I suppose I am to understand that M. Isidore is the benefactor: that it is from him you have accepted that costly parure; that he supplies your bouquets and your gloves?'
'You express yourself so disagreeably', said she, 'one hardly knows how to answer; what I mean to say is, that I occasionally allow Isidore the pleasure and honour of expressing his homage by the offer of a trifle.'
'It comes to the same thing. . . . Now, Ginevra, to speak the plain truth, I don't very well understand these matters; but I believe you are doing very wrong - seriously wrong. Perhaps, however, you now feel certain that you will be able to marry M. Isidore; your parents and uncle have given their consent, and, for your part, you love him entirely?''Mais pas du tout!' (she always had recourse to French when about to say something specially heartless and perverse). 'Je suis sa reine, mais il n'est pas mon roi.'
'Excuse me, I must believe this language is mere nonsense and coquetry. There is nothing great about you, yet you are above profiting by the good nature and purse of a man to whom you feel absolute indifference. You love M. Isidore far more than you think, or will avow.'
'No. I danced with a young officer the other night, whom I love a thousand times more than he. I often wonder why I feel so very cold to Isidore, for everybody says he is handsome, and other ladies admire him; but, somehow, he bores me: let me see now how it is. . . .'
And she seemed to make an effort to reflect. In this I encouraged her. 'Yes!' I said, 'try to get a clear idea of the state of your mind. To me it seems in a great mess - chaotic as a rag-bag.'
'It is something in this fashion', she cried out ere long: 'the man is too romantic and devoted, and he expects something more of me than I find it convenient to be. He thinks I am perfect: furnished with all sorts of sterling qualities and solid virtues, such as I never had, nor intend to have. Now, one can't help in his presence, rather trying to justify his good opinion; and it does so tire one to be goody, and to talk sense - for he really thinks I am sensible. I am far more at my ease with you, old lady - you, you dear crosspatch - who take me at my lowest, and know me to be coquettish, and ignorant, and flirting, and fickle, and silly, and selfish, and all the other sweet things you and I have agreed to be a part of my character.'
'This is all very well', I said, making a strenuous effort to preserve that gravity and severity which ran risk of being shaken by this whimsical candour, 'but it does not alter that wretched business of the presents. Pack them up, Ginevra, like a good, honest girl, and send them back.''Indeed, I won't', said she, stoutly.
'Then you are deceiving M. Isidore. It stands to reason that by accepting his presents you give him to understand he will one day receive an equivalent, in your regard. . . .' 'But he won't' she interrupted: 'he has his equivalent now, in the pleasure of seeing me wear them - quite enough for him: he is only bourgeois.'This phrase, in its senseless arrogance, quite cured me of the temporary weakness which had made me relax my tone and aspect. She rattled on -
'My present business is to enjoy youth, and not to think of fettering myself, by promise or vow, to this man or that. When first I saw Isidore, I believed he would help me to enjoy it. I believed he would be content with my being a pretty girl; and that we should meet and part and flutter about like two butterflies, and be happy. Lo, and behold! I find him at times as grave as a judge, and deep-feeling and thoughtful. Bah! Les penseurs, les hommes profonds et passionnés, ne sont pas à mon gout. Le Colonel Alfred de Hamal suits me far better. Va pour les beaux fats et les jolis fripons! Vive les joies et les plaisirs! A bas les grandes passions et les sévères vertus!'She looked for an answer to this tirade. I gave none. 'J'aime mon beau Colonel' she went on: 'je n'aimerai jamais son rival. Je ne serai jamais femme de bourgeois, moi!' I now signified that it was imperatively necessary my apartment should be relieved of the honour of her presence; she went away laughing.