Villette by Charlotte Bronte
Chapter XIII. A Sneeze Out of Season
I had occasion to smile - nay, to laugh, at madame again, within the space of four-and-twenty hours after the little scene treated of in the last chapter.
Villette owns a climate as variable, though not so humid, as that of any English town. A night of high wind followed upon that soft sunset, and all the next day was one of dry storm - dark, be-clouded, yet rainless - the streets were dim with sand and dust, whirled from the boulevards. I know not that even lovely weather would have tempted me to spend the evening-time of study and recreation, where I had spent it yesterday. My alley, and, indeed, all the walks and shrubs in the garden, had acquired a new, but not a pleasant interest; their seclusion was now become precarious; their calm - insecure. That casement which rained billets, had vulgarised the once dear nook it overlooked; and elsewhere, the eyes of the flowers had gained vision, and the knots in the tree boles listened like secret ears. Some plants there were, indeed, trodden down by Dr. John in his search, and his hasty and heedless progress, which I wished to prop up, water, and revive; some foot-marks, too, he had left on the beds: but these, in spite of the strong wind, I found a moment's leisure to efface very early in the morning, ere common eyes had discovered them. With a pensive sort of content, I sat down to my desk and my German, while the pupils settled to their evening lessons, and the other teachers took up their needlework.
The scene of the 'étude du soir' was always the refectory, a much smaller apartment than any of the three classes or school-rooms; for here none, save the boarders, were ever admitted, and these numbered only a score. Two lamps hung from the ceiling over the two tables; these were lit at dusk, and their kindling was the signal for school-books being set aside, a grave demeanour assumed, general silence enforced, and then commenced 'la lecture pieuse.' This said 'lecture pieuse' was, I soon found, mainly designed as a wholesome mortification of the Intellect, a useful humiliation of the Reason; and such a dose for Common Sense as she might digest at her leisure, and thrive on as she best could.
The book brought out (it was never changed, but when finished, recommenced) was a venerable volume, old as the hills - grey as the Hôtel de Ville.
I would have given two francs for the chance of getting that book once into my hands, turning over the sacred yellow leaves, ascertaining the title, and perusing with my own eyes the enormous figments which, as an unworthy heretic, it was only permitted me to drink in with my bewildered ears. This book contained legends of the saints. Good God! (I speak the words reverently) what legends they were. What gasconading rascals those saints must have been, if they first boasted these exploits or invented these miracles. These legends, however, were no more than monkish extravagances, over which one laughed inwardly; there were, besides, priestly matters, and the priestcraft of the book was far worse than its monkery. The ears burned on each side of my head as I listened, perforce, to tales of moral martyrdom inflicted by Rome; the dread boasts of confessors, who had wickedly abused their office, trampling to deep degradation high-born ladies, making of countesses and princesses the most tormented slaves under the sun. Stories like that of Conrad and Elizabeth of Hungary, recurred again and again, with all its dreadful viciousness, sickening tyranny and black impiety: tales that were nightmares of oppression, privation and agony.
I sat out this 'lecture pieuse' for some nights as well as I could, and as quietly too; only once breaking off the points of my scissors by involuntarily sticking them somewhat deep in the worm-eaten board of the table before me. But, at last, it made me so burning hot, and my temples, and my heart and my wrist throbbed so fast, and my sleep afterwards was so broken with excitement, that I could sit no longer. Prudence recommended henceforward a swift clearance of my person from the place, the moment that guilty old book was brought out. No Mause Headrigg ever felt a stronger call to take up her testimony against Sergeant Bothwell, than I - to speak my mind in this matter of the popish 'lecture pieuse.' However, I did manage somehow to curb and rein in; and though always, as soon as Rosine came to light the lamps, I shot from the room quickly, yet also I did it quietly; seizing that vantage moment given by the little bustle before the dead silence, and vanishing whilst the boarders put their books away.
When I vanished - it was into darkness; candles were not allowed to be carried about, and the teacher who forsook the refectory, had only the unlit hall, schoolroom, or bedroom, as a refuge. In winter I sought the long classes, and paced them fast to keep myself warm - fortunate if the moon shone, and if there were only stars, soon reconciled to their dim gleam, or even to the total eclipse of their absence. In summer it was never quite dark, and then I went upstairs to my own quarter of the long dormitory, opened my own casement (that chamber was lit by five casements large as great doors), and leaning out, looked forth upon the city beyond the garden, and listened to band music from the park or the palace-square, thinking meantime my own thoughts, living my own life, in my own still, shadow world.
This evening, fugitive as usual before the Pope and his works, I mounted the staircase, approached the dormitory, and quietly opened the door which was always kept carefully shut, and which, like every other door in this house, revolved noiselessly on well-oiled hinges. Before I saw, I felt that life was in the great room, usually void: not that there was either stir or breath, or rustle of sound, but Vacuum lacked, Solitude was not at home. All the white beds - the 'lits d'ange', as they were poetically termed - lay visible at a glance; all were empty: no sleeper reposed therein. The sound of a drawer cautiously slid out struck my ear; stepping a little to one side, my vision took a free range, unimpeded by falling curtains. I now commanded my own bed and my own toilet, with a locked work-box upon it, and locked drawers underneath.
Very good. A dumpy, motherly, little body, in decent shawl and the cleanest of possible nightcaps, stood before this toilet, hard at work, apparently doing me the kindness of 'tidying out' the 'meuble.' Open stood the lid of the work-box, open the top drawer; duly and impartially was each succeeding drawer opened in turn: not an article of their contents but was lifted and unfolded, not a paper but was glanced over, not a little box but was unlidded; and beautiful was the adroitness, exemplary the care with which the search was accomplished. Madame wrought at it like a true star, 'unhasting yet unresting.' I will not deny that it was with a secret glee I watched her. Had I been a gentleman I believe madame would have found favour in my eyes, she was so handy, neat, thorough in all she did: some people's movements provoke the soul by their loose awkwardness, hers - satisfied by their trim compactness. I stood, in short, fascinated; but it was necessary to make an effort to break this spell: a retreat must be beaten. The searcher might have turned and caught me; there would have been nothing for it then but a scene, and she and I would have had to come all at once, with a sudden clash, to a thorough knowledge of each other: down would have gone conventionalities, away swept disguises, and I should have looked into her eyes, and she into mine - we should have known that we could work together no more, and parted in this life for ever.
Where was the use of tempting such a catastrophe? I was not angry, and had no wish in the world to leave her. I could hardly get another employer whose yoke would be so light and so easy of carriage; and truly, I liked madame for her capital sense, whatever I might think of her principles: as to her system, it did me no harm; she might work me with it to her heart's content: nothing would come of the operation. Loverless and inexpectant of love, I was as safe from spies in my heart-poverty, as the beggar from thieves in his destitution of purse. I turned then and fled, descending the stairs with progress as swift and soundless as that of the spider, which at the same instant ran down the bannister.
How I laughed when I reached the schoolroom. I knew now she had certainly seen Dr. John in the garden; I knew what her thoughts were. The spectacle of a suspicious nature so far misled by its own inventions, tickled me much. Yet as the laugh died, a kind of wrath smote me, and then bitterness followed: it was the rock struck, and Meribah's waters gushing out. I never had felt so strange and contradictory an inward tumult as I felt for an hour that evening: soreness and laughter, and fire, and grief shared my heart between them. I cried hot tears: not because madame mistrusted me - I did not care twopence for her mistrust - but for other reasons. Complicated, disquieting thoughts broke up the whole repose of my nature. However, that turmoil subsided: next day I was again Lucy Snowe.
On revisiting my drawers, I found them all securely locked; the closest subsequent examination could not discover change or apparent disturbance in the position of one object. My few dresses were folded as I had left them; a certain little bunch of white violets that had once been silently presented to me by a stranger (a stranger to me, for we had never exchanged words), and which I had dried and kept for its sweet perfume between the folds of my best dress, lay there unstirred; my black silk scarf my lace chemisette and collars were unrumpled. Had she creased one solitary article, I own I should have felt much greater difficulty in forgiving her; but finding all straight and orderly, I said, 'Let bygones be bygones. I am unharmed: why should I bear malice?'
A thing there was which puzzled myself, and I sought in my brain a key to that riddle almost as sedulously as madame had sought a guide to useful knowledge in my toilet drawers. How was it that Dr. John, if he had not been accessory to the dropping of that casket into the garden, should have known that it was dropped and appeared so promptly on the spot to seek it? So strong was the wish to clear up this point that I began to entertain this daring suggestion -
'Why may I not, in case I should ever have the opportunity, ask Dr. John himself to explain this coincidence?'
And so long as Dr. John was absent, I really believed I had courage to test him with such a question.
Little Georgette was now convalescent; and her physician accordingly made his visits very rare: indeed, he would have ceased them altogether had not madame insisted on his giving an occasional call till the child should be quite well.
She came into the nursery one evening just after I had listened to Georgette's lisped and broken prayer, and had put her to bed. Taking the little one's hand, she said -
'Cette enfant a toujours un peu de fièvre.' And presently afterwards, looking at me with a quicker glance than was habitual to her quiet eye, 'Le Docteur John l'a-t-il vue dernièrement? Non, n'est ce pas?'
Of course, she knew this better than any other person in the house. 'Well', she continued, 'I am going out, pour faire quelques courses en fiacre. I shall call on Dr. John, and send him to the child. I will that he sees her this evening, her cheeks are flushed, her pulse is quick: you will receive him - for my part, I shall be from home.'
Now the child was well enough, only warm with the warmth of July; it was scarcely less needful to send for a priest to administer extreme unction than for a doctor to prescribe a dose; also Madame rarely made 'courses', as she called them, in the evening: moreover, this was the first time she had chosen to absent herself on the occasion of a visit from Dr. John. The whole arrangement indicated some plan; this I saw, but without the least anxiety. 'Ha! ha! Madame', laughed. Light-heart the Beggar, 'your crafty wits are on the wrong track.'
She departed, attired very smartly, in a shawl of price, and a certain chapeau vert tendre - hazardous, as to its tint, for any complexion less fresh than her own, but to her, not unbecoming. I wondered what she intended: whether she really would send Dr. John or not; or whether indeed he would come: he might be engaged.
Madame had charged me not to let Georgette sleep till the doctor came: I had therefore sufficient occupation in telling her nursery tales and palavering the little language for her benefit. I affected Georgette; she was a sensitive and a loving child: to hold her in my lap, or carry her in my arms, was to me a treat. To-night she would have me lay my head on the pillow of her crib; she even put her little arms round my neck. Her clasp and the nestling action with which she pressed her cheek to mine, made me almost cry with a tender pain. Feeling of no kind abounded in that house; this pure little drop from a pure little source was too sweet: it penetrated deep, and subdued the heart, and sent a gush to the eyes.
Half an hour or an hour passed: Georgette murmured in her soft lisp that she was growing sleepy. 'And you shall sleep', thought I, 'malgré maman and médecin, if they are not here in ten minutes.'
Hark! There was the ring, and there the tread, astonishing the staircase by the fleetness with which it left the steps behind. Rosine introduced Dr. John, and, with a freedom of manner not altogether peculiar to herself but characteristic of the domestics of Villette generally, she stayed to hear what he had to say. Madame's presence would have awed her back to her own realm of the vestibule and the cabinet - for mine, or that of any other teacher or pupil, she cared not a jot. Smart, trim and pert, she stood, a hand in each pocket of her gay grisette apron, eyeing Dr. John with no more fear or shyness than if he had been a picture instead of a living gentleman.
'Le marmot n'a rien, n'est ce pas?' said she, indicating Georgette with a jerk of her chin.
'Pas beaucoup', was the answer, as the doctor hastily scribbled with his pencil some harmless prescription.
'Eh bien!' pursued Rosine, approaching him quite near, while he put up his pencil. 'And the box - did you get it? Monsieur went off like a coup de vent the other night; I had not time to ask him.'
'I found it: yes.'
'And who threw it, then?' continued Rosine, speaking quite freely the very words I should so much have wished to say, but had no address or courage to bring it out: how short some people make the road to a point which, for others, seems unattainable!
'That may be my secret, rejoined Dr. John briefly, but with no sort of hauteur: he seemed quite to understand the Rosine or grisette character.
'Mais enfin', continued she, nothing abashed, 'monsieur knew it was thrown, since he came to seek it - how did he know?'
'I was attending a little patient in the college near', said he, 'and saw it dropped out of his chamber window, and so came to pick it up.'
How simple the whole explanation! The note had alluded to a physician as then examining 'Gustave.'
'Ah ça!' pursued Rosine, 'il n'y a donc rien là-dessous: pas de mystère, pas d'amourette, par exemple?'
'Pas plus que sur ma main', responded the doctor, showing his palm.
'Quel dommage!' responded the grisette: 'et moi - à qui tout cela commençait à donner des idées.'
'Vraiment! vous en êtes pour vos frais', was the doctor's cool rejoinder.
She pouted. The doctor could not help laughing at the sort of 'moue' she made: when he laughed, he had something peculiarly good-natured and genial in his look. I saw his hand incline to his pocket.
'How many times have you opened the door for me within this last month?' he asked.
'Monsieur ought to have kept count of that', said Rosine, quite readily.
'As if I had not something better to do!' rejoined he; but I saw him give her a piece of gold, which she took unscrupulously, and then danced off to answer the doorbell, ringing just now every five minutes, as the various servants came to fetch the half-boarders.
The reader must not think too hardly of Rosine; on the whole, she was not a bad. sort of person, and had no idea there could be any disgrace in grasping at whatever she could get, or any effrontery in chattering like a pie to the best gentleman in Christendom.
I had learnt something from the above scene besides what concerned the ivory box: viz., that not on the robe de jaconas, pink or grey, nor yet on the frilled and pocketed apron, lay the blame of breaking Dr. John's heart: these items of array were obviously guiltless as Georgette's little blue tunic. So much the better. But who then was the culprit? What was the ground - what the origin - what the perfect explanation of the whole business? Some points had been cleared, but how many yet remained obscure as night!
'However', I said to myself 'it is no affair of yours'; and turning from the face on which I had been unconsciously dwelling with a questioning gaze, I looked through the window which commanded the garden below. Dr. John meantime, standing by the bed-side, was slowly drawing on his gloves and watching his little patient, as her eyes closed and her rosy lips parted in coming sleep. I waited till he should depart as usual, with a quick bow and scarce articulate 'good night.' Just as he took his hat, my eyes, fixed on the tall houses bounding the garden, saw the one lattice, already commemorated, cautiously open; forth from the aperture projected a hand and a white handkerchief; both waved. I know not whether the signal was answered from some viewless quarter of our own dwelling; but immediately after there fluttered from the lattice a falling object, white and light - billet the second, of course.
'There!' I ejaculated involuntarily.
'Where?' asked Dr. John with energy, making direct for the window. 'What is it?'
'They have gone and done it again', was my reply. 'A handkerchief waved and something fell:' and I pointed to the lattice, now closed and looking hypocritically blank.
'Go at once; pick it up and bring it here', was his prompt direction: adding, 'nobody will take notice of you: I should be seen.'
Straight I went. After some little search, I found a folded paper, lodged on the lower branch of a shrub; I seized and brought it direct to Dr. John. This time, I believe not even Rosine saw me.
He instantly tore the billet into small pieces, without reading it.
'It is not in the least her fault, you must remember', he said, looking at me.
'Whose fault?' I asked. 'Who is it?'
'You don't yet know, then?'
'Not in the least.'
'Have you no guess?'
'If I knew you better, I might be tempted to risk some confidence, and thus secure you as guardian over a most innocent and excellent, but somewhat inexperienced being.'
'As a duenna?' I asked.
'Yes', said he abstractedly. 'What snares are round her!' he added, musingly: and now, certainly for the first time, he examined my face, anxious, doubtless, to see if any kindly expression there, would warrant him in recommending to my care and indulgence some ethereal creature, against whom powers of darkness were plotting. I felt no particular vocation to undertake the surveillance of ethereal creatures; but recalling the scene at the bureau, it seemed to me that I owed him a good turn: if I could help him then I would, and it lay not with me to decide how. With as little reluctance as might be, I intimated that 'I was willing to do what I could towards taking care of any person in whom he might be interested.'
'I am no farther interested than as a spectator', said he, with a modesty, admirable, as I thought, to witness. 'I happen to be acquainted with the rather worthless character of the person who, from the house opposite, has now twice invaded the sanctity of this place; I have also met in society the object at whom these vulgar attempts are aimed. Her exquisite superiority and innate refinement ought, one would think, to scare impertinence from her very idea. It is not so, however; and innocent, unsuspicious as she is, I would guard her from evil if I could. In person, however, I can do nothing: I cannot come near her' - he paused.
'Well, I am willing to help you', said I, 'only tell me how.' And busily, in my own mind, I ran over the list of our inmates, seeking this paragon, this pearl of great price, this gem without flaw. 'It must be madame', I concluded. 'She only, amongst us all, has the art even to seem superior: but as to being unsuspicious, inexperienced, &c., Dr. John need not distract himself about that. However, this is just his whim, and I will not contradict him; he shall be humoured: his angel shall be an angel.'
'Just notify the quarter to which my care is to be directed', I continued gravely: chuckling, however, to myself over the thought of being set to chaperon Madame Beck or any of her pupils.
Now Dr. John had a fine set of nerves, and he at once felt by instinct, what no more coarsely constituted mind would have detected; namely, that I was a little amused at him. The colour rose to his cheek; with half a smile he turned and took his hat - he was going. My heart smote me.
'I will - I will help you', said I eagerly. 'I will do what you wish. I will watch over your angel; I will take care of her, only tell me who she is.'
'But you must know', said he then with earnestness, yet speaking very low. 'So spotless, so good, so unspeakably beautiful! impossible that one house should contain two like her. I allude, of course - '
Here the latch of Madame Beck's chamber-door (opening into the nursery) gave a sudden click, as if the hand holding it had been slightly convulsed; there was the suppressed explosion of an irrepressible sneeze. These little accidents will happen to the best of us. Madame - excellent woman! was then on duty. She had come home quietly, stolen upstairs on tip-toe; she was in her chamber. If she had not sneezed, she would have heard all, and so should I; but that unlucky sternutation routed Dr. John. While he stood aghast, she came forward alert, composed, in the best yet most tranquil spirits: no novice to her habits but would have thought she had just some in, and scouted the idea of her ear having been glued to the key-hole for at least ten minutes. She affected to sneeze again, declared she was 'enrhumée', and then proceeded volubly to recount her 'courses en fiacre.' The prayer-bell rang, and I left her with the doctor.