Uncle Silas, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 4

Madame De La Rougierre

ON A SUDDEN, on the grass before me, stood an odd figure — a very tall woman in grey draperies, nearly white under the moon, courtesying extraordinarily low, and rather fantastically.

I stared in something like a horror upon the large and rather hollow features which I did not know, smiling very unpleasantly on me; and the moment it was plain that I saw her, the grey woman began gobbling and cackling shrilly — I could not distinctly hear what through the window — and gesticulating oddly with her long hands and arms.

“There’s a woman at the window!” I gasped; “turn her away, please.”

If I had said a man, I suppose fat Branston would have summoned and sent forward a detachment of footmen. As it was, he bowed gravely, with a —

“Yes,‘m — shall’m.”

And with an air of authority approached the window.

I don’t think that he was pleasantly impressed himself by the first sight of our visitor, for he stopped short some steps of the window, and demanded rather sternly —

“What ye doin’ there, woman?”

To this summons, her answer, which occupied a little time, was inaudible to me. But Branston replied —

“I wasn’t aware, ma’am; I heerd nothin’; if you’ll go round that way, you’ll see the hall-door steps, and I’ll speak to the master, and do as he shall order.”

The figure said something and pointed.

“Yes, that’s it, and ye can’t miss of the door.”

And Mr. Branston returned slowly down the long room, and halted with out-turned pumps and a grave inclination before me, and the faintest amount of interrogation in the announcement —

“Please, ‘m, she says she’s the governess.”

“The governess! What governess?”

Branston was too well-bred to smile, and he said thoughtfully —

“P’raps, ‘m, I’d best ask the master.”

To which I assented, and away strode the flat pumps of the butler to the library.

I stood breathless in the hall. Every girl at my age knows how much is involved in such an advent. I also heard Mrs. Rusk, in a minute or two more, emerge I suppose from the study. She walked quickly, and muttered sharply to herself — an evil trick, in which she indulged when much “put about.” I should have been glad of a word with her; but I fancied she was vexed, and would not have talked satisfactorily. She did not, however, come my way; merely crossing the hall with her quick, energetic step.

Was it really the arrival of a governess? Was that apparition which had impressed me so unpleasantly to take the command of me — to sit alone with me, and haunt me perpetually with her sinister looks and shrilly gabble?

I was just making up my mind to go to Mary Quince, and learn something definite, when I heard my father’s step approaching from the library: so I quietly re-entered the drawing-room, but with an anxious and throbbing heart.

When he came in, as usual, he patted me on the head gently, with a kind of smile, and then began his silent walk up and down the room. I was yearning to question him on the point that just then engrossed me so disagreeably; but the awe in which I stood of him forbade.

After a time he stopped at the window, the curtain of which I had drawn, and the shutter partly opened, and he looked out perhaps with associations of his own, on the scene I had been contemplating.

It was not for nearly an hour after, that my father suddenly, after his wont, in a few words, apprised me of the arrival of Madame de la Rougierre to be my governess, highly recommended and perfectly qualified. My heart sank with a sure presage of ill. I already disliked, distrusted, and feared her.

I had more than an apprehension of her temper and fear of possibly abused authority. The large-featured, smirking phantom, saluting me so oddly in the moonlight, retained ever after its peculiar and unpleasant hold upon my nerves.

“Well, Miss Maud, dear, I hope you’ll like your new governess — for it’s more tha I do, just at present at least,” said Mrs. Rusk, sharply — she was awaiting me in my room. “I hate them Frenchwomen; they’re not natural, I think. I gave her her supper in my room. She eats like a wolf, she does, the great raw-boned hannimal. I wish you saw her in bed as I did. I put her next the clockroom — she’ll hear the hours betimes, I’m thinking. You never saw such a sight. The great long nose and hollow cheeks of her, and oogh! such a mouth! I felt a’most like little Red Riding–Hood — I did, Miss.”

Here honest Mary Quince, who enjoyed Mrs. Rusk’s satire, a weapon in which she was not herself strong, laughed outright.

“Turn down the bed, Mary. She’s very agreeable — she is, just now — all new-comers is; but she did not get many compliments from me, Miss — no, I rayther think not. I wonder why honest English girls won’t answer the gentry for governesses, instead of them gaping, scheming, wicked furriners? Lord forgi’ me, I think they’re all alike.”

Next morning I made acquaintance with Madame de la Rougierre. She was tall, masculine, a little ghastly perhaps, and draped in purple silk, with a lace cap, and great bands of black hair, too think and black, perhaps, to correspond quite naturally with her bleached and sallow skin, her hollow haws, and the fine but grim wrinkles traced about her brows and eyelids. She smiled, she nodded, and then for a good while she scanned me in silence with a steady cunning eye, and a stern smile.

“And how is she named — what is Mademoiselle’s name?” said the tall stranger.

“Maud, Madame.”

“Maud! — what a pretty name! Eh bien! I am very sure my dear Maud she will be very good little girl — is not so? — and I am sure I shall love you vary moche. And what ‘av you been learning, Maud, my dear cheaile — music, French, German, eh?”

“Yes, a little; and I had just begun the use of the globes when my governess went away.”

I nodded towards the globes, which stood near her, as I said this.

“Oh! yes — the globes;” and she spun one of them with her great hand. “Je vous expliquerai tout cela à fond.”

Madame de la Rougierre, I found, was always quite ready to explain everything “à fond;” but somehow her “explications,” as she termed them, were not very intelligible, and when pressed her temper woke up; so that I preferred, after a while, accepting the expositions just as they came.

Madame was on an unusually large scale, a circumstance which made some of her traits startling, and altogether rendered her, in her strange way, more awful in the eyes of a nervous child, I may say, such as I was. She used to look at me for a long time sometimes, with the peculiar smile I have mentioned, and a great finger upon her lip, like the Eleusinian priestess on the vase.

She would sit, too, sometimes for an hour together, looking into the fire or out of the window, plainly seeing nothing, and with an odd, fixed look of something like triumph — very nearly a smile — on her cunning face.

She was by no means a pleasant gouvernante for a nervous girl of my years. Sometimes she had accesses of a sort of hilarity which frightened me still more than her graver moods, and I will describe these by-and-by.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49