The other day, in looking over my papers, I found in my copy of a letter, sent by me a year since to an old school acquaintance: --
'Dear Charles, -- I think when you and I were at Eton together, we were neither of us what could be called popular characters. You were a sarcastic, observant, shrewd, cold-blooded creature. My own portrait I will not attempt to draw, but I cannot recollect that it was a strikingly attractive one; can you? What animal magnetism drew thee and me together I know not; certainly I never experienced anything of the Pylades and Orestes sentiment for you, and I have reason to believe that you, on your part, were equally free from all romantic regard to me. Still, out of school hours, we walked and talked continually together. When the theme of conversation was our companions or our masters, we understood each other, and when I recurred to some sentiment of affection, some vague love of an excellent or beautiful object, whether in animate or inanimate nature, your sardonic coldness did not move me. I felt myself superior to that check then as I do now.
'It is a long time since I wrote to you, and a still longer time since I saw you. Chancing to take up a newspaper of your county the other day, my eye fell upon your name. I began to think of old times, to run over the events which have transpired since we separated, and I sat down and commenced this letter. What you have been doing I know not; but you shall hear, if you choose to listen, how the world has wagged with me.
'First, after leaving Eton, I had an interview with my maternal uncles, Lord Tynedale and the Hon. John Seacombe. They asked me if I would enter the Church, and my uncle the nobleman offered me the living of Seacombe, which is in his gift, if I would; then my other uncle, Mr. Seacombe, hinted that when I became rector of Seacombe-cum-Scaife, I might perhaps be allowed to take, as mistress of my house and head of my parish, one of my six cousins, his daughters, all of whom I greatly dislike.
'I declined both the Church and matrimony. A good clergyman is a good thing, but I should have made a very bad one. As to the wife -- oh, how like a nightmare is the thought of being bound for life to one of my cousins! No doubt they are accomplished and pretty; but not an accomplishment, not a charm of theirs, touches a chord in my bosom. To think of passing the winter evenings by the parlour fireside of Seacombe Rectory alone with one of them -- for instance, the large and well-modelled statue, Sarah -- no. I should be a bad husband, under such circumstances, as well as a bad clergyman.
'When I had declined my uncles' offers, they asked me what I intended to do. I said I should reflect. They reminded me that I had no fortune, and no expectation of any, and after a considerable pause Lord Tynedale demanded sternly whether I had thoughts of following my father's steps and engaging in trade. Now, I had had no thoughts of the sort. I do not think that my turn of mind qualifies me to make a good tradesman. My taste, my ambition does not lie in that way; but such was the scorn expressed in Lord Tynedale's countenance as he pronounced the word trade, such the contemptuous sarcasm of his tone, that I was instantly decided. My father was but a name to me, yet that name I did not like to hear mentioned with a sneer to my very face. I answered then, with haste and warmth, "I cannot do better than follow in my father's steps; yes, I will be a tradesman." My uncles did not remonstrate. They and I parted with mutual disgust. In reviewing this transaction, I find that I was quite right to shake off the burden of Tynedale's patronage, but a fool to offer my shoulders instantly for the reception of another burden -- one which might be more intolerable, and which certainly was yet untried.
'I wrote instantly to Edward -- you know Edward, my only brother, ten years my senior, married to a rich mill-owner's daughter, and now possessor of the mill and business which was my father's before he failed. You are aware that my father -- once reckoned a Croesus of wealth -- became bankrupt a short time previous to his death, and that my mother lived in destitution for some six months after him, unhelped by her aristocratical brothers, whom she had mortally offended by her union with Crimsworth, the --shire manufacturer. At the end of the six months she brought me into the world, and then herself left it, without, I should think much regret, as it contained little hope or comfort for her.
'My father's relations took charge of Edward, as they did of me, till I was nine years old. At that period it chanced that the representation of an important borough in our county fell vacant. Mr. Seacombe stood for it. My uncle Crimsworth, an astute mercantile man, took the opportunity of writing a fierce letter to the candidate, stating that if he and Lord Tynedale did not consent to do something towards the support of their sister's orphan children, he would expose their relentless and malignant conduct towards that sister, and do his best to turn the circumstances against Mr. Seacombe's election. That gentleman and Lord T. knew well enough that the Crimsworths were an unscrupulous and determined race. They knew also that they had influence in the borough of X--; and, making a virtue of necessity, they consented to defray the expenses of my education. I was sent to Eton, where I remained ten years, during which space of time Edward and I never met. He, when he grew up, entered into trade, and pursued his calling with such diligence, ability, and success, that now, in his thirtieth year, he was fast making a fortune. Of this I was apprised by the occasional short letters I received from him, some three or four times a year; which said letters never concluded without some expression of determined enmity against the house of Seacombe, and some reproach to me for living, as he said, on the bounty of that house. At first, while still in boyhood, I could not understand why, as I had no parents, I should not be indebted to my uncles Tynedale and Seacombe for my education; but as I grew up, and heard by degrees of the persevering hostility, the hatred till death evinced by them against my father, of the sufferings of my mother, of all the wrongs, in short, of our house, then did I conceive shame of the dependence in which I lived, and form a resolution no more to take bread from hands which had refused to minister to the necessities of my dying mother. It was by these feelings I was influenced when I refused the rectory of Seacombe and the union with one of my patrician cousins.
'An irreparable breach thus being effected between my uncles and myself, I wrote to Edward, told him what had occurred, and informed him of my intention to follow his steps and be a tradesman. I asked, moreover, if he could give me employment. His answer expressed no approbation of my conduct, but he said I might come down to --shire if I liked, and he would "see what could be done in the way of furnishing me with work." I repressed all, even mental comment on his note, packed my trunk and carpet-bag, and started for the north directly.
'After two days' travelling (railroads were not then in existence) I arrived, one wet October afternoon, in the town of X--. I had always understood that Edward lived in this town, but on inquiry I found that it was only Mr. Crimsworth's mill and warehouse which were situated in the smoky atmosphere of Bigben Close; his residence lay four miles out, in the country.
'It was late in the evening when I alighted at the gates of the habitation designated to me as my brother's. As I advanced up the avenue, I could see through the shades of twilight, and the dark gloomy mists which deepened those shades, that the house was large, and the grounds surrounding it sufficiently spacious. I paused a moment on the lawns in front, and leaning my back against a tall tree which rose in the centre, I gazed with interest on the exterior of Crimsworth Hall.
'"Edward is rich," thought I to myself "I believed him to be doing well, but I did not know he was master of a mansion like this." Cutting short all marvelling speculation, conjecture, etc., I advanced to the front door and rang. A manservant opened it. I announced myself. He relieved me of my wet cloak and carpet-bag, and ushered me into a room furnished as a library, where there was a bright fire and candles burning on the table. He informed me that his master was not yet returned from X-- market, but that he would certainly be at home in the course of half an hour.
'Being left to myself, I took the stuffed easy-chair, covered with red morocco, which stood by the fireside, and while my eyes watched the flames dart from the glowing coals, and the cinders fall at intervals on the hearth, my mind busied itself in conjectures concerning the meeting about to take place. Amidst much that was doubtful in the subject of these conjectures, there was one thing tolerably certain -- I was in no danger of encountering severe disappointment; from this the moderation of my expectations guaranteed me. I anticipated no overflowings of fraternal tenderness. Edward's letters had always been such as to prevent the engendering or harbouring of delusions of this sort. Still, as I sat awaiting his arrival, I felt eager -- very eager. I cannot tell you why. My hand, so utterly a stranger to the grasp of a kindred hand, clenched itself to repress the tremor with which impatience would fain have shaken it.
'I thought of my uncles; and as I was engaged in wondering whether Edward's indifference would equal the cold disdain I had always experienced from them, I heard the avenue gates open. Wheels approached the house -- Mr. Crimsworth was arrived; and after the lapse of some minutes, and a brief dialogue between himself and his servant in the hall, his tread drew near the library door. That tread alone announced the master of the house.
'I still retained some confused recollection of Edward as he was ten years ago -- a tall, wiry, raw youth; now, as I rose from my seat and turned towards the library door, I saw a fine-looking and powerful man, light-complexioned, well-made, and of athletic proportions. The first glance made me aware of an air of promptitude and sharpness, shown as well in his movements as in his port, his eye, and the general expression of his face. He greeted me with brevity, and, in the moment of shaking hands, scanned me from head to foot. He took his seat in the morocco-covered arm-chair, and motioned me to another seat.
'"I expected you would have called at the counting-house in the Close," said he; and his voice, I noticed, had an abrupt accent, probably habitual to him. He spoke also with a guttural northern tone, which sounded harsh in my ears, accustomed to the silvery utterance of the south.
'"The landlord of the inn where the coach stopped directed me here," said I. "I doubted at first the accuracy of his information, not being aware that you had such a residence as this."
'"Oh, it is all right!" he replied, "only I was kept half an hour behind time, waiting for you; that is all. I thought you must be coming by the eight o'clock coach."
'I expressed regret that he had had to wait. He made no answer, but stirred the fire, as if to cover a movement of impatience; then he scanned me again.
'I felt an inward satisfaction that I had not, in the first moment of meeting, betrayed any warmth, any enthusiasm, that I had saluted this man with a quiet and steady phlegm.
'"Have you quite broken with Tynedale and Seacombe?" he asked hastily.
'"I do not think I shall have any further communication with them. My refusal of their proposals will, I fancy, operate as a barrier against all future intercourse."
'"Why," said he, "I may as well remind you at the very outset of our connection that 'no man can serve two masters.' Acquaintance with Lord Tynedale will be incompatible with assistance from me." There was a kind of gratuitous menace in his eye as he looked at me in finishing this observation.
'Feeling no disposition to reply to him, I contented myself with an inward speculation on the differences which exist in the constitution of men's minds. I do not know what inference Mr. Crimsworth drew from my silence -- whether he considered it a symptom of contumacity, or an evidence of my being cowed by his peremptory manner. After a long and hard stare at me, he rose sharply from his seat.
'"To-morrow," said he, "I shall call your attention to some other points; but now it is supper-time, and Mrs. Crimsworth is probably waiting. Will you come?"
'He strode from the room, and I followed. In crossing the hall, I wondered what Mrs. Crimsworth might be. "Is she," thought I, "as alien to what I like as Tynedale, Seacombe, the Misses Seacombe, as the affectionate relative now striding before me, or is she better than these? Shall I, in conversing with her, feel free to show something of my real nature, or --" Further conjectures were arrested by my entrance into the dining-room.
'A lamp, burning under a shade of ground-glass, showed a handsome apartment, wainscoted with oak. Supper was laid on the table. By the fireplace, standing as if waiting our entrance, appeared a lady. She was young, tall, and well-shaped; her dress was handsome and fashionable. So much my first glance sufficed to ascertain. A gay salutation passed between her and Mr. Crimsworth. She chid him, half playfully, half poutingly, for being late. Her voice (I always take voices into the account in judging of character) was lively; it indicated, I thought, good animal spirits. Mr. Crimsworth soon checked her animated scolding with a kiss -- a kiss that still told of the bridegroom (they had not yet been married a year). She took her seat at the supper-table in first-rate spirits. Perceiving line, she begged my pardon for not noticing me before, and then shook hands with me, as ladies do when a flow of good-humour disposes them to be cheerful to all even the most indifferent of 'their acquaintance. It was now further obvious to me that she had a good complexion, and features sufficiently marked but agreeable; her hair was red -- quite red. She and Edward talked much, always in a vein of playful contention. She was vexed, or pretended to be vexed, that he had that day driven a vicious horse in the gig, and he made light of her fears. Sometimes she appealed to me.
'"Now, Mr. William, isn't it absurd in Edward to talk so? He says he will drive Jack, and no other horse, and the brute has thrown him twice already."
'She spoke with a kind of lisp, not disagreeable, but childish. I soon saw also that there was more than girlish -- a somewhat infantine expression in her by no means small features. This lisp and expression were, I have no doubt, a charm in Edward's eyes, and would be so to those of most men, but they were not to mine. I sought her eye, desirous to read there the intelligence which I could not discern in her face or hear in her conversation. It was merry, rather small. By turns I saw vivacity, vanity, coquetry, look out through its irid, but I watched in vain for a glimpse of soul. I am no oriental. Mite necks, carmine lips and cheeks, clusters of bright curls, do not suffice for me without that Promethean spark which will live after the roses and lilies are faded, the burnished hair grown gray. In sunshine, in prosperity, the flowers are very well; but how many wet days are there in life -- November seasons of disaster, when a man's hearth and home would be cold indeed without the clear, cheering gleam of intellect!
'Having perused the fair page of Mrs. Crimsworth's face, a deep, involuntary sigh announced my disappointment. She took it as a homage to her beauty, and Edward, who was evidently proud of his rich and handsome young wife, threw on me a glance, half ridicule, half ire.
'I turned from them both, and gazing wearily round the room, I saw two pictures set in the oak panelling -- one on each side of the mantelpiece. Ceasing to take part in the bantering conversation that flowed on between Mr. and Mrs. Crimsworth, I bent my thoughts to the examination of these pictures. They were portraits -- a lady and a gentleman, both costumed in the fashion of twenty years ago. The gentleman was in the shade. I could not see him well. The lady had the benefit of a full beam from the softly shaded lamp. I presently recognized her. I had seen this picture before in childhood. It was my mother -- that and the companion picture being the only heirlooms saved out of the sale of my father's property.
'The face, I remembered, had pleased me as a boy, but then I did not understand it; now I knew how rare that class of face is in the world, and I appreciated keenly its thoughtful yet gentle expression. The serious gray eye possessed for me a strong charm, as did certain lines in the features indicative of most true and tender feeling. I was sorry it was only a picture.
'I soon left Mr. and Mrs. Crimsworth to themselves; a servant conducted me to my bedroom. In closing my chamber door, I shut out all intruders -- you, Charles, as well as the rest. Good-bye for the present.
To this letter I never got an answer. Before my old friend received it, he had accepted a Government appointment in one of the colonies, and was already on his way to the scene of his official labours. What has become of him since I know not.
The leisure time I have at command, and which I intended to em I for his private benefit, I shall now dedicate to that of the public at large. My narrative is not exciting, and above all, not marvellous; but it may interest some individuals, who, having toiled in the same vocation as myself, will find in my experience frequent reflections of their own. The above letter will serve as an introduction. I now proceed.
A fine October morning succeeded to the foggy evening that had witnessed my first introduction to Crimsworth Hall. I was early up and walking in the large park-like meadow surrounding the house. The autumn sun, rising over the shire hills, disclosed a pleasant country; woods brown and mellow varied the fields from which the harvest had been lately carried; a river, gliding between the woods, caught on its surface the somewhat cold gleam of the October sun and sky; at frequent intervals along the banks of the river, tall, cylindrical chimneys, almost like slender round towers, indicated the factories which the trees half concealed; here and there mansions, similar to Crimsworth Hall, occupied agreeable sites on the hillside; the country wore, on the whole a cheerful, active, fertile look. Stream, trade, machinery had long banished from it all romance and seclusion. At a distance of five miles, a valley, opening between the low hills, held in its cups the great town of X--. A dense, permanent vapour brooded over this locality. There lay Edward's 'concern.'
I forced my eye to scrutinize this prospect, I forced my mind to dwell on it for a time; and when I found that it communicated no pleasurable emotion to my heart -- that it stirred in me none of the hopes a man ought to feel when he sees laid before him the scene of his life's career -- I said to myself 'William, you are a rebel against circumstances. you are a fool, and know not what you want; you have chosen trade and you shall he a tradesman. Look!' I continued mentally -- 'look at the sooty smoke in that hollow, and know that there is your post! There you cannot dream, you cannot speculate and theorize; there you shall out and work!'
Thus self-schooled, I returned to the house. My brother was in the breakfast-room. I met him collectedly. I could not meet him cheerfully. He was standing on the rug, his back to the fire. How much did I read in the expression of his eye as my glance encountered his, when I advanced to hid him good-morning -- how much that was contradictory to my nature! He said 'good-morning' abruptly and nodded, and then he snatched, rather than took, a newspaper from the table, and began to read it with the air of a master who seizes a pretext to escape the bore of conversing with an underling. It was well I had taken a resolution to endure for a time, or his manner would have gone far to render insupportable the disgust I had just been endeavouring to subdue. I looked at him. I measured his robust frame and powerful proportions; I saw my own reflection in the mirror over the mantelpiece. I amused myself with comparing the two pictures. In face I resembled him, though I was not so handsome. My features were less regular. I had a darker eye, and a broader brow. In form I was greatly inferior -- thinner, slighter, not so tall. As an animal, Edward excelled me far; should he prove as paramount in mind as in person, I must be a slave, for I must expect from him no lion-like generosity to one weaker than himself; his cold, avaricious eye, his stem, forbidding manner, told me he would not spare. Had I then force of mind to cope with him? I did not know. I had never been tried.
Mrs. Crimsworth's entrance diverted my thoughts for a moment. She looked well, dressed in white, her face and her attire shining in morning and bridal freshness. I addressed her with the degree of ease her last night's careless gaiety seemed to warrant, but she replied with coolness and restraint. Her husband had tutored her: she was not to he too familiar with his clerk.
As soon as breakfast was over, Mr. Crimsworth intimated to me that they were bringing the gig round to the door, and that in five minutes he should expect me to be ready to go down with him to X--. I did not keep him waiting; we were soon dashing at a rapid rate along the road. The horse he drove was the same vicious animal about which Mrs. Crimsworth had expressed her fears the night before. Once or twice Jack seemed disposed to turn restive, but a vigorous and determined application of the whip from the ruthless hand of his master soon compelled him to submission, and Edward's dilated nostril expressed his triumph in the result of the contest. He scarcely spoke to me during the whole of the brief drive, only opening his lips at intervals to damn his horse.
X-- was all stir and bustle when we entered it. We left the clean streets where there were dwelling-houses and shops, churches, and public buildings; we left all these, and turned down to a region of mills and warehouses. Thence we passed through two massive gates into a great paved yard, and we were in Bigben Close, and the mill was before us, vomiting soot from its long chimney, and quivering through its thick brick walls with the commotion of its iron bowels. Work-people were passing to and fro; a wagon was being laden with pieces. Mr. Crimsworth looked from side to side, and seemed at one glance to comprehend all that was going on. He alighted, and leaving his horse and gig to the care of a man who hastened to take the reins from his hand, he bid me follow him to the counting-house. We entered it -- a very different place from the parlours of Crimsworth Hall -- a place for business, with a bare, planked floor, a safe, two high desks and stools, and some chairs. A person was seated at one of the desks, who took off his. square cap when Mr. Crimsworth entered, and in an instant was again absorbed in his occupation of writing or calculating, I know not which.
Mr. Crimsworth, having removed his mackintosh, sat down by the fire. I remained standing near the hearth. He said presently,
'Steighton, you may leave the room. I have some business to transact with this gentleman. Come back when you hear the bell.'
The individual at the desk rose and departed, closing the door as he went out. Mr. Crimsworth stirred the fire, then folded his arms, and sat a moment thinking, his lips compressed, his brow knit. I had nothing to do but to watch him. How well his features were cut! What a handsome man he was! Whence, then, came that air of contraction, that narrow and hard aspect on his forehead, in all his lineaments?
Turning to me, he began abruptly, --
'You are come down to shire to learn to he a tradesman?'
'Yes, I am.'
'Have you made up your mind on the point? Let me know that at once.'
'Well, I am not bound to help you, but I have a place here vacant, if you are qualified for it. I will take you on trial. What can you do? Do you know anything besides that useless trash of college learning -- Greek, Latin, and so forth?'
'I have studied mathematics.'
'Stuff! I dare say you have.'
'I can read and write French and German.'
'Hum!' He reflected a moment, then opening a drawer in a desk near him, took out a letter, and gave it to me.
'Can you read that?' he asked.
It was a German commercial letter. I translated it. I could not tell whether he was gratified or not. His countenance remained fixed.
'It is well,' he said, after a pause, 'that you are acquainted with something useful -- something that may enable you to earn your board and lodging. Since you know French and German, I will take you as second clerk to manage the foreign correspondence of the house. I shall, give you a good salary -- £90 a year; and now,' he continued, raising his voice, 'hear once for all what I have to say about our relationship, and all that sort of humbug. I must have no nonsense on that point; it would never suit me. I shall excuse you nothing on the plea of being my brother. If I find you stupid, negligent, dissipated, idle, or possessed of any faults detrimental to the interests of the house, I shall dismiss you as I would any other clerk. Ninety pounds a year are good wages, and I expect to have the full value of my money out of you. Remember, too, that things are on a practical footing in my establishment: business-like habits, feelings, and ideas suit me best. Do you understand?'
'Partly,' I replied. 'I suppose you mean that I am to do my work for my wages, not to expect favour from you, and not to depend on you for any help but what I earn. That suits me exactly, and on these terms I will consent to be your clerk.'
I turned on my heel, and walked to the window. This time I did not consult his face to learn his opinion. What it was I do not know, nor did I then care. After a silence of some minutes he recommenced, --
'You perhaps expect to be accommodated with apartments at Crimsworth Hall, and to go and come with me in the gig. I wish you, however, to be aware that such an arrangement would be quite inconvenient to me. I like to have the seat in my gig at liberty for any gentleman whom for business reasons I may wish to take down to the hall for a night or so. You will seek out lodgings in X--.'
Quitting the window, I walked back to the hearth.
'Of course I shall seek out lodgings in X--,' I answered. 'It would not suit me either to lodge at Crimsworth Hall.'
My tone was quiet. I always speak quietly. Yet Mr. Crimsworth's blue eye became incensed. He took his revenge rather oddly. Turning to me, he said bluntly, --
'You are poor enough, I suppose. How do you expect to live till your quarter's salary becomes due?'
'I shall get on,' said I.
'How do you expect to live?' he repeated in a louder voice.
'As I can, Mr. Crimsworth.'
'Get into debt at your peril, that's all!' he answered. 'For aught I know, you may have extravagant aristocratic habits. If you have, drop them. I tolerate nothing of the sort here, and I will never give you a shilling extra, whatever liabilities you may incur; mind that.'
'Yes, Mr. Crimsworth, you will find I have a good memory.'
I said no more. I did not think the time was come for much parley. I had an instinctive feeling that it would be folly to let one's temper effervesce often with such a man as Edward. I said to myself, 'I will place my cup under this continual dropping; it shall stand there still and steady; when full, it will run over of itself. Meantime, patience. Two things are certain. I am capable of performing the work Mr. Crimsworth has set me. I can earn my wages conscientiously, and those wages are sufficient to enable me to live. AS to the fact of my brother assuming towards me the bearing of a proud, harsh master, the fault is his, not mine; and shall his injustice, his bad feeling, turn me at once aside from the path I have chosen? No; at least, ere I deviate, I will advance far enough to see whither my career tends. As yet I am only pressing in at the entrance -- a strait gate enough; it ought to have a good terminus.' While I thus reasoned, Mr. Crimsworth rang a bell. Ms first clerk, the individual dismissed previously to our conference, re-entered.
'Mr. Steighton,' said he, 'show Mr. William the letters from Voss Brothers, and give him English copies of the answers. He will translate them.'
Mr. Steighton, a man of about thirty-five, with a face at once sly and heavy, hastened to execute this order. He laid the letters on the desk, and I was soon seated at it, and engaged in rendering the English answers into German. A sentiment of keen pleasure accompanied this first effort to earn my own living -- a sentiment neither poisoned nor weakened by the presence of the taskmaster, who stood and watched me for some time as I wrote. I thought he was trying to read my character, but I felt as secure against his scrutiny as if I had had on a casque with the visor down, or rather I showed him my countenance with the confidence that one would show an unlearned man a letter written in Greek. He might see lines, and trace characters, but he could make nothing of them. My nature was not his nature, and its signs were to him like the words of an unknown tongue. Ere long he turned away abruptly, as if baffled, and left the counting-house. He returned to it but twice in the course of that day. Each time he mixed and swallowed a glass of brandy-and-water, the materials for making which he extracted from a cupboard on one side of the fireplace. Having glanced at my translations -- he could read both French and German -- he went out again in silence.
I served Edward as his second clerk faithfully, punctually, diligently. What was given me to do I had the power and the determination to do well. Mr. Crimsworth watched sharply for defects, but found none. He set Timothy Steighton, his favourite and head man, to watch also. Tim was baffled. I was as exact as himself, and quicker. Mr. Crimsworth made inquiries as to how I lived whether I got into debt. No; my accounts with my landlady were always straight. I had hired small lodgings, which I contrived to pay for out of a slender fund, the accumulated savings of my Eton pocket-money; for as it had ever been abhorrent to my nature to ask pecuniary assistance, I had early acquired habits of self-denying economy, husbanding my monthly allowance with anxious care, in order to obviate the danger of being forced, in some moment of future exigency, to beg additional aid. I remember many called me miser at the time, and I used to couple the reproach with this consolation -- better to be misunderstood now than repulsed hereafter. At this day I had my reward. I had had it before, when on parting with my irritated uncles one of them threw down on the table before me a £5 note, which I was able to leave there, saying that my travelling expenses were already provided for. Mr. Crimsworth employed Tim to find out whether my landlady had any complaint to make on the score of my morals. She answered that she believed I was a very religious man, and asked Tim, in her turn, if he thought I had any intention of going into the Church some day; for, she said, she had had young curates to lodge in her house who were nothing equal to me for steadiness and quietness. Tim was 'a religious man' himself -- indeed, he was 'a joined Methodist,' which did not (be it understood) prevent him from being at the same time an engrained rascal; and he came away much posed at hearing this account of my piety. Having imparted it to Mr. Crimsworth, that gentleman, who himself frequented no place of worship, and owned no God but Mammon, turned the information into a weapon of attack against the equability of my temper. He commenced a series of covert sneers, of which I did not at first perceive the drift, till my landlady happened to relate the conversation she had had with Mr. Steighton. This enlightened me. Afterwards I came to the counting-house prepared, and managed to receive the mill-owner's blasphemous sarcasms, when next levelled at me, on a buckler of impenetrable indifference. Ere long he tired of wasting his ammunition on a statue, but he did not throw away the shafts -- he only kept them quiet in his quiver. Once during my clerkship I had an invitation to Crimsworth Hall. It was on the occasion of a large party given in honour of the master's birthday. He had always been accustomed to invite his clerks on similar anniversaries, and could not well pass me over. I was, however, kept strictly in the background. Mrs. Crimsworth, elegantly dressed in satin and lace, blooming in youth and health, vouchsafed me no more notice than was expressed by a distant move; Crimsworth, of course, never spoke to me. I was introduced to none of the band of young ladies who, enveloped in silvery clouds of white gauze and muslin, sat in array against me on the opposite side of a long and large room; in fact, I was fairly isolated, and could but contemplate the shining ones from afar, and when weary of such a dazzling scene, rum for a change to the consideration of the carpet pattern. Mr. Crimsworth, standing on the rug, his elbow supported by the marble mantelpiece, and about him a group of very pretty girls, with whom he conversed gaily -- Mr. Crimsworth, thus placed, glanced at me. I looked weary, solitary, kept down like some desolate tutor or governess. He was satisfied. Dancing began. I should have liked well enough to be introduced to some pleasing and intelligent girl, and to have freedom and opportunity to show that I could both feel and communicate the pleasure of social intercourse, that I was not, in short, a block or a piece of furniture, but an acting, thinking, sentient man. Many smiling faces and graceful figures glided past me, but the smiles were lavished on other eyes, the figures sustained by other hands than mine. I turned away tantalized, left the dancers, and wandered into the oak-panelled dining-room. No fibre of sympathy united me to any living thing in this house. I looked for and found my mother's picture. I took a wax-taper from a stand, and held it up. I gazed long earnestly; my heart grew to the image. My mother, I perceived, had bequeathed to me much of her features and countenance -- her forehead, her eyes, her complexion. No regular beauty pleases egotistical human beings so much as a softened and refined likeness of themselves; for this reason, fathers regard with complacency the lineaments of their daughters' faces, where frequently their own similitude is found flatteringly associated with softness of hue and delicacy of outline. I was just wondering how that picture, to me so interesting, would strike an impartial spectator, when a voice close behind me pronounced the words, -- 'Humph! there's some sense in that face.' I turned. At my elbow stood a tall man, young, though probably five or six years older than I, in other respects of an appearance the opposite to commonplace -- though just now, as I am not disposed to paint his portrait in detail, the reader must be content with the silhouette I have just thrown off; it was all I myself saw of him for the moment. I did not investigate the colour of his eyebrows, nor of his eyes either. I saw his stature, and the outline of his shape. I saw, too, his fastidious-looking retrousse nose. These observations, few in number, and general in character (the last excepted), sufficed, for they enabled me to recognize him. 'Good-evening, Mr. Hunsden,' muttered I with a bow; and then, like a shy noodle as I was, I began moving away, and why? Simply because Mr. Hunsden was a manufacturer and a mill-owner, and I was only a clerk, and my instinct propelled me from my superior. I had frequently seen Hunsden in Bigben Close, where he came almost weekly to transact business with Mr. Crimsworth, but I had never spoken to him, nor he to me, and I owed him a sort of involuntary grudge, because he had more than once been the tacit witness of insults offered by Edward to me. I had the conviction that he could only regard me as a poor-spirited slave, wherefore I now went about to shun his presence and eschew his conversation. 'Where are you going?' asked he, as I edged off sideways. I had already noticed that Mr. Hunsden indulged in abrupt forms of speech, and I perversely said to myself, -- 'He thinks he may speak as he likes to a poor clerk, but my mood is not, perhaps, so supple as he deems it, and his rough freedom pleases me not at all.' I made some slight reply, rather indifferent than courteous, and continued to move away. He coolly planted himself in my path. 'Stay here awhile,' said he -- 'it is so hot in the dancing-room; besides, you don't dance. You have not had a partner to-night.' He was right, and as he spoke neither his look, tone, nor manner displeased me. My amour-propre was propitiated. He had not addressed me out of condescension, but because, having repaired to the cool dining-room for refreshment, he now wanted some one to talk to by way of temporary amusement. I hate to be condescended to, but I like well enough to oblige. I stayed. 'That is a good picture,' he continued, recurring to the portrait. 'Do you consider the face pretty?' I asked. 'Pretty! No. How can it be pretty, with sunk eyes and hollow cheeks? But it is peculiar; it seems to think. You could have a talk with that woman, if she were alive, on other subjects than dress, visiting, and compliments.' I agreed with him, but did not say so. He went on. 'Not that I admire a head of that sort; it wants character and force. There's too much of the sensitive (so he articulated it, curling his lip at the same time) in that mouth; besides, there is aristocrat written on the brow and defined in the figure. I hate your aristocrats.' 'You think, then, Mr. Hunsden, that patrician descent may be read in a distinctive cast of form and features?' 'Patrician descent be hanged! Who doubts that your lordlings may have their "distinctive cast of form and features" as much as we shire tradesmen have ours? But which is the best? Not theirs assuredly. As to their women, it is a little different. They cultivate beauty from childhood upwards, and may by care and training attain to a certain degree of excellence in that point, just like the oriental odalisques. Yet even this superiority is doubtful. Compare the figure in that frame with Mrs. Edward Crimsworth. Which is the finer animal?' I replied quietly, 'Compare yourself and Mr. Edward Crimsworth, Mr. Hunsden.' 'Oh, Crimsworth is better filled up than I am, I know; besides, he has a straight nose, arched eyebrows, and all that. But these advantages -- if they are advantages -- he did not inherit from his mother, the patrician, but from his father, old Crimsworth, who, my father says, was as veritable a shire blue-dyer as ever put indigo in a vat, yet withal the handsomest man in the three ridings. It is you, William, who are the aristocrat of your family, and you are not as fine a fellow as your plebeian brother by a long chalk.' There was something in Mr. Hunsden's point-blank mode of speech which rather pleased me than otherwise, because it set me at my ease. I continued the conversation with a degree of interest. 'How do you happen to know that I am Mr. Crimsworth's brother? I thought you and everybody else looked upon me only in the light of a poor clerk.' 'Well, and so we do; and what are you but a poor clerk? You do Crimsworth's work, and he gives you wages -- shabby wages they are too.' I was silent. Hunsden's language now bordered on the impertinent, still his manner did not offend me in the least; it only piqued my curiosity. I wanted him to go on, which he did in a little while. 'This world is an absurd one,' said he. 'Why so, Mr. Hunsden?' 'I wonder you should ask. You are yourself a strong proof of the absurdity I allude to.' I was determined he should explain himself of his own accord, without my pressing him so to do, so I resumed my silence. 'Is it your intention to become a tradesman?' he inquired presently. 'It was my serious intention three months ago.' 'Humph! The more fool you. You look like a tradesman. What a practical, businesslike face you have!' 'My face is as the Lord made it, Mr. Hunsden.' 'The Lord never made either your face or head for X--. What good can your bumps of ideality, comparison, self-esteem, conscientiousness, do you here? But if you like Bigben Close, stay there. It's your own affair, not mine.' 'Perhaps I have no choice.' 'Well, I care nought about it. It will make little difference to me what you do or where you go; but I'm cool now -- I want to dance again; and I see such a fine girl sitting in the corner of the sofa there by her mamma. See if I don't get her for a partner in a jiffy! There's Waddy -- Sam Waddy -- making up to her. Won't I cut him out?' And Mr. Hunsden strode away. I watched him through the open folding-doors. He outstripped Waddy, applied for the hand of the fine girl, and led her off triumphant. She was a tall, well-made, full-formed, dashingly-dressed young woman, much in the style of Mrs. E. Crimsworth. Hunsden whirled her through the waltz with spirit; he kept at her side during the remainder of the evening, and I read in her animated and gratified countenance that he succeeded in making himself perfectly agreeable. The mamma, too (a stout person in a turban -- Mrs. Lupton by name), looked well pleased; prophetic visions probably flattered her inward eye. The Hunsdens were of an old stem; and scornful as Yorke (such was my late interlocutor's name) professed to be of the advantages of birth, in his secret heart he well knew and fully appreciated the distinction his ancient if not high lineage conferred on him in a mushroom place like X--, concerning whose inhabitants it was proverbially said that not one in a thousand knew his own grandfather. Moreover, the Hunsdens, once rich, were still independent; and report affirmed that Yorke bade fair, by his success in business, to restore to pristine prosperity the partially decayed fortunes of his house. These circumstances considered, Mrs. Lupton's broad face might well wear a smile of complacency as she contemplated the heir of Hunsden Wood occupied in paying assiduous court to her darling Sarah Martha. I, however, whose observations being less anxious were likely to be more accurate, soon saw that the grounds for maternal self-congratulation were slight indeed. The gentleman appeared to me much more desirous of making than susceptible of receiving an impression. I know not what it was in Mr. Hunsden that, as I watched him (I had nothing better to do), suggested to me, every now and then, the idea of a foreigner. In form and features he might be pronounced English, though even there one caught a dash of something Gallic; but he had no English shyness. He had learned somewhere, somehow, the art of setting himself quite at his ease, and of allowing no insular timidity to intervene as a barrier between him and his convenience or pleasure. Refinement he did not affect, yet vulgar he could not be called. He was not odd no quiz -- yet he resembled no one else I had ever seen before. His general bearing intimated complete, sovereign satisfaction with himself; yet at times an indescribable shade passed like an eclipse over his countenance, and seemed to me like the sign of a sudden and strong inward doubt of himself, his words and actions -- an energetic discontent at his life or his social position, his future prospects or his mental attainments, I know not which; perhaps, after all, it might only be a bilious caprice.
No man likes to acknowledge that he has made a mistake in the choice of his profession, and every man worthy of the name will row long against wind and tide before he allows himself to cry out, 'I am baffled!' and submits to be floated passively back to land. From the first week of my residence in X-- I felt my occupation irksome. The thing itself -- the work of copying and translating business letters was a dry and tedious task enough, but had that been all I should long have borne with the nuisance. I am not of an impatient nature, and, influenced by the double desire of getting my living and justifying to myself and others the resolution I had taken to become a tradesman, I should have endured in silence the rust and cramp of my best faculties. I should not have whispered, even inwardly, that I longed for liberty. I should have pent in every sigh by which my heart might have ventured to intimate its distress under the closeness, smoke, monotony, and joyless tumult of Bigben Close, and its panting desire for freer and fresher scenes. I should have set up the image of Duty, the fetish of Perseverance, in my small bedroom at Mrs. King's lodgings, and they two should have been my household gods, from which my darling, my cherished-in-secret, Imagination, the tender and the mighty, should never, either by softness or strength, have severed me. But this was not all. The antipathy which had sprung up between myself and my employer striking deeper root and spreading denser shade daily, excluded me from every glimpse of the sunshine of life; and I began to feel like a plant growing in humid darkness out of the slimy walls of a well.
Antipathy is the only word which can express the feeling Edward Crimsworth had for me -- a feeling, in a great measure, involuntary, and which was liable to be excited by every, the most trifling, movement, look, or word of mine. My southern accent annoyed him; the degree of education evinced in my language irritated him; my punctuality, industry, and accuracy fixed his dislike, and gave it the high flavour and poignant relish of envy; he feared that I too should one day make a successful tradesman. Had I been in anything inferior to him, he would not have hated me so thoroughly; but I knew all that he knew, and, what was worse, he suspected that I kept the padlock of silence on mental wealth in which he was no sharer. If he could have once placed me in a ridiculous or mortifying position, he would have forgiven me much, but I was guarded by three faculties -- caution, tact, observation; and prowling and prying as was Edward's malignity, it could never baffle the lynx-eyes of these, my natural sentinels. Day by day did his malice watch my tact, hoping it would sleep, and prepared to steal snake-like on its slumber; but tact, if it be genuine, never sleeps.
I had received my first quarter's wages, and was returning to my lodgings, possessed heart and soul with the pleasant feeling that the master who had paid me grudged every penny of that hard-earned pittance. (I had long ceased to regard Mr. Crimsworth as my brother. He was a hard, grinding master. He wished to be an inexorable tyrant, that was all.) Thoughts, not varied but strong, occupied my mind. Two voices spoke within me; again and again they uttered the same monotonous phrases. One said, 'William, your life is intolerable.' The other, 'What can you do to alter it?' I walked fast, for it was a cold, frosty night in January. As I approached my lodgings, I turned from a general view of my affairs to the particular speculation as to whether my fire would be out. Looking towards the window of my sitting-room, I saw no cheering red gleam.
'That slut of a servant has neglected it as usual,' said I, 'and I shall see nothing but pale ashes if I go in. It is a fine starlight night; I will walk a little farther.'
It was a fine night, and the streets were dry and even clean for X--. There was a crescent curve of moonlight to be seen by the parish church tower, and hundreds of stars shone keenly bright in all quarters of the sky.
Unconsciously I steered my course towards the country. I had got into Grove Street, and began to feel the pleasure of seeing dim trees at the extremity, round a suburban house when a person leaning over the iron gate of one of the small gardens which front the neat dwelling-houses in this street addressed me as I was hurrying with quick stride past.
'What the deuce is the hurry? Just so must Lot have left Sodom, when he expected fire to pour down upon it out of burning brass clouds.'
I stopped short, and looked towards the speaker. I smelt the fragrance and saw the red spark of a cigar. The dusk outline of a man, too, bent towards me over the wicket.
'You see I am meditating in the field at eventide,' continued this shade. 'God knows it's cool work, especially as instead of Rebecca on a camel's hump, with bracelets on her arms and a ring in her nose, Fate sends me only a counting-house clerk, in a gray tweed wrapper.'
The voice was familiar to me. Its second utterance enabled me to seize the speaker's identity.
'Mr. Hunsden! Good-evening.'
'Good-evening, indeed! Yes, but you would have passed me without recognition if I had not been so civil as to speak first.'
'I did not know you.'
'A famous excuse! You ought to have known me. I knew you, though you were going ahead like a steam-engine. Are the police after you?'
'It wouldn't be worth their while; I'm not of consequence enough to attract them.'
'Alas, poor shepherd! Alack and well-a-day! What a theme for regret, and how down in the mouth you must be judging from the sound of your voice! But since you're not running from the police, from whom are you running? The devil?
'On the contrary, I am going post to him.'
'That is well; you're just in luck. This is Tuesday evening. There are scores of market gigs and carts returning to Dinneford to-night, and he, or some of his, have a seat in all regularly; so, if you'll step in and sit half an hour in my bachelor's parlour, you may catch him as he passes without much trouble. I think, though, you'd better let him alone to-night, he'll have so many customers to serve. Tuesday is his busy day in X-- and Dinneford. Come in, at all events.'
He swung the wicket open as he spoke.
'Do you really wish me to go in?' I asked.
'As you please. I'm alone. Your company for an hour or two would be agreeable to me; but if you don't choose to favour me so far, I'll not press the point. I hate to bore any one.'
It suited me to accept the invitation as it suited Hunsden to give it. I passed through the gate, and followed him to the front door, which he opened; thence we traversed a passage, and entered his parlour. The door being shut, he pointed me to an arm-chair by the hearth. I sat down and glanced round me.
It was a comfortable room, at once snug and handsome. The bright grate was filled with a genuine --shire fire, red, clear, and generous -- no penurious South-of-England embers heaped in the corner of a grate. On the table a shaded lamp diffused around a soft, pleasant, and equal light. The furniture was almost luxurious for a young bachelor, comprising a couch and two very easy chairs; bookshelves filled the recesses on each side of the mantelpiece; they were well furnished, and arranged with perfect order. The neatness of the room suited my taste; I hate irregular and slovenly habits. From what I saw I concluded that Hunsden's ideas on that point corresponded with my own. While he removed from the centre table to the sideboard a few pamphlets and periodicals, I ran my eye along the shelves of the book-ease nearest me. French and German works predominated -- the old French dramatists, sundry modern authors, Thiers, Ville-main, Paul de Kock, George Sand, Eugene Sue; in German -- Goethe, Schiller, Zschokke, Jean Paul Richter; in English there were works on political economy. I examined no further, for Mr. Hunsden himself recalled my attention.
'You shall have something,' said he, 'for you ought to feel disposed for refreshment after walking nobody knows how far on such a Canadian night as this; but it shall not be brandy-and-water, and it shall not be a bottle of port, nor ditto of sherry. I keep no such poison. I have Rhein-wein for my own drinking, and you may choose between that and coffee.
Here again Hunsden suited me. If there was one generally received practice I abhorred more than another, it was the habitual imbibing of spirits and strong wines. I had, however, no fancy for his acid German nectar, but I liked coffee, so I responded, --
'Give me some coffee, Mr. Hunsden.'
I perceived my answer pleased him. He had doubtless expected to see a chilling effect produced by his steady announcement that he would give me neither wine nor spirits; he just shot one searching glance at my face to ascertain whether my cordiality was genuine or a mere feint of politeness. I smiled, because I quite understood him; and, while I honoured his conscientious firmness, I was amused at his mistrust. He seemed satisfied, rang the bell, and ordered coffee, which was presently brought; for himself, a bunch of grapes and half a pint of something sour sufficed. My coffee was excellent. I told him so, and expressed the shuddering pity with which his anchorite fare inspired me. He did not answer and I scarcely think heard my remark. At that moment one of those momentary eclipses I before alluded to had come over his face, extinguishing his smile, an id replacing, by an abstracted and alienated look, the customarily shrewd, bantering glance of his eye. I employed the interval of silence in a rapid scrutiny of his physiognomy. I had never observed him closely before, and, as my sight is very short, I had gathered only a vague, general idea of his appearance. I was surprised now, on examination, to perceive how small and even feminine were his lineaments. His tall figure, long and dark locks, his voice and general bearing, had impressed me with the notion of something powerful and massive. Not at all. My own features were cast in a harsher and squarer mould than his. I discerned that there would be contrasts between his inward and outward man -- contentions too, for I suspected his soul had more of will and ambition than his body had of fibre and muscle. Perhaps in these incompatibilities of the 'physique' with the 'morale' lay the secret of that fitful gloom. he would but could not, and the athletic mind scowled scorn on its more fragile companion. As to his good looks, I should have liked to have a woman's opinion on that subject. It seemed to me that his face might produce the same effect on a lady that a very piquant and interesting though scarcely pretty female face would on a man. I have mentioned his dark locks -- they were brushed sideways above a white and sufficiently expansive forehead; his cheek had a rather hectic freshness; his features might have done well on canvas but indifferently in marble. They were plastic; character had set a stamp upon each; expression recast them at her pleasure, and strange metamorphoses she wrought, giving him now the mien of a morose bull, and anon that of an arch and mischievous girl; more frequently the two semblances were blent, and a queer, composite countenance they made.
Starting from his silent fit, he began, --
'William, what a fool you are to live in those dismal lodgings of Mrs. King's, when you might take rooms here in Grove Street, and have a garden like me!'
'I should be too far from the mill.'
'What of that? It would do you good to walk there and back two or three times a day; besides, are you such a fossil that you never wish to see a flower or a green leaf)'
'I am no fossil.'
'What are you then? You sit at that desk in Crimsworth's counting-house day by day and week by week, scraping with a pen on paper, just like an automaton. You never get up; you never say you are tired; you never ask for a holiday; you never take change or relaxation; you give way to no excess of an evening; you neither keep wild company nor indulge in strong drink.'
'Do you, Mr. Hunsden?'
'Don't think to pose me with short questions. Your case and mine are diametrically different, and it is nonsense attempting to draw a parallel. I say that when a man endures patiently what ought to be unendurable, he is a fossil.'
'Whence do you acquire a knowledge of my patience?'
'Why, man, do you suppose you are a mystery? The other night you seemed surprised at my knowing to what family you belonged; now you find subject for wonderment in my calling you patient. What do you think I do with my eyes and ears? I've been in your counting-house more than once when Crimsworth has treated you like a dog -- called for a book, for instance, and when you gave him the wrong one, or what he chose to consider the wrong one, flung it back almost in your face; desired you to shut or open the door as if you had been his flunkey -- to say nothing of your position at the party about a month ago, where you had neither place nor partner, but hovered about like a poor, shabby hanger-on. And how patient you were under each and all of these circumstances'
'Well, Mr. Hunsden, what then?'
'I can hardly tell you what then, The conclusion to be drawn as to your character depends upon the nature of the motives which guide your conduct. If you are patient because you expect to make something eventually out of Crimsworth notwithstanding his tyranny, or perhaps by means of it, you are what the world calls an interested and mercenary but may be a very wise fellow; if you are patient because you think it a duty to meet insult with submission, you are an essential sap and in no shape the man for my money; if you are patient because your nature is phlegmatic, flat, inexcitable, and that you cannot get up to the pitch of resistance, why, God made you to be crushed; and lie down by all means, and he flat, and let Juggernaut ride well over you.'
Mr. Hunsden's eloquence was not, it will be perceived, of the smooth and oily order. As he spoke he pleased me ill. I seem to recognize in him one of those characters who, sensitive enough themselves, are selfishly relentless towards the sensitiveness of others. Moreover, though he was neither like Crimsworth nor Lord Tynedale, yet he was acrid, and, I suspected, overbearing in his way. There was a tone of despotism in the urgency of the very reproaches by which he aimed at goading the oppressed into rebellion against the oppressor. Looking at him still more fixedly than I had yet done, I saw written in his eye and mien a resolution to arrogate to himself a freedom so unlimited that it might often trench on the just liberty of his neighbours. I rapidly ran over these thoughts, and then I laughed a low and involuntary laugh, moved thereto by a slight inward revelation of the inconsistency of man. It was as I thought. Hunsden had expected me to take with calm his incorrect and offensive surmises, his bitter and haughty taunts, and himself was chafed by a laugh scarce louder than a whisper.
His brow darkened, his thin nostril dilated a little.
'Yes, he began, 'I told you that you were an aristocrat, and who but an aristocrat would laugh such a laugh as that and look such a look -- a laugh frigidly jeering, a look lazily mutinous, gentlemanlike irony, patrician resentment? What a nobleman you would have made, William Crimsworth! You are cut out for one; pity Fortune has balked Nature! Look at the features, figure, even to the hands; distinction all over -- ugly distinction! Now, if you'd only an estate, and a mansion, and a park, and a title, how you could play the exclusive, maintain the rights of your class, train your tenantry in habits of respect to the peerage, oppose at every step the advancing power of the people, support your rotten order, and be ready for its sake to wade knee-deep in churls' blood. As it is, you've no power; you can do nothing; you're wrecked and stranded on the shores of commerce, forced into collision with practical men, with whom you cannot cope, for you'll never be a tradesman.'
The first part of Hunsden's speech moved me not at all, or, if it did, it was only to wonder at the perversion into which prejudice ,had twisted his judgment of my character. The concluding sentence, however, not only moved but shook me; the blow it gave was a severe one, because Truth wielded the weapon. If I smiled now, it was only in disdain of myself.
Hunsden saw his advantage. he followed it up.
'You'll make nothing by trade,' continued he -- 'nothing more than the crust of dry bread and the draught of fair water on which you now live; your only chance of getting a competency lies in marrying a rich widow or running away with an heiress.'
'I leave such shifts to be put in practice by those who devise them,' said I, rising.
'And even that is hopeless,' he went on coolly. 'What widow would have you? Much less, what heiress? You're not bold and venturesome enough for the one, nor handsome and fascinating enough for the other. You think perhaps you look intelligent and polished. Carry your intellect and refinement to market, and tell me in a private note what price is bid for them.'
Mr. Hunsden had taken his tone for the night; the string he struck was out of tune; he would finger no other. Averse to discord, of which I had enough every day and all day long, I concluded, at last, that silence and solitude were preferable to jarring converse; I bade him good-night.
'What! Are you going, lad? Well, good-night. You'll find the door.' And he sat still in front of the fire, while I left the room and the house. I had got a good way on my return to my lodgings before I found out that I was walking very fast, and breathing very hard, and that my nails were almost stuck into the palms of my clenched hands, and that my teeth were set fast. On making this discovery I relaxed both my pace, fists, and jaws, but I could not so soon cause the regrets rushing rapidly through my mind to slacken their tide. Why did I make myself a tradesman? Why did I enter Hunsden's house this evening? Why, at dawn to-morrow, must I repair to Crimsworth's mill? All that night did I ask myself these questions, and all that night fiercely demanded of my soul an answer. I got no sleep; my head burned, my feet froze. At last the factory bells rang, and I sprang from my bed with other slaves.
There is a climax to everything -- to every state of feeling as well as to every position in life. I turned this truism over in my mind as, in the frosty dawn of a January morning, I hurried down the steep and now icy street which descended from Mrs. King's to the Close. The factory workpeople had preceded me by nearly an hour, and the mill was all lighted up and in full operation when I reached it. I repaired to my post in the counting-house as usual. The fire there, but just lit, as yet only smoked; Steighton was not yet arrived. I shut the door and sat down at the desk; my hands, recently washed in half-frozen water, were still numb; I could not write till they had regained vitality, so I went on thinking, and still the theme of my thoughts was the 'climax.' Self-dissatisfaction troubled exceedingly the current of my meditations.
'Come, William Crimsworth,' said my conscience, or whatever it is that within ourselves takes ourselves to task -- 'come, get a clear notion of what you would have, or what you would not have. You talk of a climax; pray, has your endurance reached its climax? It is not four months old. What a fine resolute fellow you imagined yourself to be when you told Tynedale you would tread in your father's steps, and a pretty treading you are likely to make of it. How well you like X--! Just at this moment how redolent of pleasant associations are its streets, its shops, its warehouses, its factories! How the prospect of this day cheers you! Letter-copying till noon, solitary dinner at your lodgings, letter-copying till evening, solitude; for you neither find pleasure in Brown's, nor Smith's, nor Nicholl's, nor Eccle's company. And as to Hunsden, you fancied there was pleasure to be derived from his society -- he! he! How did you like the taste you had of him last night? Was it sweet? Yet he is a talented, an original-minded man, and even he does not like you. Your self-respect defies you to like him. He has always seen you to disadvantage; he always will see you to disadvantage; your positions are unequal, and were they on the same level your minds could not assimilate. Never hope, then, to gather the honey of friendship out of that thorn-guarded plant. Hallo, Crimsworth! where are your thoughts tending? You leave the recollection of Hunsden as a bee would a rock, as a bird a desert, and your aspirations spread eager wings towards a land of visions where, now in advancing daylight in X-- daylight -- you dare to dream of congeniality, repose, union. Those three you will never meet in this world; they are angels. The souls of just men made perfect may encounter them in heaven, but your soul will never be made perfect. Eight o'clock strikes! Your hands are thawed; get to work!'
'Work! Why should I work?' said I sullenly. 'I cannot please though I toil like a slave.' 'Work, work!' reiterated the inward voice. 'I may work; it will do no good,' I growled; but nevertheless I drew out a packet of letters and commenced my task -- task thankless and bitter as that of the Israelite crawling over the sun-baked fields of Egypt in search of straw and stubble wherewith to accomplish his tale of bricks.
About ten o'clock I heard Mr. Crimsworth's gig turn into the yard, and in a minute or two he entered the counting-house. It was his custom to glance his eye at Steighton and myself, to hang up his mackintosh, stand a minute with his hack to the fire, and then walk out. To-day he did not deviate from his usual habits; the only difference was that when he looked at me his brow, instead of being merely hard, was surly; his eye, instead of being cold, was fierce. He studied me a minute or two longer than usual, but went out in silence.
Twelve o'clock arrived; the bell rang for a suspension of labour. The workpeople went off to their dinners; Steighton too departed, desiring me to lock the counting-house door and take the key with me. I was tying up a bundle of papers and putting them in their place, preparatory to closing my desk, when Crimsworth reappeared at the door, and entering, closed it behind him.
'You'll stay here a minute,' said he, in a deep, brutal voice, while his nostrils distended and his eye shot a spark of sinister fire.
Alone with Edward I remembered our relationship, and remembering that forgot the difference of position. I put away deference and careful forms of speech; I answered with simple brevity.
'It is time to go home,' I said, turning the key in my desk.
'You'll stay here,' he reiterated. 'And take your hand off that key! Leave it in the lock!'
'Why?' asked I. 'What cause is there for changing my usual plans?'
'Do as I order,' was the answer, 'and no questions! You are my servant; obey me! What have you been about --' He was going on in the same breath, when an abrupt pause announced that rage had for the moment got the better of articulation.
'You may look if you wish to know,' I replied. 'There is the open desk, there are the papers.'
'Confound your insolence! What have you been about?'
'Your work, and have done it well.'
'Hypocrite and twaddler! smooth-faced, snivelling grease-horn!' (This last term is, I believe, purely --shire, and alludes to the horn of black, rancid whale-oil usually to be seen suspended to cart wheels, and employed for greasing the same.)
'Come, Edward Crimsworth, enough of this. It is time you and I wound up accounts. I have now given your service three months' trial, and I find it the most nauseous slavery under the sun. Seek another clerk. I stay no longer.'
'What! do you dare to give me notice? Stop at least for your wages.' He took down the heavy gig-whip hanging beside his mackintosh.
I permitted myself to laugh with a degree of scorn I took no pains to temper or hide. His fury boiled up, and when he had sworn half a dozen vulgar, impious oaths, without, however, venturing to lift the whip, he continued, --
'I've found you out and know you thoroughly, you mean whining lickspittle! What have you been saying all over X-- about me? Answer me that.'
'You? I have neither inclination nor temptation to talk about you.'
'You lie! It is your practice to talk about me; it is your constant habit to make public complaint of the treatment you receive at my hands. You have gone and told it far and near that I give you low wages and knock you about like a dog. I wish you were a dog! I'd set to this minute, and never stir from the spot till I'd cut every strip of flesh from your bones with thus whip.'
He flourished his tool. The end of the lash just touched my forehead. A warm, excited thrill ran through my veins; my blood seemed to give a bound, and then raced fast and hot along its channels. I got up nimbly, came round to where he stood, and faced him.
'Down with your whip,' said I, 'and explain this instant what you mean!'
'Sirrah! to whom are you speaking?'
'To you. There is no one else present, I think. You say I have been calumniating you -- complaining of your low wages and bad treatment. Give your grounds for these assertions.'
Crimsworth had no dignity, and when I sternly demanded an explanation, he gave one in a loud, scolding voice.
'Grounds! you shall have them; and turn to the light that I may see your brazen face blush black when you hear yourself proved to be a liar and a hypocrite. At a public meeting in the Town Hall yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing myself insulted by the speaker opposed to me in the question under discussion, by allusions to my private affairs -- by cant about monsters without natural affection, family despots, and such trash; and when I rose to answer, I was met by a shout from the filthy mob, where the mention of your name enabled me at once to detect the quarter in which this base attack had originated. When I looked round, I saw that treacherous villain Hunsden acting as fugleman. I detected you in close conversation with Hunsden at my house a month ago, and I know that you were at Hunsden's rooms last night. Deny it if you dare.'
'Oh, I shall not deny it! And if Hunsden hounded on the people to hiss you, he did quite right. You deserve popular execration; for a worse man, a harder master, a more brutal brother than you are has seldom existed.'
'Sirrah! sirrah!' reiterated Crimsworth; and to complete his apostrophe he cracked the whip straight over my head.
A minute sufficed to wrest it from him, break it in two pieces, and throw it under the grate. He made a headlong rush at me, which I evaded, and said, --
'Touch me, and I'll have you up before the nearest magistrate.'
Men like Crimsworth, if firmly and calmly resisted, always abate something of their exorbitant insolence. He bad no mind to be brought before a magistrate, and I suppose he saw I meant what I said. After an odd and long stare at me, at once bull-like and amazed, he seemed to bethink himself that, after all, his money gave him sufficient superiority over a beggar like me, and that he had in his hands a surer and more dignified mode of revenge than the somewhat hazardous one of personal chastisement.
'Take your hat,' said he. 'Take what belongs to you, and go out at that door. Get away to your parish, you pauper. Beg, steal, starve, get transported, do what you Eke, but at your peril venture again into my sight. If ever I hear of your setting foot on an inch of ground belonging to me, I'll hire a man to cane you.'
'It is not likely you'll have the chance. Once off your premises, what temptation can I have to return to them? I leave a prison; I leave a tyrant; I leave what is worse than the worst that can lie before me, so no fear of my coming back.'
'Go, or I'll make you!' exclaimed Crimsworth.
I walked deliberately to my desk, took out such of its contents as were my own property, put them in my pocket, locked the desk, and placed the key on the top.
'What are you abstracting from that desk?' demanded the mill-owner. 'Leave all behind in its place, or I'll send for a policeman to search you.'
'Look sharp about it then,' said I; and I took down my hat, drew on my gloves, and walked leisurely out of the counting-house -- walked out of it to enter it no more.
I recollect that when the mill-bell rang the dinner hour, before Mr. Crimsworth entered and the scene above related took place, I had had rather a sharp appetite, and had been waiting somewhat impatiently to hear the signal of feeding time. I forgot it now, however. The images of potatoes and roast mutton were effaced from my mind by the stir and tumult which the transaction of the last half-hour had there excited. I only thought of walking, that the action of my muscles might harmonize with the action of my nerves. and walk I did, fast and far. How could I do otherwise? A load was lifted off my heart; I felt light and liberated. I had got away from Bigben Close without a breach of resolution, without injury to my self-respect. I had not forced circumstances; circumstances had freed me. Life was again open to me; no longer was its horizon limited by the high black wall surrounding Crimsworth's mill. Two hours had elapsed before my sensations had so far subsided as to leave me calm enough to remark for what wider and clearer boundaries I had exchanged that sooty girdle. When I did look up, lo! straight before me lay Grovetown, a village of villas about five miles out of X--. The short winter day, as I perceived from the far-declined sun, was already approaching its close; a chill frost-mist was rising from the river on which X-- stands, and along whose banks the road I had taken lay; it dimmed the earth, but did not obscure the clear icy blue of the January sky. There was a great stillness near and far; the time of the day favoured tranquillity, as the people were all employed within doors, the hour of evening release from the factories not being yet arrived. A sound of full-flowing water alone pervaded the air, for the river was deep and abundant, swelled by the melting of a late snow. I stood awhile, leaning over a wall, and looking down at the current I watched the rapid rush of its waves. I desired memory to take a clear and permanent impression of the scene, and treasure it for future years. Grovetown church clock struck four. Looking up, I beheld the last of that day's sun, glinting red through the leafless boughs of some very old oak trees surrounding the church; its light coloured and characterized the picture as I wished. I paused yet a moment, till the sweet, slow sound of the bell had quite died out of the air; then car, eye, and feeling satisfied, I quitted the wall and once more turned my face towards X--.
I re-entered the town a hungry man. The dinner I had forgotten recurred seductively to my recollection, and it was with a quick step and sharp appetite I ascended the narrow street leading to my lodgings. It was dark when I opened the front door and walked into the house. I wondered how my fire would be. The night was cold, and I shuddered at the prospect of a grate full of sparkless cinders. To my joyful surprise I found, on entering my sitting-room, a good fire and a clean hearth. I had hardly noticed this phenomenon when I became aware of another subject for wonderment -- the chair I usually occupied near the hearth was. already filled, a person sat there with his arms folded on his chest and his legs stretched out on the rug. Short-sighted as I am, doubtful as was the gleam of the firelight, a moment's examination enabled me to recognize in this person my acquaintance Mr. Hunsden. I could not of course be much pleased to see him, considering the manner in which I had parted from him the night before, and as I walked to the hearth, stirred the fire, and said coolly, 'Good-evening,' my demeanour evinced as little cordiality as I felt; yet I wondered in my own mind what had brought him there, and I wondered also what motives had induced him to interfere so actively between me and Edward. It was to him, it appeared, that I owed my welcome dismissal. Still I could not bring myself to ask him questions, to show any eagerness of curiosity. If he chose to explain, he might, but the explanation should be a perfectly voluntary one on his part. I thought he was entering upon it.
'You owe me a debt of gratitude,' were his first words.
'Do I?' said I. 'I hope it is not a large one, for I am much too poor to charge myself with heavy liabilities of any kind.'
'Then declare yourself bankrupt at once, for this liability is a ton weight. When I came in I found your fire out, and I had it lit again, and made that sulky drab of a servant stay and blow at it with the bellows till it had burnt up properly. Now say "Thank you!"'
'Not till I have had something to eat. I can thank nobody while I am so famished.'
I rang the bell and ordered tea and some cold meat.
'Cold meat!' exclaimed Hunsden, as the servant closed the door; what a glutton you are, man! Meat with tea! You'll die of eating too much.'
'No, Mr. Hunsden, I shall not.' I felt a necessity for contradicting him. I was irritated with hunger, and irritated at seeing him there, and irritated at the continued roughness of his manner.
'It is overeating that makes you so ill-tempered,' said he.
'How do you know?' I demanded. 'It is like you to give a pragmatical opinion without being acquainted with any of the circumstances of the case. I have had no dinner.'
What I said was petulant and snappish enough, and Hunsden only replied by looking in my face and laughing.
'Poor thing!' he whined, after a pause. 'It has had no dinner, has it? What! I suppose its master would not let it come home. Did Crimsworth order you to fast by way of punishment, William?'
'No, Mr. Hunsden.'
Fortunately, at this sulky juncture, tea was brought in, and I fell to upon some bread and butter and cold beef directly. Having cleared a plateful, I became so far humanized as to intimate to Mr. Hunsden 'that he need not sit there staring, but might come to the table and do as I did, if he liked.'
'But I don't like in the least,' said he; and therewith he summoned the servant by a fresh pull of the bell-rope, and intimated a desire to have a glass of toast-and-water. 'And some more coal,' he added. 'Mr. Crimsworth shall keep a good fire while I stay.'
His orders being executed, he wheeled his chair round to the table, so as to be opposite me.
'Well,' he proceeded. 'You are out of work, I suppose.'
'Yes,' said I; and not disposed to show the satisfaction I felt on this point, I, yielding to the whim of the moment, took up the subject as though I considered myself aggrieved rather than benefited by what had been done. 'Yes; thanks to you, I am. Crimsworth turned me off at a minute's notice, owing to some interference of yours at a public meeting, I understand.'
'Ah! What! he mentioned that? He observed me signalling the lads, did he? What had he to say about his friend Hunsden -- anything sweet?'
'He called you a treacherous villain.'
'Oh, he hardly knows me yet. I'm one of those shy people who don't come out all at once, and he is only just beginning to make my acquaintance, but he'll find I've some good qualities -- excellent ones! The Hunsdens were always unrivalled at tracking a rascal; a downright, dishonourable villain is their natural prey -- they could not keep off him wherever they met him. You used the word pragmatical just now: that word is the property of our family; it has been applied to us from generation to generation. We have fine noses for abuses; we scent a scoundrel a mile off. We are reformers born, radical reformers, and it was impossible for me to live in the same town with Crimsworth, to come into weekly contact with him, to witness some of his conduct to you (for whom personally I care nothing: I only consider the brutal injustice with which he violated your natural claim to equality) -- I say it was impossible for me to be thus situated and not feel the angel or the demon of my race at work within me. I followed my instinct, opposed a tyrant, and broke a chain.'
Now this speech interested me much, both because it brought out Hunsden's character, and because it explained his motives; it interested me so much that I forgot to reply to it, and sat silent, pondering over a throng of ideas it had suggested.
'Are you grateful to me?' he asked presently.
In fact I was grateful, or almost so, and I believe I half liked him at the moment, notwithstanding his proviso that what he had done was not out of regard for me. But human nature is perverse. Impossible to answer his blunt question in the affirmative, so I disclaimed all tendency to gratitude, and advised him, if he expected any reward for his championship to look for it in a better world, as he was not likely to meet with it here. In reply he termed me 'a dry-hearted aristocratic scamp,' whereupon I again charged him with having taken the bread out of my mouth.
'Your bread was dirty, man!' cried Hunsden -- 'dirty and unwholesome! It came through the hands of a tyrant, for I tell you Crimsworth is a tyrant -- a tyrant to his work people, a tyrant to his clerks, and will some day be a tyrant to his wife.'
'Nonsense! Bread is bread, and a salary is a salary. I've lost mine, and through your means.'
'There's sense in what you say, after all,' rejoined Hunsden. 'I must say I am rather agreeably surprised to hear you make so practical an observation as that last. I had imagined now, from my previous observation of your character, that the sentimental delight you would have taken in your newly-regained liberty would, for a while at least, have effaced all ideas of forethought and prudence. I think better of you for looking steadily to the needful.'
'Looking steadily to the needful! How can I do otherwise? I must live, and to live I must have what you call "the needful," which I can only get by working. I repeat it -- you have taken my work from me.'
'What do you mean to do?' pursued Hunsden coolly. 'You have influential relations: I suppose they'll soon provide you with another place.'
'Influential relations? Who? I should like to know their names.'
'Stuff! I have cut them.'
Hunsden looked at me incredulously.
'I have,' said I, 'and that definitively.'
'You must mean they have cut you, William.'
'As you please. They offered me their patronage on condition of my entering the Church. I declined both the terms and the recompense. I withdrew from my cold uncles, and preferred throwing myself into my elder brother's arms, from whose affectionate embrace I am now torn by the cruel intermeddling of a stranger of yourself, in short.'
I could not repress a half-smile as I said this. A similar demi-manifestation of feeling appeared at the same moment on Hunsden's lips.
'Oh, I see!' said he, looking into my eyes; and it was evident he did see right down into my heart. Having sat a minute or two with his chin resting on his hand, diligently occupied in the continued perusal of my countenance, he went on, --
'Seriously, have you then nothing to expect from the Seacombes?'
'Yes, rejection and repulsion. Why do you ask me twice? How can hands stained with the ink of a counting-house, soiled with the grease of a wool-warehouse, ever again be permitted to come into contact with aristocratic palms?'
'There would be a difficulty, no doubt; still you are such a complete Seacombe in appearance, feature, language, almost manner, I wonder they should disown you.'
'They have disowned me; so talk no more about it.'
'Do you regret it, William?'
'Why not, lad?'
'Because they are not people with whom I could ever have had any sympathy.'
'I say you are one of them.'
'That merely proves that you know nothing at all about it. I am my mother's son, but not my uncles' nephew.'
'Still, one of your uncles is a lord, though rather an obscure and not a very wealthy one, and the other a right honourable. You should consider worldly interest.'
'Nonsense, Mr. Hunsden. You know or may know that even had I desired to be submissive to my uncles, I could not have stooped with a good enough grace ever to have won their favour. I should have sacrificed my own comfort and not have gained their patronage in return.'
'Very likely. So you calculated your wisest plan was to follow your own devices at once?'
'Exactly. I must follow my own devices -- I must till the day of my death -- because I can neither comprehend, adopt, nor work out those of other people.'
Hunsden yawned. 'Well,' said he, 'in all this I see but one thing clearly -- that is, that the whole affair is no business of mine.' He stretched himself and again yawned. 'I wonder what time it is,' he went on. 'I have an appointment for seven o clock.
'Three-quarters past six by my watch.'
'Well, then I'll go.' He got up. 'You'll not meddle with trade again?' said he, leaning his elbow on the mantelpiece.
'No, I think not.'
'You would be a fool if you did. Probably, after all, you'll think better of your uncles' proposal, and go into the Church.'
'A singular regeneration must take place in my whole inner and outer man before I do that. A good clergyman is one of the best of men.'
'Indeed! Do you think so?' interrupted Hunsden scoffingly.
'I do, and no mistake. But I have not the peculiar points which go to make a good clergyman; and rather than adopt a profession for which I have no vocation, I would endure extremities of hardship from poverty.'
'You're a mighty difficult customer to suit. You won't be a tradesman or a parson; you can't be a lawyer or a doctor, or a gentleman, because you've no money. I'd recommend you to travel.'
'What! without money?'
'You must travel in search of money, man. You can speak French -- with a vile English accent, no doubt -- still, you can speak it. Go on to the Continent, and see what will turn up for you there.'
'God knows I should like to go!' exclaimed I, with involuntary ardour.
'Go! What the deuce hinders you? You may get to Brussels, for instance, for five or six pounds, if you know how to manage with economy.'
'Necessity would teach me if I didn't.'
'Go, then, and let your wits make a way for you when you get there. I know Brussels almost as well as I know X-- and I am sure it would suit such a one as you better than London.'
'But occupation, Mr. Hunsden! I must go where occupation is to he had; and how could I get recommendation, or introduction, or employment at Brussels?'
'There speaks the organ of caution. You hate to advance a step before you know every inch of the way. You haven't a sheet of paper and a pen and ink?'
'I hope so.'
I produced writing materials with alacrity, for I guessed what he was going to do. He sat down, wrote a few lines folded, sealed, and addressed a letter, and held it out to me.
'There, Prudence -- there's a pioneer to hew down the first rough difficulties of your path. I know well enough, lad, you are not one of those who will run their neck into a noose without seeing how they are to get out again, and you're right there. A reckless man is my aversion, and nothing should ever persuade me to meddle with the concerns of such a one. Those who are reckless for themselves are generally ten times more so for their friends.'
'This is a letter of introduction, I suppose?' said I, taking the epistle.
'Yes. With that in your pocket, you will run no risk of finding yourself in a state of absolute destitution, which, I know, you will regard as a degradation; so should I, for that matter. The person to whom you will present it generally has two or three respectable places depending upon his recommendation.'
'That will just suit me,' said I.
'Well, and where's your gratitude?' demanded Mr. Hunsden. 'Don't you know how to say "Thank you"?'
'I've fifteen pounds and a watch which my godmother, whom I never saw, gave me eighteen years ago,' was my rather irrelevant answer; and I further avowed myself a happy man, and professed that I did not envy any being in Christendom.
'And your gratitude?'
'I shall he off presently, Mr. Hunsden -- to-morrow, if all be well. I'll not stay a day longer in X-- than I'm obliged.'
'Very good; but it will be decent to make due acknowledgment for the assistance you have received. Be quick! It is just going to strike seven. I am waiting to be thanked.'
'Just stand out of the way, will you, Mr. Hunsden. I want a key there is on the corner of the mantelpiece. I'll pack my portmanteau before I go to bed.'
The house clock struck seven.
'The lad is a heathen,' said Hunsden; and taking his hat from a sideboard, he left the room, laughing to himself I had half an inclination to follow him. I really intended to leave X-- the next morning, and should certainly not have another opportunity of bidding him good-bye. The front door banged to.
'Let him go,' said I. 'We shall meet again some day.'
Reader, perhaps you were in Belgium? Haply you don't know the physiognomy of the country? You have not its lineaments defined upon your memory as I have them on mine?
Three -- nay, four -- pictures line the four-walled cell where are stored for me the records of the past. First, Eton. All in that picture is in far perspective, receding, diminutive, but freshly coloured, green, dewy, with a spring sky, piled with glittering yet showery clouds; for my childhood was not all sunshine -- it had its overcast, its cold, its stormy hours. Second, X--, huge, dingy; the canvas cracked and smoked; a yellow sky, sooty clouds; no sun, no azure. the verdure of the suburbs blighted and sullied -- a very dreary scene.
Third, Belgium; and I will pause before this landscape. As to the fourth, a curtain covers it, which I may hereafter withdraw, or may not, as suits my convenience and capacity. At any rate, for the present it must hang undisturbed. Belgium! name unromantic and unpoetic, yet name that whenever uttered has in my ear a sound, in my heart an echo, such as no other assemblage of syllables, however sweet or classic, can produce. Belgium! I repeat the word now as I sit alone near midnight. It stirs my world of the past like a summons to resurrection. The graves unclose, the dead are raised; thoughts, feelings, memories that slept are seen by me ascending from the clods, haloed most of them; but while I gaze on their vapoury forms, and strive to ascertain definitely their outline, the sound which wakened them dies, and they sink, each and all, like a light wreath of mist, absorbed in the mould, recalled to urns, resealed in monuments. Farewell, luminous phantoms!
This is Belgium, reader. Look! Don't call the picture a flat or a dull one; it was neither flat nor dull to me when I first beheld it. When I left Ostend on a mild February morning, and found myself on the road to Brussels, nothing could look vapid to me. My sense of enjoyment possessed an edge whetted to the finest, untouched, keen, exquisite. I was young; I had good health. Pleasure and I had never met; no indulgence of hers had enervated or sated one faculty of my nature. Liberty I clasped in my arms for the first time, and the influence of her smile and embrace revived my life like the sun and the west wind. Yes, at that epoch I felt like a morning traveller who doubts not that from the hill he is ascending he shall behold a glorious sunrise. What if the track be strait, steep, and stony? He sees it not. His eyes are fixed on that summit, flushed already, flushed and gilded; and having gained it, he is certain of the scene beyond. He knows that the sun will face him, that his chariot is even now coming over the eastern horizon, and that the herald breeze he feels on his cheek is opening for the god's career a clear, vast path of azure, amidst clouds soft as pearl and warm as flame. Difficulty and toil were to be my lot, but sustained by energy, drawn on by hopes as bright as vague, I deemed such a lot no hardship. I mounted now the hill in shade, There were pebbles, inequalities, briars in my path, but my eyes were fixed on the crimson peak above; my imagination was with the refulgent firmament beyond, and I thought nothing of the stones turning under my feet or of the thorns scratching my face and hands.
I gazed often, and always with delight, from the window of the diligence (these, be it remembered, were not the days of trains and railroads). Well, and what did I see? I will tell you faithfully. Green, reedy swamps; fields fertile but flat, cultivated in patches that made them look like magnified kitchen-gardens; belts of cut trees, formal as pollard willows, skirting the horizon; narrow canals, gliding slow by the roadside; painted Flemish farm-houses; some very dirty hovels; a gray, dead sky; wet road, wet fields, wet house-tops. Not a beautiful, scarcely a picturesque object met my eye along the whole route, yet to me all was beautiful, all was more than picturesque. It continued fair so long as daylight lasted, though the moisture of many preceding damp days had sodden the whole country. As it grew dark, however, the rain recommenced, and it was through streaming and starless darkness my eye caught the first gleam of the lights of Brussels. I saw little of the city but its lights that night. Having alighted from the diligence, a fiacre conveyed me to the Hotel de --, where I had been advised by a fellow-traveller to put up. Having eaten a traveller's supper, I retired to bed, and slept a traveller's sleep.
Next morning I awoke from prolonged and sound repose with the impression that I was yet in X--, and perceiving it to be broad daylight, I started up, imagining that I had overslept myself and should be behind time at the counting-house. The momentary and painful sense of restraint vanished before the revived and reviving consciousness of freedom, as, throwing back the white curtains of my bed, I looked forth into a wide, lofty, foreign chamber. How different from the small and dingy, though not uncomfortable, apartment I had occupied for a night or two at a respectable inn in London while waiting for the sailing of the packet! Yet far be it from me to profane the memory of that little dingy room! It too is dear to my soul; for there, as I lay in quiet and darkness, I first heard the great bell of St. Paul's telling London it was midnight; and well do I recall the deep, deliberate tones, so full charged with colossal phlegm and force. From the small, narrow window of that room I first saw the dome, looming through a London mist. I suppose the sensations, stirred by those first sounds, first sights, are felt but once. Treasure them, Memory; seal them in urns, and keep them in safe niches. Well I rose. Travellers talk of the apartments in foreign dwellings being bard and uncomfortable: I thought my chamber looked stately and cheerful. It had such large windows -- croisees that opened like doors, with such broad, clear panes of glass; such a great looking-glass stood on my dressing-table; such a fine mirror glittered over the mantelpiece; the painted floor looked so clean and glossy. When I had dressed and was descending the stairs, the broad marble steps almost awed me, and so did the lofty hall into which they conducted. On the first landing I met a Flemish housemaid. She had wooden shoes, a short red petticoat, a printed cotton bedgown; her face was broad, her physiognomy eminently stupid. When I spoke to her in French she answered me in Flemish, with an air the reverse of civil. Yet I thought her charming. If she was not pretty or polite, she was, I conceived, very picturesque; she reminded me of the female figures in certain Dutch paintings I had seen in other years at Seacombe Hall.
I repaired to the public room. That too was very large and very lofty, and warmed by a stove. The floor was black, and the stove was black, and most of the furniture was black; yet I never experienced a freer sense of exhilaration than when I sat down at a very long, black table (covered, however, in part by a white cloth), and having ordered breakfast, began to pour out my coffee from a little black coffee-pot. The stove might be dismal-looking to some eyes, not to mine, but it was indisputably very warm, and there were two gentlemen seated by it talking in French. Impossible to follow their rapid utterance, or comprehend much of the purport of what they said, yet French, in the mouths of Frenchmen or Belgians (I was not then sensible of the horrors of the Belgian accent), was as music to my ears. One of these gentlemen presently discerned me to be an Englishman, no doubt from the fashion in which I addressed the waiter, for I would persist in speaking French in my execrable South-of-England style, though the man understood English. The gentleman, after looking towards me once or twice, politely accosted me in very good English. I remember I wished to God that I could speak French as well; his fluency and correct pronunciation impressed me for the first time with a due notion of the cosmopolitan character of the capital I was in. It was my first experience of that skill in living languages I afterwards found to be so general in Brussels.
I lingered over my breakfast as long as I could. While it was there on the table, and while that stranger continued talking to me, I was a free, independent traveller. But at last the things were removed. The two gentlemen left the room. Suddenly the illusion ceased; reality and business came back. I, a bondsman just released from the yoke, freed for one week from twenty-one years of constraint, must, of necessity, resume the fetters of dependency. Hardly had I tasted the delight of being without a master when duty issued her stem mandate, 'Go forth and seek another service.' I never linger over a painful and necessary task, I never take pleasure before business. It is not in my nature to do so. Impossible to enjoy a leisurely walk over the city, though I perceived the morning was very fine, until I had first. presented Mr. Hunsden's letter of introduction, and got fairly on to the track of a new situation. Wrenching my mind from liberty and delight I seized my hat and forced my reluctant body out of the Hotel de -- into the foreign street.
It was a fine day, but I would not look at the blue sky or at the stately houses round me. My mind was bent on one thing -- finding out 'Mr. Brown, Numero --, Rue Royale,' for so my letter was addressed. By dint of inquiry I succeeded. I stood at last at the desired door, knocked, asked for Mr. Brown, and was admitted.
Being shown into a small breakfast-room, I found myself in the presence of an elderly gentleman, very grave, businesslike, and respectable-looking. I presented Mr. Hunsden's letter. He received me very civilly. After a little desultory conversation he asked me if there was anything in which his advice or experience could be of use. I said 'Yes,' and then proceeded to tell him that I was not a gentleman of fortune, travelling for pleasure, but an ex-counting-house clerk, who wanted employment of some kind, and that immediately too. He replied that as a friend of Mr. Hunsden's he would be willing to assist me as well as he could. After some meditation he named a place in a mercantile house at Liege, and another in a bookseller's shop at Louvain.
'Clerk and shopman!' murmured I to myself. 'No.' I shook my head. I had tried the high stool; I hated it. I believed there were other occupations that would suit me better; besides, I did not wish to leave Brussels.
'I know of no place in Brussels,' answered Mr. Brown, 'unless indeed you were disposed to turn your attention to teaching. I am acquainted with the director of a large establishment who is in want of a professor of English and Latin.'
I thought two minutes; then I seized the idea eagerly.
'The very thing, sir!' said I.
'But,' asked he, 'do you understand French well enough to teach Belgian boys English?'
Fortunately I could answer this question in the affirmative. Having studied French under a Frenchman, I could speak the language intelligibly though not fluently. I could also read it well, and write it decently.
'Then,' pursued Mr. Brown, 'I think I can promise you the place, for Monsieur Pelet will not refuse a professor recommended by me; but come here again at five o'clock this afternoon, and I will introduce you to him.'
The word 'professor' struck me. 'I am not a professor,' said I.
'Oh,' returned Mr. Brown, 'professor here in Belgium means a teacher -- that is all.'
My conscience thus quieted, I thanked Mr. Brown, and, for the present, withdrew. This time I stepped out into the street with a relieved heart; the task I had imposed on myself for that day was executed. I might now take some hours of holiday. I felt free to look up. For the first time I remarked the sparkling clearness of the air, the deep blue of the sky, the gay, clean aspect of the whitewashed or painted houses; I saw what a fine street was the Rue Royale, and, walking leisurely along its broad pavement, I continued to survey its stately hotels, till the palisades, the gates, the trees of the park appearing in sight offered to my eye a new attraction. I remember, before entering the park, I stood a while to contemplate the statue of General Belliard, and then I advanced to the top of the great staircase just beyond, and I looked down into a narrow back street, which I afterwards learned was called the Rue d'Isabelle. I well recollect that my eye rested on the green door of a rather large house opposite, where, on a brass plate, was inscribed, 'Pensionnat de Demoiselles.' Pensionnat! The word excited an uneasy sensation in my mind; it seemed to speak of restraint. Some of the demoiselles, externats no doubt, were at that moment issuing from the door. I looked for a pretty face amongst them, but their close little French bonnets hid their features. In a moment they were gone.
I had traversed a good deal of Brussels before five o'clock arrived, but punctually as that hour struck I was again in the Rue Royale. Readmitted to Mr. Brown's breakfast-room, I found him, as before, seated at the table, and he was not alone -- a gentleman stood by the hearth. Two words of introduction designated him as my future master. 'M. Pelet, Mr. Crimsworth; Mr. Crimsworth, M. Pelet.' A bow -- on each side finished the ceremony. I don't know what sort of a bow I made -- an ordinary one, I suppose, for I was in a tranquil, commonplace frame of mind; I felt none of the agitation which had troubled my first interview with Edward Crimsworth. M. Pelet's bow was extremely polite, yet not theatrical, scarcely French. He and I were presently seated opposite to each other. In a pleasing voice, low, and, out of consideration to my foreign ears, very distinct and deliberate, M. Pelet intimated that he had just been receiving from 'le respectable M. Brown' an account of my attainments and character which relieved him from all scruple as to the propriety of engaging me as professor of English and Latin in his establishment. Nevertheless, for form's sake, he would put a few questions to test my powers. He did, and expressed in flattering terms his satisfaction at my answers. The subject of salary next came on. It was fixed at one thousand francs per annum, besides board and lodging. 'And in addition,' suggested M. Pelet, 'as there will be some hours in each day during which your services will not he required in my establishment, you may, in time, obtain employment in other seminaries, and thus turn your vacant moments to profitable account.'
I thought this very kind, and indeed I found afterwards that the terms on which M. Pelet had engaged me were really liberal for Brussels, instruction being extremely cheap there on account of the number of teachers. It was further arranged that I should be installed in my new post the very next day, after which M. Pelet and I parted.
Well, and what was he like, and what were my impressions concerning him? He was a man of about forty years of age, of middle size, and rather emaciated figure; his face was pale, his cheeks were sunk, and his eyes hollow; his features were pleasing and regular. They had a French turn (for M. Pelet was no Fleming, but a Frenchman both by birth and parentage), yet the degree of harshness inseparable from Gallic lineaments was in his case softened by a mild blue eye and a melancholy, almost suffering, expression of countenance; his physiognomy was fine et spirituelle. I use two French words because they define better than any English terms the species of intelligence with which his features were imbued. He was altogether an interesting and prepossessing personage. I wondered only at the utter absence of all the ordinary characteristics of his profession, and almost feared he could not be stern and resolute enough for a schoolmaster. Externally, at least, M. Pelet presented an absolute contrast to my late master, Edward Crimsworth.
Influenced by the impression I had received of his gentleness, I was a good deal surprised when, on arriving the next day at my new employer's house, and being admitted to a first view of what was to be the sphere of my future labours -- namely, the large, lofty, and well-lighted schoolrooms -- I beheld a numerous assemblage of pupils, boys of course, whose collective appearance showed all the signs of a full, flourishing, and well disciplined seminary. As I traversed the classes in company with M. Pelet a profound silence reigned on all sides, and if by chance a murmur or a whisper arose, one glance from the pensive eye of this most gentle pedagogue stilled it instantly. It was astonishing, I thought, how so mild a check could prove so effectual. When I had perambulated the length and breadth of the classes, M. Pelet turned and said to me, --
'Would you object to taking the boys as they are, and testing their proficiency in English?'
The proposal was unexpected. I had thought I should have been allowed at least a day to prepare; but it is a bad omen to commence any career by hesitation, so I just stepped to the professor's desk near which we stood and faced the circle of my pupils. I took a moment to collect my thoughts, and likewise to frame in French the sentence by which I proposed to open business. I made it as short as possible, --
'Messieurs, prenez vos livres de lecture.'
'Anglais ou Francais, monsieur?' demanded a thickset, moonfaced young Flamand in a blouse. The answer was fortunately easy, --
I determined to give myself as little trouble as possible in this lesson. It would not do yet to trust my unpractised tongue with the delivery of explanations; my accent and idiom would be too open to the criticisms of the young gentlemen before me, relative to whom I felt already it would be necessary at once to take up an advantageous position, and I proceeded to employ means accordingly.
'Commencez!' cried I, when they had all produced their books. Ale moon-faced youth (by name Jules Vanderkelkov, as I afterwards learned) took the first sentence. The livre de lecture was 'The Vicar of Wakefield,' much used in foreign schools, because it is supposed to contain prime samples of conversational English. It might, however, have been a Runic scroll for any resemblance the words, as enunciated by Jules, bore to the language in ordinary use amongst the natives of Great Britain. My God! how he did snuffle, snort, and wheeze! All he said was said in his throat and nose, for it is thus the Flamands speak; but I beard him to the end of his paragraph without proffering a word of correction, whereat he looked vastly self-complacent, convinced, no doubt, that he had acquitted himself like a real born and bred 'Anglais.' In the same unmoved silence I listened to a dozen in rotation; and when the twelfth had concluded with splutter, hiss, and mumble, I solemnly laid down the book.
'Arretez!' said I. There was a pause, during which I regarded them all with a steady and somewhat stern gaze. A dog, if stared at hard enough and long enough, will show symptoms of embarrassment, and so at length did my bench of Belgians. Perceiving that some of the faces before me were beginning to look sullen, and others ashamed, I slowly joined my hands, and ejaculated in a deep voix de poitrine, --
'Comme c'est affreux!'
They looked at each other, pouted, coloured, swung their heels; they were not pleased, I saw, but they were impressed, and in the way I wished them to be. Having thus taken them down a peg in their self-conceit, the next step was to raise myself in their estimation -- not a very easy thing, considering that I hardly dared to speak for fear of betraying my own deficiencies.
'Ecoutez, messieurs!' said I, and I endeavoured to throw into my accents the compassionate tone of a superior being, who, touched by the extremity of the helplessness which at first only excited his scorn, deigns at length to bestow aid. I then began at the very beginning of 'The Vicar of Wakefield,' and read, in a slow, distinct voice, some twenty pages, they all the while sitting mute and listening with fixed attention. By the time I had done nearly an hour had elapsed. I then rose and said, --
'C'est assez pour aujourd'hui, messieurs; demain nous recommencerons, et j'espere que tout ira bien.'
With this oracular sentence I bowed, and in company with M. Pelet quitted the schoolroom.
'C'est bien! c'est tres bien!' said my principal as we entered his parlour. 'Je vois que monsieur a de l'adresse; cela me plait, car, dans l'instruction, l'adresse fait tout autant que le savoir.'
From the parlour M. Pelet conducted me to my apartment -- my chambre, as monsieur said with a certain air of complacency. It was a very small room, with an excessively small bed, but M. Pelet gave me to understand that I was to occupy it quite alone, which was of course a great comfort. Yet, though so limited in dimensions, it had two windows. Light not being taxed in Belgium, the people never grudge its admission into their houses. Just here, however, this observation is not very apropos, for one of these windows was boarded up. The open window looked into the boys' playground. I glanced at the other, as wondering what aspect it would present if disencumbered of the boards. M. Pelet read, I suppose, the expression of my eye; he explained.
'La fenetre fermee donne sur un jardin appartenant a un pensionnat de demoiselles,' said he, 'et les convenances exigent -- enfin, vous comprenez -- n'est-ce pas, monsieur?'
'Oui, oui,' was my reply, and I looked of course quite satisfied; but when M. Pelet had retired and closed the door after him, the first thing I did was to scrutinize closely the nailed boards, hoping to find some chink or crevice which I might enlarge, and so get a peep at the consecrated ground. My researches were vain, for the boards were well joined and strongly nailed. It is astonishing how disappointed I felt. I thought it would have been so pleasant to have looked out upon a garden planted with flowers and trees, so amusing to have watched the demoiselles at their play, to have studied female character in a variety of phases, myself the while sheltered from view by a modest muslin curtain; whereas, owing doubtless to the absurd scruples of some old duenna of a directness, I had now only the option of looking at a bare gravelled court, with an enormous pas de geant in the middle and the monotonous walls and windows of a boys' schoolhouse round. Not only then, but many a time after, especially in moments of weariness and low spirits, did I look with dissatisfied eyes on that most tantalizing board, longing to tear it away and get a glimpse of the green region which I imagined to he beyond. I knew a tree grew close up to the window, for though there were as yet no leaves to rustle, I often heard at night the tapping of branches against the panes. In the daytime, when I listened attentively, I could hear, even through the boards, the voices of the demoiselles in their hours of recreation, and, to speak the honest truth, my sentimental reflections were occasionally a trifle disarranged by the not quite silvery, in fact the too oft en brazen, sounds, which, rising from the unseen paradise below, penetrated clamorously into my solitude. Not to mince matters, it really seemed to me a doubtful case whether the lungs of Mdlle. Reuter's girls or those of M. Pelet's boys were the strongest; and when it came to shrieking, the girls indisputably beat the boys hollow. I forgot to say, by-the-bye, that Reuter was the name of the old lady who had had my window boarded up. I say old, for such I, of course, concluded her to be, judging from her cautious, chaperon-like proceedings; besides, no body ever spoke of her as young. I remember I was very much amused when I first heard her Christian name; it was Zoraide -- Mademoiselle Zoraide Reuter. But the Continental nations do allow themselves vagaries in the choice of names such as we sober English never run into. I think, indeed, we have too limited a list to choose from.
Meantime my path was gradually growing smooth before me. I, in a few weeks, conquered the teasing difficulties inseparable from the commencement of almost every career. Ere long I had acquired as much facility in speaking French as set me at my ease with my pupils; and as I had encountered them on a right footing at the very beginning, and continued tenaciously to retain the advantage I had early gained, they never attempted mutiny, which circumstance all who are in any degree acquainted with the ongoings of Belgian schools, and who know the relation in which professors and pupils too frequently stand towards each other in those establishments, will consider an important and uncommon one. Before concluding this chapter I will say a word on the system I pursued with regard to my classes. My experience may possibly be of use to others.
It did not require very keen observation to detect the character of the youth of Brabant, but it needed a certain degree of tact to adopt one's measures to their capacity. Their intellectual faculties were generally weak, their animal propensities strong; thus there was at once an impotence and a kind of inert force in their natures. They were dull, but they were also singularly stubborn, heavy as lead, and, like lead, most difficult to move. Such being the case, it would have been truly absurd to exact from them much in the way of mental exertion. Having short memories, dense intelligence, feeble reflective powers, they recoiled with repugnance from any occupation that demanded close study or deep thought. Had the abhorred effort been extorted from them by injudicious and arbitrary measures on the part of the professor, they would have resisted as obstinately, as clamorously, as desperate swine; and, though not brave singly, they were relentless acting en masse.
I understood that before my arrival in M. Pelet's establishment the combined insubordination of the pupils had effected the dismissal of more than one English Master. It was necessary then to exact only the most moderate application from natures so little qualified to apply; to assist in every practical way understandings so opaque and contracted; to be ever gentle, considerate, yielding even, to a certain point, with dispositions so irrationally perverse. But, having reached that culminating point of indulgence, you must fix your foot, plant it, root it in rock, become immutable as the towers of St. Gudule. for a step -- but half a step farther -- and you would plunge headlong into the gulf of imbecility. There lodged, you would speedily receive proofs of Flemish gratitude and magnanimity in showers of Brabant saliva and handfuls of Low Country mud. You might smooth to the utmost the path of learning, remove every pebble from the track, but then you must finally insist with decision on the pupil taking your arm and allowing himself to be led quietly along the prepared road. When I had brought down my lesson to the lowest level of my dullest pupil's capacity, when I had shown myself the mildest, the most tolerant of masters, a word of impertinence, a movement of disobedience, changed me at once into a despot. I offered them but one alternative -- submission and acknowledgment of error, or ignominious expulsion. This system answered, and my influence, by degrees, became established on a firm basis. 'The boy is father to the man,' it is said; and so I often thought when I looked at my boys and remembered the political history of their ancestors. Pelet's school was merely an epitome of the Belgian nation.
And Pelet himself? How did I continue to like him? Oh, extremely well! Nothing could be more smooth, gentlemanlike, and even friendly than his demeanour to me. I had to endure from him neither cold neglect, irritating interference, nor pretentious assumption of superiority. I fear, however, two poor, hard-worked Belgian ushers in the establishment could not have said as much; to them the director's manner was invariably dry, stem, and cool. I believe he perceived once or twice that I was a little shocked at the difference he made between them and me, and accounted for it by saying, with A quiet, sarcastic smile, --
'Ce ne sont que des Flamands -- allez!'
And then he took his cigar gently from his lips and spat on the painted floor of the room in which we were sitting. Flamands certainly they were, and both had the true Flamand physiognomy, where intellectual inferiority is marked in lines none can mistake. Still they were men, and, in the main, honest men; and I could not see why their being aboriginals of the flat, dull soil should serve as a pretext for treating them with perpetual severity and contempt. This idea of injustice somewhat poisoned the pleasure I might otherwise have derived from Pelet's soft affable manner to myself Certainly it was agreeable, when the day's work was over, to find one's employer an intelligent and cheerful companion; and if he was sometimes a little sarcastic and sometimes a little too insinuating, and if I did discover that his mildness was more a matter of appearance than of reality -- if I did occasionally suspect the existence of flint or steel under an external covering of velvet -- still we are none of us perfect; and weary as I was of the atmosphere of brutality and insolence in which I had constantly lived at X--, I had no inclination now, on casting anchor in calmer regions, to institute at once a prying search after defects that were scrupulously withdrawn and carefully veiled from my view. I was willing to take Pelet for what he seemed, to believe him benevolent and friendly until some untoward event should prove him otherwise. He was not married, and I soon perceived he had all a Frenchman's, all a Parisian's, notions about matrimony and women. I suspected a degree of laxity in his code of morals, there was something so cold and blase in his tone whenever he alluded to what he called le beau sexe; but he was too gentlemanlike to intrude topics I did not invite, and as he was really intelligent and really fond of intellectual subjects of discourse, he and I always found enough to talk about, without seeking themes in the mire. I hated his fashion of mentioning love. I abhorred from my soul mere licentiousness. He felt the difference of our notions, and, by mutual consent, we kept off ground debatable.
Pelet's house was kept and his kitchen managed by his mother, a real old Frenchwoman. She had been handsome -- at least she told me so, and I strove to believe her; she was now ugly, as only Continental old women can be. Perhaps, though, her style of dress made her look uglier than she really was. Indoors she would go about without cap, her gray hair strangely dishevelled; then, when at home, she seldom wore a gown -- only a shabby cotton camisole. Shoes, too, were strangers to her feet, and in lieu of them she sported roomy slippers, trodden down at the heels. On the other hand, whenever it was her pleasure to appear abroad, as on Sundays and fete-days, she would put on some very brilliant-coloured dress, usually of thin texture, a silk bonnet with a wreath of flowers, and a very fine shawl. She was not, in the main, an ill-natured old woman, but an incessant and most indiscreet talker. She kept chiefly in and about the kitchen, and seemed rather to avoid her son's august presence. Of him, indeed, she evidently stood in awe. When he reproved her, his reproofs were bitter and unsparing; but he seldom gave himself that trouble.
Madame Pelet had her own society, her own circle of chosen visitors, whom, however, I seldom saw, as she generally entertained them in what she called her cabinet, a small den of a place adjoining the kitchen, and descending into it by one or two steps. On these steps, by-the-bye, I have not unfrequently seen Madame Pelet seated with a trencher on her knee, engaged in the three-fold employment of eating her dinner, gossiping with her favourite servant, the housemaid, and scolding her antagonist, the cook. She never dined, and seldom indeed took any meal with her son. and as to showing her face at the boys' table, that was quite out of the question. These details will sound very odd in English ears, but Belgium is not England, and its ways are not our ways.
Madame Pelet's habits of life, then, being taken into consideration, I was a good deal surprised when, one Thursday evening (Thursday was always a half-holiday), as I was sitting all alone in my apartment, correcting a huge pile of English and Latin exercises, a servant tapped at the door, and, on its being opened, presented Madame Pelet's compliments, and she would be happy to see me to take my gouter (a meal which answers to our English 'tea') with her in the dining-room.
'Plait-il?' said I, for I thought I must have misunderstood, the message and invitation were so unusual. The same words were repeated. I accepted, of course; and as I descended the stairs, I wondered what whim had entered the old lady's brain. Her son was out, gone to pass the evening at the salle of the Grande Harmonie, or some other club of which he was a member. Just as I laid my hand on the handle of the dining-room door a queer idea glanced across my mind.
'Surely she's not going to make love to me,' said I. 'I've heard of old Frenchwomen doing odd things in that line; and the gouter! They generally begin such affairs with eating and drinking, I believe.'
There was a fearful dismay in this suggestion of my excited imagination, and if I had allowed myself time to dwell upon it, I should no doubt have cut there and then, rushed back to my chamber, and bolted myself in; but whenever a danger or a horror is veiled with uncertainty, the primary wish of the mind is to ascertain first the naked truth, reserving the expedient of flight for the moment when its dread anticipation shall be realized. I turned the door-handle, and in an instant had crossed the fatal threshold, closed the door behind me and stood in the presence of Madame Pelet.
Gracious heavens! The first view of her seemed to confirm my worst apprehensions. There she sat, dressed out in a light green muslin gown, on her head a lace cap with flourishing red roses in the frill. Her table was carefully spread. There were fruit, cakes, and coffee, with a bottle of something -- I did not know what. Already the cold sweat started on my brow already I glanced back over my shoulder at the closed door when, to my unspeakable relief, my eye, wandering wildly in the direction of the stove, rested upon a second figure, seated in a large fauteuil beside it. This was a woman, too, and, moreover, an old woman, and as fat and as rubicund as Madame Pelet was meagre and yellow. Her attire was likewise very fine, and spring flowers of different hues circled in a bright wreath the crown of her violet-coloured velvet bonnet.
I had only time to make these general observations when Madame Pelet, coming forward with what she intended should be a graceful and elastic step, thus accosted me, --
'Monsieur is indeed most obliging to quit his books, his studies, at the request of an insignificant person like me. Will monsieur complete his kindness by allowing me to present him to my dear friend Madame Reuter, who. resides in the neighbouring house -- the young ladies' school?'
'Ah!' thought I, 'I knew she was old.' And I bowed and took my seat. Madame Reuter placed herself at the table opposite to me.
'How do you like Belgium, monsieur?' asked she, in an accent of the broadest Bruxellois. I could now well distinguish the difference between the fine and pure Parisian utterance of M. Pelet, for instance, and the guttural enunciation of the Flamands. I answered politely, and then wondered how so coarse and clumsy an old woman as the one before me should be at the head of a ladies' seminary, which I had always heard spoken of in terms of high commendation. in truth there was something to wonder at. Madame Reuter looked more like a joyous, free-living old Flemish fermiere, or even a maitresse d'auberge, than a staid, grave, rigid directrice de pensionnat. In general the Continental, or at least the Belgian, old women permit themselves a license of manners, speech, and aspect such as our venerable grand-dames would recoil from as absolutely disreputable and Madame Reuter's jolly face bore evidence that she was no exception to the rule of her country. There was a twinkle and leer in her left eye; her right she kept habitually half shut, which I thought very odd indeed. After several vain attempts to comprehend the motives of these two droll old creatures for inviting me to join them at their gouter, I at last fairly gave it up, and resigning myself to inevitable mystification, I sat and looked first at one, then at the other, taking care meantime to do justice to the confitures, cakes, and coffee, with which they amply supplied me. They, too, ate, and that with no delicate appetite; and having demolished a large portion of the solids, they proposed a petit verre. I declined. Not so Mesdames Pelet and Reuter; each mixed herself what I thought rather a stiff tumbler of punch, and placing it on a stand near the stove, they drew up their chairs to that convenience, and invited me to do the same. I obeyed; and being seated fairly between them, I was thus addressed first by Madame Pelet, then by Madame Reuter.
'We will now speak of business,' said Madame Pelet, and she went on to make an elaborate speech, which, being interpreted, was to the effect that she had asked for the pleasure of my company that evening in order to give her friend Madame Reuter an opportunity of broaching an important proposal, which might rum out greatly to my advantage.
'Pourvu que vous soyez sage,' said Madame Reuter, 'et a vrai dire, vous en avez bien l'air. Take one drop of the punch' (or ponche, as she pronounced it); 'it is an agreeable and wholesome beverage after a full meal.'
I bowed, but again declined it. She went on, --
'I feel,' said she, after a solemn sip -- 'I feel profoundly the importance of the commission with which my dear daughter has entrusted me; for you are aware, monsieur, that it is my daughter who directs the establishment in the next house?'
'Ah! I thought it was yourself, madame.' Though, indeed at that moment I recollected that it was called Mademoiselle, not Madame, Reuter's pensionnat.
'I! Oh no! I manage the house and look after the servants, as my friend Madame Pelet does for monsieur her son -- nothing more. Ah! you thought I gave lessons in class, did you?'
And she laughed loud and long, as though the idea tickled her fancy amazingly.
'Madame is in the wrong to laugh,' I observed. 'If she does not give lessons, I am sure it is not because she cannot.' And I whipped out a white pocket-handkerchief, and wafted it, with a French grace, past my nose, bowing at the same time.
'Quel charmant jeune homme!' murmured Madame Pelet in a low voice, Madame Reuter, being less sentimental, as she was Flamand and not French, only laughed again.
'You are a dangerous person, I fear,' said she. 'If you can forge compliments at that rate, Zoraide will positively be afraid of you; but if you are good, I will keep your secret, and not tell her how well you can flatter. Now, listen what sort of a proposal she makes to you. She has heard that you are an excellent professor, and as she wishes to get the very best masters for her school (car Zoraide fait tout comme une reine, c'est une veritable maitresse-femme), she has commissioned me to step over this afternoon, and sound Madame Pelet as to the possibility of engaging you. Zoraide is a wary general; she never advances without first examining well her ground. I don't think she would be pleased if she knew I had already disclosed her intentions to you. She did not order me to go so far, but I thought there would be no harm in letting you into the secret, and Madame Pelet was of the same opinion. Take care, however, you don't betray either of us to Zoraide -- to my daughter, I mean. She is so discreet and circumspect herself, she cannot understand that one should find a pleasure in gossiping a little -'
'C'est absolument comme mon fils!' cried Madame Pelet.
'All the world is so changed since our girlhood!' rejoined the other. 'Young people have such old heads now. -- But to return, monsieur. Madame Pelet will mention the subject of your giving lessons in my daughter's establishment to her son, and he will speak to you; and then to-morrow you will step over to our house, and ask to see my daughter, and you will introduce the subject as if the first intimation of it had reached you from M. Pelet himself, and be sure you never mention my name, for I would not displease Zoraide on any account.'
'Bien, bien!' interrupted I, for all this chatter and circumlocution began to bore me very much. 'I will consult M.. Pelet, and the thing shall be settled as you desire. Good-evening, mesdames; I am infinitely obliged to you.'
'Comment! vous vous en allez deja?' exclaimed Madame Pelet.
'Prenez encore quelquechose, monsieur; une pomme cuite, des biscuits, encore une tasse de cafe?'
'Merci, merci, madame -- an revoir.' And I backed at last out of the apartment.
Having regained my own room, I set myself to turn over in my mind the incident of the evening. It seemed a queer affair altogether, and queerly managed. The two old women had made quite a little intricate mess of it; still, I found that the uppermost feeling in my mind on the subject was one of satisfaction. In the first place, it would be a change to give lessons in another seminary; and then to teach young ladies would be an occupation so interesting; to be admitted at all into a ladies' boarding-school would be an incident so new in my life. Besides, thought I, as I glanced at the boarded window, 'I shall now at last see the mysterious garden. I shall gaze both on the angels and their Eden.'
M. Pelet could not, of course, object to the proposal made by Mdlle. Reuter, permission to accept such additional employment, should it offer, having formed an article of the terms on which he had engaged me. It was, therefore arranged in the course of next day that I should be at liberty to give lessons in Mdlle. Reuter's establishment four afternoons in every week.
When evening came I prepared to step over, in order to seek a conference with mademoiselle herself on the subject. I had not had time to pay the visit before, having been all day closely occupied in class. I remember very well that before quitting my chamber I held a brief debate with myself as to whether I should change my ordinary attire for something smarter. At last I concluded it would be a waste of labour. 'Doubtless,' thought I, 'she is some stiff old maid, for though the daughter of Madame Reuter, she may well number upwards of forty winters; besides, if it were otherwise, if she be both young and pretty, I am not handsome, and no dressing can make me so, therefore I'll go as I am.' And off I started, cursorily glancing sideways as I passed the toilet-table, surmounted by a looking-glass. A thin, irregular face I saw, with sunk, dark eyes under a large, square forehead; complexion destitute of bloom or attraction; something young, but not youthful -- no object to win a lady's love, no butt for the shafts of Cupid.
I was soon at the entrance of the pentionnat. In a moment I had pulled the bell; in another moment the door was opened, and within appeared a passage paved alternately with black and white marble. The walls were painted in imitation of marble also, and at the far end opened a glass door, through which I saw shrubs and a grass-plat, looking pleasant in the sunshine of the mild spring evening, for it was now the middle of April.
This, then, was my first glimpse of the garden; but I had not time to look long. The portress, after having answered in the affirmative my question as to whether her mistress was at home, opened the folding-doors of a room to the left, and having ushered me in, closed them behind me. I found myself in a salon with a very well painted, highly varnished floor; chairs and sofas covered with white draperies, a green porcelain stove, walls hung with pictures in gilt frames, a gilt pendule and other ornaments on the mantelpiece, a large lustre pendent from the centre of the ceiling, mirrors, consoles, muslin curtains, and a handsome centre table completed the inventory of furniture. All looked extremely clean and glittering, but the general effect would have been somewhat chilling had not a second large pair of folding-doors, standing wide open, and disclosing another and smaller salon, more snugly furnished, offered some relief to the eye. This room was carpeted, and therein was a piano, a couch, a chiffonniere; above all, it contained a lofty window with a crimson curtain, which, being undrawn, afforded another glimpse of the garden through the large, clear panes, round which some leaves of ivy, some tendrils of vine were trained.
'Monsieur Creemsvort, n'est ce pas?' said a voice behind me; and, starting involuntarily, I turned. I had been so taken up with the contemplation of the pretty little salon that I had not noticed the entrance of a person into the larger room. It was, however, Mdlle. Reuter who now addressed me, and stood close beside me; and when I had bowed with instantaneously recovered sang-froid -- for I am not easily embarrassed -- I commenced the conversation by remarking on the pleasant aspect of her little cabinet, and the advantage she had over M. Pelet in possessing a garden.
'Yes,' she said, she often thought so, and added, 'It is my garden, monsieur, which makes me retain this house, otherwise I should probably have removed to larger and more commodious premises long since; but you see I could not take my garden with me, and I should scarcely find one so large and pleasant anywhere else in town.'
I approved her judgment.
'But you have not seen it yet,' said she, rising; 'come to the window and take a better view.' I followed her. She opened the sash, and leaning out I saw in full the enclosed demesne which had hitherto been to me an unknown region. It was a long, not very broad strip of cultured ground, with an alley bordered by enormous old fruit-trees down the middle. There was a sort of lawn, a parterre of rose-trees, some flower-borders, and, on the far side, a thickly-planted copse of lilacs, laburnums, and acacias. It looked pleasant to me, very pleasant, so long a time had elapsed since I had seen a garden of any sort. But it was not only on Mdlle. Reuter's garden that my eyes dwelt; when I had taken a view of her well-trimmed beds and budding shrubberies, I allowed my glance to come back to herself, nor did I hastily withdraw it.
I had thought to see a tall, meagre, yellow, conventual image in black, with a close white cap, bandaged under the chin like a nun's head-gear; whereas there stood by me a little and roundly formed woman, who might indeed be older than I, but was still young. She could not, I thought, be more than six or seven and twenty. She was as fair as a fair Englishwoman. She had no cap; her hair was nut-brown, and she wore it in curls; pretty her features were not, nor very soft, nor very regular, but neither were they in any degree plain, and I already saw cause to deem them expressive. What was their predominant cast? Was it sagacity -- sense? Yes, I thought so; but I could scarcely as yet be sure. I discovered, however that there was a certain serenity of eye and freshness of complexion most pleasing to behold. The colour on her cheek was like the bloom on a good apple, which is as sound at the core as it is red on the rind.
Mdlle. Reuter and I entered upon business. She said she was not absolutely certain of the wisdom of the step she was about to take, because I was so young, and parents might possibly object to a professor like me for their daughters. 'But it is often well to act on one's own judgment,' said she, 'and to lead parents, rather than be led by them. The fitness of a professor is not a matter of age; and, from what I have heard, and from what I observe myself, I would much rather trust you than M. Ledru, the music-master, who is a married man of near fifty.'
I remarked that I hoped she would find me worthy of her good opinion; that if I knew myself, I was incapable of betraying any confidence reposed in me. 'Du reste,' said she, 'the surveillance will he strictly attended to.' And then she proceeded to discuss the subject of terms. She was very cautious, quite on her guard. She did not absolutely bargain, but she warily sounded me to find out what my expectations might be; and when she could not get me to name a sum, she reasoned and reasoned with a fluent yet quiet circumlocution of speech, and at last nailed me down to five hundred francs per annum -- not too much, but I agreed. Before the negotiation was completed, it began to grow a little dusk. I did not hasten it, for I liked well enough to sit and hear her talk. I was amused with the sort of business talent she displayed. Edward could not have shown himself more practical, though he might have evinced more coarseness and urgency; and then she had so many reasons, so many explanations; and, after all, she succeeded in proving herself quite disinterested and even liberal. At last she concluded she could say no more, because, as I acquiesced in all things, there was no further ground for the exercise of her parts of speech. I was obliged to rise. I would rather have sat a little longer. What had I to return to but my small empty room? And my eyes had a pleasure in looking at Mdlle. Reuter, especially now, when the twilight softened her features a little, and, in the doubtful dusk, I could fancy her forehead as open as it was really elevated, her mouth touched with turns of sweetness as well as defined in lines of sense. When I rose to go, I held out my hand, on purpose, though I knew it was contrary to the etiquette of foreign habits. She smiled, and said, --
'Ah! c'est comme tous les Anglais,' but gave me her hand very kindly.
'It is the privilege of my country, mademoiselle,' said I 'and, remember, I shall always claim it.'
She laughed a little, quite good-naturedly, and with the sort of tranquillity obvious in all she did -- a tranquillity which soothed and suited me singularly, at least I thought so that evening. Brussels seemed a very pleasant place to me when I got out again into the street, and it appeared as if some cheerful, eventful, upward-tending career were even then opening to me, on that self-same mild, still April night. So impressionable a being is man, or at least such a man as I was in those days.
Next day the morning hours seemed to pass very slowly at M. Pelet's. I wanted the afternoon to come, that I might go again to the neighbouring pensionnat and give my first lesson within its pleasant precincts, for pleasant they appeared to me. At noon the hour of recreation arrived; at one o'clock we had lunch. This got on the time; and at last St. Gudule's deep bell, tolling slowly two, marked the moment for which I had been waiting.
At the foot of the narrow back stairs that descended from my room I met M. Pelet.
'Comme vous avez l'air rayonnant!' said he. 'Je ne vous ai jamais vu aussi gai. Que s'est-il donc passe?'
'Apparemment que j'aime les changements,' replied I.
'Ah! je comprends -- c'est cela -- soyez sage seulement. Vous etes bien jeune -- trop jeune pour le role que vous allez jouer; il faut prendre garde -- savez-vous?'
'Mais quel danger y a-t-il?'
'Je n'en sais rien -- ne vous laissez pas aller a de vives impressions -- viola tout.'
I laughed. A sentiment of exquisite pleasure played over my nerves at the thought that vives impressions were likely to be created. It was the deadness, the sameness of life's daily ongoings that had hitherto been my bane. My blouse-clad eleves in the boys' seminary never stirred in me any vives impressions, except it might be occasionally some of anger. I broke from M. Pelet, and as I strode down the passage he followed me with one of his laughs -- a very French, rakish, mocking sound.
Again I stood at the neighbouring door, and soon was readmitted into the cheerful passage with its clear dove-colour imitation marble walls. I followed the portress, and descending a step, and making a rum, I found myself in a sort of corridor. A side door opened; Mdlle. Reuter's little figure, as graceful as it was plump, appeared. I could now see her dress in full daylight. A neat, simple mousseline-laine gown fitted her compact round shape to perfection; delicate little collar and manchettes of lace, trim Parisian brodequins showed her neck, wrists, and feet to complete advantage; but how grave was her face as she came suddenly upon me! Solicitude and business were in her eye, on her forehead. She looked almost stern. Her 'Bonjour, monsieur,' was quite polite, but so orderly, so commonplace, it spread directly a cool, damp towel over my vives impressions. The servant turned back when her mistress appeared, and I walked slowly along the corridor, side by side with Mdlle. Reuter.
'Monsieur will give a lesson in the first class to-day,' said she; 'dictation or reading will perhaps be the best thing to begin with, for those are the easiest forms of communicating instruction in a foreign language; and at the first a master naturally feels a little unsettled.'
She was quite right, as I had found from experience. It only remained for me to acquiesce. We proceeded now in silence. The corridor terminated in a hall, large, lofty, and square. A glass door on one side showed within a long narrow refectory, with tables, an armoire, and two lamps. It was empty. Large glass doors in front opened on the playground and garden; a broad staircase ascended spirally on the opposite side; the remaining wall showed a pair of great folding doors, now closed, and admitting, doubtless, to the classes.
Mdlle. Reuter turned her eye laterally on me, to ascertain, probably, whether I was collected enough to be ushered into her sanctum sanctorum. I suppose she judged me to be in a tolerable state of self-government, for she opened the door, and I followed her through. A rustling sound of uprising greeted our entrance. Without looking to the right or left, I walked straight up the lane between two sets of benches and desks, and took possession of the empty chair and isolated desk raised on an estrade, of one step high, so as to command one division, the other division being under the surveillance of a maitresse similarly elevated. At the back of the estrade, and attached to a movable partition dividing this schoolroom from another beyond, was a large tableau of wood painted black and varnished; a thick crayon of white chalk lay on my desk, for the convenience of elucidating any grammatical or verbal obscurity which might occur in my lessons, by writing it upon the tableau; a wet sponge appeared beside the chalk, to enable me to efface the marks when they had served the purpose intended.
I carefully and deliberately made these observations before allowing myself to take one glance at the benches before me. Having handled the crayon, looked back at the tableau, fingered the sponge, in order to ascertain that it was in a right state of moisture, I found myself cool enough to admit of looking calmly up and gazing deliberately round me.
And first I observed that Mdlle. Reuter had already glided away; she was nowhere visible. A maitresse, or teacher -- the one who occupied the corresponding estrade to my own -- alone remained to keep guard over me. She was a little in the shade, and with my short sight I could only see that she was of a thin bony figure and rather tallowy complexion, and that her attitude, as she sat, partook equally of listlessness and affectation. More obvious, more prominent, shone on by the full light of the large window, were the occupants of the benches just before me, of whom some were girls of fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, some young women from eighteen (as it appeared to me) up to twenty. The most modest attire, the simplest fashion of wearing the hair, were apparent in all; and good features, ruddy, blooming complexions, large and brilliant eyes, forms full, even to solidity, seemed to abound. I did not bear the first view like a stoic. I was dazzled, my eyes fell, and in a voice somewhat too low I murmured, --
'Prenez vos cahiers de dictee, mesdemoiselles.'
Not so had I bid the boys at Pelet's take their reading-hooks. A rustle followed, and an opening of desks; behind the lifted lids which momentarily screened the heads bent down to search for exercise-books, I heard tittering and whispers.
'Eulalie, je suis prete a pamer de rire,' observed one.
'Comme il a rougi en parlant!'
'Oui, c'est un veritable blanc-bec.'
'Tais-toi, Hortense; il nous ecoute.'
And now the lids sank and the heads reappeared. I had marked three, the whisperers, and I did not scruple to take a very steady look at them as they emerged from their temporary eclipse. It is astonishing what case and courage their little phrases of flippancy had given me. The idea by which I had been awed was that the youthful beings before me, with their dark nun-like robes and softly-braided hair, were a kind of half-angels. The light titter, the giddy whisper, had already in some measure relieved my mind of that fond and oppressive fancy.
The three I allude to were just in front, within half a yard of my estrade, and were among the most womanly-looking present. Their names I knew afterwards, and may as well mention now; they were Eulalie, Hortense, Caroline. Eulalie was tall, and very finely shaped. She was fair, and her features were those of a Low Country Madonna. Many a figure de Vierge have I seen in Dutch pictures exactly resembling hers. There were no angles in her shape or in her face -- all was curve and roundness; neither thought, sentiment, nor passion disturbed by line or flush the equality of her pale, clear skin. Her noble bust heaved with her regular breathing, her eyes moved a little. By these evidences of life alone could I have distinguished her from some large handsome figure moulded in wax. Hortense was of middle size, and stout. Her form was ungraceful, her face striking, more alive and brilliant than Eulalie's; her hair was dark brown, her complexion richly coloured. there were frolic and mischief in her eye. Consistency and good sense she might possess, but none of her features betokened those qualities.
Caroline was little, though evidently full-grown. Raven-black hair, very dark eyes, absolutely regular features, with a colourless olive complexion, clear as to the face and sallow about the neck, formed in her that assemblage of points whose union many persons regard as the perfection of beauty. How, with the tintless pallor of her skin and the classic straightness of her lineaments, she managed to look sensual, I don't know. I think her lips and eyes contrived the affair between them, and the result left no uncertainty on the beholder's mind. She was sensual now, and in ten years' time she would be coarse, promise plain was written in her face of much future folly.
If I looked at these girls with little scruple, they looked at me with still less. Eulalie raised her unmoved eye to mine, and seemed to expect, passively but securely, an impromptu tribute to her majestic charms. Hortense regarded me boldly, and giggled at the same time, while she said, with an air of impudent freedom, --
'Dictez-nous quelque chose de facile pour commencer, monsieur.'
Caroline shook her loose ringlets of abundant but somewhat coarse hair over her rolling black eyes. parting her lips, as full as those of a hot-blooded Maroon, she showed her- well-set teeth sparkling between them, and treated me at the same time to a smile de sa facon. Beautiful as Pauline Borghese, she looked at the moment scarcely purer than Lucrece de Borgia. Caroline was of noble family. I heard her lady-mother's character afterwards, and then I ceased to wonder at the precocious accomplishments of the daughter. These three, I at once saw, deemed themselves the queens of the school, and conceived that by their splendour they threw all the rest into the shade. In less than five minutes they had thus revealed to me their characters, and in less than five minutes I had buckled on a breast-plate of steely indifference, and let down a visor of impassable austerity.
'Take your pens and commence writing,' said I, in as dry and trite a voice as if I had been addressing only Jules Vanderkelkov and Co.
The dictee now commenced. My three belles interrupted me perpetually with little silly questions and uncalled-for remarks, to some of which I made no answer, and to others replied very quietly and briefly.
'Comment dit-on point et virgule en anglais, monsieur?'
'Semi-collong? Ah, comme c'est drole!' (Giggle.)
'J'ai une si mauvaise plume -- impossible d'ecrire!'
'Mais, monsieur -- je ne sais pas suivre -- vous allez si vite.'
'Je n'ai rien compris, moi!'
Here a general murmur arose, and the teacher, opening her lips for the first time, ejaculated, --
No silence followed; on the contrary, the three ladies in front began to talk more loudly.
'C'est si difficile, l'anglais!'
'Je deteste la dictee.'
'Quel ennui d'ecrire quelque chose que l'on ne comprend pas!'
Some of those behind laughed. A degree of confusion began to pervade the class. It was necessary to take prompt measures.
'Donnez-moi votre cahier,' said I to Eulalie in an abrupt tone; and bending over, I took it before she had time to give it.
'Et vous, mademoiselle; donnez-moi le votre,' continued I, more mildly, addressing a little pale, plain-looking girl, who sat in the first row of the other division, and whom I had remarked as being at once the ugliest and the most attentive in the room. She rose up, walked over to me, and delivered her book with a grave, modest curtsy. I glanced over the two dictations. Eulalie's was slurred, blotted, and full of silly mistakes; Sylvie's (such was the name of the ugly little girl) was clearly written, it contained no error against sense, and but few faults of orthography. I coolly read aloud both exercises, marking the faults; then I looked at Eulalie.
'C'est honteux!' said I, and I deliberately tore her dictation in four parts, and presented her with the fragments I returned Sylvie her book with a smile, saying, --
'C'est bien; je suis content de vous.'
Sylvie looked calmly pleased. Eulalie swelled like an incensed turkey. But the mutiny was quelled. The conceited coquetry and futile flirtation of the first bench were exchanged for a taciturn sullenness, much more convenient to me, and the rest of my lesson passed without interruption.
A bell clanging out in the yard announced the moment for the cessation of school labours. I heard our own bell at the same time, and that of a certain public college immediately after. Order dissolved instantly. Up started every pupil. I hastened to seize my hat, bow to the maitresse, and quit the room before the tide of externats should pour from the inner class, where I knew near a hundred were prisoned, and whose rising tumult I already heard.
I bad scarcely crossed the hall and gained the corridor when Mdlle. Reuter came again upon me.
'Step in here a moment,' said she, and she held open the door of the side room from whence she had issued on my arrival. It was a salle-ˆ-manger, as appeared from the beaufet, and the armoire vitree, filled with glass and china, which formed part of its furniture. Ere she had closed the door on me and herself, the corridor was already filled with day-pupils, tearing down their cloaks, bonnets, and cabas from the wooden pegs on which they were suspended. The shrill voice of a maitresse was heard at intervals, vainly endeavouring to enforce some sort of order -- vainly, I say. Discipline there was none in these rough ranks, and yet this was considered one of the best conducted schools in Brussels.
'Well, you have given your first lesson,' began Mdlle. Reuter in the most calm, equable voice, as though quite unconscious of the chaos from which we were separated only by a single wall.
'Were you satisfied with your pupils, or did any circumstance in their conduct give you cause for complaint? Conceal nothing from me; repose in me entire confidence.'
Happily, I felt in myself complete power to manage my pupils without aid. The enchantment, the golden haze which had dazzled my perspicuity at first, had been a good deal dissipated. I cannot say I was chagrined or downcast by the contrast which the reality of a pensionnat de demoiselles presented to my vague ideal of the same community. I was only enlightened and amused; consequently, I felt in no disposition to complain to Mdlle. Reuter, and I received her considerate invitation to confidence with a smile.
'A thousand thanks, mademoiselle; all has gone very smoothly.'
She looked more than doubtful.
'Et les trois demoiselles du premier bane?' said she.
'Ah! tout va an mieux!' was my answer, and Mdlle. Reuter ceased to question me; but her eye -- not large, not brilliant, not melting, or kindling, but astute, penetrating, practical -- showed she was even with me. It let out a momentary gleam, which said plainly, 'Be as close as you like; I am not dependent on your candour. What you would conceal I already know.'
By a transition so quiet as to be scarcely perceptible, the directress's manner changed. The anxious business air passed from her face, and she began chatting about the weather and the town, and asking in neighbourly wise after M. and Madame Pelet. I answered all her little questions. She prolonged her talk; I went on following its many little windings. She sat so long, said so much, varied so often the topics of discourse, that it was not difficult to perceive she had a particular aim in thus detaining me. Her mere words could have afforded no clue to this aim, but her countenance aided, while her lips uttered only affable commonplaces, her eyes reverted continually to my face. Her glances were not given in full, but out of the corners, so quietly, so stealthily, yet I think I lost not one. I watched her as keenly as she watched me. I perceived soon that she was feeling after my real character. She was searching for salient points, and weak points, and eccentric points. She was applying now this test, now that, hoping in the end to find some chink, some niche where she could put in her little firm foot and stand upon my neck, mistress of my nature. Do not mistake me, reader -- it was no amorous influence she wished to gain; at that time it was only the power of the politician to which she aspired. I was now installed as a professor in her establishment, and she wanted to know where her mind was superior to mine, by what feeling or opinion she could lead me.
I enjoyed the game much, and did not hasten its conclusion. Sometimes I gave her hopes, beginning a sentence rather weakly, when her shrewd eye would light up; she thought she had me. Having led her a little way, I delighted to turn round and finish with sound, hard sense, whereat her countenance would fall. At last a servant entered to announce dinner. The conflict being thus necessarily terminated, we parted without having gained any advantage on either side. Mdlle. Reuter had not even given me an opportunity of attacking her with feeling, and I had managed to baffle her little schemes of craft. It was a regular drawn battle. I again held out my hand when I left the room; she gave me hers. It was a small and white hand, but how cool! I met her eye, too, in full, obliging her to give me a straightforward look. This last test went against me. It left her as it found her -- moderate, temperate, tranquil; me it disappointed.
'I am growing wiser,' thought I, as I walked back to M. Pelet's. 'Look at this little woman. Is she like the women of novelists and romancers? To read of female character as depicted in poetry and fiction, one would think it was made up of sentiment, either for good or bad. Here is a specimen and a most sensible and respectable specimen too, whose staple ingredient is abstract reason. No Talleyrand was ever more passionless than Zoraide Reuter.' So I thought then. I found afterwards that blunt susceptibilities are very consistent with strong propensities.
I had indeed had a very long talk with the crafty little politician, and on regaining my quarters I found that dinner was half over. To be late at meals was against a standing rule of the establishment, and had it been one of the Flemish ushers who thus entered after the removal of the soup and the commencement of the first course, M. Pelet would probably have greeted him with a public rebuke, and would certainly have mulcted him both of soup and fish. As it was, that polite though partial gentleman only shook his head, and as I took my place, unrolled my napkin, and said my heretical grace to myself, he civilly dispatched a servant to the kitchen, to bring me a plate of puree aux carottes (for this was a maigre day), and before sending away the first course, reserved for me a portion of the stock fish of which it consisted. Dinner being over, the boys rushed out for their evening play. Kint and Vandam (the two ushers) of course followed them. Poor fellows! if they had not looked so very heavy, so very soulless, so very indifferent to all things in heaven above or in the earth beneath, I could have pitied them greatly for the obligation they were under to trail after those rough lads everywhere and at all times; even as it was, I felt disposed to scout myself as a privileged prig when I turned to ascend to my chamber, sure to find there, if not enjoyment, at least liberty; but this evening (as had often happened before) I was to be still further distinguished.
'Eh bien, mauvais sujet!' said the voice of M. Pelet behind me, as I set my foot on the first step of the stair, 'ou allez-vous? Venez a la salle-ˆ-manger, que je vous gronde un peu.'
'I beg pardon, monsieur,' said I, as I followed him to his private sitting-room, 'for having returned so late. It was not my fault.'
'That is just what I want to know,' rejoined M. Pelet, as he ushered me into the comfortable parlour with a good wood-fire, for the stove had now been removed for the season. Having rung the bell he ordered 'Coffee for two,' and presently he and I were seated, almost in English comfort, one on each side of the hearth, a little round table between us, with a coffee-pot, a sugar-basin, and two large white china cups. While M. Pelet employed himself in choosing a cigar from a box, my thoughts reverted to the two outcast ushers, whose voices I could hear even now crying hoarsely for order in the playground.
'C'est une grande responsabilite, que la surveillance,' observed I.
'Plait-il?' dit M. Pelet.
I remarked that I thought Messieurs Vandam and Kint must sometimes be a little fatigued with their labours.
'Des betes de somme -- des betes de somme,' murmured scornfully the director. Meantime I offered him his cup of coffee.
'Servez-vous, mon garcon,' said he blandly, when I had put a couple of huge lumps of Continental sugar into his cup. 'And now tell me why you stayed so long at Mdlle. Reuter's. I know that lessons conclude, in her establishment as in mine, at four o'clock, and when you returned it was past five.'
'Mademoiselle wished to speak with me, monsieur.'
'Indeed! On what subject, if one may ask?'
'Mademoiselle talked about nothing, monsieur.'
'A fertile topic! And did she discourse thereon in the schoolroom, before the pupils?'
'No. Like you, monsieur, she asked me to walk into her parlour.'
'And Madame Reuter -- the old duenna -- my mother's gossip, was there, of course?'
'No, monsieur. I had the honour of being quite alone with mademoiselle.'
'C'est joli -- cela,' observed M. Pelet, and he smiled and looked into the fire.
'Honi soit qui mal y pense,' murmured I significantly.
'Je connais un peu ma petite voisine -- voyez-vous.'
'In that case, monsieur will be able to aid me in finding out what was mademoiselle's reason for making me sit before her sofa one mortal hour, listening to the most copious and fluent dissertation on the merest frivolities.'
'She was sounding your character.'
'I thought so, monsieur.'
'Did she find out your weak point?'
'What is my weak point?'
'Why, the sentimental. Any woman sinking her shaft deep enough will at last reach a fathomless spring of sensibility in thy breast, Crimsworth.'
I felt the blood stir about my heart and rise warm to my cheek.
'Some women might, monsieur.'
'Is Mdlle. Reuter of the number? Come, speak frankly, mon fils; elle est encore jeune, plus agee que toi peut-etre, mais juste assez pour unir la tendresse d'une petite maman a l'amour d'une epouse devouee; n'est-ce pas que cela t'irait superieurement?'
'No, monsieur; I should like my wife to be my wife, and not half my mother.'
'She is, then, a little too old for you?'
'No, monsieur; not a day too old if she suited me in other things.'
'In what does she not suit you, William? She is personally agreeable, is she not?'
'Very. Her hair and complexion are just what I admire; and her turn of form, though quite Belgian, is full of grace.'
'Bravo! And her face, her features -- how do you like them?'
'A little harsh, especially her mouth.'
'Ah, yes! her mouth,' said M. Pelet, and he chuckled inwardly. 'There is character about her mouth -- firmness; but she has a very pleasant smile; don't you think so?'
'True, but that expression of craft is owing to her eyebrows. Have you remarked her eyebrows?'
I answered that I had not.
'You have not seen her looking down, then?' said he.
'It is a treat, notwithstanding. Observe her when she has some knitting, or some other woman's work in hand, and sits the image of peace, calmly intent on her needles and her silk, some discussion meantime going on around her, in the course of which peculiarities of character are being developed or important interests canvassed. She takes no part in it. Her humble, feminine mind is wholly with her knitting; none of her features move, she neither presumes to smile approval nor frown disapprobation, her little hands assiduously ply their unpretending task. If she can only get this purse finished or this bonnet-grec completed, it is enough for her. If gentlemen approach her chair, a deeper quiescence, a meeker modesty settles on her features and clothes her general mien. Observe then her eyebrows, et dites-moi s'il n'y a pas du chat dans l'un et du renard dans l'autre.'
'I will take careful notice the first opportunity,' said I.
'And then,' continued M. Pelet, 'the eyelid will flicker, the light-coloured lashes he lifted a second, and a blue eye, glancing out from under the screen, will take its brief, sly, searching survey, and retreat again.
'I smiled and so did Peter, and after a few minutes' silence, I asked, --
'Will she ever marry, do you think?'
'Marry! Will birds pair? Of course it is both her intention and resolution to marry when she finds a suitable match, and no one is better aware than herself of the sort of impression she is capable of producing. No one likes better to captivate in a quiet way. I am mistaken if she will not yet leave the print of her stealing steps on thy heart, Crimsworth.'
'Of her steps? Confound it, no! My heart is not a plank to be walked on.'
'But the soft touch of a palate de velours will do it no harm.'
'She offers me no palate de velours. She is all form and reserve with me.'
'That to begin with. Let respect be the foundation, affection the first floor, love the superstructure. Mdlle. Reuter is a skilful architect.'
'And interest, M. Pelet -- interest. Will not mademoiselle consider that point?'
'Yes, yes, no doubt; it will he the cement between every stone. And now we have discussed the directness, what of the pupils? N'y-a-t-il pas de belles etudes parmi ces jeunes tetes?'
'Studies of character? Yes; curious ones, at least, I imagine; but one cannot divine much from a first interview.'
'Ah, you affect discretion; but tell me now, were you not a little abashed before those blooming young creatures?'
'At first, yes; but I rallied and got through with all due sang-froid.
'I don't believe you.'
'It is true, notwithstanding. At first I thought them angels, but they did not leave me long under that delusion. Three of the eldest and handsomest undertook the task of setting me right, and they managed so cleverly that in five minutes I knew them, at least, for what they were -- three arrant coquettes.'
'Je les connais!' exclaimed M. Pelet. 'Elles sont toujours au premier rang a l'eglise et a la promenade; une blonde superbe, une jolie espiegle, une belle brune.'
'Lovely creatures all of them -- heads for artists. What a group they would make, taken together! Eulalie (I know their names), with her smooth braided hair and calm ivory brow. Hortense, with her rich chestnut locks, so luxuriantly knotted, plaited, twisted, as if she did not know how to dispose of all their abundance, with her vermilion lips, damask cheek, and roguish laughing eye. And Caroline de Blemont! Ah, there is beauty -- beauty in perfection! What a cloud of sable curls about the face of a houri! What fascinating lips! What glorious black eyes! Your Byron would have worshipped her, and you -- you cold, frigid islander! -- you played the austere, the insensible in the presence of an Aphrodite so exquisite?'
I might have laughed at the director's enthusiasm had I believed it real, but there was something in his tone which indicated got-up raptures. I felt he was only affecting fervour in order to put me off my guard, to induce me to come out in return, so I scarcely even smiled. He went on, --
'Confess, William -- do not the mere good looks of Zoraide Reuter appear dowdyish and commonplace compared with the splendid charms of some of her pupils?'
The question discomposed me, but I now felt plainly that my principal was endeavouring (for reasons best known to himself -- at that time I could not fathom them) to excite ideas and wishes in my mind alien to what was right and honourable. The iniquity of the instigation proved its antidote, and when he further added, --
'Each of those three beautiful girls will have a handsome fortune; and with a little address, a gentlemanlike, intelligent young fellow like you might make himself master of the hand, heart, and purse of any one of the trio.'
I replied by a look and an interrogative 'Monsieur?' which startled him.
He laughed a forced laugh, affirmed that he had only been joking, and demanded whether I could possibly have thought him in earnest. Just then the bell rang; the play-hour was over. It was an evening on which M. Pelet was accustomed to read passages from the drama and the belles lettres to his pupils. He did not wait for my answer, but rising, left the room, humming as he went some gay strain of Beranger's.
Daily, as I continued my attendance at the seminary of Mdlle. Reuter, did I find fresh occasions to compare the ideal with the real. What had I known of female character previously to my arrival at Brussels? Precious little. And what was my notion of it? Something vague, slight, gauzy, glittering. Now when I came in contact with it I found it to he a palpable substance enough -- very hard too sometimes, and often heavy. There was metal in it, both lead and iron.
Let the idealists, the dreamers about earthly angels and human flowers, just look here while I open my portfolio and show them a sketch or two, pencilled after nature. I took these sketches in the second-class schoolroom of Mdlle. Reuter's establishment, where about a hundred specimens of the genus jeune fille collected together offered a fertile variety of subject. A miscellaneous assortment they were, differing both in caste and country. As I sat on my estrade and glanced over the long range of desks, I had under my eye French, English, Belgians, Austrians, and Prussians. The majority belonged to the class bourgeois; but there were many countesses, there were the daughters of two generals, and of several colonels, captains, and government employes. These ladies sat side by side with young females destined to be demoiselles de magasins, and with some Flamandes, genuine aborigines of the country. In dress all were nearly similar, and in manners there was small difference; exceptions there were to the general rule, but the majority gave the tone to the establishment, and that tone was rough, boisterous, marked by a point-blank disregard of all forbearance towards each other or their teachers, an eager pursuit by each individual of her own interest and convenience, and a coarse indifference to the interest and convenience of every one else. Most of them could lie with audacity when it appeared advantageous to do so. All understood the art of speaking fair when a point was to be gained, and could with consummate skill and at a moment's notice turn the cold shoulder the instant civility ceased to be profitable. Very little open quarrelling ever took place amongst them, but backbiting and talebearing were universal. Close friendships were forbidden by the rules of the school, and no one girl seemed to cultivate more regard for another than was just necessary to secure a companion when solitude would have been irksome. They were each and all supposed to have been reared in utter unconsciousness of vice. The precautions used to keep them ignorant, if not innocent, were innumerable. How was it, then, that scarcely one of those girls, having attained the age of fourteen, could look a man in the face with modesty and propriety? An air of bold, impudent flirtation, or a loose, silly leer, was sure to answer the most ordinary glance from a masculine eye. I know nothing of the arcana of the Roman Catholic religion, and I am not a bigot in matters of theology, but I suspect the root of this precocious impurity, so obvious, so general in Popish countries, is to he found in the discipline if not the doctrines of the Church of Rome. I record what I have seen. These girls belonged to what are called the respectable ranks of society. They had all been carefully brought up, yet was the mass of them mentally depraved. So much for the general view; now for one or two selected specimens.
The first picture is a full length of Aurelia Koslow, a German fraulein, or rather a half-breed between German and Russian. She is eighteen years of age, and has been sent to Brussels to finish her education. She is of middle size, stiffly made, body long, legs short, bust much developed but not compactly moulded, waist disproportionately compressed by an inhumanly braced corset, dress carefully arranged, large feet tortured into small bottines, head small, hair smoothed, braided, oiled, and gummed to perfection, very low forehead, very diminutive and vindictive gray eyes, somewhat Tartar features, rather flat nose, rather high cheekbones, yet the ensemble not positively ugly, tolerably good complexion. So much for person. As to mind -- deplorably ignorant and ill-informed, incapable of writing or speaking correctly even German, her native tongue; a dunce in French, and her attempts at learning English a mere farce. Yet she has been at school twelve years; but as she invariably gets her exercises of every description done by a fellow-pupil, and reads her lessons off a book concealed in her lap, it is not wonderful that her progress has been so snail-like. I do not know what Aurelia's daily habits of life are, because I have not the opportunity of observing her at all times; but from what I see of the state of her desk, books, and papers, I should say she is slovenly and even dirty. Her outward dress, as I have said, is well attended to; but in passing behind her bench, I have remarked that her neck is gray for want of washing, and her hair, so glossy with gum and grease, is not such as one feels tempted to pass the hand over, much less to run the fingers through. Aurelia's conduct in class, at least when I am present, is something extraordinary, considered as an index of girlish innocence. The moment I enter the room, she nudges her next neighbour and indulges in a half-suppressed laugh. As I take my seat on the estrade, she fixes her eye on me; she seems resolved to attract and if possible monopolize my notice. To this end she launches at me all sorts of looks -- languishing, provoking, leering, laughing. As I am found quite proof against this sort of artillery -- for we scorn what, unasked, is lavishly offered -- she has recourse to the expedient of making noises. Sometimes she sighs, sometimes groans, sometimes utters inarticulate sounds for which language has no name. If, in walking up the schoolroom, I pass near her, she puts out her foot that it may touch mine. If I do not happen to observe the manoeuvre, and my boot comes in contact with her brodequin, she affects to fall into convulsions of suppressed laughter; if I notice the snare and avoid it, she expresses her mortification in sullen muttering, where I hear myself abused in bad French, pronounced with an intolerable Low German accent.
Nor far from Mdlle. Koslow sits another young lady, by name Adele Dronsart. This is a Belgian, rather low of stature, in form heavy, with broad waist, short neck and limbs, good red and white complexion, features well chiselled and regular, well-cut eyes of a dear brown colour, light brown hair, good teeth, age not much above fifteen, but as full grown as a stout young Englishwoman of twenty. This portrait gives the idea of a somewhat dumpy but good-looking damsel, does it not? Well, when I looked along the row of young heads, my eye generally stopped at this of Adele's. Her gaze was ever waiting for mine, and it frequently succeeded in arresting it. She was an unnatural-looking being -- so young, fresh, blooming, yet so Gorgon-like. Suspicion, sullen ill-temper were on her forehead, vicious propensities in her eve, envy and panther-like deceit about her mouth. In general she sat very still. Her massive shape looked as if it could not bend much, nor did her large head so broad at the base, so narrow towards the top -- seem made to turn readily on her short neck. She had but two varieties of expression -- the prevalent one a forbidding, dissatisfied scowl, varied sometimes by a most pernicious and perfidious smile. She was shunned by her fellow-pupils, for, bad as many of them were, few were as bad as she.
Aurelia and Adele were in the first division of the second class. The second division was headed by a pensionnaire named Juanna Trista. This girl was of mixed Belgian and Spanish origin. Her Flemish mother was dead, her Catalonian father was a merchant residing in the -- Isles, where Juanna had been born, and whence she was sent to Europe to be educated. I wonder that any one, looking at that girl's head and countenance, would have received her under their roof. She had precisely the same shape of skull as Pope Alexander the Sixth. Her organs of benevolence, veneration, conscientiousness, adhesiveness, were singularly small; those of self-esteem firmness, destructiveness, combativeness, preposterously large. Her head sloped up in the penthouse shape, was contracted about the forehead, and prominent behind. She had rather good though large and marked features. Her temperament was fibrous and bilious, her complexion pale and dark, hair and eyes black, form angular and rigid but proportionate, age fifteen.
Juanna was not very thin, but she had a gaunt visage, and her regard was fierce and hungry. Narrow as was her brow it presented space enough for the legible graving of two words, Mutiny and Hate. in some one of her other lineaments -- I think the eye -- cowardice had also its distinct cipher. Mdlle. Trista thought fit to trouble my first lessons with a coarse work-day sort of turbulence. She made noises with her mouth like a horse, she ejected her saliva, she uttered brutal expressions. Behind and below her were seated a band of very vulgar, inferior-looking Flamandes, including two or three examples of that deformity of person and imbecility of intellect whose frequency in the Low Countries would seem to furnish proof that the climate is such as to induce degeneracy of the human mind and body. These, I soon found, were completely under her influence, and with their aid she got up and sustained a swinish tumult, which I was constrained at last to quell by ordering her and two of her tools to rise from their seats, and, having kept them standing five minutes, turning them bodily out of the schoolroom the accomplices into a large place adjoining called the grande salle, the principal into a cabinet, of which I closed the door and pocketed the key. This judgment I executed in the presence of Mdlle. Reuter who looked much aghast at beholding so decided a proceeding -- the most severe that had ever been ventured on in her establishment. Her look of affright I answered with one of composure, and finally with a smile, which perhaps flattered, and certainly soothed her. Juanna Trista remained in Europe long enough to repay, by malevolence and ingratitude, all who had ever done her a good turn; and she then went to join her father in the -- Isles, exulting in the thought that she should there have slaves, whom, as she said, she could kick and strike at will.
These three pictures are from the life. I possess others, as marked and as little agreeable, but I will spare my reader the exhibition of them.
Doubtless it will be thought that I ought now, by way of contrast, to show something charming -- some gentle virgin head, circled with a halo, some sweet personification of innocence, clasping the dove of peace to her bosom. No. I saw nothing of the sort, and therefore cannot portray it. The pupil in the school possessing the happiest disposition was a young girl from the country, Louise Path. She was sufficiently benevolent and obliging, but not well taught nor well mannered. Moreover, the plague-spot of dissimulation was in her also. Honour and principle were unknown to her; she had scarcely heard their names. The least exceptionable pupil was the poor little Sylvie I have mentioned once before. Sylvie was gentle in manners, intelligent in mind. She was even sincere, as far as her religion would permit her to be so; but her physical organization was defective. Weak health stunted her growth and chilled her spirits, and then, destined as she was for the cloister, her whole soul was warped to a conventual bias, and in the tame, trained subjection of her manner one read that she had already prepared herself for her future course of life by giving up her independence of thought and action into the hands of some despotic confessor. She permitted herself no original opinion, no preference of companion or employment; in everything she was guided by another. With a pale, passive, automaton air, she went about all day long doing what she was bid -- never what she liked, or what, from innate conviction, she thought it right to do. The poor little future religieuse had been early taught to make the dictates of her own reason and conscience quite subordinate to the will of her spiritual director. She was the model pupil of Mdlle. Reuter's establishment -- pale, blighted image, where life lingered feebly, but whence the soul had been conjured by Romish wizard-craft.
A few English pupils there were in this school, and these might be divided into two classes. First the Continental English -- the daughters chiefly of broken adventurers, whom debt or dishonour had driven from their own country. These poor girls had never known the advantages of settled homes, decorous example, or honest Protestant education. Resident a few months now in one Catholic school, now in another, as their parents wandered from land to land -- from France to Germany, from Germany to Belgium -- they had picked up some scanty instruction, many bad habits, losing every notion even of the first elements of religion and morals, and acquiring an imbecile indifference to every sentiment that can elevate humanity. They were distinguishable by an habitual look of sullen dejection, the result of crushed self-respect and constant browbeating from their Popish fellow-pupils, who hated them as English, and scorned them as heretics.
The second class were British English. Of these I did not encounter half a dozen during the whole time of my attendance at the seminary. Their characteristics were clean but careless dress, ill-arranged hair (compared with the tight and trim foreigners), erect carriage, flexible figures, white and taper hands, features more irregular but also more intellectual than those of the Belgians, grave and modest countenances, a general air of native propriety and decency; by this last circumstance alone I could at a glance distinguish the daughter of Albion and nursling of Protestantism from the foster-child of Rome, the protege of Jesuitry. Proud, too, was the aspect of these British girls; at once envied and ridiculed by their Continental associates, they warded off insult with austere civility, and met hate with mute disdain. They eschewed company-keeping, and in the midst of numbers seemed to dwell isolated.
The teachers presiding over this mixed multitude were three in number, all French -- their names Mdlles. Zephyrine, Pelagie, and Suzette. The two last were commonplace personages enough. Their look was ordinary, their manner was ordinary, their temper was ordinary, their thoughts, feelings, and views were all ordinary. Were I to write a chapter on the subject I could not elucidate it further. Zephyrine was somewhat more distinguished in appearance and deportment than Pelagie and Suzette, but in character a genuine Parisian coquette, perfidious, mercenary, and dry-hearted. A fourth maitresse I sometimes saw who seemed to come daily to teach needle-work, or netting, or lace-mending or some such flimsy art; but of her I never had more than a passing glimpse, as she sat in the carre, with her frames and some dozen of the elder pupils about her -- consequently I had no opportunity of studying her character, or even of observing her person much. The latter, I remarked, had a very girlish air for a maitresse; otherwise it was not striking. Of character I should think she possessed but little, as her pupils seemed constantly en revolte against her authority. She did not reside in the house; her name, I think, was Mdlle. Henri.
Amidst this assemblage of all that was insignificant and defective, much that was vicious and repulsive (by that last epithet many would have described the two or three stiff, silent, decently behaved, ill-dressed British girls), the sensible, sagacious, affable directness shone like a steady star over a marsh full of jack-o'-lanthorns. Profoundly aware of her superiority, she derived an inward bliss from that consciousness which sustained her under all the care and responsibility inseparable from her position; it kept her temper calm, her brow smooth, her manner tranquil. She liked -- as who would not? -- on entering the schoolroom, to feel that her sole presence sufficed to diffuse that order and quiet which all the remonstrances, and even commands, of her underlings frequently failed to enforce. She liked to stand in comparison or rather contrast, with those who surrounded her, and to know that in personal as well as mental advantages she bore away the undisputed palm of preference (the three teachers were all plain). Her pupils she managed with such indulgence and address -- taking always on herself the office of recompenser and eulogist, and abandoning to her subalterns every invidious task of blame and punishment -- that they all regarded her with deference, if not with affection. Her teachers did not love her, but they submitted because they were her inferiors in everything. The various masters who attended her school were each and all in some way or other under her influence. Over one she had acquired power by her skilful management of his bad temper; over another by little attentions to his petty caprices; a third she had subdued by flattery; a fourth -- a timid man -- she kept in awe by a sort of austere decision of mien; me she still watched, still tried by the most ingenious tests. She roved round me, baffled yet persevering, I believe she thought I was like a smooth and bare precipice, which offered neither jutting stone nor tree-root nor tuft of grass to aid the climber. Now she flattered with exquisite tact; now she moralized; now she tried how far I was accessible to mercenary motives; then she disported on the brink of affection, knowing that some men are won by weakness; anon, she talked excellent sense, aware that others have the folly to admire judgment. I found it at once pleasant and easy to evade all these efforts. It was sweet, when she thought me nearly won, to turn round and to smile in her very eyes, half scornfully, and then to witness her scarcely veiled though mute mortification. Still she persevered, and at last, I am bound to confess it, her finger, essaying, proving every atom of the casket, touched its secret spring, and for a moment the lid sprang open. She laid her hand on the jewel within. Whether she stole and broke it, or whether the lid shut again with a snap on her fingers, read on, and you shall know.
It happened that I came one day to give a lesson when I was indisposed. I had a bad cold and a cough. Two hours' incessant talking left me very hoarse and tired. As I quitted the schoolroom, and was passing along the corridor, I met Mdlle. Reuter. She remarked, with an anxious air, that I looked very pale and tired. 'Yes,' I said, 'I was fatigued.' And then, with increased interest, she rejoined, 'You shall not go away till you have had some refreshment.' She persuaded me to step into the parlour, and was very kind and gentle while I stayed. The next day she was kinder still. She came herself into the class to see that the windows were closed, and that there was no draught; she exhorted me with friendly earnestness not to overexert myself. When I went away, she gave me her hand unasked, and I could not but mark, by a respectful and gentle pressure, that I was sensible of the favour, and grateful for it. My modest demonstration kindled a little merry smile on her countenance; I thought her almost charming. During the remainder of the evening my mind was full of impatience for the afternoon of the next day to arrive, that I might see her again.
I was not disappointed, for she sat in the class during the whole of my subsequent lesson, and often looked at me almost with affection. At four o'clock she accompanied me out of the schoolroom, asking with solicitude after my health, then scolding me sweetly because I spoke too loud and gave myself too much trouble. I stopped at the glass door which led into the garden, to hear her lecture to the end. The door was open; it was a very fine day; and while I listened to the soothing reprimand, I looked at the sunshine and flowers, and felt very happy. The day-scholars began to pour from the schoolrooms into the passage.
'Will you go into the garden a minute or two,' asked she, 'till they are gone?'
I descended the steps without answering, but I looked back, as much as to say, --
'You will come with me?'
In another minute I and the directness were walking side by side down the alley bordered with fruit-trees, whose white blossoms were then in full blow as well as their tender green leaves. The sky was blue, the air still; the May afternoon was full of brightness and fragrance. Released from the stifling class, surrounded with flowers and foliage, with a pleasing, smiling, affable woman at my side, how did I feel? Why, very enviably. It seemed as if the romantic visions my imagination had suggested of this garden, while it was yet hidden from me by the jealous boards, were more than realized; and when a turn in the alley shut out the view of the house, and some tall shrubs excluded M. Pelet's mansion, and screened us momentarily from the other houses rising amphitheatre-like round this green spot, I gave my arm to Mdlle. Reuter, and led her to a garden-chair, nestled under some lilacs near. She sat down; I took my place at her side. She went on talking to me with that ease which communicates case, and as I listened a revelation dawned in my mind that I was on the brink of falling in love. The dinner-bell rang, both at her house and M. Pelet's. We were obliged to part. I detained her a moment as she was moving away.
'I want something,' said I.
'What?' asked Zoraide naively.
'Only a flower.'
'Gather it, then -- or two, or twenty, if you like.'
'No, one will do; but you must gather it, and give it to me.'
'What a caprice!' she exclaimed; but she raised herself on her tiptoes, and, plucking a beautiful branch of lilac, offered it to me with grace. I took it, and went away, satisfied for the present and hopeful for the future.
Certainly that May day was a lovely one, and it closed in a moonlight night of summer warmth and serenity. I remember this well, for, having sat up late that evening, correcting devoirs, and feeling weary and a little oppressed with the closeness of my small room, I opened the often-mentioned boarded window, whose boards, however, I had persuaded old Madame Pelet to have removed since I had filled the post of professor in the pensionnat de demoiselles, as from that time it was no longer 'inconvenient' for me to overlook my own pupils at their sports. I sat down in the window seat, rested my arm on the sill, and leaned out. Above me was the clear-obscure of a cloudless night sky; splendid moonlight subdued the tremulous sparkle of the stars; below lay the garden, varied with silvery lustre and deep shade, and all fresh with dew; a grateful perfume exhaled from the closed blossoms of the fruit-trees; not a leaf stirred; the night was breezeless. My window looked directly down upon a certain walk of Mdlle. Reuter's garden, called l'allee defendue -- so named because the pupils were forbidden to enter it on account of its proximity to the boys' school. It was here that the lilacs and laburnums grew especially thick. This was the most sheltered nook in the enclosure; its shrubs screened the garden-chair where that afternoon I had sat with the young directness. I need not say that my thoughts were chiefly with her as I leaned from the lattice, and let my eye roam, now over the walks and borders of the garden, now along the many-windowed front of the house which rose white beyond the masses of foliage. I wondered in what part of the building was situated her apartment; and a single light, shining through the persiennes of one croisee, seemed to direct me to it.
'She watches late,' thought I, 'for it must be now near midnight. She is a fascinating little woman,' I continued in voiceless soliloquy; 'her image forms a pleasant picture in memory. I know she is not what the world calls pretty. No matter; there is harmony in her aspect, and I like it. Her brown hair, her blue eye, the freshness of her cheek, the whiteness of her neck, all suit my taste. Then I respect her talent. The idea of marrying a doll or a fool was always abhorrent to me. I know that a pretty doll, a fair fool, might do well enough for the honeymoon; but when passion cooled, how dreadful to find a lump of wax and wood laid in my bosom a half idiot clasped in try arms, and to remember that I had made of this my equal -- nay, my idol -- to know that I must pass the rest of my dreary life with a creature incapable of understanding what I said, of appreciating what I thought, or of sympathizing with what I felt! Now, Zoraide Reuter,' thought I, 'has tact, caractere, judgment, discretion. Has she heart? What a good, simple little smile played about her lips when she gave me the branch of lilacs! I have thought her crafty, dissembling, interested sometimes, it is true; but may not much that looks like cunning and dissimulation in her conduct be only the efforts made by a bland temper to traverse quietly perplexing difficulties? And as to interest, she wishes to make her way in the world, no doubt, and who can blame her? Even if she be truly deficient in sound principle, is it not rather her misfortune than her fault? She has been brought up a Catholic. Had she been born an Englishwoman, and reared a Protestant, might she not have added straight integrity to all her other excellences? Supposing she were to marry an English and Protestant husband, would she not, rational, sensible as she is, quickly acknowledge the superiority of right over expediency, honesty over policy? It would be worth a man's while to try the experiment. To-morrow I will renew my observations. She knows that I watch her. How calm she is under scrutiny! It seems rather to gratify than annoy her.' Here a strain of music stole in upon my monologue, and suspended it. It was a bugle, very skilfully played, in the neighbourhood of the park, I thought, or on the Place Royale. So sweet were the tones, so subduing their effect at that hour, in the midst of silence and under the quiet reign of moonlight I ceased to think, that I might listen more intently. The strain retreated, its sound waxed fainter and was soon gone. My car prepared to repose on the absolute hush of midnight once more. No. What murmur was that which, low, and yet near and approaching nearer, frustrated the expectation of total silence? It was some one conversing -- yes, evidently, an audible though subdued voice spoke in the garden immediately below me. Another answered. The first voice was that of a man, the second that of a woman; and a man and a woman I saw coming slowly down the alley. Their forms were at first in shade -- I could but discern a dusk outline of each; but a ray of moonlight met them at the termination of the walk, when they were under my very nose, and revealed very plainly, very unequivocally, Mdlle. Zoraide Reuter, arm-in-arm, or hand-in-hand (I forget which) with my principal, confidant, and counsellor, M. Francois Pelet. And M. Pelet was saying, --
'A quand done le jour des noces, ma bien-aimee?'
And Mdlle. Reuter answered, --
'Mais, Francois, tu sais bien qu'il me serait impossible de me marier avant les vacances.
'June, July, August -- a whole quarter!' exclaimed the director. 'How can I wait so long -- I who am ready even now to expire at your feet with impatience?'
'Ah! if you die, the whole affair will be settled without any trouble about notaries and contracts. I shall only have to order a slight mourning dress, which will be much sooner prepared than the nuptial trousseau.'
'Cruel Zoraide! you laugh at the distress of one who loves you so devotedly as I do; my torment is your sport. You scruple not to stretch my soul on the rack of jealousy; for, deny it as you will, I am certain you have cast encouraging glances on that schoolboy Crimsworth. He has presumed to fall in love, which he dared not have done unless you had given him room to hope.'
'What do you say, Francois? Do you say Crimsworth is in love with me?'
'Over head and ears.'
'Has he told you so?'
'No; but I see it in his face, He blushes whenever your name is mentioned.'
A little laugh of exulting coquetry announced Mdlle. Reuter's gratification at this piece of intelligence (which was a lie, by-the-bye; I had never been so far gone as that, after all). M. Pelet proceeded to ask what she intended to do with me, intimating pretty plainly, and not very gallantly, that it was nonsense for her to think of taking such a blanc-bec as a husband, since she must be at least ten years older than I. (Was she then thirty-two? I should not have thought it.) I heard her disclaim any intentions on the subject. The director, however, still pressed her to give a definite answer.
'Francois,' said she, 'you are jealous.' And still she laughed. Then, as if suddenly recollecting that this coquetry was not consistent with the character for modest dignity she wished to establish, she proceeded, in a demure voice: 'Truly, my dear Francois, I will not deny that this young Englishman may have made some attempts to ingratiate himself with me; but so far from giving him any encouragement, I have always treated him with as much reserve as it was possible to combine with civility. Affianced as I am to you, I would give no man false hopes, believe me, dear friend.'
Still Pelet uttered murmurs of distrust -- so I judged at least, from her reply.
'What folly! How could I prefer an unknown foreigner to you? And then -- not to flatter your vanity -- Crimsworth could not bear comparison with you either physically or mentally; he is not a handsome man at all. Some may call him gentlemanlike and intelligent-looking, but for my part --'
The rest of the sentence was lost in the distance, as the pair, rising from the chair in which they had been seated, moved away. I waited their return, but soon the opening and shutting of a door informed me that they had re-entered the house. I listened a little longer; all was perfectly still. I listened more than an hour. At last I heard M. Pelet come in and ascend to his chamber. Glancing once more towards the long front of the garden-house, I perceived that its solitary light was at length extinguished; so, for a time, was my faith in love and friendship. I went to bed, but something feverish and fiery had got into my veins which prevented me from sleeping much that night.
Next morning I rose with the dawn, and having dressed myself and stood half an hour, my elbow leaning on the chest of drawers, considering what means I should adopt to restore my spirits, fagged with sleeplessness, to their ordinary tone -- for I had no intention of getting up a scene with M. Pelet, reproaching him with perfidy, sending him a challenge, or performing other gambadoes of the sort -- I hit at last on the expedient of walking out in the cool of the morning to a neighbouring establishment of baths, and treating myself to a bracing plunge. The remedy produced the desired effect. I came back at seven o'clock steadied and invigorated, and was able to greet M. Pelet when he entered to breakfast with an unchanged and tranquil countenance. Even a cordial offering of the hand and the flattering appellation of 'mon fils,' pronounced in that caressing tone with which monsieur had, of late days especially, been accustomed to address me, did not elicit any external sign of the feeling which, though subdued, still glowed at my heart. Not that I nursed vengeance -- no; but the sense of insult and treachery lived in me like a kindling, though as yet smothered, coal. God knows I am not by nature vindictive; I would not hurt a man because I can no longer trust or like him; but neither my reason nor feelings are of the vacillating order -- they are not of that sand-like sort where impressions, if soon made, are as soon effaced. Once convinced that my friend's disposition is incompatible with my own, once assured that he is indelibly stained with certain defects obnoxious to my principles, and I dissolve the connection. I did so with Edward. As to Pelet, the discovery was yet new. Should I act thus with him? It was the question I placed before my mind as I stirred my cup of coffee with a half pistolet (we never had spoons), Pelet meantime being seated opposite, his pallid face looking as knowing and more haggard than usual, his blue eye turned, now sternly on his boys and ushers, and now graciously on me.
'Circumstances must guide me,' said I; and meeting Pelet's false glance and insinuating smile, I thanked Heaven that I had last night opened my window and read by the light of a full moon the true meaning of that guileful countenance. I felt half his master, because the reality of his nature was now known to me. Smile and flatter as he would, I saw his soul lurk behind his smile, and heard in every one of his smooth phrases a voice interpreting their treacherous import.
But Zoraide Reuter? Of course her defection had cut me to the quick? That sting must have gone too deep for any consolations of philosophy to be available in curing its smart? Not at all. The night fever over, I looked about for balm to that wound also, and found some nearer home than at Gilead. Reason was my physician. She began by proving that the prize I had missed was of little value. She admitted that, physically, Zoraide might have suited me, but affirmed that our souls were not in harmony, and that discord must have resulted from the union of her mind with mine. She then insisted on the suppression of all repining, and commanded me rather to rejoice that I had escaped a snare. Her medicament did me good. I felt its strengthening effect when I met the directness the next day. Its stringent operation on the nerves suffered no trembling, no faltering; it enabled me to face her with firmness, to pass her with case. She had held out her hand to me. that I did not choose to see. She had greeted me with a charming smile; it fell on my heart like light on stone. I passed on to the estrade; she followed me. Her eye, fastened on my face, demanded of every feature the meaning of my changed and careless manner. 'I will give her an answer,' thought I; and meeting her gaze full, arresting, fixing her glance, I shot into her eyes from my own a look where there was no respect, no love, no tenderness, no gallantry, where the strictest analysis could detect nothing but scorn, hardihood, irony. I made her bear it and feel it. Her steady countenance did not change, but her colour rose, and she approached me as if fascinated. She stepped on to the estrade, and stood close by my side; she had nothing to say. I would not relieve her embarrassment, and negligently turned over the leaves of a book.
'I hope you feel quite recovered to-day,' at last she said, in a low tone.
'And I, mademoiselle, hope that you took no cold last night in consequence of your late walk in the garden.'
Quick enough of comprehension, she understood me directly. Her face became a little blanched -- a very little -- but no muscle in her rather marked features moved; and, calm and self-possessed, she retired from the estrade, taking her seat quietly at a little distance, and occupying herself with netting a purse. I proceeded to give my lesson. It was a 'composition' -- that is, I dictated certain general questions, of which the pupils were to compose the answers from memory access to books being forbidden. While Mdlles. Eulalie, Hortense, Caroline, etc., were pondering over the string of rather abstruse grammatical interrogatories I had propounded, I was at liberty to employ the vacant half-hour in further observing the directress herself. The green silk purse was progressing fast in her hands. Her eyes were bent upon it; her attitude, as she sat netting within two yards of me, was still yet guarded. In her whole person were expressed at once, and with equal clearness, vigilance, and repose a rare union. Looking at her, I was forced, as I had often been before, to offer her good sense, her wondrous self-control, the tribute of involuntary admiration. She had felt that I had withdrawn from her my esteem; she had seen contempt and coldness in my eye; and to her, who coveted the approbation of all around her, who thirsted after universal good opinion, such discovery must have been an acute wound. I had witnessed its effect in the momentary pallor of her cheek -- cheek unused to vary; yet how quickly, by dint of self-control, had she recovered her composure! With what quiet dignity she now sat, almost at my side, sustained by her sound and vigorous sense -- no trembling in her somewhat lengthened though shrewd upper lip, no coward shame on her austere forehead!
'There is metal there,' I said as I gazed. 'Would that there were fire also, living ardour to make the steel glow! Then I could love her.'
Presently I discovered that she knew I was watching her, for she stirred not, she lifted not her crafty eyelid. She had glanced down from her netting to her small foot, peeping from the soft folds of her purple merino gown; thence her eye reverted to her hand, ivory white, with a bright garnet ring on the forefinger, and a light frill of lace round the wrist. With a scarcely perceptible movement she turned her head, causing her nut-brown curls to wave gracefully. In these slight signs I read that the wish of her heart, the design of her brain, was to lure back the game she had scared. A little incident gave her the opportunity of addressing me again.
While all was silence in the class -- silence but for the rustling of copy-books and the travelling of pens over their pages -- a leaf of the large folding-door, opening from the hall, unclosed, admitting a pupil who, after making a hasty obeisance, ensconced herself, with some appearance of trepidation, probably occasioned by her entering so late, in a vacant seat at the desk nearest the door. Being seated, she proceeded, still with an air of hurry and embarrassment, to open her cabas, to take out her books; and while I was waiting for her to look up, in order to make out her identity -- for, short-sighted as I was, I had not recognized her at her entrance -- Mdlle. Reuter, leaving her chair, approached the estrade.
'Monsieur Creemsvort,' said she, in a whisper, for when the schoolrooms were silent the directness always moved with velvet tread, and spoke in the most subdued key, enforcing order and stillness fully as much by example as precept -- 'Monsieur Creemsvort, that young person who has just entered wishes to have the advantage of taking lessons with you in English. She is not a pupil of the house; she is, indeed, in one sense, a teacher, for she gives instruction in lace-mending and in little varieties of ornamental needlework. She very properly proposes to qualify herself for a higher department of education, and has asked permission to attend your lessons, in order to perfect her knowledge of English, in which language she has, I believe, already made some progress. Of course it is my wish to aid her in an effort so praiseworthy. You will permit her, then, to benefit by your instruction -- n'est-ce pas, monsieur?' And Mdlle. Reuter's eyes were raised to mine with a look at once naive, benign, and beseeching.
I replied, 'Of course,' very laconically, almost abruptly.
'Another word,' she said, with softness. 'Mdlle. Henri has not received a regular education. Perhaps her natural talents are not of the highest order, but I can assure you of the excellence of her intentions, and even of the amiability of her disposition. Monsieur will then, I am sure, have the goodness to be considerate with her at first, and not expose her backwardness, her inevitable deficiencies, before the young ladies, who, in a sense, are her pupils. Will Monsieur Creemsvort favour me by attending to this hint?'
I nodded. She continued with subdued earnestness, --
'Pardon me, monsieur, if I venture to add that what I have just said is of importance to the poor girl. She already experiences great difficulty in impressing these giddy young things with a due degree of deference for her authority, and should that difficulty he increased by new discoveries of her incapacity, she might find her position in my establishment too painful to be retained -- a circumstance I should much regret for her sake, as she can ill afford to lose the profits of her occupation here.'
Mdlle. Reuter possessed marvellous tact; but tact the most exquisite, unsupported by sincerity, will sometimes fail of its effect. Thus, on this occasion, the longer she preached about the necessity of being indulgent to the governess-pupil, the more impatient I felt as I listened. I discerned so clearly that while her professed motive was a wish to aid the dull though well-meaning Mdlle. Henri, her real one was no other than a design to impress me with an idea of her own exalted goodness and tender considerateness; so having again hastily nodded assent to her remarks, I obviated their renewal by suddenly demanding the compositions, in a sharp accent, and stepping from the estrade I proceeded to collect them. As I passed the governess-pupil, I said to her, --
'You have come in too late to receive a lesson to-day; try to be more punctual next time.'
I was behind her, and could not read in her face the effect of my not very civil speech. Probably I should not have troubled myself to do so had I been full in front; but I observed that she immediately began to slip her books into her cabas again; and presently, after I had returned to the estrade, while I was arranging the mass of compositions, I heard the folding-door again open and close, and on looking up I perceived her place vacant. I thought to myself, 'She will consider her first attempt at taking a lesson in English something of a failure;' and I wondered whether she had departed in the sulks, or whether stupidity had induced her to take my words too literally, or, finally, whether my irritable tone had wounded her feelings. The last notion I dismissed almost as soon as I had conceived it; for not having seen any appearance of sensitiveness in any human face since my arrival in Belgium, I had begun to regard it almost as a fabulous quality. Whether her physiognomy announced it I could not tell, for her speedy exit had allowed me no time to ascertain the circumstance. I had, indeed, on two or three previous occasions, caught a passing view of her (as I believe has been mentioned before), but I had never stopped to scrutinize either her face or person, and had but the most vague idea of her general appearance. just as I had finished rolling up the compositions, the four o'clock bell rang. With my accustomed alertness in obeying that signal, I grasped my hat and evacuated the premises.
If I was punctual in quitting Mdlle. Reuter's domicile, I was at least equally punctual in arriving there. I came the next day at five minutes before two, and on reaching the schoolroom door, before I opened it I heard a rapid, gabbling sound, which warned me that the priere du midi was not yet concluded. I waited the termination thereof; it would have been impious to intrude my heretical presence during its progress. How the repeater of the prayer did cackle and splutter! I never before or since heard language enounced with such steam-engine haste. 'Notre Pere qui etes au ciel' went off like a shot; then followed an address to Marie 'vierge celeste, reine des anges, maison d'or, tour d'ivoire;' and then an invocation to the saint of the day; and then down they all sat, and the solemn (?) rite was over; and I entered, flinging the door wide and striding in fast, as it was my wont to do now, for I had found that in entering with aplomb, and mounting the estrade with emphasis, consisted the grand secret of ensuring immediate silence. The folding-doors between the two classes, opened for the prayer, were instantly closed. A maitresse, work-box in hand, took her seat at her appropriate desk. The pupils sat still with their pens and books before them, my three beauties in the van, now well humbled by a demeanour of consistent coolness, sat erect with their hands folded quietly on their knees. They had given up giggling and whispering to each other, and no longer ventured to utter pert speeches in my presence. They now only talked to me occasionally with their eyes, by means of which organs they could still, however, say very audacious and coquettish things. Had affection, goodness, modesty, real talent ever employed those bright orbs as interpreters, I do not think I could have refrained from giving a kind and encouraging, perhaps an ardent, reply now and then; but as it was, I found pleasure in answering the glance of vanity with the gaze of stoicism. Youthful, fair, brilliant as were many of my pupils, I can truly say that in me they never saw any other bearing than such as an austere though just guardian might have observed towards them. If any doubt the accuracy of this assertion, as inferring more conscientious self-denial or Scipiolike self-control than they feel disposed to give me credit for, let them take into consideration the following circumstances, which, while detracting from my merit, justify my veracity.
Know, O incredulous reader! that a master stands in a somewhat different relation towards a pretty, lightheaded, probably ignorant girl to that occupied by a partner at a ball or a gallant on the promenade. A professor does not meet his pupil to see her dressed in satin and muslin, with hair perfumed and curled, neck scarcely shaded by aerial lace, round white arms circled with bracelets, feet dressed for the gliding dance. It is not his business to whirl her through the waltz, to feed her with compliments, to heighten her beauty by the flush of gratified vanity. Neither does he encounter her on the smooth-rolled, tree-shaded boulevard, in the green and sunny park, whither she repairs clad in her becoming walking-dress, her scarf thrown with grace over her shoulders, her little bonnet scarcely screening her curls, the red rose under its brim adding a new tint to the softer rose on her cheek, her face and eyes, too, illumined with smiles, perhaps as transient as the sunshine of the gala-day, but also quite as brilliant. it is not his office to walk by her side, to listen to her lively chat, to carry her parasol, scarcely larger than a broad green leaf, to lead in a ribbon her Blenheim spaniel or Italian greyhound. No. He finds her in the schoolroom, plainly dressed, with books before her. Owing to her education or her nature, books are to her a nuisance, and she opens them with aversion; yet her teacher must instil into her mind the contents of these books. That mind resists the admission of grave information; it recoils, it grows restive. Sullen tempers are shown, disfiguring frowns spoil the symmetry of the face, sometimes coarse gestures banish grace from the deportment, while muttered expressions, redolent of native and ineradicable vulgarity, desecrate the sweetness of the voice. Where the temperament is serene though the intellect be sluggish, an unconquerable dullness opposes every effort to instruct. Where there is cunning but not energy, dissimulation, falsehood, a thousand schemes and tricks are put in play to evade the necessity of application. In short, to the tutor, female youth, female charms, are like tapestry hangings of which the wrong side is continually turned towards him; and even when he sees the smooth, neat external surface, he so well knows what knots, long stitches, and jagged ends are behind that he has scarce a temptation to admire too fondly the seemly forms and bright colours exposed to general view.
Our likings are regulated by our circumstances. The artist prefers a hilly country because it is picturesque; the engineer a flat one because it is convenient; the man of pleasure likes what he calls 'a fine woman' -- she suits him; the fashionable young gentleman admires the fashionable young lady -- she is of his kind; the toil-worn, fagged, probably irritable tutor, blind almost to beauty, insensible to airs and graces, glories chiefly in certain mental qualities: application, love of knowledge, natural capacity, docility, truthfulness, gratefulness are the charms that attract his notice and win his regard. These he seeks, but seldom meets; these if by chance he finds, he would fain retain for ever; and when separation deprives him of them he feels as if some ruthless hand had snatched from him his only ewe-Iamb. Such being the case, and the case it is, my readers will agree with me that there was nothing either very meritorious or very marvellous in the integrity and moderation of my conduct at Mdlle. Reuter's pensionnat de demoiselles.
My first business this afternoon consisted in reading the list of places for the month, determined by the relative correctness of the compositions given the preceding day. The list was headed, as usual, by the name of Sylvie -- that plain, quiet little girl I have described before as being at once the best and ugliest pupil in the establishment; the second place had fallen to the lot of a certain Leonie Ledru, a diminutive, sharp-featured, and parchment-skinned creature of quick wits, frail conscience, and indurated feelings -- a lawyer-like thing, of whom I used to say that, had she been a boy, she would have made a model of an unprincipled, clever attorney. Then came Eulalie, the proud beauty, the Juno of the school, whom six long years of drilling in the simple grammar of the English language had compelled, despite the stiff phlegm of her intellect, to acquire a mechanical acquaintance with most of its rules. No smile, no trace of pleasure or satisfaction appeared in Sylvie's nun-like and passive face as she heard her name read first. I always felt saddened by the sight of that poor girl's absolute quiescence on all occasions, and it was my custom to look at her, to address her, as seldom as possible. Her extreme docility, her assiduous perseverance, would have recommended her warmly to my good opinion; her modesty, her intelligence, would have induced me to feel most kindly, most affectionately towards her, notwithstanding the almost ghastly plainness of her features, the disproportion of her form, the corpse-like lack of animation in her countenance, had I not been aware that every friendly word, every kindly action, would be reported by her to her confessor, and by him misinterpreted and poisoned. Once I laid my hand on her head in token of approbation. I thought Sylvie was going to smile -- her dim eve almost kindled; but presently she shrank from me. I was a man and a heretic; she, poor child! a destined nun and devoted Catholic. Thus a fourfold wall of separation divided her mind from mine. A pert smirk and a hard glance of triumph was Leonie's method of testifying her gratification. Eulalie looked sullen and envious. She had hoped to be first. Hortense and Caroline exchanged a reckless grimace on hearing their names read out somewhere near the bottom of the list; the brand of mental inferiority was considered by them as no disgrace, their hopes for the future being based solely on their personal attractions.
This affair arranged, the regular lesson followed. During a brief interval, employed by the pupils in ruling their books my eye, ranging carelessly over the benches, observed, for the first time, that the farthest seat in the farthest row -- a seat usually vacant -- was again filled by the new scholar, the Mdlle. Henri so ostentatiously recommended to me by the directness. To-day I had on my spectacles; her appearance, therefore, was clear to me at the first glance; I had not to puzzle over it. She looked young, yet had I been required to name her exact age I should have been somewhat nonplussed. The slightness of her figure might have suited seventeen; a certain anxious and preoccupied expression of face seemed the indication of riper years. She was dressed, like all the rest, in a dark stuff gown and a white collar. Her features were dissimilar to any there -- not so rounded, more defined, yet scarcely regular. The shape of her head too was different -- the superior part more developed, the base considerably less. I felt assured, at first sight, that she was not a Belgian. Her complexion, her countenance, her lineaments, her figure were all distinct from theirs, and evidently the type of another race -- of a race less gifted with fullness of flesh and plenitude of blood, less jocund, material, unthinking. When I first cast my eyes on her, she sat looking fixedly down, her chin resting on her hand, and she did not change her attitude till I commenced the lesson. None of the Belgian girls would have retained one position, and that a reflective one, for the same length of time. Yet, having intimated that her appearance was peculiar, as being unlike that of her Flemish companions, I have little more to say respecting it. I can pronounce no encomiums on her beauty, for she was not beautiful, nor offer condolence on her plainness, for neither was she plain. A careworn character of forehead and a corresponding moulding of the mouth struck me with a sentiment resembling surprise, but these traits would probably have passed unnoticed by any less crotchety observer.
Now, reader, though I have spent more than a page in describing Mdlle. Henri, I know well enough that I have left on your mind's eye no distinct picture of her; I have not painted her complexion, nor her eyes, nor her hair, nor even drawn the outline of her shape. You cannot tell whether her nose was aquiline or retrousse, whether her chin was long or short, her face square or oval; nor could I the first day, and it is not my intention to communicate to you at once a knowledge I myself gained by little and little.
I gave a short exercise which they all wrote down. I saw the new pupil was puzzled at first with the novelty of the form and language. Once or twice she looked at me with a sort of painful solicitude, as not comprehending at all what I meant. Then she was not ready when the others were; she could not write her phrases so fast as they did. I would not help her; I went on relentless. She looked at me; her eye said most plainly, 'I cannot follow you.' I disregarded the appeal, and, carelessly leaning back in my chair, glancing from time to time with a nonchalant air out of the window, I dictated a little faster. On looking towards her again, I perceived her face clouded with embarrassment, but she was still writing on most diligently. I paused a few seconds. She employed the interval in hurriedly reperusing what she had written, and shame and discomfiture were apparent in her countenance; she evidently found she had made great nonsense of it. In ten minutes more the dictation was complete, and, having allowed a brief space in which to correct it, I took their books. It was with a reluctant hand that Mdlle. Henri gave up hers; but, having once yielded it to my possession, she composed her anxious face, as if, for the present, she had resolved to dismiss regret, and had made up her mind to be thought unprecedentedly stupid. Glancing over her exercise, I found that several lines had been omitted, but what was written contained very few faults. I instantly inscribed 'Bon' at the bottom of the page, and returned it to her. She smiled, at first incredulously, then as if reassured, but did not lift her eyes. She could look at me, it seemed, when perplexed and bewildered, but not when gratified. I thought that scarcely fair.
Some time elapsed before I again gave a lesson in the first class. The holiday of Whitsuntide occupied three days, and on the fourth it was the turn of the second division to receive my instructions. As I made the transit of the carre, I observed, as usual, the band of sewers surrounding Mdlle. Henri. There were only about a dozen of them, but they made as much noise as might have sufficed for fifty; they seemed very little under her control. Three or four at once assailed her with importunate requirements; she looked harassed, she demanded silence, but in vain. She saw me, and I read in her eye pain that a stranger should witness the insubordination of her pupils. She seemed to entreat order. Her prayers were useless. Then I remarked that she compressed her lips and contracted her brow, and her countenance, if I read it correctly, said, 'I have done my best. I seem to merit blame notwithstanding. blame me, then, who will.' I passed on. As I dosed the schoolroom door I heard her say, suddenly and sharply, addressing one of the eldest and most turbulent of the lot, --
'Amelie Mullenberg, ask me no question, and request of me no assistance, for a week to come; during that space of time I will neither speak to you nor help you.'
The words were uttered with emphasis -- nay, with vehemence and a comparative silence followed. Whether the calm was permanent, I know not; two doors now closed between me and the carre.
Next day was appropriated to the first class. On my arrival I found the directness seated, as usual, in a chair between the two estrades, and before her was standing Mdlle. Henri, in an attitude (as it seemed to me) of somewhat reluctant attention. The directness was knitting and talking at the same time. Amidst the hum of a large schoolroom it was easy so to speak in the ear of one person as to be heard by that person alone, and it was thus Mdlle. Reuter parleyed with her teacher. The face of the latter was a little flushed, not a little troubled; there was vexation in it -- whence resulting I know not, for the directness looked very placid indeed. She could not be scolding in such gentle whispers and with so equable a mien. No; it was presently proved that her discourse had been of the most friendly tendency, for I heard the closing words, --
'C'est assez, ma bonne amie; a present je ne veux pas vous retenir davantage.'
Without reply, Mdlle. Henri turned away. Dissatisfaction was plainly evinced in her face, and a smile, slight and brief, but bitter, distrustful, and, I thought, scornful, curled her lip as she took her place in the class. It was a secret, involuntary smile, which lasted but a second; an air of depression succeeded, chased away presently by one of attention and interest, when I gave the word for all the pupils to take their reading-books. In general I hated the reading-lesson it was such a torture to the ear to listen to their uncouth mouthing of my native tongue, and no effort of example or precept on my part ever seemed to effect the slightest improvement in their accent. Today each, in her appropriate key, lisped, stuttered, mumbled, and jabbered as usual. About fifteen had racked me in turn, and my auricular nerve was expecting with resignation the discords of the sixteenth, when a full though low voice read out, in clear, correct English, --
'On his way to Perth the king was met by a Highland woman calling herself a prophetess. She stood at the side of the ferry by which he was about to travel to the north, and cried with a loud voice, "My lord the king, if you pass this water you will never return again alive."' (Vide the 'History of Scotland.')
I looked up in amazement. The voice was a voice of Albion; the accent was pure and silvery; it only wanted firmness and assurance to be the counterpart of what any well-educated lady in Essex or Middlesex might have enounced; yet the speaker or reader was no other than Mdlle. Henri, in whose grave, joyless face I saw no mark of consciousness that she had performed any extraordinary feat. No one else evinced surprise either. Mdlle. Reuter knitted away assiduously. I was aware, however, that at the conclusion of the paragraph she had lifted her eyelid and honoured me with a glance sideways. She did not know the full excellency of the teacher's style of reading, but she perceived that her accent was not that of the others, and wanted to discover what I thought. I masked my visage with indifference, and ordered the next girl to proceed.
When the lesson was over, I took advantage of the confusion caused by breaking up to approach Mdlle. Henri. She was standing near the window, and retired as I advanced. She thought I wanted to look out, and did not imagine that I could have anything to say to her. I took her exercise-book out of her hand. As I turned over the leaves I addressed her.
'You have had lessons in English before?' I asked.
'No! You read very well. You have been in England?'
'Oh no!' with some animation.
'You have been in English families?'
Still the answer was 'No.' Here my eye, resting on the flyleaf of the book, saw written, 'Frances Evans Henri.'
'Your name?' I asked.
My interrogations were cut short. I heard a little rustling behind me, and close at my back was the directness, professing to be examining the interior of a desk.
'Mademoiselle,' said she, looking up and addressing the teacher, 'will you have the goodness to go and stand in the corridor, while the young ladies are putting on their things, and try to keep some order?'
Mdlle. Henri obeyed.
'What splendid weather!' observed the directness cheerfully, glancing at the same time from the window. I assented, and was withdrawing. 'What of your new pupil, monsieur?' continued she, following my retreating steps. 'Is she likely to make progress in English?
'Indeed I can hardly judge. She possesses pretty good accent. Of her real knowledge of the language I have as yet had no opportunity of forming an opinion.'
'And her natural capacity, monsieur? I have had my fears about that. Can you relieve me by an assurance at least of its average power?'
'I see no reason to doubt its average power, mademoiselle, but really I scarcely know her, and have not had time to study the calibre of her capacity. I wish you a very good afternoon.'
She still pursued me. 'You will observe, monsieur, and tell me what you think; I could so much better rely on your opinion than on my own. Women cannot judge of these things as men can; and, excuse my pertinacity, monsieur, but it is natural I should feel interested about this poor little girl (pauvre petite). She has scarcely any relations; her own efforts are all she has to look to; her acquirements must be her sole fortune. Her present position has once been mine, or nearly so; it is then but natural I should sympathize with her; and sometimes, when I see the difficulty she has in managing pupils, I feel quite chagrined. I doubt not she does her best; her intentions are excellent; but, monsieur, she wants tact and firmness. I have talked to her on the subject, but I am not fluent, and probably did not express myself with clearness; she never appears to comprehend me. Now, would you occasionally, when you see an opportunity, slip in a word of advice to her on the subject? Men have so much more influence than women have -- they argue so much more logically than we do; and you, monsieur, in particular, have so paramount a power of making yourself obeyed. A word of advice from you could not but do her good. Even if she were sullen and headstrong (which I hope she is not) she would scarcely refuse to listen to you. For my own part, I can truly say that I never attend one of your lessons without deriving benefit from witnessing your management of the pupils. The other masters are a constant source of anxiety to me; they cannot impress the young ladies with sentiments of respect, nor restrain the levity natural to youth. In you, monsieur, I feel the most absolute confidence. Try, then, to put this poor child into the way of controlling. our giddy, high-spirited Brabantoises. But, monsieur, I would add one word more: don't alarm her amour propre, beware of inflicting a wound there. I reluctantly admit that in that particular she is blamably -- some would say ridiculously -- susceptible. I fear I have touched this sore point inadvertently, and she cannot get over it.'
During the greater part of this harangue my hand was on the lock of the outer door. I now turned it.
'An revoir, mademoiselle,' said I, and I escaped. I saw the directress's stock of words was yet far from exhausted. She looked after me; she would fain have detained me longer. Her manner towards me had been altered ever since I had begun to treat her with hardness and indifference. She almost cringed to me on every occasion; she consulted my countenance incessantly, and beset me with innumerable little officious attentions. Servility creates despotism. This slavish homage, instead of softening my heart, only pampered whatever was stern and exacting in its mood. The very circumstance of her hovering round me like a fascinated bird seemed to transform me into a rigid pillar of stone; her Batteries irritated my scorn, her blandishments confirmed my reserve. At times I wondered what she meant by giving herself such trouble to win me, when the more profitable Pelet was already in her nets, and when, too, she was aware that I possessed her secret -- for I had not scrupled to tell her as much; but the fact is that as it was her nature to doubt the reality and undervalue the worth of modesty, affection, disinterestedness -- to regard these qualities as foibles of character -- so it was equally her tendency to consider pride, hardness, selfishness, as proofs of strength. She would trample on the neck of humility, she would kneel at the feet of disdain; she would meet tenderness with secret contempt, indifference she would woo with ceaseless assiduities. Benevolence, devotedness, enthusiasm were her antipathies; for dissimulation and self-interest she had a preference -- they were real wisdom in her eyes. Moral and physical degradation, mental and bodily inferiority she regarded with indulgence: they were foils capable of being turned to good account as set-offs for her own endowments. To violence, injustice, tyranny, she succumbed: they were her natural masters. She had no propensity to hate, no impulse to resist them; the indignation their behests awake in some hearts was unknown in hers. From all this it resulted that the false and selfish called her wise, the vulgar and debased termed her charitable, the insolent and unjust dubbed her amiable, the conscientious and benevolent generally at first accepted as valid her claim to be considered one of themselves; but ere long the plating of pretension wore off, the real material appeared below, and they laid her aside as a deception.