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XI. the portress's cabinet - 23


subordinate to her despotic kinsman's direction. The whole staff of
instructors, male and female, he set aside, and stood on the
examiner's estrade alone. It irked him that he was forced to make one
exception to this rule. He could not manage English: he was obliged to
leave that branch of education in the English teacher's hands; which
he did, not without a flash of naпve jealousy.
A constant crusade against the "amour-propre" of every human being but
himself, was the crotchet of this able, but fiery and grasping little
man. He had a strong relish for public representation in his own
person, but an extreme abhorrence of the like display in any other. He
quelled, he kept down when he could; and when he could not, he fumed
like a bottled storm.
On the evening preceding the examination-day, I was walking in the
garden, as were the other teachers and all the boarders. M. Emanuel
joined me in the "allйe dйfendue;" his cigar was at his lips; his
paletфt--a most characteristic garment of no particular shape--hung
dark and menacing; the tassel of his bonnet grec sternly shadowed his
left temple; his black whiskers curled like those of a wrathful cat;
his blue eye had a cloud in its glitter.
"Ainsi," he began, abruptly fronting and arresting me, "vous allez
trфner comme une reine; demain--trфner а mes cфtйs? Sans doute vous
savourez d'avance les dйlices de l'autoritй. Je crois voir en je ne
sais quoi de rayonnante, petite ambitieuse!"
Now the fact was, he happened to be entirely mistaken. I did not--
could not--estimate the admiration or the good opinion of tomorrow's
audience at the same rate he did. Had that audience numbered as many
personal friends and acquaintance for me as for him, I know not how it
might have been: I speak of the case as it stood. On me school-
triumphs shed but a cold lustre. I had wondered--and I wondered now--
how it was that for him they seemed to shine as with hearth-warmth
and hearth-glow. _He_ cared for them perhaps too much; _I_,
probably, too little. However, I had my own fancies as well as he. I
liked, for instance, to see M. Emanuel jealous; it lit up his nature,
and woke his spirit; it threw all sorts of queer lights and shadows
over his dun face, and into his violet-azure eyes (he used to say that
his black hair and blue eyes were "une de ses beautйs"). There was a
relish in his anger; it was artless, earnest, quite unreasonable, but
never hypocritical. I uttered no disclaimer then of the complacency he
attributed to me; I merely asked where the English examination came
in--whether at the commencement or close of the day?
"I hesitate," said he, "whether at the very beginning, before many
persons are come, and when your aspiring nature will not be gratified
by a large audience, or quite at the close, when everybody is tired,
and only a jaded and worn-out attention will be at your service."
"Que vous кtes dur, Monsieur!" I said, affecting dejection.
"One ought to be 'dur' with you. You are one of those beings who must
be _kept down_. I know you! I know you! Other people in this
house see you pass, and think that a colourless shadow has gone by. As
for me, I scrutinized your face once, and it sufficed."
"You are satisfied that you understand me?"
Without answering directly, he went on, "Were you not gratified when
you succeeded in that vaudeville? I watched you and saw a passionate
ardour for triumph in your physiognomy. What fire shot into the
glance! Not mere light, but flame: je me tiens pour averti."
"What feeling I had on that occasion, Monsieur--and pardon me, if I
say, you immensely exaggerate both its quality and quantity--was quite
abstract. I did not care for the vaudeville. I hated the part you
assigned me. I had not the slightest sympathy with the audience below
the stage. They are good people, doubtless, but do I know them? Are
they anything to me? Can I care for being brought before their view
again to-morrow? Will the examination be anything but a task to me--a
task I wish well over?"
"Shall I take it out of your hands?"
"With all my heart; if you do not fear failure."
"But I should fail. I only know three phrases of English, and a few
words: par exemple, de sonn, de mone, de stares--est-ce bien dit? My
opinion is that it would be better to give up the thing altogether: to
have no English examination, eh?"
"If Madame consents, I consent."
"Heartily?"
"Very heartily."
He smoked his cigar in silence. He turned suddenly.
"Donnez-moi la main," said he, and the spite and jealousy melted out
of his face, and a generous kindliness shone there instead.
"Come, we will not be rivals, we will be friends," he pursued. "The
examination shall take place, and I will choose a good moment; and
instead of vexing and hindering, as I felt half-inclined ten minutes
ago--for I have my malevolent moods: I always had from childhood--I
will aid you sincerely. After all, you are solitary and a stranger,
and have your way to make and your bread to earn; it may be well that
you should become known. We will be friends: do you agree?"
"Out of my heart, Monsieur. I am glad of a friend. I like that better
than a triumph."
"Pauvrette?" said he, and turned away and left the alley.
The examination passed over well; M. Paul was as good as his word, and
did his best to make my part easy. The next day came the distribution
of prizes; that also passed; the school broke up; the pupils went
home, and now began the long vacation.
That vacation! Shall I ever forget it? I think not. Madame Beck went,
the first day of the holidays, to join her children at the sea-side;
all the three teachers had parents or friends with whom they took
refuge; every professor quitted the city; some went to Paris, some to
Boue-Marine; M. Paul set forth on a pilgrimage to Rome; the house was
left quite empty, but for me, a servant, and a poor deformed and
imbecile pupil, a sort of crйtin, whom her stepmother in a distant
province would not allow to return home.
My heart almost died within me; miserable longings strained its
chords. How long were the September days! How silent, how lifeless!
How vast and void seemed the desolate premises! How gloomy the
forsaken garden--grey now with the dust of a town summer departed.
Looking forward at the commencement of those eight weeks, I hardly
knew how I was to live to the end. My spirits had long been gradually
sinking; now that the prop of employment was withdrawn, they went down
fast. Even to look forward was not to hope: the dumb future spoke no
comfort, offered no promise, gave no inducement to bear present evil
in reliance on future good. A sorrowful indifference to existence
often pressed on me--a despairing resignation to reach betimes the end
of all things earthly. Alas! When I had full leisure to look on life
as life must be looked on by such as me, I found it but a hopeless
desert: tawny sands, with no green fields, no palm-tree, no well in
view. The hopes which are dear to youth, which bear it up and lead it
on, I knew not and dared not know. If they knocked at my heart
sometimes, an inhospitable bar to admission must be inwardly drawn.
When they turned away thus rejected, tears sad enough sometimes
flowed: but it could not be helped: I dared not give such guests
lodging. So mortally did I fear the sin and weakness of presumption.
Religious reader, you will preach to me a long sermon about what I
have just written, and so will you, moralist: and you, stern sage:
you, stoic, will frown; you, cynic, sneer; you, epicure, laugh. Well,
each and all, take it your own way. I accept the sermon, frown, sneer,
and laugh; perhaps you are all right: and perhaps, circumstanced like
me, you would have been, like me, wrong. The first month was, indeed,
a long, black, heavy month to me.
The crйtin did not seem unhappy. I did my best to feed her well and
keep her warm, and she only asked food and sunshine, or when that
lacked, fire. Her weak faculties approved of inertion: her brain, her
eyes, her ears, her heart slept content; they could not wake to work,
so lethargy was their Paradise.
Three weeks of that vacation were hot, fair, and dry, but the fourth
and fifth were tempestuous and wet. I do not know why that change in
the atmosphere made a cruel impression on me, why the raging storm and
beating rain crushed me with a deadlier paralysis than I had
experienced while the air had remained serene; but so it was; and my
nervous system could hardly support what it had for many days and
nights to undergo in that huge empty house. How I used to pray to
Heaven for consolation and support! With what dread force the
conviction would grasp me that Fate was my permanent foe, never to be
conciliated. I did not, in my heart, arraign the mercy or justice of
God for this; I concluded it to be a part of his great plan that some
must deeply suffer while they live, and I thrilled in the certainty
that of this number, I was one.
It was some relief when an aunt of the crйtin, a kind old woman, came
one day, and took away my strange, deformed companion. The hapless
creature had been at times a heavy charge; I could not take her out
beyond the garden, and I could not leave her a minute alone: for her
poor mind, like her body, was warped: its propensity was to evil. A
vague bent to mischief, an aimless malevolence, made constant
vigilance indispensable. As she very rarely spoke, and would sit for
hours together moping and mowing, and distorting her features with
indescribable grimaces, it was more like being prisoned with some
strange tameless animal, than associating with a human being. Then
there were personal attentions to be rendered which required the nerve
of a hospital nurse; my resolution was so tried, it sometimes fell
dead-sick. These duties should not have fallen on me; a servant, now
absent, had rendered them hitherto, and in the hurry of holiday
departure, no substitute to fill this office had been provided. This
tax and trial were by no means the least I have known in life. Still,
menial and distasteful as they were, my mental pain was far more
wasting and wearing. Attendance on the crйtin deprived me often of the
power and inclination to swallow a meal, and sent me faint to the
fresh air, and the well or fountain in the court; but this duty never
wrung my heart, or brimmed my eyes, or scalded my cheek with tears hot
as molten metal.
The crйtin being gone, I was free to walk out. At first I lacked
courage to venture very far from the Rue Fossette, but by degrees I
sought the city gates, and passed them, and then went wandering away
far along chaussйes, through fields, beyond cemeteries, Catholic and
Protestant, beyond farmsteads, to lanes and little woods, and I know
not where. A goad thrust me on, a fever forbade me to rest; a want of
companionship maintained in my soul the cravings of a most deadly
famine. I often walked all day, through the burning noon and the arid
afternoon, and the dusk evening, and came back with moonrise.
While wandering in solitude, I would sometimes picture the present
probable position of others, my acquaintance. There was Madame Beck at
a cheerful watering-place with her children, her mother, and a whole
troop of friends who had sought the same scene of relaxation. Zйlie
St. Pierre was at Paris, with her relatives; the other teachers were
at their homes. There was Ginevra Fanshawe, whom certain of her
connections had carried on a pleasant tour southward. Ginevra seemed
to me the happiest. She was on the route of beautiful scenery; these
September suns shone for her on fertile plains, where harvest and
vintage matured under their mellow beam. These gold and crystal moons
rose on her vision over blue horizons waved in mounted lines.
But all this was nothing; I too felt those autumn suns and saw those
harvest moons, and I almost wished to be covered in with earth and
turf, deep out of their influence; for I could not live in their
light, nor make them comrades, nor yield them affection. But Ginevra
had a kind of spirit with her, empowered to give constant strength and
comfort, to gladden daylight and embalm darkness; the best of the good
genii that guard humanity curtained her with his wings, and canopied
her head with his bending form. By True Love was Ginevra followed:
never could she be alone. Was she insensible to this presence? It
seemed to me impossible: I could not realize such deadness. I imagined
her grateful in secret, loving now with reserve; but purposing one day
to show how much she loved: I pictured her faithful hero half
conscious of her coy fondness, and comforted by that consciousness: I
conceived an electric chord of sympathy between them, a fine chain of
mutual understanding, sustaining union through a separation of a
hundred leagues--carrying, across mound and hollow, communication by
prayer and wish. Ginevra gradually became with me a sort of heroine.
One day, perceiving this growing illusion, I said, "I really believe
my nerves are getting overstretched: my mind has suffered somewhat too
much a malady is growing upon it--what shall I do? How shall I keep
well?"
Indeed there was no way to keep well under the circumstances. At last
a day and night of peculiarly agonizing depression were succeeded by
physical illness, I took perforce to my bed. About this time the
Indian summer closed and the equinoctial storms began; and for nine
dark and wet days, of which the hours rushed on all turbulent, deaf,
dishevelled--bewildered with sounding hurricane--I lay in a strange
fever of the nerves and blood. Sleep went quite away. I used to rise
in the night, look round for her, beseech her earnestly to return. A
rattle of the window, a cry of the blast only replied---Sleep never
came!
I err. She came once, but in anger. Impatient of my importunity she
brought with her an avenging dream. By the clock of St. Jean Baptiste,
that dream remained scarce fifteen minutes--a brief space, but
sufficing to wring my whole frame with unknown anguish; to confer a
nameless experience that had the hue, the mien, the terror, the very
tone of a visitation from eternity. Between twelve and one that night
a cup was forced to my lips, black, strong, strange, drawn from no
2014-07-19 18:44
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