Villette, by Charlotte Brontë

Chapter 6

London

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, co-elevate 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 lantern-light 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 exultingly 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 its 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 barmaid.

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 realized 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 Meess,” 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?”

“No.”

“Where are you going?”

“I have not the least idea — beyond, at least, the port of Boue-Marine.”

She stared, then carelessly ran on:

“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 godpapa, 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 in 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 Mädchen,’ we used to hear them say. I was excessively happy at Bonn!”

“And where are you now?” I inquired.

“Oh! at — chose,” said she.

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 had 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 godpapa 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 —

Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars — a cage,

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.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31