Yet three days, and then I must go back to the pensionnat. I almost numbered the moments of these days upon the clock; fain would I have retarded their flight; but they glided by while I watched them: they were already gone while I yet feared their departure.
“Lucy will not leave us to-day,” said Mrs. Bretton, coaxingly at breakfast; “she knows we can procure a second respite.”
“I would not ask for one if I might have it for a word,” said I. “I long to get the good-by over, and to be settled in the Rue Fossette again. I must go this morning: I must go directly; my trunk is packed and corded.”
It appeared; however, that my going depended upon Graham; he had said he would accompany, me, and it so fell out that he was engaged all day, and only returned home at dusk. Then ensued a little combat of words. Mrs. Bretton and her son pressed me to remain one night more. I could have cried, so irritated and eager was I to be gone. I longed to leave them as the criminal on the scaffold longs for the axe to descend: that is, I wished the pang over. How much I wished it, they could not tell. On these points, mine was a state of mind out of their experience.
It was dark when Dr. John handed me from the carriage at Madame Beck’s door. The lamp above was lit; it rained a November drizzle, as it had rained all day: the lamplight gleamed on the wet pavement. Just such a night was it as that on which, not a year ago, I had first stopped at this very threshold; just similar was the scene. I remembered the very shapes of the paving-stones which I had noted with idle eye, while, with a thick-beating heart, I waited the unclosing of that door at which I stood — a solitary and a suppliant. On that night, too, I had briefly met him who now stood with me. Had I ever reminded him of that rencontre, or explained it? I had not, nor ever felt the inclination to do so: it was a pleasant thought, laid by in my own mind, and best kept there.
Graham rung the bell. The door was instantly opened, for it was just that period of the evening when the half-boarders took their departure — consequently, Rosine was on the alert.
“Don’t come in,” said I to him; but he stepped a moment into the well-lighted vestibule. I had not wished him to see that “the water stood in my eyes,” for his was too kind a nature ever to be needlessly shown such signs of sorrow. He always wished to heal — to relieve — when, physician as he was, neither cure nor alleviation were, perhaps, in his power.
“Keep up your courage, Lucy. Think of my mother and myself as true friends. We will not forget you.”
“Nor will I forget you, Dr. John.”
My trunk was now brought in. We had shaken hands; he had turned to go, but he was not satisfied: he had not done or said enough to content his generous impulses.
“Lucy,”— stepping after me —“shall you feel very solitary here?”
“At first I shall.”
“Well, my mother will soon call to see you; and, meantime, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll write — just any cheerful nonsense that comes into my head — shall I?”
“Good, gallant heart!” thought I to myself; but I shook my head, smiling, and said, “Never think of it: impose on yourself no such task. You write to me! — you’ll not have time.”
“Oh! I will find or make time. Good-by!”
He was gone. The heavy door crashed to: the axe had fallen — the pang was experienced.
Allowing myself no time to think or feel — swallowing tears as if they had been wine — I passed to Madame’s sitting-room to pay the necessary visit of ceremony and respect. She received me with perfectly well-acted cordiality — was even demonstrative, though brief, in her welcome. In ten minutes I was dismissed. From the salle-à-manger I proceeded to the refectory, where pupils and teachers were now assembled for evening study: again I had a welcome, and one not, I think, quite hollow. That over, I was free to repair to the dormitory.
“And will Graham really write?” I questioned, as I sank tired on the edge of the bed.
Reason, coming stealthily up to me through the twilight of that long, dim chamber, whispered sedately —“He may write once. So kind is his nature, it may stimulate him for once to make the effort. But it cannot be continued — it may not be repeated. Great were that folly which should build on such a promise — insane that credulity which should mistake the transitory rain-pool, holding in its hollow one draught, for the perennial spring yielding the supply of seasons.”
I bent my head: I sat thinking an hour longer. Reason still whispered me, laying on my shoulder a withered hand, and frostily touching my ear with the chill blue lips of eld.
“If,” muttered she, “if he should write, what then? Do you meditate pleasure in replying? Ah, fool! I warn you! Brief be your answer. Hope no delight of heart — no indulgence of intellect: grant no expansion to feeling — give holiday to no single faculty: dally with no friendly exchange: foster no genial intercommunion. . . . ”
“But I have talked to Graham and you did not chide,” I pleaded.
“No,” said she, “I needed not. Talk for you is good discipline. You converse imperfectly. While you speak, there can be no oblivion of inferiority — no encouragement to delusion: pain, privation, penury stamp your language. . . . ”
“But,” I again broke in, “where the bodily presence is weak and the speech contemptible, surely there cannot be error in making written language the medium of better utterance than faltering lips can achieve?”
Reason only answered, “At your peril you cherish that idea, or suffer its influence to animate any writing of yours!”
“But if I feel, may I never express?”
“Never!“ declared Reason.
I groaned under her bitter sternness. Never — never — oh, hard word! This hag, this Reason, would not let me look up, or smile, or hope: she could not rest unless I were altogether crushed, cowed, broken-in, and broken-down. According to her, I was born only to work for a piece of bread, to await the pains of death, and steadily through all life to despond. Reason might be right; yet no wonder we are glad at times to defy her, to rush from under her rod and give a truant hour to Imagination — her soft, bright foe, our sweet Help, our divine Hope. We shall and must break bounds at intervals, despite the terrible revenge that awaits our return. Reason is vindictive as a devil: for me she was always envenomed as a step-mother. If I have obeyed her it has chiefly been with the obedience of fear, not of love. Long ago I should have died of her ill-usage her stint, her chill, her barren board, her icy bed, her savage, ceaseless blows; but for that kinder Power who holds my secret and sworn allegiance. Often has Reason turned me out by night, in mid-winter, on cold snow, flinging for sustenance the gnawed bone dogs had forsaken: sternly has she vowed her stores held nothing more for me — harshly denied my right to ask better things. . . . Then, looking up, have I seen in the sky a head amidst circling stars, of which the midmost and the brightest lent a ray sympathetic and attent. A spirit, softer and better than Human Reason, has descended with quiet flight to the waste — bringing all round her a sphere of air borrowed of eternal summer; bringing perfume of flowers which cannot fade — fragrance of trees whose fruit is life; bringing breezes pure from a world whose day needs no sun to lighten it. My hunger has this good angel appeased with food, sweet and strange, gathered amongst gleaning angels, garnering their dew-white harvest in the first fresh hour of a heavenly day; tenderly has she assuaged the insufferable fears which weep away life itself — kindly given rest to deadly weariness — generously lent hope and impulse to paralyzed despair. Divine, compassionate, succourable influence! When I bend the knee to other than God, it shall be at thy white and winged feet, beautiful on mountain or on plain. Temples have been reared to the Sun — altars dedicated to the Moon. Oh, greater glory! To thee neither hands build, nor lips consecrate: but hearts, through ages, are faithful to thy worship. A dwelling thou hast, too wide for walls, too high for dome — a temple whose floors are space — rites whose mysteries transpire in presence, to the kindling, the harmony of worlds!
Sovereign complete! thou hadst, for endurance, thy great army of martyrs; for achievement, thy chosen band of worthies. Deity unquestioned, thine essence foils decay!
This daughter of Heaven remembered me to-night; she saw me weep, and she came with comfort: “Sleep,” she said. “Sleep, sweetly — I gild thy dreams!”
She kept her word, and watched me through a night’s rest; but at dawn Reason relieved the guard. I awoke with a sort of start; the rain was dashing against the panes, and the wind uttering a peevish cry at intervals; the night-lamp was dying on the black circular stand in the middle of the dormitory: day had already broken. How I pity those whom mental pain stuns instead of rousing! This morning the pang of waking snatched me out of bed like a hand with a giant’s gripe. How quickly I dressed in the cold of the raw dawn! How deeply I drank of the ice-cold water in my carafe! This was always my cordial, to which, like other dram-drinkers, I had eager recourse when unsettled by chagrin.
Ere long the bell rang its réveillée to the whole school. Being dressed, I descended alone to the refectory, where the stove was lit and the air was warm; through the rest of the house it was cold, with the nipping severity of a continental winter: though now but the beginning of November, a north wind had thus early brought a wintry blight over Europe: I remember the black stoves pleased me little when I first came; but now I began to associate with them a sense of comfort, and liked them, as in England we like a fireside.
Sitting down before this dark comforter, I presently fell into a deep argument with myself on life and its chances, on destiny and her decrees. My mind, calmer and stronger now than last night, made for itself some imperious rules, prohibiting under deadly penalties all weak retrospect of happiness past; commanding a patient journeying through the wilderness of the present, enjoining a reliance on faith — a watching of the cloud and pillar which subdue while they guide, and awe while they illumine — hushing the impulse to fond idolatry, checking the longing out-look for a far-off promised land whose rivers are, perhaps, never to be, reached save in dying dreams, whose sweet pastures are to be viewed but from the desolate and sepulchral summit of a Nebo.
By degrees, a composite feeling of blended strength and pain wound itself wirily round my heart, sustained, or at least restrained, its throbbings, and made me fit for the day’s work. I lifted my head.
As I said before, I was sitting near the stove, let into the wall beneath the refectory and the carré, and thus sufficing to heat both apartments. Piercing the same wall, and close beside the stove, was a window, looking also into the carré; as I looked up a cap-tassel, a brow, two eyes, filled a pane of that window; the fixed gaze of those two eyes hit right against my own glance: they were watching me. I had not till that moment known that tears were on my cheek, but I felt them now.
This was a strange house, where no corner was sacred from intrusion, where not a tear could be shed, nor a thought pondered, but a spy was at hand to note and to divine. And this new, this out-door, this male spy, what business had brought him to the premises at this unwonted hour? What possible right had he to intrude on me thus? No other professor would have dared to cross the carré before the class-bell rang. M. Emanuel took no account of hours nor of claims: there was some book of reference in the first-class library which he had occasion to consult; he had come to seek it: on his way he passed the refectory. It was very much his habit to wear eyes before, behind, and on each side of him: he had seen me through the little window — he now opened the refectory door, and there he stood.
“Mademoiselle, vous êtes triste.”
“Monsieur, j’en ai bien le droit.”
“Vous êtes malade de coeur et d’humeur,” he pursued. “You are at once mournful and mutinous. I see on your cheek two tears which I know are hot as two sparks, and salt as two crystals of the sea. While I speak you eye me strangely. Shall I tell you of what I am reminded while watching you?”
“Monsieur, I shall be called away to prayers shortly; my time for conversation is very scant and brief at this hour — excuse ——”
“I excuse everything,” he interrupted; “my mood is so meek, neither rebuff nor, perhaps, insult could ruffle it. You remind me, then, of a young she wild creature, new caught, untamed, viewing with a mixture of fire and fear the first entrance of the breaker-in.”
Unwarrantable accost! — rash and rude if addressed to a pupil; to a teacher inadmissible. He thought to provoke a warm reply; I had seen him vex the passionate to explosion before now. In me his malice should find no gratification; I sat silent.
“You look,” said he, “like one who would snatch at a draught of sweet poison, and spurn wholesome bitters with disgust.
“Indeed, I never liked bitters; nor do I believe them wholesome. And to whatever is sweet, be it poison or food, you cannot, at least, deny its own delicious quality — sweetness. Better, perhaps, to die quickly a pleasant death, than drag on long a charmless life.”
“Yet,” said he, “you should take your bitter dose duly and daily, if I had the power to administer it; and, as to the well-beloved poison, I would, perhaps, break the very cup which held it.”
I sharply turned my head away, partly because his presence utterly displeased me, and partly because I wished to shun questions: lest, in my present mood, the effort of answering should overmaster self-command.
“Come,” said he, more softly, “tell me the truth — you grieve at being parted from friends — is it not so?”
The insinuating softness was not more acceptable than the inquisitorial curiosity. I was silent. He came into the room, sat down on the bench about two yards from me, and persevered long, and, for him, patiently, in attempts to draw me into conversation — attempts necessarily unavailing, because I could not talk. At last I entreated to be let alone. In uttering the request, my voice faltered, my head sank on my arms and the table. I wept bitterly, though quietly. He sat a while longer. I did not look up nor speak, till the closing door and his retreating step told me that he was gone. These tears proved a relief.
I had time to bathe my eyes before breakfast, and I suppose I appeared at that meal as serene as any other person: not, however, quite as jocund-looking as the young lady who placed herself in the seat opposite mine, fixed on me a pair of somewhat small eyes twinkling gleefully, and frankly stretched across the table a white hand to be shaken. Miss Fanshawe’s travels, gaieties, and flirtations agreed with her mightily; she had become quite plump, her cheeks looked as round as apples. I had seen her last in elegant evening attire. I don’t know that she looked less charming now in her school-dress, a kind of careless peignoir of a dark-blue material, dimly and dingily plaided with black. I even think this dusky wrapper gave her charms a triumph; enhancing by contrast the fairness of her skin, the freshness of her bloom, the golden beauty of her tresses.
“I am glad you are come back, Timon,” said she. Timon was one of her dozen names for me. “You don’t know how often I have wanted you in this dismal hole.”
“Oh, have you? Then, of course, if you wanted me, you have something for me to do: stockings to mend, perhaps.” I never gave Ginevra a minute’s or a farthing’s credit for disinterestedness.
“Crabbed and crusty as ever!” said she. “I expected as much: it would not be you if you did not snub one. But now, come, grand-mother, I hope you like coffee as much, and pistolets as little as ever: are you disposed to barter?”
“Take your own way.”
This way consisted in a habit she had of making me convenient. She did not like the morning cup of coffee; its school brewage not being strong or sweet enough to suit her palate; and she had an excellent appetite, like any other healthy school-girl, for the morning pistolets or rolls, which were new-baked and very good, and of which a certain allowance was served to each. This allowance being more than I needed, I gave half to Ginevra; never varying in my preference, though many others used to covet the superfluity; and she in return would sometimes give me a portion of her coffee. This morning I was glad of the draught; hunger I had none, and with thirst I was parched. I don’t know why I chose to give my bread rather to Ginevra than to another; nor why, if two had to share the convenience of one drinking-vessel, as sometimes happened — for instance, when we took a long walk into the country, and halted for refreshment at a farm — I always contrived that she should be my convive, and rather liked to let her take the lion’s share, whether of the white beer, the sweet wine, or the new milk: so it was, however, and she knew it; and, therefore, while we wrangled daily, we were never alienated.
After breakfast my custom was to withdraw to the first classe, and sit and read, or think (oftenest the latter) there alone, till the nine-o’clock bell threw open all doors, admitted the gathered rush of externes and demi-pensionnaires, and gave the signal for entrance on that bustle and business to which, till five P.M., there was no relax.
I was just seated this morning, when a tap came to the door.
“Pardon, Mademoiselle,” said a pensionnaire, entering gently; and having taken from her desk some necessary book or paper, she withdrew on tip-toe, murmuring as she passed me, “Que mademoiselle est appliquée!”
Appliquée, indeed! The means of application were spread before me, but I was doing nothing; and had done nothing, and meant to do nothing. Thus does the world give us credit for merits we have not. Madame Beck herself deemed me a regular bas-bleu, and often and solemnly used to warn me not to study too much, lest “the blood should all go to my head.” Indeed, everybody in the Rue Fossette held a superstition that “Meess Lucie” was learned; with the notable exception of M. Emanuel, who, by means peculiar to himself, and quite inscrutable to me, had obtained a not inaccurate inkling of my real qualifications, and used to take quiet opportunities of chuckling in my ear his malign glee over their scant measure. For my part, I never troubled myself about this penury. I dearly like to think my own thoughts; I had great pleasure in reading a few books, but not many: preferring always those on whose style or sentiment the writer’s individual nature was plainly stamped; flagging inevitably over characterless books, however clever and meritorious: perceiving well that, as far as my own mind was concerned, God had limited its powers and, its action — thankful, I trust, for the gift bestowed, but unambitious of higher endowments, not restlessly eager after higher culture.
The polite pupil was scarcely gone, when, unceremoniously, without tap, in burst a second intruder. Had I been blind I should have known who this was. A constitutional reserve of manner had by this time told with wholesome and, for me, commodious effect, on the manners of my co-inmates; rarely did I now suffer from rude or intrusive treatment. When I first came, it would happen once and again that a blunt German would clap me on the shoulder, and ask me to run a race; or a riotous Labassecourienne seize me by the arm and drag me towards the playground: urgent proposals to take a swing at the “Pas de Géant,” or to join in a certain romping hide-and-seek game called “Un, deux, trois,” were formerly also of hourly occurrence; but all these little attentions had ceased some time ago — ceased, too, without my finding it necessary to be at the trouble of point-blank cutting them short. I had now no familiar demonstration to dread or endure, save from one quarter; and as that was English I could bear it. Ginevra Fanshawe made no scruple of — at times — catching me as I was crossing the carré, whirling me round in a compulsory waltz, and heartily enjoying the mental and physical discomfiture her proceeding induced. Ginevra Fanshawe it was who now broke in upon “my learned leisure.” She carried a huge music-book under her arm.
“Go to your practising,” said I to her at once: “away with you to the little salon!”
“Not till I have had a talk with you, chère amie. I know where you have been spending your vacation, and how you have commenced sacrificing to the graces, and enjoying life like any other belle. I saw you at the concert the other night, dressed, actually, like anybody else. Who is your tailleuse?”
“Tittle-tattle: how prettily it begins! My tailleuse! — a fiddlestick! Come, sheer off, Ginevra. I really don’t want your company.”
“But when I want yours so much, ange farouche, what does a little reluctance on your part signify? Dieu merci! we know how to manoeuvre with our gifted compatriote — the learned ‘ourse Britannique.’ And so, Ourson, you know Isidore?”
“I know John Bretton.”
“Oh, hush!” (putting her fingers in her ears) “you crack my tympanums with your rude Anglicisms. But, how is our well-beloved John? Do tell me about him. The poor man must be in a sad way. What did he say to my behaviour the other night? Wasn’t I cruel?”
“Do you think I noticed you?”
“It was a delightful evening. Oh, that divine de Hamal! And then to watch the other sulking and dying in the distance; and the old lady — my future mamma-in-law! But I am afraid I and Lady Sara were a little rude in quizzing her.”
“Lady Sara never quizzed her at all; and for what you did, don’t make yourself in the least uneasy: Mrs. Bretton will survive your sneer.”
“She may: old ladies are tough; but that poor son of hers! Do tell me what he said: I saw he was terribly cut up.”
“He said you looked as if at heart you were already Madame de Hamal.”
“Did he?” she cried with delight. “He noticed that? How charming! I thought he would be mad with jealousy?”
“Ginevra, have you seriously done with Dr. Bretton? Do you want him to give you up?”
“Oh! you know he can’t do that: but wasn’t he mad?”
“Quite mad,” I assented; “as mad as a March hare.”
“Well, and how ever did you get him home?”
“How ever, indeed! Have you no pity on his poor mother and me? Fancy us holding him tight down in the carriage, and he raving between us, fit to drive everybody delirious. The very coachman went wrong, somehow, and we lost our way.”
“You don’t say so? You are laughing at me. Now, Lucy Snowe —”
“I assure you it is fact — and fact, also, that Dr. Bretton would not stay in the carriage: he broke from us, and would ride outside.”
“Afterwards — when he did reach home — the scene transcends description.”
“Oh, but describe it — you know it is such fun!”
“Fun for you, Miss Fanshawe? but” (with stern gravity) you know the proverb —‘What is sport to one may be death to another.’”
“Go on, there’s a darling Timon.”
“Conscientiously, I cannot, unless you assure me you have some heart.”
“I have — such an immensity, you don’t know!”
“Good! In that case, you will be able to conceive Dr. Graham Bretton rejecting his supper in the first instance — the chicken, the sweetbread prepared for his refreshment, left on the table untouched. Then —— but it is of no use dwelling at length on the harrowing details. Suffice it to say, that never, in the most stormy fits and moments of his infancy, had his mother such work to tuck the sheets about him as she had that night.”
“He wouldn’t lie still?”
“He wouldn’t lie still: there it was. The sheets might be tucked in, but the thing was to keep them tucked in.”
“And what did he say?”
“Say! Can’t you imagine him demanding his divine Ginevra, anathematizing that demon, de Hamal — raving about golden locks, blue eyes, white arms, glittering bracelets?”
“No, did he? He saw the bracelet?”
“Saw the bracelet? Yes, as plain as I saw it: and, perhaps, for the first time, he saw also the brand-mark with which its pressure has encircled your arm. Ginevra” (rising, and changing my tone), “come, we will have an end of this. Go away to your practising.”
And I opened the door.
“But you have not told me all.”
“You had better not wait until I do tell you all. Such extra communicativeness could give you no pleasure. March!”
“Cross thing!” said she; but she obeyed: and, indeed, the first classe was my territory, and she could not there legally resist a notice of quittance from me.
Yet, to speak the truth, never had I been less dissatisfied with her than I was then. There was pleasure in thinking of the contrast between the reality and my description — to remember Dr. John enjoying the drive home, eating his supper with relish, and retiring to rest with Christian composure. It was only when I saw him really unhappy that I felt really vexed with the fair, frail cause of his suffering.
A fortnight passed; I was getting once more inured to the harness of school, and lapsing from the passionate pain of change to the palsy of custom. One afternoon, in crossing the carré, on my way to the first classe, where I was expected to assist at a lesson of “style and literature,” I saw, standing by one of the long and large windows, Rosine, the portress. Her attitude, as usual, was quite nonchalante. She always “stood at ease;” one of her hands rested in her apron-pocket, the other at this moment held to her eyes a letter, whereof Mademoiselle coolly perused the address, and deliberately studied the seal.
A letter! The shape of a letter similar to that had haunted my brain in its very core for seven days past. I had dreamed of a letter last night. Strong magnetism drew me to that letter now; yet, whether I should have ventured to demand of Rosine so much as a glance at that white envelope, with the spot of red wax in the middle, I know not. No; I think I should have sneaked past in terror of a rebuff from Disappointment: my heart throbbed now as if I already heard the tramp of her approach. Nervous mistake! It was the rapid step of the Professor of Literature measuring the corridor. I fled before him. Could I but be seated quietly at my desk before his arrival, with the class under my orders all in disciplined readiness, he would, perhaps, exempt me from notice; but, if caught lingering in the carré, I should be sure to come in for a special harangue. I had time to get seated, to enforce perfect silence, to take out my work, and to commence it amidst the profoundest and best trained hush, ere M. Emanuel entered with his vehement burst of latch and panel, and his deep, redundant bow, prophetic of choler.
As usual he broke upon us like a clap of thunder; but instead of flashing lightning-wise from the door to the estrade, his career halted midway at my desk. Setting his face towards me and the window, his back to the pupils and the room, he gave me a look — such a look as might have licensed me to stand straight up and demand what he meant — a look of scowling distrust.
“Voilà! pour vous,” said he, drawing his hand from his waist-coat, and placing on my desk a letter — the very letter I had seen in Rosine’s hand — the letter whose face of enamelled white and single Cyclop’s-eye of vermilion-red had printed themselves so clear and perfect on the retina of an inward vision. I knew it, I felt it to be the letter of my hope, the fruition of my wish, the release from my doubt, the ransom from my terror. This letter M. Paul, with his unwarrantably interfering habits, had taken from the portress, and now delivered it himself.
I might have been angry, but had not a second for the sensation. Yes: I held in my hand not a slight note, but an envelope, which must, at least, contain a sheet: it felt not flimsy, but firm, substantial, satisfying. And here was the direction, “Miss Lucy Snowe,” in a clean, clear, equal, decided hand; and here was the seal, round, full, deftly dropped by untremulous fingers, stamped with the well-cut impress of initials, “J. G. B.” I experienced a happy feeling — a glad emotion which went warm to my heart, and ran lively through all my veins. For once a hope was realized. I held in my hand a morsel of real solid joy: not a dream, not an image of the brain, not one of those shadowy chances imagination pictures, and on which humanity starves but cannot live; not a mess of that manna I drearily eulogized awhile ago — which, indeed, at first melts on the lips with an unspeakable and preternatural sweetness, but which, in the end, our souls full surely loathe; longing deliriously for natural and earth-grown food, wildly praying Heaven’s Spirits to reclaim their own spirit-dew and essence — an aliment divine, but for mortals deadly. It was neither sweet hail nor small coriander-seed — neither slight wafer, nor luscious honey, I had lighted on; it was the wild, savoury mess of the hunter, nourishing and salubrious meat, forest-fed or desert-reared, fresh, healthful, and life-sustaining. It was what the old dying patriarch demanded of his son Esau, promising in requital the blessing of his last breath. It was a godsend; and I inwardly thanked the God who had vouchsafed it. Outwardly I only thanked man, crying, “Thank you, thank you, Monsieur!”
Monsieur curled his lip, gave me a vicious glance of the eye, and strode to his estrade. M. Paul was not at all a good little man, though he had good points.
Did I read my letter there and then? Did I consume the venison at once and with haste, as if Esau’s shaft flew every day?
I knew better. The cover with its address — the seal, with its three clear letters — was bounty and abundance for the present. I stole from the room, I procured the key of the great dormitory, which was kept locked by day. I went to my bureau; with a sort of haste and trembling lest Madame should creep up-stairs and spy me, I opened a drawer, unlocked a box, and took out a case, and — having feasted my eyes with one more look, and approached the seal with a mixture of awe and shame and delight, to my lips — I folded the untasted treasure, yet all fair and inviolate, in silver paper, committed it to the case, shut up box and drawer, reclosed, relocked the dormitory, and returned to class, feeling as if fairy tales were true, and fairy gifts no dream. Strange, sweet insanity! And this letter, the source of my joy, I had not yet read: did not yet know the number of its lines.
When I re-entered the schoolroom, behold M. Paul raging like a pestilence! Some pupil had not spoken audibly or distinctly enough to suit his ear and taste, and now she and others were weeping, and he was raving from his estrade, almost livid. Curious to mention, as I appeared, he fell on me.
“Was I the mistress of these girls? Did I profess to teach them the conduct befitting ladies? — and did I permit and, he doubted not, encourage them to strangle their mother-tongue in their throats, to mince and mash it between their teeth, as if they had some base cause to be ashamed of the words they uttered? Was this modesty? He knew better. It was a vile pseudo sentiment — the offspring or the forerunner of evil. Rather than submit to this mopping and mowing, this mincing and grimacing, this, grinding of a noble tongue, this general affectation and sickening stubbornness of the pupils of the first class, he would throw them up for a set of insupportable petites maîtresses, and confine himself to teaching the abc to the babies of the third division.”
What could I say to all this? Really nothing; and I hoped he would allow me to be silent. The storm recommenced.
“Every answer to his queries was then refused? It seemed to be considered in that place — that conceited boudoir of a first classe, with its pretentious book-cases, its green-baized desks, its rubbish of flower-stands, its trash of framed pictures and maps, and its foreign surveillante, forsooth! — it seemed to be the fashion to think there that the Professor of Literature was not worthy of a reply! These were new ideas; imported, he did not doubt, straight from ‘la Grande Bretagne:’ they savoured of island insolence and arrogance.”
Lull the second — the girls, not one of whom was ever known to weep a tear for the rebukes of any other master, now all melting like snow-statues before the intemperate heat of M. Emanuel: I not yet much shaken, sitting down, and venturing to resume my work.
Something — either in my continued silence or in the movement of my hand, stitching — transported M. Emanuel beyond the last boundary of patience; he actually sprang from his estrade. The stove stood near my desk, he attacked it; the little iron door was nearly dashed from its hinges, the fuel was made to fly.
“Est-ce que vous avez l’intention de m’insulter?” said he to me, in a low, furious voice, as he thus outraged, under pretence of arranging the fire.
It was time to soothe him a little if possible.
“Mais, Monsieur,” said I, “I would not insult you for the world. I remember too well that you once said we should be friends.”
I did not intend my voice to falter, but it did: more, I think, through the agitation of late delight than in any spasm of present fear. Still there certainly was something in M. Paul’s anger — a kind of passion of emotion — that specially tended to draw tears. I was not unhappy, nor much afraid, yet I wept.
“Allons, allons!” said he presently, looking round and seeing the deluge universal. “Decidedly I am a monster and a ruffian. I have only one pocket-handkerchief,” he added, “but if I had twenty, I would offer you each one. Your teacher shall be your representative. Here, Miss Lucy.”
And he took forth and held out to me a clean silk handkerchief. Now a person who did not know M. Paul, who was unused to him and his impulses, would naturally have bungled at this offer — declined accepting the same — et cetera. But I too plainly felt this would never do: the slightest hesitation would have been fatal to the incipient treaty of peace. I rose and met the handkerchief half-way, received it with decorum, wiped therewith my eyes, and, resuming my seat, and retaining the flag of truce in my hand and on my lap, took especial care during the remainder of the lesson to touch neither needle nor thimble, scissors nor muslin. Many a jealous glance did M. Paul cast at these implements; he hated them mortally, considering sewing a source of distraction from the attention due to himself. A very eloquent lesson he gave, and very kind and friendly was he to the close. Ere he had done, the clouds were dispersed and the sun shining out — tears were exchanged for smiles.
In quitting the room he paused once more at my desk.
“And your letter?” said he, this time not quite fiercely.
“I have not yet read it, Monsieur.”
“Ah! it is too good to read at once; you save it, as, when I was a boy, I used to save a peach whose bloom was very ripe?”
The guess came so near the truth, I could not prevent a suddenly-rising warmth in my face from revealing as much.
“You promise yourself a pleasant moment,” said he, “in reading that letter; you will open it when alone — n’est-ce pas? Ah! a smile answers. Well, well! one should not be too harsh; ‘la jeunesse n’a qu’un temps.’”
“Monsieur, Monsieur!” I cried, or rather whispered after him, as he turned to go, “do not leave me under a mistake. This is merely a friend’s letter. Without reading it, I can vouch for that.”
“Je conçois, je conçois: on sait ce que c’est qu’un ami. Bonjour, Mademoiselle!”
“But, Monsieur, here is your handkerchief.”
“Keep it, keep it, till the letter is read, then bring it me; I shall read the billet’s tenor in your eyes.”
When he was gone, the pupils having already poured out of the schoolroom into the berceau, and thence into the garden and court to take their customary recreation before the five-o’clock dinner, I stood a moment thinking, and absently twisting the handkerchief round my arm. For some reason — gladdened, I think, by a sudden return of the golden glimmer of childhood, roused by an unwonted renewal of its buoyancy, made merry by the liberty of the closing hour, and, above all, solaced at heart by the joyous consciousness of that treasure in the case, box, drawer up-stairs — I fell to playing with the handkerchief as if it were a ball, casting it into the air and catching it — as it fell. The game was stopped by another hand than mine-a hand emerging from a paletôt-sleeve and stretched over my shoulder; it caught the extemporised plaything and bore it away with these sullen words:
“Je vois bien que vous vous moquez de moi et de mes effets.”
Really that little man was dreadful: a mere sprite of caprice and, ubiquity: one never knew either his whim or his whereabout.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51