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by Charlotte Brontë
The original, squashed down to read in about 30 minutes
Charlotte, who first published under the pseudonym 'Currer Bell', was one of the novelist daughters of Irish churchman Patrick Brontë, of the romantically wild Haworth parsonage in Yorkshire.
The experiences of the heroine, Lucy Snowe, appear to be based on Charlotte Brontë's own experience as a teacher in Brussels. The principal characters in the story have been identified, more or less completely, with people the writer knew.
For more works by the Brontës, see The Index
My godmother lived in a handsome house in the ancient town of Bretton - the widow of Bretton - and there I, Lucy Snowe, visited her about twice a year, and liked the visit well, for time flowed smoothly for me at her side, like the gliding of a full river through a verdant plain.
During one of my visits I was told that the little daughter of a distant relation of my godmother was coming to be my companion, and well do I remember the rainy night when, outside the opened door, we saw the servant Waren with a shawled bundle in his arms and a nurse-girl by his side.
"Put me down, please," said a small voice. "Take off the shawl; give it to Harriet, and she can put it away."
The child who gave these orders was a tiny, neat little figure, delicate as wax, and like a mere doll, though she was six years of age.
Mrs. Bretton drew the little stranger to her when they had entered the drawing-room, kissed her, and asked: "What is my little one's name?"
"Polly, papa calls her," was the reply.
"And will Polly be content to live with me?"
"Not always; but till papa comes home." Her eyes filled with tears, and, drawing away from Mrs. Bretton, she added: "I can sit on a stool."
Her emotion at finding herself among strangers was, however, only expressed by the tiniest occasional sniff, and presently the managing little body remarked:
"Harriet, I must be put to bed. Ask if you sleep with me."
"No, missy," said the nurse; "you are to share this young lady's room" - designating me.
"I wish you, ma'am, good-night," said the little creature 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.
Paulina Home's father was obliged to travel to recruit his health, and her mother being dead, Mrs. Bretton had offered to take temporary charge of the child.
During the two months Paulina stayed with us, the one member of the household who reconciled her to absence from her father was John Graham Bretton, Mrs. Bretton's only child, a handsome, whimsical youth of sixteen. He began by treating her with mock seriousness as a person of consideration, and before long was more than the Grand Turk in her estimation; indeed, when a letter came from her father on the Continent, asking that his little girl might join him there, we wondered how she would take the news. I found her in the drawing-room engaged with a picture-book.
"Miss Snowe," said she, "this is a wonderful book. It was given me by Graham. It tells of distant countries."
"Polly," I interrupted, "should you like to travel?"
"Not just yet," was the prudent answer; "but perhaps when I am grown a woman I may travel with Graham."
"But would you like to travel now if your papa was with you?"
"What is the good of talking in that silly way?" said she. "What is papa to you? I was just beginning to be happy."
Then I told her of the letter, and the tidings kept her serious the whole day. When Graham came home in the evening, she whispered, as she heard him in the hall: "Tell him by-and-by; tell him I am going."
But Graham, who was preoccupied about some school prize, had to be told twice before the news took proper hold of his attention. "Polly going?" he said. "What a pity! Dear little Mouse, I shall be sorry to lose her; she must come to us again."
On going to bed, I found the child wide awake, and in what she called "dreadful misery!"
"Paulina," I said, "you should not grieve that Graham does not care for you so much as you care for him. It must be so."
Her questioning eyes asked why.
"Because he is a boy and you are a girl; he is sixteen and you are only six; his nature is strong and gay, and yours is otherwise."
"But I love him so much. He should love me a little."
"He does. He is fond of you; you are his favourite."
"Am I Graham's favourite?"
"Yes, more than any little child I know."
The assurance soothed her, and she smiled in her anguish. As I warmed the shivering, capricious little creature in my arms I wondered how she would battle with life, and bear its shocks, repulses, and humiliations.
The next eight years of my life brought changes. My own household and that of the Brettons suffered wreck. My friends went abroad and were lost sight of, and I, after a period of companionship with a woman of fortune, found myself, at her death, with fifteen pounds in my pocket looking for a new place. Then it was that I saw mentally within reach what I had never yet beheld with my bodily eyes - I saw London.
When I awoke there next morning, my spirit shook its always fettered wings half loose. I had a feeling as if I were at last about to taste life. In that morning my soul grew as fast as Jonah's gourd. I wandered whither chance might lead in a still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment.
That evening I formed a project of crossing to a continental port, and finding a vessel was about to start, I joined her at once in the river. When the packet sailed at sunrise, I found the only passenger on board to whom I cared to speak - and who, indeed, insisted on speaking to me - was a girl of seventeen on her way to school in the city of Villette. Miss Ginevra Fanshawe carelessly ran on with a full account of herself, her school at Madame Beck's, her poverty at home, her education by her godfather, De Bassompièrre, who lived in France, her want of accomplishments - except that she could talk, play, and dance - and the need for her to marry a rather elderly gentleman with cash.
It was this irresponsible talk, no doubt, that led me, in the absence of any other leading, to make Villette my destination. On my arrival there, an English gentleman, young, distinguished, and handsome, observing my inability to make myself understood at the bureau where the diligence stopped, inquired kindly if I had any friends in the city, and on my replying that I had not, gave me the address of such an inn as I wanted, and personally directed me part of the way. Even then, however, I failed in the gloom to find the inn, and was becoming quite exhausted, when over the door of a house, loftier by a storey than those around it, I saw a brass plate with the inscription, "Pensionnat de Demoiselles," and, beneath, the name, "Madame Beck." Providence said: "Stop here; this is your inn." I rang the door-bell.
"May I see Madame Beck?" I inquired of the servant who opened the door. As I spoke in English I was admitted without a moment's hesitation.
I sat, turning hot and cold, in a glittering salon for a quarter of an hour, and then a voice said: "You ayre Engliss?"
The question came from a motherly, dumpy little woman in a large shawl, a wrapping gown, a clean, trim nightcap, and shod with the shoes of silence.
As I told my story, through a mistress who had been summoned to translate the speech of Albion, I thought the tale won madame's ear, though never a gleam of sympathy crossed her countenance. A man's step was heard in the vestibule, hastily proceeding to the outer door.
"Who goes out now?" demanded Madame Beck, listening to the tread.
"M. Paul Emanuel," replied the teacher.
"The very man! Call him."
He entered: a small, dark, and square man, in spectacles.
"Mon cousin," began madame, "read that countenance."
The little man fixed on me his spectacles, a gathering of the brows seeming to say that a veil would be no veil to him.
"Do you need her services?" he asked.
"I could do with them," said Madame Beck.
"Engage her." And with a ban soir this sudden arbiter of my destiny vanished.
Madame Beck possessed high administrative powers. She ruled a hundred and twenty pupils, four teachers, eight masters, six servants and three children, and managed the pupils' parents and friends to perfection, without apparent effort. "Surveillance," "espionage" - these were the watchwords of her system. She knew what honesty was, and liked it - when it did not obtrude its clumsy scruples in the way of her will and interest. Wise, firm, faithless, secret, crafty, passionless, watchful and inscrutable - withal perfectly decorous - what more could be desired?
Not a soul in all Madame Beck's house, from the scullion to the directress herself, but was above being ashamed of a lie; they thought nothing of it.
Here Miss Ginevra Fanshawe was a thriving pupil. She had a considerable range of acquaintances outside the school, for Mrs. Cholmondeley, her chaperon, a gay, fashionable lady, took her to evening parties at the houses of her acquaintances. Soon I discovered by hints that ardent admiration, perhaps genuine love, was at the command of this pretty and charming, but by no means refined, girl. She called her suitor "Isidore," and bragged about the vehemence of his attachment. I asked her if she loved him in return.
"He is handsome; he loves me to distraction; and so I am amused," was the reply.
"But if he loves you, and it comes to nothing in the end, he will be miserable."
"Of course he will break his heart. I should be disappointed if he didn't."
"Do try to get a clear idea of the state of your own mind," I said, "for to me it really seems as chaotic as a rag-bag."
"It is something in this fashion. He thinks far more of me than I find it convenient to be, while I am more at ease with you, you old cross-patch, you who know me to be coquettish and ignorant and fickle."
"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. Colonel Alfred de Hamal suits me far better. Vive les joies et les plaisirs!"
It was as English teacher that I was engaged at Madame Beck's school, but the annual fête brought me into prominence in another capacity. The programme included a dramatic performance, with pupils and teachers for actors, and this was given under the superintendence of M. Paul Emanuel. I was dressed a couple of hours before anyone else, and reading in my classroom, the door was flung open, and in came M. Paul with a burst of execrable jargon: "Mees, play you must; I am planted here."
"What can I do for you?" I inquired.
"Play you must. I will not have you shrink, or frown, or make the prude. Let us thrust to the wall all reluctance."
What did the little man mean?
"Listen!" he said. "The case shall be stated, and you shall answer me 'Yes' or 'No.' Louise Vanderkelkov has fallen ill - at least, so her ridiculous mother asserts. She is charged with a rôle; without that rôle the play stopped. Englishwomen are either the best or the worst of their sex. I apply to an Englishwoman to save me. What is her answer - 'Yes,' or 'No'?"
Seeing in his vexed, fiery and searching eye an appeal behind its menace, my lips dropped the word "Oui."
His rigid countenance relaxed with a quiver of content; then he went on:
"Here is the book. Here is your rôle. You must withdraw." He conveyed me to the attic, locked me in, and took away the key.
What I felt that successful night, and what I did, I no more expected to feel and do than to be lifted in a trance to the seventh heaven. A keen relish for dramatic expression revealed itself as part of my nature. But the strength of longing must be put by; and I put it by, and fastened it in with the lock of a resolution which neither time nor temptation has since picked.
It was at this school fête that I discovered the identity of Miss Fanshawe's M. Isidore. She whispered to me, after the play: "Isidore and Alfred de Hamal are both here!" The latter I found was a straight-nosed, correct-featured little dandy, nicely dressed, curled, booted, and gloved; and Isidore was the manly English Dr. John, who attended the pupils of the school, and was none other than the gentleman whose directions to an hotel I had failed to follow on the night of my arrival in Villette. And the puppet, the manikin - a mere lackey for Dr. John, his valet, his foot-boy, was the favoured admirer of Ginevra Fanshawe!
During the long vacation I stayed at the school, and, in the absence of companionship and the sedative of work, suffered such agonising depression as led to physical illness, until one evening, after wandering aimlessly in the city, I fell fainting as I tried to reach the porch of a great church. When I recovered consciousness, I found myself in a room that smiled "Auld lang syne" out of every nook.
Where was I? The furniture was that with which I had been so intimate in the drawing-room of my godmother's house at Bretton. Nay, there, on the linen of my bed, were my godmothers initials "L.L.B."; and there was the portrait that used to hang over the mantelpiece in the breakfast-room in the old house at Bretton. I audibly pronounced the name - "Graham!"
"Graham!" echoed a sudden voice at my bedside. "Do you want Graham?"
She was little changed; something sterner, something more robust, but it was my godmother, Mrs. Bretton.
"How was I found, madam?"
"My son shall tell you by and by," said she. "I am told you are an English teacher in a foreign school here."
Before evening I was downstairs, and seated in a corner, when Graham arrived home, and entered with the question: "How is your patient, mamma?"
At Mrs. Bretton's invitation, I came forward to speak for myself where he stood at the hearth, a figure justifying his mother's pride.
"Much better," I said calmly; "much better, I thank you Dr. John."
For this tall young man, this host of mine, was Dr. John, and I had been aware of his identity for some time.
Ere we had sat ten minutes, I caught the eye of Mrs. Bretton fixed steadily on me, and at last she asked, "Tell me, Graham, of whom does this young lady remind you."
"Dr. John has had so much to do and think of," said I, seeing how it must end, "that it never occurred to me as possible that he should recognise Lucy Snowe."
"Lucy Snowe! I thought so! I knew it!" cried Mrs. Bretton, as she stepped across the hearth and kissed me. And I wondered if Mrs. Bretton knew at whose feet her idolised son had laid his homage.
The Brettons, who had regained some of their fortune, lived in a château outside Villette, a course further warranted by Dr. John's professional success. In the months, that followed I heard much of Ginevra. He thought her so fair, so good, so innocent, and yet, though love is blind, I saw sometimes a subtle ray sped sideways from his eye that half led me to think his professed persuasion of Miss Fanshawe's naïveté was in part assumed.
One morning my godmother decreed that we should go with Graham to a concert that night, at which the most advanced pupils of the conservatoire were to perform. There, in the suite of the British embassy, was Ginevra Fanshawe, seated by the daughter of an English peer. I noticed that she looked quite steadily at Dr. John, and then raised a glass to examine his mother, and a minute or two afterwards laughingly whispered to her neighbour.
"Miss Fanshawe is here," I whispered. "Have you noticed her?"
"Oh yes," was the reply; "and I happen to know her companion, who is a proud girl, but not in the least insolent; and I doubt whether Ginevra will have gained ground in her estimation by making a butt of her neighbours."
"Myself and my mother. As for me, it is very natural; but my mother! I never saw her ridiculed before. Through me she could not in ten years have done what in a moment she has done through my mother."
Never before had I seen so much fire and so little sunshine in Dr. John's blue eyes.
"My mother shall not be ridiculed with my consent, or without my scorn," he added. "Mother," said he to her later, "You are better to me than ten wives." And when we were out in the keen night air, he said to himself: "Thank you, Miss Fanshawe. I am glad you laughed at my mother. That sneer did me a world of good."
V. - Reunion Completed
One evening in December Dr. Bretton called to take me to the theatre in place of his mother, who had been prevented by an arrival. In the course of the performance a cry of "Fire!" rang out, and a panic ensued. Graham remained quite cool until he saw a young girl struck from her protector's arms and hurled under the feet of the crowd. Then he rushed forward, thrust back the throng with the assistance of the gentleman - a powerful man, though grey-haired - and bore the girl into the fresh night, I following him closely.
"She is very light," he said; "like a child."
"I am not a child! I am a person of seventeen!" responded his burden, demurely.
Her father's carriage drove up, and Graham, having introduced himself as an English doctor, we drove to the hotel where father and daughter were staying in handsome apartments. The injuries were not dangerous, and the father, after earnestly expressing his obligations to Graham, asked him to call the next day.
When next I visited the Bretton's château I found an intruder in the room I had occupied during my illness.
"Miss de Bassompièrre, I pronounced, recognising the rescued lady, whose name I had heard on the night of the accident.
"No," was the reply. "Not Miss de Bassompièrre to you." Then, as I seemed at fault, she added: "You have forgotten, then, that I have sat on your knee, been lifted in your arms, even shared your pillow. I am Paulina Mary Home de Bassompièrre."
I often visited Mary de Bassompièrre with pleasure. That young lady had different moods for different people. With her father she was even now a child. With me she was serious and womanly. With Mrs. Bretton she was docile and reliant. With Graham she was shy - very shy. At moments she tried to be cold, and, on occasion, she endeavoured to shun him. Even her father noticed this demeanour in her, and asked her what her old friend had done.
"Nothing," she replied; "but we are grown strange to each other."
I became apprised of the return of M. de Bassompièrre and Paulina, after a few weeks' absence in Paris, by seeing them riding before me in a quiet boulevard with Dr. Bretton. How animated was Graham's face! How true, yet how retiring the joy it expressed! They parted. He passed me at speed, hardly feeling the earth he skimmed, and seeing nothing on either hand.
It was after this that she made me her confession of love, and of fear lest her father should be grieved.
"I wish papa knew! I do wish papa knew!" began now to be her anxious murmur; but it was M. de Bassompièrre who first broached the subject of his daughter's affections, and it was to me that he introduced it. She came into the room while we talked and Graham followed.
"Take her, John Bretton," he said, "and may God deal with you as you deal with her!"
The pupils from the schools of the city were assembled for the yearly prize distribution - a ceremony followed by an oration from one of the professors. I think I was glad when M. Paul appeared behind the crimson desk, fierce and frank, dark and candid, testy and fearless, for then I knew that neither formalism nor flattery would be the doom of the audience.
On Monsieur's birthday it was the habit of the scholars to present him with flowers, and I had worked a beaded watch-chain, and enclosed it in a sparkling shell-box, with his initials graved on the lid. He entered that day in a mood that made him as good as a sunbeam, and each pupil presented her bouquet, till he was hidden at his desk behind a pile of flowers. I waited. Then he demanded thrice, in tragic tones: "Is that all?" The effect was ludicrous, and the time for my presentation had passed. Thereupon he fell, with furious abuse, upon the English, and particularly English women. But I presented the chain to him later, and that day closed for us both with a wordless content, so full was he of friendliness.
The professor's care for me took curious forms. He haunted my desk with unseen gift-bringing - the newest books, the correction of exercises, the concealment of bonbons, of which he was fond.
One day he asked me whether, if I were his sister, I should always be content to stay with a brother such as he. I said I believed I should. He continued: "If I were to go beyond seas for two or three years, should you welcome me on my return?"
"Monsieur, how could I live in the interval?" was my reply.
The explanation of that question soon came. He had, it seemed, to sail to Basseterre, in Guadeloupe, to attend to a friend's business interests. For what I felt there was no help, and how could I help feeling?
Of late he had spent hours with me, with temper soothed, with eye content, with manner home-like and mild. The mutual understanding was settling and fixing. And when the time came for him to say good-bye, we rambled forth into the city. He talked of his voyage. What did I propose to do in his absence? He did not like leaving me at Madame Beck's - I should be so desolate.
We were now returning from our walk, when, passing a small but pleasant and neat abode in a clean faubourg, he took a key from his pocket, opened, and entered. "Voici!" he cried, and put a prospectus in my hand. "Externat de demoiselles. Numéro 7, Faubourg Clotilde. Directrice, Mademoiselle Lucy Snowe."
"Now," said he, "you shall live here and have a school. You shall employ yourself while I am away; you shall think of me; you shall mind your health and happiness for my sake, and when I come back - - "
I touched his hand with my lips. Royal to me had been its bounty.
And now three years are past. M. Emanuel's return is fixed. He is to be with me ere the mists of November come. My school flourishes; my house is ready.
But the skies hang full and dark - a wrack sails from the west. Peace, peace, Banshee - "keening" at every window. The storm did not cease till the Atlantic was strewn with wrecks. Peace, be still! Oh, a thousand weepers, praying in agony on waiting shores, listened for that voice; but when the sun returned, his light was night to some!
Here pause. Enough is said. Trouble no kind heart. Leave sunny imaginations hope. Let them picture union and a happy life.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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